CCT gets emotional with playwright, director and actor Aya Ogawa ’97.
CCT gets emotional with playwright, director and actor Aya Ogawa ’97.
© DARREN COX
That concern generally doesn’t come up for me in professional settings. But the fact was, I had been so profoundly moved by Ogawa’s acclaimed play The Nosebleed after seeing it at Lincoln Center Theater last summer, I feared I might choke up while discussing it with them.
The Nosebleed explores what the Brooklyn-based artist describes as the biggest failure of their life: not honoring the death of their father more than a decade ago. Ogawa — who wrote, directed and stars in the 70-minute drama — makes the fascinating choice to play their dad (as well as their 5-year-old son, Kenya), while four other actors portray different versions of the author.
The play involves some challenging audience participation. It wasn’t the first time I’d cried at the theater, but it was the fastest — that weepy lump in my throat hit just 15 minutes in, after the first show-of-hands question: “Who here has a father who has died?”
There were a few more personal questions and a Buddhist funeral ritual on stage that audience members could opt to participate in (nope, I could not). But The Nosebleed isn’t all tears and mourning; Ogawa includes hilarious references to the reality series The Bachelorette, and their brilliant fantasy finale had me laugh-sobbing hard enough that I left with the hiccups.
All of Ogawa’s work is informed by a global perspective, and they have often used the stage as a space to explore cultural identity and the immigrant experience. In their 2008 play Oph3lia, a young Japanese woman stops speaking after arriving in New York City; another work, Journey to the Ocean, was bilingual in Nepali and included ritual music and dance. Ogawa has also translated numerous Japanese plays into English for productions in the United States and London.
Ogawa’s motivation for The Nosebleed actually originated with a pan of an earlier work. After their 2015 play Ludic Proxy was trashed in Time Out New York, they were devastated, but the dismissal made them stop and consider the notion of failure. Years of creative exploration with their team of collaborators followed (Ogawa has been working with some of the same actors for decades), and the painful experience gave rise to something beautiful.
Following a brief run in 2021 at the Japan Society and last year’s performance at Lincoln Center Theater, The Nosebleed will open at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., on Friday, March 31. The D.C. chapter of the Columbia Alumni Association (in partnership with Columbia College Women and the Asian Columbia Alumni Association) is organizing an outing to see the play on Friday, April 21.
Reader, I held it together. After several minutes of fangirling, Ogawa and I spoke about failure, trust, representation and their process of creating The Nosebleed.
Aya Ogawa ’97: The obsession I fell into around failure was the fact that there’s very little space for us to talk about it. We talk about failure in terms of, “This is what I learned. This is how I improved. Then this is how I then succeeded.” And there’s not a lot of community or cultural space for us to go through a grieving process or acknowledge how vulnerable or hurt we felt around failing.
That Time Out review was definitely an instigator; it planted this idea in my mind, like: “Do I consider that work, from my perspective, a failure? And if not, what is a failure in my life?” And so my exploration really started there, trying to identify what failure was for me, and what failure was for my close collaborators.
Ogawa: I actually never intended to write about myself or write autobiography at all. It might sound surprising, but I’m not necessarily a super-public person. It wasn’t something that I was immediately being pulled toward. In the first nine months of starting to examine what failure meant to people, I was using the stories that my collaborators were contributing — with their permission — to explore different modes of storytelling.
For example, I could take a story that belongs to Person A and have Person B tell the story; then Person C inhabits the story as the protagonist, Person D plays a past self and Person E plays a future self, reflecting back. The idea of displacing the narrator and creating multiple storytellers came out of this. And the effect was that it created a very, very vulnerable and empathetic space of healing and forgiveness. That was something that I felt was really beautiful, that an answer to these questions around failure was this forgiveness and healing. And that became the intent of the play.
Ogawa: Yes, it’s built on trust. And I didn’t want the audience to be worried or wondering, “Is this a true story?” So I thought that if I placed the narrative on me — if I wrote autobiographically and took responsibility by presenting the story myself with my body and my voice as part of the mechanism of this, that it would eradicate that question of truthfulness.
And of course, it’s very vulnerable to share stories of failure. In my mind, it was an experiment to focus the story on myself. What is the play that I would write and how would it land? How would those different modes of storytelling manifest in a play that’s based on my experience? And that’s what The Nosebleed is.
LINCOLN CENTER THEATER / JULIETA CERVANTES
The other thing is, I started in the theater as an actor, after I graduated from the College. If I had met with a lot of success as an actor, I probably wouldn’t have become a writer, I probably wouldn’t have become a director. So in a way, being able to perform and give myself over to that process is a wonderful gift; it’s actually been an incredibly joyful experience. This is why I wanted to get into theater in the first place.
Ogawa: I went to high school in Northern California, and it just so happened that the headmaster had been a star wrestler at the College [Henry Littlefield ’54, GSAS’67]; he wrote my recommendation letter. And my parents — I mean, we were immigrants and there was of a lot of stress on achievement. I wanted to go to Oberlin, because I thought it was the weird, artsy school and I really wanted to be a weird, artsy person. And my parents were like, “Where the hell is Oberlin? Stanford is 100 miles away.” So I thought: “You know what? I need to get as far away from you as possible.” And that was Columbia.
I did theater in high school and I really wanted to pursue theater as a life journey. My parents were vehemently against this, of course.
Ogawa: I think for my mother at least, her not wanting me to pursue theater was not so much about status or expectation, but her wanting to prevent a lifetime of disappointment for me. This was the early ’90s — there were very few opportunities for someone who looked like me. She was like, “I don’t want you to spend your life playing maids and prostitutes. Because that’s what you will be doing in the theater.” And I remember saying to her, “Well, I’m going to change the field.” [Laughs.] I had no idea what I was talking about, honestly. But the strength to withstand the pressure from my parents gave me the resolve to continue on this path.
There was a very strong focus on world theater at Columbia, and I got to experience things that I never would have in any other program. We were studying Noh [Japanese] theater, I got to take a Chinese opera class, we studied Scottish political theater and the Avant Garde. It was really formative for me as a thinker and as a maker.
Ogawa: It’s definitely better than it was 30 years ago. I had to replace one actor in the Lincoln Center production; I went through a whole casting process with LCT. And I was so moved by how many young Asian, Asian-American women and nonbinary and trans actors are in the field. It blew me away. It was such an honor — just such a hopeful, encouraging and beautiful process for me to witness. And that’s the evidence, right? The fact that there are so many talented, incredible performers out there. It’s really fantastic.
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