Rogue Ariststs Ensemble adopts a novel approach to immersive theatre, casting four actresses in the lead role of Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin.
Moving through Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin is like taking a greatest hits tour of Japanese folklore. True to its title, the immersive theatrical production features a series of scenes inspired by well known kaidan (“ghost stories”): fans of J-Horror cinema and/or Lafcadio Hearn will recognize variations on “The Black Hair,” “Hoichi the Earless,” and “The Ghost Story of Yotsuya,” among others. However, this episodic structure is tied together by an overall narrative arc involving Kana Mori, the mysteriously missing owner of Mori Storage.
Unlike other interactive plays, which hand the audience off like a baton from one character to next as they follow the action from room to room, Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin keeps its protagonist front and center for most of the 75-minute running time, creating a more intimate sense of identification between performer and viewer. In a sense, Kana is our guide into the world of yokai (literally “bewitching apparitions”), and it is our responsibility (the play casts the audience as Kana’s “friends”) to help find her way back to the normal world.
This artistic decision creates a practical problem: in order to move people efficiently through a real environment, immersive shows play to small audiences (in this case, a dozen); in order to sell a decent number of tickets per night, there must be multiple performances running at short intervals (here, every twenty minutes). It doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to calculate that the actress playing Kana in a show that runs from 8:45pm to 10pm cannot also be play the lead in the 9:05pm show.
The solution found by Rogue Artists Ensemble, the production company behind Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, paid creative dividends: casting four different actresses as Kana and allowing each to take the character in her own direction. Depending on which performance one attends, Kana may be younger or older, stronger or weaker, more spiritual or more psychological. The character’s journey remains the same, but the nuance varies, according to the performances of Tane Kawasaki, Jolene Kim, Jasmine Orpilla, and Randi Tahara.
This approach was the result of a long development process, involving conversations between director Sean T. Cawelti and writers Lisa Dring and Chelsea Sutton regarding the strengths and weaknesses of immersive plays.
“We kept coming back to a conundrum, which was in a lot of these experiences the common factor was that you would forge a relationship with a character, and at some point that character would leave you, ostensibly because they needed to go to the next group,” Cawelti recalls. “We went through a lot of iterations of how to address this. We needed a constant to be the driving force of the experience. At first, we had this idea of having different paranormal investigators, who had different theories about the afterlife; we had many drafts of the project and even full workshops. We loved it in some ways and hated it in others, so we abandoned it and went in the direction we landed, which was the Kana narrative with four actresses playing the same character. It gives the actor a chance to forge a relationship with [the audience] in way that is impossible if you’re only together for a short period of time. There are tools that each Kana has developed to do that with each group.”
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin – The Four Kanas
The first Kana involved with the production is Jasmine Orpilla, who acted as the show’s “Paranormal and Culture Consultant” (besides acting, Orpilla works as a professional medium). During the development phase, she provided guidance regarding the Shinto and Buddhist underpinnings of the stories being adapted by Dring and Sutton.
“I was brought up in Japan and I work as a professional paranormal consultant, so I have first-hand experience with the rituals involved, and I know about the religious connotations behind the stories that ended up in the play,” says Orpilla. “I was also influential in how to approach the characters from an Eastern point of view. In the West we have a very good-guy-bad-guy approach, like The Exorcist. In the East, justice is extremely delicate. My contribution as the paranormal consultant was to let them know that, when it comes to spirits and possession and exorcism, you have to know how Shintoism influences Japanese stories. There is no such thing as this black-and-white approach. Everybody has a responsibility in any haunting or a demon’s presence in your life. There’s an implication you might have to look into yourself to see how you’re connected to those problems. Demons and the supernatural creatures – they’re not just little goblin monsters. Many of them are based on the fact that we might have caused their inception. We have a responsibility toward their well-being, and they have a responsibility toward ours. It’s up to us as a community to keep a sense of harmony with them in order to have a sense of harmony in our lives.”
This outlook helped define Orpilla’s performance, which took a “spiritual approach to the character,” who has been tormented by a kitsune (fox spirit) since childhood.
