Masa Kawahara is a puppeteer and designer who has received the McKnight Theatre Artist Fellowship along with Elise Langer and Scott W. Edwards. Masa is a theatre artist, teaching artist, and passionate about the art he creates. I spoke to Masa about the McKnight Theatre Artist Fellowship and his work.
Congratulations on the Fellowship. Please explain the award you received.
McKnight Theater Artist Fellowship is an honor and recognition as a theater maker. It pushes you further as a theater artist. It makes you realize how many amazing artists are out there working in the field in the Twin Cities.
The McKnight Theater Artist Fellowships at the Playwrights’ Center recognize theater artists other than playwrights whose work demonstrates exceptional artistic merit and whose primary residence is in the state of Minnesota. The $25,000 fellowships are intended to significantly advance recipients’ art and careers.
For more information check out: https://pwcenter.org/programs/mcknight-theater-artist-fellowships
I understand your art form is puppetry/design work. What will you be creating and performing for this fellowship?
I will be working on a couple of things at least. I would like to create a final version of my solo puppet show (Unauthorized) Gojira 1954 (or Godzilla!) with a director (Molly Van Avery?). It is my interpretation/reconstruction of a masterpiece Japanese monster movie Gojira (1954) as a tabletop puppet show that features hand cranked subtitle machine. Also, I want to start working on the next show Wild Boars Running (working title) about the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquakes and Tsunami of 2011 including the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown, wandering spirits, environmental racism, and the wild boars that now roam the radioactive land. The show might incorporate puppets, mask, Butoh and physical acting.
As a puppetry artist, what is your process?
I became a puppeteer as I joined In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT) where I worked for 11 years as a company member, and still work with as an associate artist today. At HOBT I work as a puppeteer; design and build puppets, masks and set pieces; help create parades and pageants; and teach. Like Theatre de la Jeune Lune, artists at HOBT take on multiple roles and work collaboratively to develop shows. For example, in The Story of Crow Boy (2016/17/18), the artistic team and myself collaboratively created a show based on the writings, artworks, and graphic novels of Mitsu and Taro Yashima. To do this we held a series of workshops, spanning few years, utilizing mock-ups and existing puppets, and tried to tell the same scene in different ways. We then reviewed videos of the sessions to inform further development, including items such as the best style of puppets to use and what background images to project.
Describe what it means to be a puppeteer. Do you design them? Describe more of that process.
To be a puppeteer means to be a great problem solver. We dream and create the impossible. We see languages in silence, and let poetry move. And ultimately, we create something beautiful that moves us all. If it is my puppet show, then I create all of the puppets, masks and set pieces while I devise the story. If it’s someone else’s or in collaboration, then I might make some puppets or just participate in the show as puppeteer.
It is a time-consuming process to create puppets and masks, and typically I use clay as mold for the head and some parts of the body of puppets or masks. Then I use many layers of papier-mâché as my main technique to create things. Also, I use cardboard, wood, and wires — we puppeteers experiment. Sometimes, we use toys or any objects and modify them, and call them puppets. Creation of puppets is just a beginning of the creation of a show, now, you need to play with them to learn what they can do. And stories to tell. Always it’s a great idea to have a director who understands what you are trying to do in a show and (especially) questions every decision you make or avoid. My favorite artist to work with is Molly Van Avery. She is a brilliant and smart director.
If someone has a desire to gain a theatre artist fellowship, what do you suggest to them?
Love what you do, madly. Work on your craft and keep creating. Watch many shows and create more. After 10 years or so, if you are still working in the field of theater and if you feel like you have a body of work; then, apply to the fellowship. Or even if you feel like you are not there, apply anyway. The process of applying to the fellowship forces you to think where you are in your development as an artist, and makes you evaluate what you have accomplished so far. Dream and create.