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“Legacy, Purpose & The Act of Listening” – In Conversation with Tetsuro Shigematsu, playwright and performer of EMPIRE OF THE SON

by Bailey Green

Growing up, Tetsuro Shigematsu and his father Akira Shigematsu did not communicate beyond requests to pass condiments at the dinner table. In the early 90’s in Montreal, Tetsuro approached their distant relationship in a piece called Rising Son. “It was a very small show that very few people saw. But an excerpt of it was played on the radio and that was a sort of catalyst that pulled me out of theatre and into these different career directions,” Tetsuro references the beginning of his career in broadcasting. In the following years, Tetsuro became host of CBC Radio’s The Roundup, fought Vikings on the reality show Deadliest Warrior and worked as a writer for This Hour has 22 Minutes.

When Tetsuro became a father to daughter Mika (13) and son Taizo (9), he began to consider what legacy he would pass on to his own children. “Now that I have kids, [I knew] they were going to start asking questions about who they are and where they came from,” Tetsuro says. “So when my father’s health began to falter, for my kids’ sake I knew it was now or never that I had to ask questions and get his stories.”


Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

Akira Shigematsu had worked as a broadcaster for the BBC. When Tetsuro placed the microphone in front of Akira, the familiar format unlocked years of silence between father and son. Throughout the interviews, Akira never asked why his son was interviewing him and for what purpose. Near the end of the process, Tetsuro asked his father’s permission to use the material. Without permission, Tetsuro would have no research for his PhD and no material for his show. “I asked him, “Have you ever wondered why I have been interviewing you all this time? Well I would like to share your story.” He was quite mystified because it was so counter-intuitive to him that others might find his story interesting,” Tetsuro says. When Rising Son was being performed, Akira began to tell people that his son made fun of his father’s accent for a living. This was one of the reasons Tetsuro stopped performing the piece and so he wondered about what made Empire of the Son different. “He gave me his permission. He said yes right away. When I asked him why he was ok with it, he said “If you tell my story, my life will have some meaning.” That was a big surprise to me. This process was to find meaning in my own life but this whole endeavour would lend meaning to his.” 


Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

Tetsuro describes Empire of the Son as a “homecoming for me and my father. Empire of the Son revisits these relationships [seen in Rising Son], but now that I’m a father, it explores my tempestuous relationship with my Japanese Canadian father and his relationship with his father… It spans four generations and the continuum of that.” When Tetsuro was still searching for the form for the show, he heard a quote from a personal hero of his, Robert LePage, about how radio is the most visual of mediums. “I began to think about how I can deepen the experience of listening,” Tetsuro says. “What is it about campfire stories that are so engrossing? Ghost stories are just variations of urban legends, but people become entranced by the rhythm of the dancing flames, or for myself the embers, so I wanted a visual equivalent for a theatre audience.”



Photos by Raymond Shum

Empire of the Son has several silent sequences with visuals of miniatures projected above Tetsuro. “During the silent parts there is just time for the audience to think about their own memories and experiences – It’s a moment for them to stare into the fire, so to speak. This is a story about a Japanese Canadian father and his Canadian son, but in fact, the uncanny effect that is achieved is an explosion of memories in people’s own minds. They gave me all the credit, when I am just lighting the wick, so to speak.”


Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

In the fall of 2015, Akira Shigematsu passed away. He died a few weeks before Empire of the Son opened at The Cultch in Vancouver. “When my father died, my whole family was there. My sisters cried and I didn’t. I wanted to investigate that and if I tell stories that are hard for me, I can hopefully break up the ice in my heart and when my father’s funeral comes one day I will be a little bit more complete.” Now, a year later, Tetsuro describes a stronger connection to his father’s memories, “With the passage of time I feel more mindful and present in the moment and open to connecting with my father onstage.”

Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

Photo Credit: Raymond Shum

Taizo and Mika, the fourth generation referenced in the show, have seen Empire of the Son and have “mixed feelings about seeing their lives on stage.” In the play they are referred to as 8 and 12 years old. When they are in the audience, they heckle Tetsuro about their updated ages (9 and 13). “My son points out that compared to other artists I am profoundly uncreative because I use my own life,” Tetsuro laughs. “It’s surreal for an audience because sometimes when the interactions begin they don’t know if it is real or staged and the line between art and life becomes blurry. I’ve made this commitment to not inventing anything, so when my mother or sisters or children attend, I acknowledge their presence either through eye contact or directly speaking to them.”

To artists at the beginning of their careers, Tetsuro encourages them to be prepared for a life of uncertainty. “If you can deal with that, it’ll be ok. If being creative and making art is something that truly makes you happy, then focus on those internal values and you’ll maintain a sense of integrity or wholeness about what you believe in.”



Written by Tetsuro Shigematsu | Directed by Richard Wolfe
Starring Tetsuro Shigematsu
Set design by Pam Johnson | Costume design by Barbara Clayden
Lighting design by Gerald King | Sound design by Steve Charles
Documentary audio by Yoshiko & Akira Shigematsu
Produced by Donna Yamamoto
A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre Production

From the ashes of Hiroshima to swinging 1960s London, EMPIRE OF THE SON tells the dynamic story of Shigematsu and his emotionally distant and stoic father, Akira, also a former public broadcaster. A compelling father and son story, EMPIRE OF THE SON is also the story of three generations of a Japanese family separated by language, culture and history.

Told through a blend of dramatic storytelling, family video footage, archival audio from Akira’s CBC interviews, recordings of phone calls between father and son, and intriguing miniature worlds projected on a screen, EMPIRE OF THE SON is a deeply thoughtful portrayal of parent/child relationships.


Factory Studio Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street

January 18 – 29, 2017
Tuesday – Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 2pm, Saturday, January 28 @ 2pm & 8pm

Ticket prices range from $25-$35
Student, Arts Worker and Senior Prices also available
In Person: Factory, 125 Bathurst Street,
By Phone: 416.504.9971

@FactoryToronto • FB/FactoryTheatreTO/
@vact FB/vact1
#beyond1617 #empireoftheson

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