“I identified with the supernatural aspect of it,” Orpilla says. “I wasn’t digging into my past and talking about my childhood; I was looking at it from the yokai point of view. I approached it as kitsune is not necessarily good or bad, so I didn’t play it as protagonist or antagonist. The fox spirit is both predator and prey, so I did both simultaneously throughout the trajectory of Kana’s journey.”
Taking the opposite approach is Jolene Kim. Though she watched videos of allegedly possessed people, the actress sought a psychological underpinning for the character.
“Throughout the process, I was trying to understand who Kana is,” explains Kim. “On paper, it says she is possessed by a fox spirit. What I did with that was [assume] that partially she is possessed, but another part is that she is disturbed. There are things that affect her mentally as a result of being possessed; she can go into being bipolar – she’s one person, and she can suddenly be a totally different person. That grounded it more, for me.”
Tane Kawasaki found another way to look at the role. Originally given a monologue for the audition, in which Kana was distressed and asking for help, the actress sought inspiration in the character’s name.
“My father is Japanese; my name is Japanese, so I know there’s always meaning behind the names. I looked up ‘Kana,’ and that meant ‘powerful one.’ I found that compelling.”
Randi Tahara doesn’t cite a particular character trait that influenced her interpretation of Kana; she was more focused on tailoring her performance to involve the live audience.
“What I brought to it, and what we were told to bring to it, was a sense of urgency,” she says. “What was challenging was to make the audience feel a part of it, and that was not written in the script because we don’t know how they are going to react or not react to certain words or actions. When you look at an audience and you’re up close with them, sometimes they don’t look like they’re engaged, and you can’t let that throw you. I’ll be doing a monologue, and I’ll see two people talking in the background, but I can’t focus on that. Why aren’t they listening? How can I get them to be more engaged? Should I move closer to them?”
Kawasaki took the role without knowing she was not the only actress playing the lead. At the first read-through, she wondered, “What’s up with the four Kanas?” Of course, it’s not unusual to have more than one performer rehearsing a role; most plays have understudies. However, Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin was a completely different situation, with four leads.
“It’s exponentially challenging because the cast is multiplied by four,” says director Cawelti. “So the rehearsal process was interesting in ways that we couldn’t anticipate, in terms of what the method was going to be. We had certainly dealt with understudies, but this is something we had never dealt with before. Quite late in the rehearsal process we discovered that we could pinpoint the distinction: in a normal understudy relationship, you have an artist who is creating a role with the director and the cast. The artist is the captain of that role, and the understudy or even a swing, they’re learning the role, but their learning it as writ choreography; they’re hitting the same beats as the lead artist. However, in this situation, you have four lead artists, and we needed to make very certain that there was a sense of ownership for all four of the Kanas that was as balanced and equal as we could possibly make it. That meant that, unlike a normal understudy situation, where you might have the understudy in the room, taking notes, we had the goal of rehearsing each of the Kana scenes with just one of the actresses at a time, so that the Kanas wouldn’t be observing the other actresses and would discover what this role was for them. There were certain beats that everyone had to hit, and some of those were practical moments – sound and effects cues that we needed to make consistent. But a lot of other moments are really the Kanas’ individual takes. Lisa, Chelsea, and I loved that. We found the experience so gratifying to work with these individuals who had such a unique and thoughtful take on the character and would in many instances nourish an aspect of the character that was completely different from the actresses.”
A fringe benefit of this approach was that it created four distinct versions of the play, which is an advantage when it comes to repeat business: returning audience members will see something quite different. However, this potential was not conscious game plan; it emerged organically from working with the performers.
“It wasn’t that we chose it to be that way; that’s how the chips fall because we’re not identical clones,” laughs Orpilla.
“We weren’t told to play it different; we just had to be true to ourselves,” says Tahara. “The four Kanas are very different in physical type, in interpretation of the text, in blocking, and the choices we make. That naturally made the experience for the audiences unique.”
