By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Stepping down and stepping up … on the same day.” That’s how Mieko Ouchi describes the double-sided moment in late November when Concrete Theatre announced her departure and the Citadel announced her arrival. It was dramatic news for both companies. And it re-defined bittersweet for a theatre artist of strikingly multi-faceted experience and credentials.
After 31 years at Concrete, artistic director Ouchi is leaving the theatre-for-young-audiences company she co-founded, in order to take up the position of ‘TD associate artistic director’ at Edmonton’s largest theatre, the Citadel. “It was a hard decision to make,” says the award-winning actor/ playwright/ director/ dramaturg/ producer/ filmmaker/ community advocate. “My entire adult life — since I was 19! — has been spent at Concrete,” she says.
It may seem particularly unsettling (“OK, bizarre,” she says) timing in the middle of a pandemic. “But with touring (one of Concrete’s raisons d’être) suspended everywhere and the lack of fall productions happening, in a way it’s not a bad time to be making a momentous decision.… A huge challenge for me personally, and a chance for me to transfer all the new-play development skills I (learned) at Concrete, as well as my own work as a playwright, dramaturg, and director of plays for adults.” And for Concrete, Ouchi thinks, “it’s a chance to welcome the next generation of leadership … and give them time to situate themselves, and get settled.”
During the transition period, she and fellow Concrete co-founder and oft-times co-artistic director Caroline Howarth remain at the company as “associate artists.” For one thing, “we still have projects that are ongoing,” says Ouchi. Projects like the national tour of Dave Clarke’s Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, a remarkable chamber opera for deaf and hearing performers and, says Ouchi, “a milestone for the company and inclusivity.” Until the Canada Council marketing initiative evaporated in the COVID miasma, Ouchi was supposed to fly to Rotterdam to pitch the show to European opera companies.
She brings a formidable artistic skill set to a position left vacant with the departure of Rachel Peake for Vancouver’s Arts Club. At the Citadel, where her own musical play The Silver Arrow: The Untold Told Story of Robin Hood made her, in 2018, the first woman in Citadel history to have a play commissioned and then actually produced on the mainstage, she’ll be overseeing new play development, commissions, artist mentorship and training.
For Ouchi, there’s a natural career continuity in that fit. From the start Concrete specialized in creating, nurturing, and then premiering, new work, and taking it to kids in their natural habitat, schools. Since the pandemic cancelled touring, “we’ve been putting our energy into development, residencies, commissions,” she says.
Her own body of work as a playwright in the adult theatre first came into national prominence withThe Red Priest (Eight Ways To Say Goodbye), which premiered at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects in 2003 before productions across the country. The Blue Light, which explored the controversial Third Reich filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and Blue Nisei, about the marginalization of Japanese-Canadians, also had ATP premieres.
It was in film, though, that she’d landed right out of U of A theatre school. “The prevailing wisdom in theatre was if you wanted to be an actor you had to leave everything else, like writing and directing, behind. There was no such thing as a multi-hypenate at that point!” Ouchi was already accumulating hyphens. Shepherds Pie and Sushi, her filmmaking debut, was a National Film Board documentary that explored her bi-cultural family. Before it was a wrap, she starred in Anne Wheeler’s film The War Between Us, about the Japanese internment. Ouchi’s last film Minor Keys, for the TV program The Nature of Things in 2004, “followed two young violin prodigies through an 18-month period in every aspect of their lives.”
“Film was a great teacher,” Ouchi says. “But producing? I just got tired of spending so much time raising money. And I really think my bigger gifts are as a writer and director….It was really challenging as a young woman, and a person of colour, trying to break into to a male-dominated field. Things are finally changing everywhere — thank goodness.”
The Red Priest marked Ouchi’s return to the world of theatre “Once you’ve seen your film with audience, it’s a complete object and you can’t ever change it. Whereas with theatre, I always feel that the relationship (remains) alive, dynamic…. You’re always improving, and learning from the audience. And I love the porousness of that process. It’s what’s kept me hooked!”
Ouchi’s acting career, which happened alongside directing, filmmaking, writing, and running Concrete Theatre, had its challenges, too, for a BIPOC artist. “So I worked in a lot of cities,” says Ouchi. She and Sandra Oh, who’d graduated from the National Theatre School the same year as Ouchi from the U of A, “were among the very view Asian artists working in Canada as actors. Such a tiny pool…. We’d be flown from city to city.”
