Theatre artists find new freedom on-stage
The great thing about theatre is 2
that it can absorb all kinds of experiences—even following your wildlife-photographer dad around while he tries to get up close and personal with polar bears and wild wolves. That’s one project the multitalented Shizuka Kai is currently working on: a puppet-theatre take on her unconventional upbringing—which, she says, made a definite impact on her unconventional art.
“Watching him follow his dreams head-on has helped me be like, ‘I need to follow my dreams, and keep pushing forward, no matter what,’” Kai tells the Straight, on the line from the West End.
There’s no date set for the as-yetuntitled puppet production, but Kai has no shortage of work lined up for the coming season. The Jessie Award–winning creator is doing set design for several local productions, including Carousel Theatre for Young People’s Elephant & Piggie’s “We Are in a Play!” and Rice & Beans Theatre’s Chicken Girl. Other projects are in the works for Boca del Lupo and Théâtre la Seizième—and that’s just the setdesign aspect of Kai’s life. She’s also a musician, a singer, a mask-maker, a playwright, an illustrator, an actor… If it can be done on-stage or in the studio, she’s probably tried it.
“Theatre gives you a freedom to do different things and try different things,” the 36-year-old explorer comments. “So I think that’s kind of where I am—and that’s how I’ve been, not to be cocky or anything, fairly successful in that sense. Most people that are successful in theatre generally do more than one thing.”
Also contributing to her success has been her training, in Japan and at Studio 58. “A work ethic: that’s what they teach you there,” Kai says of the Langara College theatre program. “And Japanese people tend to be really hard workers.…when you see artworks that are very, very detailed and would take, you know, a bajillion hours, I usually find that the artists are Japanese. ’Cause they’re very good with the small, teeny-tiny details that they just sit there and work at forever.”
There’s another side of her Japanese heritage that she thinks is significant. Her father, who’s working on a documentary about Japanese wolves—once thought to be extinct, but now rumoured to be alive—has recently discovered the Kai family crest. A pair of wings crossed within a circle, it denotes samurai ancestry.
“It makes me more passionate about things, definitely, because ‘I am a samurai warrior,’” Kai says with a laugh. “It’s good motivation.”
> ALEXANDER VARTY
Amanda Sum’s first experience 2
with musical theatre as a child got her rolling toward a promising career—but it almost didn’t happen.
She was six in 2003 when her mom heard about auditions for a Gateway Theatre production of The King and I. Sum readied “Zipa-dee-doo-dah” for the audition, while her year-older sibling prepared a song from My Fair Lady.
“But I got too nervous and said I couldn’t do it,” she recalls, speaking to the Straight over the phone from a Hastings-sunrise café. “My mom auditioned and so did my sister, and both got the parts.” It wasn’t until another little girl could only perform half-time that Sum was able to step in as one of the royal children.
“So that’s how I got my first show without auditioning,” she says with a laugh. “Auditions still freak me out, in a sense, but I kind of know how to prepare for them now!”
Clearly, she’s right. Sum is still in the midst of SFU’S theatre-performance program, yet she’s already creating a buzz on local stages. She appeared in director Chris Lam’s uniquely double-cast musicals Dogfight in 2016 and Spring Awakening in 2017, both on the Pacific Theatre stage. Then, in 2017, she tackled Alley Theatre and Neworld Theatre’s absurd, sprawling rendition of the Apocalypse Now satire The Ridiculous Darkness at the Annex Theatre. The part, which actually consisted of multiple roles, earned her praise as “a source of constant delight” in the Straight’s review.
But The Wolves, the all-female play she’ll revisit this fall at Pacific Theatre, may be the work that most excites her. It had a short run at the venue last spring, and tells the hormonally charged coming-of-age story of a teen girls’ soccer team.
Sum, who had performed an early reading of the script, went to great lengths to nab the part. “I don’t have a soccer background per se,” she explains. “I didn’t know what to expect. So I thought, ‘If they’re going to ask me to dribble the ball for a couple hundred metres, I don’t know if I’m gonna get the part.’” Her solution? Heading out to the field with a friend who could run her through drills.
It turned out she needn’t have worried: she won the role, and the show generated such excitement that Pacific Theatre is bringing it back from October 19 to November 10 (in a production by Spoon Theatre, in association with Rumble Theatre).
“To this day I tell people this is my favourite show I’ve done,” Sum enthuses. “The script itself is very true to not just the teenage female experience, but also to the human experience. When you watch it, you see your high-school self.
“And then there’s this shared feeling of ‘We know that we’re an all-female team and we’re doing this together,’” she adds, pointing out that the show has taken off, earning a Pulitzer Prize drama nomination for playwright Sarah Delappe in 2017. “I feel like teenage girls portrayed in the media are sort of one-dimensional. These ones feel super complex and they’re navigating joy and loss together. But, at the same time, they’re so young and they want to laugh and have fun.”
Amid that project, and starting up her fourth and final year at SFU, Sum is looking to challenge herself in other ways. Look for her to perform her first solo live music show at Cafe Deux Soleils on Commercial Drive on October 6—another step into the unknown. Could it be that, on some level, she’s still trying to encourage that kid inside her who was too shy to audition?
“I think it will feed me and make me vulnerable and push me with what I’m comfortable sharing.”
> JANET SMITH