“Any actor is going to make a part their own, so regardless of how they may have conceived it, we were going to run with what was right, as we felt it,” says Kawasaki. “We didn’t have much opportunity to see each other working, which is a blessing in a lot of ways. Within the company and the crew there is a lot of commentary about how very different we are. There are some scenes that we came together to get the nuts and bolts for, but it was not dictated to us how we would get to those moments. It was, ‘These are points you have to hit.’ Then we each in turn figured out how to get to those moments.”
Those moments include navigating shadowy corridors and eluding supernatural dangers, but Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin also features character-based moments with more conventional dramatic material. To some extent the four actresses gravitated toward scenes that reflected their interpretation of Kana.
Tane Kawasaki appreciates the interactive opportunities afforded in the Tea Room, which is Kana’s safe space, where she played as a child. The setting serves the plot in that an object is retrieved that is needed later, but the scene operates also as a moment of calm for Kana to bond with the friends who have come to her aid.
“I’ve had some really touching moments,” says Kawasaki. “Depending on who comes in with what energy, it can take a different shape every time. There is some text; it’s a good guideline, but it did feel too performative to stick exactly to that monologue. There’s an act of bottling a memory that we do with some of the audience members, but we were always given the impression that it’s not necessary for everyone who comes into the tea room to have the same experience. It’s more special if they walk out of there and say, ‘I had tea,’ and someone else says, ‘We just breathed for three minutes.’”
Randi Tahara also enjoys the intimate quality of the Tea Room. “I get to interface directly with audience members and still convey the story, but they also share a part of themselves with me,” she says.” I ask them where is their safe zone, where do they go to be alone with their thoughts. They are very honest in sharing with me – a stranger, an actor in a role – their most personal and intimate secrets. A lot of times the audience members have questions that of course aren’t scripted, and I answer them in character. I treasure those moments. I hope by doing this dialogue with them that they care for Kana as a person rather than just a character leading them through these scenarios. Sometimes in the last scene, the ones I’ve connected with make eye contact with me and give a special nod because we’ve shared this in intimate moment. That’s something you don’t get when you’re standing on a regular stage.”
Jasmine Orpilla limns a debased version of glamour while filming a commercial for a beverage named Red Vengeance. The scene – a modern take on Yotsuya Kaidan fused with a spoof of product placement – involves murder and literal (not just brand name) vengeance, with the Director attempting to rid himself of Kana, whom he calls “Oiwa,” the name of the poisoned wife in the original Japanese tale. The fast-paced energy – with camera, monitor, and back-projection simulating a car ride – stands in contrast to the traditional elements of Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, providing a welcome change of pace and an opportunity to display a different side of Kana.
“I get to channel my inner Judy Garland,” laughs Orpilla. “Every scene is fun in its own way, but the Oiwa scene with the Red Vengeance has the most obvious fun to it because it’s the contemporary one. It’s right in L.A. and it pokes fun quite directly at L.A. and Hollywood. It’s so obvious – it’s not subtle! We’re talking about current topics that are happening in Hollywood. These age-old stories, coming from the 13th or 14th century are still topical today. Even though it’s a modern take on it, it’s the same story that’s been told for hundreds of years.”
Part of the joke is that Kana wants to know her motivation for wanting vengeance, but the Director brushes this off as something she doesn’t need to know – just as the kitsune tormenting Kana no longer recalls the motivation for its grudge.
“Red Vengeance is a bit of a parody, poking fun at the fact you can’t let it go,” says Orpilla. “Having a grudge is a part of a lot of these stories. A lot of demons are created by the fact of wanting to get back at someone – just that can curse you.”
Jolene Kim’s favorite acting moments occur when Kana relates her history with kitsune, first in a room full of papers and masks, later I a scene in which she recalls a childhood memory of killing the wounded kitsune.
“For me it’s about taking the audience on that journey,” says Kim. “I set up Kana as a weak person needing the audience to help her. Each room represents a different revelation, as she’s learning about herself. In the paper room, you get to see her psychology… what’s going on and why she’s here. [In the later scene], she feels powerful, but then I flip back into being a little girl: ‘I didn’t know any better.’ She is struggling before your eyes between enjoying it and realizing it was wrong.”