So, who was the 19-year-old Ouchi? A natural collaborator by temperament, Ouchi conjures her younger self, who’d joined her U of A drama classmates on a three-year project to use theatre to “work with young people transitioning from the street into mainstream society.” Named “because it was about the street, urban storytelling!” Concrete was the inspiration of a quintet of U of A students and instructions — Ouchi, Caroline Howarth, Elinor Holt, Kazimea Sokil, Jan Selman. “We were bright shiny-faced students who wanted to use theatre to help people tell stories about their lives,” she laughs, and pauses. “I never dreamed in a million years that Caroline and I would still be best friends, still involved in leadership roles with the company!”
Artists came and went from Concrete, many of them recruited by Ouchi and Howarth for the company’s annual Sprouts Festival from a wide variety of ethnic and professional backgrounds — novelists, journalists, playwrights who’d only written for adults, actors, designers, improvisers — to write for kids. The Sprouts idea was to expand the provenance and cultural diversity of the overwhelmingly white bread kids’ theatre repertoire.
Concrete was all about new work, at first often collectively created or community-devised, then commissioned. “They used to call us Baby Catalyst,” Ouchi says of early days when Catalyst, under Selman, was a company of the social-action stripe, very different from its later incarnations. “It was a chance for us to build our skills….” Concrete was unusually alert to ethnic diversity. And Ouchi’s own contributions mined stories (in Triptych and Rice, for example) about her own mixed-race mixed-culture family, Scottish/ Irish/ German on her mom’s side, Japanese on her father’s.
By the late ‘90s Concrete was finding its groove in kids’ theatre, a subset that had emptied in a single year when the Citadel shut down its theatre-for-young-people programming, one prominent kids’ theatre in town went out of business, and Azimuth shed its original mandate. Concrete had found its niche. And, says Ouchi, “we were over-run by requests” for shows to explore topics like teen sexuality, racism, drug abuse, family violence,” hot-button subjects that made teachers nervous to even think about.
Commissioned by a quartet of social service agencies, Concrete premiered Ouchi’s first play Decisions Decision (about making good choices) in 1994. Jane Heather’s 1998 Are We There Yet?, which addressed the inflammable subject of teen sexuality, was so popular it became de facto sex education in Alberta schools for 15 years. “We did 16 productions over that time; I directed it nine times,” says Ouchi. Generations of actors were in the show. Richard Lee Hsi saw it in Grade 9, then performed in it when he got out of theatre school. Emily Vespi, Concrete’s board chair, was in Grade 9 when she saw it; now she’s a sexual health educator.
Ouchi’s own play Consent tackled tricky questions of gender equality and respect. Haroun’s Under Cover took on racism and Islamophobia. Collin Doyle’s much-produced solo play Routes, about family violence, “had a huge impact…. We toured it three times, including a national tour; it won a Dora (in Toronto), it’s been published by a U.S. press.”
“In any given year, Concrete plays are seen by 12,000 to 22,000 kids,” Ouchi reports. “Most adult theatres would be very happy with that. The power of TYA!”
Diversity and inclusivity, both on and off the stage, is a focus that Ouchi shares with the Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran. “How do we bring people of different abilities (and backgrounds) onstage and celebrate their stories?” Diverse participation backstage has been especially scanty. Ouchi, whose Citadel production of A Brimful of Asha remains online through Jan. 10, will oversee a new RBC program that will see the year-long mentorships of four young BIPOC artists at the Citadel: Makram Ayache and Patricia Cerra in directing and artistic leadership, Deviani Bonilla in choreography, Daniela Fernandez in sound design. New play development is under Ouchi, too, as well as assistant directorships.
“It’s a matter of taking a deep-dive into the community, with support going forward,” Ouchi thinks. “Our two largest A-houses (theatres with the largest stages and seating capacities, the Shoctor and the Maclab) are at the Citadel. And it really is our responsibility to support writers in (creating) plays for that size of stage,” says Ouchi, who’s grateful for Cloran’s attentiveness to that kind of artist development.
The Silver Arrow, she says, was “an opportunity that has opened doors for me,” says the playwright, whose latest, Burning Mom (about her widowed mom’s trip to Burning Man,) was slated to premiere on the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre MainStage in the spring, with Ouchi directing.
The well-connected artist brings to the Citadel a wealth of first-hand knowledge about mentorships, workshops, residencies, writers’ retreats — at the Banff Playwrights Lab, at the Stratford Festival, across the border at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island in Washington, among others.
It’s a time for what-if’s, says Ouchi. “The sky’s the limit right now. I’m so excited to enter a period where I get to dream a little, to brainstorm with Daryl. What do we want to build? What kinds of plays and playwrights do we hope to encourage, nurture, sustain?”