What to Do With an Absent Father? Cast Him as a Character Onstage.
The Brooklyn-based experimental theater maker Aya Ogawa hadn’t thought about her father in 10 years. When that fact occurred to her, in 2017 — a decade after his death, which she and her mother had chosen not to mark with a funeral, or even an obituary in the local newspaper in his California town — she didn’t feel guilty about it.
It seemed indicative of the remoteness of their relationship, and how painful it had been for her. Yet Ogawa, then in the midst of creating a show called “Failure Sandwich,” did think she had failed somehow as a daughter to him.
“He would have wanted to be memorialized,” Ogawa, 48, said one afternoon last week, sitting casually barefoot on the floor of a rehearsal studio upstairs at Lincoln Center Theater. “He would have wanted to be celebrated and acknowledged and all that stuff.”
It was too late for her to do anything about the absence that her father had been in her life, even when they shared the same house. The bond they’d never forged would never be. But she could use the tools of her art to imagine an alternate ending to their relationship — a gesture of forgiveness to him, “for not being able to be any other way,” she said, and a gesture of forgiveness to herself as well.
And so “Failure Sandwich,” a piece she had been building out of other people’s stories of failure, evolved into her acclaimed play “The Nosebleed,” a kind of mourning ritual in dramatic form, with comedy. After a brief run last fall at Japan Society, it’s back through Aug. 28 at the Claire Tow Theater at LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater’s stage for new works.
“The Nosebleed” contemplates what Ogawa describes to the audience as “one of the greatest failures of my life.” That’s not something she had been eager to dissect publicly.
“I never wanted to write autobiography,” said Ogawa, who grew up in Japan and the United States and graduated from Columbia University. “I never thought I would be writing about my father. It presents really vulnerable aspects of my life, and, you know, it’s very scary to do that.”
With Ogawa portraying her father at various ages and her younger son at age 5, four other actors play prismatic versions of their playwright-director.
“It’s a mind trip, you know?” said Drae Campbell, who has worked with Ogawa for 20 years, considers her “like family” and plays the character Aya 4.
Ogawa’s unsentimental play eschews bitterness in favor of kindness, humor and emotional complexity. It invites but does not compel audience participation, primarily by asking for a show of hands at questions like “Who here has a father who has died?,” “Who here hates their father?” and — more lightheartedly — “Who here has watched the reality shows ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘The Bachelorette?’”
There is also a Japanese Buddhist funeral ritual for Ogawa’s father, in which some spectators may choose to take part, using chopsticks to pick ersatz bone fragments out of his imaginary ashes. The playwright, who watches that scene in character as her father, said it has become for her, unexpectedly, “this incredible, profound, spiritual practice.”
“I am seeing the remains of my body come out before me,” she said, “and I’m seeing strangers come up and help me put that body to rest.”
To Evan Cabnet, LCT3’s artistic director, Ogawa’s compassion and vulnerability are part of what marks her as “a real outlier” among experimental theater makers.
“There are a lot of artists who work in formally experimental modes, and the end result of that work is very often cerebral or intellectual or clever,” he said. “Aya’s work is all of those things, but primarily it leads from the heart. And, I think, from a sense of opening, and from a sense of softness and care.”
That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but only if the ideal is tough-guy theater. Which for Ogawa — who uses she/they pronouns and is developing a play about motherhood called “Meat Suit” — it is decidedly not.
A major catalyst for “The Nosebleed” was a pan of Ogawa’s 2015 play, “Ludic Proxy,” by the critic Helen Shaw in Time Out New York — a brisk 600-plus words, three of which were fails, failure and failing. To Ogawa, the review was a devastating dismissal that lodged the notion of failure inside her, demanding that she examine it.
That same year, the experimental playwright Haruna Lee, who uses they/them pronouns, was just out of graduate school at Brooklyn College and seeking a director for their play “Suicide Forest,” which no one who read it seemed to understand. Then they sent it to Ogawa, whom Lee knew only from a distance as “this badass Japanese American director with an asymmetrical haircut and double nose piercings.”
Ogawa, who has a considerable track record, too, as a supple translator of Japanese plays, responded with “like 50 questions,” Lee said, and an immediate comprehension of how Japanese and American cultures were “mixing in a very raw way in that play.” The script is also in part autobiographical, about a parent-child relationship.
Lee was afraid to perform the central role of a teenage girl, but Ogawa pushed them to do it anyway. Lee acquiesced out of trust, embarking on an exploration that eventually led to Lee coming out as nonbinary. When Ogawa directed the play at the Bushwick Starr in 2019, it was a hit.
By then, Lee was also playing one of the Ayas in “The Nosebleed” — something they aren’t doing at Lincoln Center only because it conflicted with joining the writers’ room for Season 2 of the Apple TV+ drama “Pachinko.”
Ogawa thinks of “Suicide Forest” and “The Nosebleed” as works that “were kind of percolating in the same brain swamp,” with Lee’s play giving her the courage she needed for her own.
The title of “The Nosebleed” comes from Ogawa’s then 5-year-old son, Kenya, waking up in the middle of the night with a bloody nose on a family trip to Japan in 2017. His big brother, Kai, had accidentally punched Kenya in his sleep. But the reason for the title is the metaphor of the child’s blood — the lineage that links Ogawa’s son to her, and to her father. (As a parent, Ogawa’s husband is a stark contrast to her own father: engaged, invested and emotionally present with their children, she said.)
She finds it easier to play her child, but not difficult to slip into her father. “I don’t know how to describe what is happening to me,” she said, “except that it kind of does feel like a channeling. And dropping into him somehow, or like my body becomes a vessel for the image that I have of him.”
And like every actor who has had to find sympathy for a character in order to play that person, she has had to find a way to understand her father.
Her sons are 10 and 12 now, both born after their grandfather died. But on opening night at Lincoln Center last week, she wanted them to take part in the play’s funeral ritual — to be first in line for it, as the closest kin would be in a real funeral.
And so they were. Onstage in front of the symbolic cremated remains of their grandfather, they took chopsticks and together helped lay his body to rest.
Their mother, in character as an enfeebled old man, watched and felt release — felt absolution.