Not all of the set pieces focus on Kana; the narrative digresses into other stories, in which Kana plays little or no role or even seems to become a different character. Still, she is the thread holding the stories together; for example, “Oiwa,” the name used in the Red Vengeance scene, means “rock,” which connects with the rock Kana used on the kitsune.
“Everything in the show has thematic connections that feed into Kana’s story,” explains Cawelti. “Each piece has a kind of intellectual connection, and there is emotional resonance that connects them. The ‘Black Hair’ piece deals with the cycle of making a choice and being trapped by that choice. Kana is a victim of that same cycle. We also viewed it as if this could be one moment from her life, be it a past life or her current life, as a haunted individual who has experienced a lot of grim moments. We weren’t 100% sure how much we needed to clarify, and we did add some clarification, but we also liked it being a little bit in the ether. People are being asked to take what they can from it.”
“The writers took all of the stories and wove them into this beautiful tapestry, and each of the threads goes into each other,” says Orilla. “You’ll see bits and pieces of Red Vengeance and Hoichi in other scenes. The imagery of the car, the use of blood, and the rock – they merge together like one big bad dream. Everything collides.”
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin begins and ends in the lobby of Mori Storage, where there is a bar selling Red Vengeance. If a customer orders a can, the bartender will remark that it’s Kana’s favorite drink, though he does not care for it: “She loves it, but I think it’s poison.”
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin – Directing the Audience
After the first read-through, the actresses have worked separately for the most part, but they do compare notes, trading tips on how to handle unexpected situations that arise in a show staged in an actual warehouse.
“The four Kanas are an incredibly supportive group of women,” says Tahara. “There are no divas, and we share helpful hints. We say, ‘Oh, an audience member didn’t pick up the fox at the end – this is how I handled it.’ Or it could be a technical thing: ‘The strobe went out early, you might want to…’ Hearing the experiences of what went right and what maybe didn’t go as planned helped us deal with those instances, should we encounter them.”
Because there are multiple performances running simultaneously throughout the warehouse, timing is essential. Mostly, this is the responsibility of the production team, which charted the play on a long paper scroll, with the action broken down minute by minute. As scenes changed during rehearsals, post-it notes would be moved, pushing and pulling to keep time signature consistent.
“Some things you do early on, and they have consequences,” says Cawelti. “We had to put tickets on sale, and we had to come up with a time interval that we could achieve, so we chose a twenty-minute interval, which is on the long side for immersive pieces. At the same time, that twenty minutes is complicated for those four sections of the play. The piece is broken into four zones, and there is an audience at any given time in each of the four zones in the building. There is only about one or two minutes between each of the groups when an audience has left one zone and is moving to the next, and the zone is being reset to its starting position, and then the next audience comes in. We had to make some choices to accommodate that. When the elevator first ascends, the audience is broken into two groups. We needed to shorten that section; by having those two stories happen at the same time, we were able to shave some time off. There are strange decisions that go into a piece like this that are sometimes about the narrative and sometimes about how you get it to function. In the end, we’re successful at not having our audience members seeing each other.”
Nevertheless, the audience is a continual X-factor, and to some extent the actresses serve as “directors,” moving their groups from room to room in order to stay on schedule.
“If you hear the elevator while you’re in the Tea Room, you know that zone is going to be ending soon,” says Kawasaki, who worked to find organic ways of keeping the audience on pace with Kana’s trek through the warehouse. “One of the more challenging moves is from the fifth to the sixth floor. I didn’t want to constantly say, ‘Hurry, we have to go up here.’ It just occurred to me at one point that there was a way to do it. There was a new thing introduced where they were shining a projection onto the door upstairs, and I figured out that if I allowed that to draw me in a very compelling and slow way – we were discovering the challenges of having older audience members who took longer to climb a steep set of concrete stairs – instead of trying to make those people hurry, if I slowed myself down and approached that with curiosity and awe, when I turned around and asked them if they were prepared to help me with the ritual, they would all be there. I wouldn’t have to yell at them the whole time.”
