This bold piece undermines the complicated and fractured family ties that tie us to the past

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Theater can provide the ultimate opportunity for connection and understanding. It shows us that we are not alone in our feelings of pain and struggle. As the poet Andrea Gibson wrote, “…sometimes the most healing thing to do is to remind ourselves again and again and again: others feel this too.”

In the game The nose bleed playwright Aya Ogawa reflects on the strained bond between Ogawa and Ogawa’s late father. As Ogawa describes it, he barely engages and mostly sits at his desk facing the wall whenever Ogawa visits him.

“It’s a deep reflection and questioning of my relationship with my father through my perspective as an immigrant and a mother, and the absurdities and tragedies that coexist side by side in life,” says the New York-born playwright. Tokyo and based in Brooklyn. who also directs and stars in the piece which manages to be deeply poignant but also occasionally hilarious.

This Lincoln Center Theatre/LCT3 production is currently playing at the Claire Tow Theatre. “It’s a wonderfully intimate space while being a versatile stage,” says Ogawa. “We keep the house lights on for most of the play, and I love being able to feel, hear, and see the audience breathe with the play.”

Four actors (Ashil Lee, Saori Tsukada, Drae Campbell and Kaili Y. Turner) play Ogawa along with other roles. Ogawa, who primarily plays the father, also engages the audience so they too have a chance to come to terms with their own complex relationships with those they love.

For Ogawa, the piece was something of a balm, a chance to really look under the proverbial hood. “Directing and performing the play opened up avenues for me to forgive myself for not trying harder to mend our relationship when my father was still alive,” Ogawa shares of the play that had already was performed at the Japan Society in New York. “Playing him every night is the greatest act I can think of, as an artist, to lend him my physical body and my humanity, so I like to think that portraying his vulnerability and his age is a way of honoring his memory.”

Jeryl Brunner: Why do you think your father behaved the way he did, to be so private about his love and affection?

Aya Ogawa: Like many of us, I’m sure he was a product of his time and culture. Men in particular carry a lot of trauma due to expectations around masculinity that may stem from war experiences. He probably didn’t know any better and didn’t think there could be any other way to get around the world.

Brunner: What inspired you to write The nose bleed?

Ogawa: This piece was born out of a six-month process where I created a space for my collaborators to share their personal thoughts and anecdotes around the theme of “failure”. Although they all brought a wide variety of stories from their lived experiences, what I found in common with each of them was that sharing these stories created a ripple effect of deep empathy. And I felt we really needed that feeling of healing and compassion at that time, after the 2016 election.

But two challenges arose as I worked with this more open structure with multiple narratives from different collaborators. The first was that the audience questioned the authenticity of the stories, especially when the original storyteller was not present in the room. And that line of questioning didn’t help the trust I was trying to build with the audience. The second was that as the person responsible for creating this incredibly vulnerable space, I was not personally positioning myself in relation to this vulnerability. And it was a kind of exploitation.

Brunner: You said that to overcome these two points, you decided to turn to autobiography. Can you say more about this?

Ogawa: It was never my intention or desire to write a play based on my life, let alone my failures or my father, but that seemed to be what the play demanded of me. Or at least that was how I felt I could disentangle those two issues, with my particular limitations as an artist. Once I made the decision, writing the screenplay was effortless. The structure and story of each scene quickly revealed itself to me.

Brunner: When did you know you had to be a writer and performer? What were the circumstances?

Ogawa: I moved around a lot in my childhood, between Tokyo and different cities in the United States. And I really felt like a stranger no matter where we landed. For me, discovering theater in 8th grade was like discovering a house. A place of community and acceptance, no matter what I looked like and what flaws I carried.

I also had a lot of passion and intensity as a youngster, maybe I still have! So it was a good place to channel that energy. I studied playwriting in college, but my heart stayed in performing, so I figured I’d keep acting after I graduated from college. But I soon discovered that there were extremely limited roles available for someone like me. So I was basically forced, out of necessity, to write and do my own work.

Brunner: It’s so interesting that you have actors representing you. Why was that important for the play and for telling the story? And why did you select these specific actors?

Ogawa: The use of multiple actors embodying different forms of the storyteller (narrator, protagonist, past self, present self, etc.) was born from the first “failed” explorations. I found that moving the singular storyteller and dividing that role into multiple roles seemed to give the audience more entry points into the story, opening up a more open space.

This is ultimately the purpose of the piece: to gently lead the audience into an empathic space. I chose my original cast because they were longtime collaborators with whom I shared deep trust, and they represented aspects of me: Japanese, American, queer, mother. For the Lincoln Center Theater production, I had to replace a few performers who weren’t able to continue the project, but I still seek that same sense of confidence in bringing in new collaborators.

Brunner: Show your children The nose bleed and what did they say after seeing the play?

Ogawa: Yes, they have seen many iterations of the piece. My youngest son thinks the play is about his nosebleeds, which he still gets sometimes. He came to opening night and his words before the show were, “Don’t make me look stupid!” I asked him later if he thought I was making him look stupid, and he said no. Phew!

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