Kaidan Project – An Interview with Sean Cawelti – “The Noise of our Histories & the Silences that Haunt Us”

Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin

“You receive a letter from your childhood friend who is haunted by a mysterious event in your shared past—and she needs your help. When you arrive at her family’s warehouse, you ascend to the fifth and sixth floors in a creaking freight elevator, followed by a voice that calls out through the shadows, drowning you in echoes of wells and engines and graveyards, in tangles of hair and snow, in sharp reflections of your darkest moments—a voice that may not be human.” – Kaidan Project

 

This is Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, a new immersive experience from Rogue Artists Ensemble in co-production with East West Players, one of the nation’s oldest Asian American theatres. “Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin is an immersive, site-specific theatre experience that puts you, the audience member, in the middle of a thrilling original and modern tale inspired by several Japanese ghost stories and folk tales.”

 

Director Sean Cawelti takes Haunting through those behind the project, the inspirations behind Kaidan Project, and what you can expect from the experience itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Gekidan: The Company

Founded in 2003, Rogue Artists Ensemble is a non-profit arts organization, “focused on developing original works that push the boundary between audience and performance.”

 

2017 has already been an incredibly busy year for the Ensemble: “We partnered with the Pasadena Playhouse to bring our family friendly production of Zen Shorts, based on Jon J. Muth’s award-winning children’s book, to their stage, which helped us prepare for taking the show to the National Puppetry Festival in Minneapolis. We also held a reading for a new show called Cowboy Elektra, which mashes up old west mythology with Greek drama. We just wrapped up a semi-staged workshop of Señor Plumber’s Final Fiesta, which illuminated the life of Eugene Plummer the namesake of Plummer Park in West Hollywood. That project will take over the park next fall in what will be another large-scale immersive work. Next year at the Gary Marshall Theatre we are also remounting our award-winning Wood Boy Dog Fish production, which is a mature retelling of the Pinocchio story. Guard your crickets.”

 

 

 

 

And now, with previews beginning October 5, the Rogues bring us their latest show. Written by Lisa Dring and Chelsea Sutton, and directed by Cawelti, Kaidan Project is supported by a diverse collection of organizations: the National Endowment for the Arts, the Venturous Theater Fund, The Japan Foundation, the Jim Henson Foundation, City of West Hollywood, City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs, and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

 

“We are focused on creating what we like to call Hyper-theater – a mix of old traditions, such a puppet and mask work, mashed up with newer elements, including multi-media and technology integration.”

 

 

 

 

 

Reikan: The Inspiration

Kaidan Project began years ago when, as an ensemble, we became very interested in the idea of a duality of animal and man, with the Kitsune/Fox mythology being at the heart of that even in the early stages. Throughout the years, we kept coming back to this project, but it was finally during conversations with Tim Dang, who was at that time the Artistic Director of East West Players, that he suggested Rogue keep working on this idea. He was some of the main inspiration for its eventual shift in direction.”

 

It has been three years since those conversations and in that time Rogue Artists Ensemble have developed their experience through readings, workshops and even “a larger, fully staged immersive workshop at the beautiful Japanese Gardens in Van Nuys.”

 

“Throughout each of those stages of development we learned more of what the project wanted to become and what the requirements would be to stage it as we intended, with the chief requirement being a space in which we could fully immerse the audience and control the experience 360 degrees around them.”

 

The Ensemble describes Kaidan Project as “refracting ancient Japanese ghost stories through a modern, multi-cultural lens” and as such, have been very conscious of the differing cultural frameworks in which they have been working, approaching the piece “with an understanding of the traditions and original intention of the stories when they were first documented, but with also shaping the piece to be distinctly Rogue.”

 

“From a simplistic vantage point I do think that Eastern and Westerns views are very different. However, when you look more closely, you can see big parallels, and I think in Los Angeles we have a huge population of Buddhists and an incredible Japanese community, which help to make our city such a wonderful and enlightened one. I think there is much to be learned and to be admired about the way that Eastern philosophies and faiths look at the notions of death, spirits, and the afterlife. I think for many working on this project it has been a huge journey of both self-discovery and personal reflection.”

 

But what of the stories and traditions that form the basis of Kaidan Project? “In addition to the incredible stories of Kitsune, we have been heavily inspired by Okiku, Oiwa, Hoichi and Mujina (or the no face spirit). We also have read and researched many of the traditions such as Hyakumonagatari Kaidankai (or the 100 ghost story ritual) which was at one time used to train Samurai warriors to ensure their bravery.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cawelti cites Okiku as his favourite of all of these; the traditional Japanese ghost story (kaidan) on which The Ring is loosely based. “Actually, just today I am writing this from Japan on a research trip where I visited the well at Himeji castle which is ‘said’ to be the well Okiku was thrown down.”

 

“The complexity of the how spirits and hauntings are viewed in Japan has been a huge and inspiring aspect of developing Kaidan. As a production team, we sought support from the Japanese American and spiritualist community to collaborate to discover the way in which we would be exploring and representing various aspect of the project. As the theme of possession is at the core of Kaidan (without giving away too much) it’s safe to say that audience members will be doing some exploring and discovering of their own.”

 

 

Keikan: The Experience

With all this talk of ghosts and possession, it would be easy to assume that Kaidan Project is on the horror end of the immersive spectrum. Cawelti doesn’t dispute this, but adds: “The experience of participating as an audience member is going to be equal parts elation and horror. You need pathos and moments of joy in order to open up the audience to grant access to a deeper connection.”

 

He also hopes that the experience will allow audience members to take a breath at “just the right times”, explaining that “the piece will have moments of absolutely beauty and wonderment along with moments of terror in complete blackness and with an immersive audience design. You may also find yourself being chased… but hopefully you’ll find a way out in time.”

 

The Ensemble workshopped different formats for nearly a year before they settled on their final iteration: groups of 12 entering the location every 20 minutes for a 75-80 minute experience. The group can expect to be “broken up, joined together, and even some people will have individual experiences so that no two people’s adventure will be the same. Together the group will participate in a final ritual and that’s all I’ll say about that.”

 

The location is currently a secret, but Cawelti gives us a taste of the space in which Kaidan Project is to take place. “The warehouse was built in 1927 and we are using 2.5 floors totaling over 10,000 square feet of immersive space making. The audience will venture up in a large freight elevator and be taken from the ground floor to the upper levels where the bulk of the experience will play out. Some rooms are immersive in their own ways, so you will be transported to shrines, bamboo forests, a Japanese television set, a tea room, and even the bottom of a well.”

 

 

 

 

Kaidan: Ghost Story

Rogue Artists Ensemble hopes “those who are brave enough to enter the world of Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin walk away with a sense of reverence and keep with them some incredible stories that for many people are absolutely real.”

 

Which leaves one final question: Are you brave enough to step into that elevator and face the Japanese ghosts of both the past and present?

 

Watch the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/232000267

 

 

Preview shows take place October 5, 6, 7 and 12 with opening night on October 13.

Performances: 7.30pm onwards on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, October 14 – November 5, with Special Halloween Performances, October 30 & 31.

Tickets go on sale September 4, with ticket prices ranging from $50 for preview shows, $125 for opening night, and $65-$75 for the main run.

Website: https://www.rogueartists.org/kaidan-project/

 

About The Author

Victoria Camps
After receiving a Masters degree in Creative Writing, specializing in the areas of Young Adult Literature and Editing, Victoria now works as a Learning and Development Manager during the day, helping others make their words as beautiful as they can be by night.

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