Subtle measures do not always work; sometimes, direct intervention is necessary. An on-going concern with Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin is clarifying how much latitude the audience has to interact with Kana and the environment. Some interaction is necessary for the story; for example, during an early scene in an office, when a phone rings, an audience member must answers in order to have a conversation with Kana. In later scenes, certain objects must be removed to help with the final ritual, but audiences don’t always limit themselves to the essentials.
“There was a show in the beginning when my group picked up every single thing you can imagine,” recalls Kim. “But we figured out how to get them to grab just what’s necessary; now I just blatantly tell them what to get.”
That was not the only time when something was taken that should have remained. There was also an incident when an audience member removed a prop that needed to be in place for the next performance coming through. The stage manager, who saw the removal on a bank of monitors, alerted Randi Tahara when she was out of sight of the audience, asking if she could retrieve it without breaking character. Tahara confronted the purloiner, telling him, “You have to return that – it cannot leave this room.”
Though most audience members are cooperative, a few get carried away, either through an excess of enthusiasm or a few too many cans or Red Vengeance before the show.
“I had an audience member who ran after the fox who comes after you in the hallway for quite a while,” recalls Kim. “I had to go and grab him eventually, because he wouldn’t come back. I also had an audience member who was there with her boyfriend and some others, and she did not want to be there. When I brought her into the Tea Room, she was like, ‘Is there food? How much longer is this?’ She was trying to leave and go into rooms she wasn’t supposed to go into. At the end, when Kana dismissed her friends, I looked straight at her and said, ‘You should go now.’ Some guy in the audience laughed, because he knew what was going on. Not that I was trying to be mean; I was trying to play with the story and incorporate her into it. It was not Jolene the actress saying ‘Take that!’ It was more Kitsune saying, ‘Get out of here.’”
Ultimately, there is no way for the cast to fully expect every possibility, as Tane Kawasaki point out: “Some audiences are waiting for you to come to them with it. Some are come straight up to you and surprise you with their involvement. That’s one of the fantastic things about the piece. You can’t expect. If you do expect, you get flustered. The only thing you can do is be present, know the path, and not just know it but be able to discover it with the audience.”
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin – Conclusion
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin ends on a note of uncertainty. There is a conclusion to Kana’s story, but questions remain. Has she defeated kitsune, wrestled it to some kind of stalemate, or succumbed to it?
Orpilla sees this ambiguity as part of Kaidan Project’s Eastern approach to the supernatural: “We can’t just look at the villain and say, ‘We’ll destroy you.’ It’s little more complex than that.”
Jolene Kim believes the ending depicts a transformation, showing a once-helpless Kana deliberately allowing herself to be taken over by kitsune. In Kawasaki’s interpretation, Kana realizes that a violent confrontation is feeding the fox spirit’s anger, so instead she chooses to co-exist with the darkness.
There seems to be a victory of sorts, but as Tahara says, ‘There is no sense of closure,” leaving audiences uncertain whether they should applaud as they descend back down the elevator. “As an actor it’s rewarding, but it sounds odd,” says Tahara. “People do feel perhaps that they have failed in some respects to help me. But when I went to a play on Monday, someone coming up the aisle recognized me and said, ‘Hello, Kana!’ So it was like I did make it out.”
The Four Kanas are giving their final performances this weekend. Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin closes on Sunday, November 19. It’s your last chance to grab a can of Red Vengeance and join the search inside Mori Storage, and if you make a return visit, you may see quite a different performance.
“We have had a lot of folks come more than once and say, ‘I loved the first Kana, and I loved the second Kana. What a different take on it, but just as great!’” says Cawelti. Still, the novelty of four lead actresses is not what he wants to emphasize about the production.
“For us it was always about the narrative,” he says. “We’re obsessive about storytelling and creating an experience that is moving for an audience. As much as I love a lot of immersive experiences, I sometimes don’t feel very moved by them. That was what it was all about for us: how do we tackle this question about the emotional core and allow an ‘in’ for the audience, providing an arc with a beginning, middle and end.”
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin runs on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at a mid-city warehouse in Los Angeles. Visit rogueartists.org/kaidan-project for showtimes and tickets.