“The Warrior and The Princess” written by Shirley Van Sanden. Interview by Maya Contreras.
The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) is the largest multi-arts festival in North America. It takes place annually in August over the course of two weeks on 20 stages spread across several Manhattan neighborhoods. FringeNYC (unlike other Fringe Festivals) uses a jury-based selection process to pick it’s 200 shows. One of those shows is “The Warrior and The Princess” written by Shirley Van Sanden.
Maya Contreras: What is the name of your show?
Shirley Van Sanden: The Warrior and The Princess.
MC: What is it about?
SVS: It’s set during the early days of World War 2 and is about a Japanese diplomat who goes against direct orders from his government and issues over 6000 transit visas to Jewish refugees enabling them to escape from Europe. The play is inspired by the true story of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara.
MC: What made you want to write about this particular subject?
SVS: I was appalled by the way asylum seekers were being treated by the Australian government. This is quite a few years ago now, but I came across the Sugihara story around the time of ‘the children overboard affair’ – the Australian government falsely reported that asylum seekers had thrown children into the ocean to encourage their own rescue. I was horrified that this story was perpetuated and used as some kind of proof that these desperate people were less than human.
Around the time, a documentary was screened on Australian TV called “The Jews of Shanghai” which told the story of many Jewish refugees who had spent most of World War 2 in Shanghai (then under Japanese rule). It revealed that these people had arrived there on transit visas issued by a Japanese diplomat based in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara.
I was fascinated by this man and his selfless act of courage. Put in the context of the time, his position as a government official and that he was of Samurai background, it was astonishing. What he must have had to overcome to willingly go against orders, a man that was brought up under the Bushido code. I was in tears by the end of the documentary. Sugihara’s humanity and generosity was such a contrast to the current attitude to asylum seekers.
MC: What was the biggest hurdle for you writing this piece?
SVS: The story is BIG! I mean big as in it is a historical piece that spans continents and political complexities. It’s easy to get bogged down in detail and lose the plot. I had this project on the back burner for some time, just brooding on it. There were so many characters, so much going on, there were schemes you would not believe, and I knew I would need to be selective.
The reality of theatre in Perth, Western Australia, is that a play with a small cast is more likely to be produced. So my biggest hurdle was coming up with a viable storytelling format for this big story.
I didn’t want to write a straight out factual, linear re-enactment of what happened during World War 2; there are documentaries that do that already. I did, however, want to make a play that would affect an audience in the same visceral way I had responded when watching “The Jews of Shanghai”. I decided I wanted a child character and that I wanted the audience to emotionally invest in the plight of the Jewish refugees – so I came up with the characters of Anna, a little girl who likes to play at being a Princess and her Uncle Jakub. I also decided to amalgamate Sugihara’s wife, Yukiko and his German assistant Wolfgang Gudze into one character – which is how I came up with Johanna. Since I had departed this much from history, I decided to change the name of the Sugihara based character – hence we have Kiyoshi Yoshida.
Another crucial element of this storytelling format was the use of puppetry. Not only did it allow the introduction of more characters without actors having to change costume yet again, but it also brought a certain visual style to the piece. The whole ethos of the play is very ‘old school’, we purposely steered away from digital technology for a hands on approach, hence the use of live music and live projection (with overhead projectors) and shadow play. “The Warrior and The Princess’ is highly visual, it’s tightly woven with imagery and supported throughout by a fastidiously chosen live piano score.
MC: What did you enjoy most about the process of writing it?
SVS: It was most convenient when history and invention came together. An example of this is ‘the Manchurian incident’. The real life Sugihara, complained about the treatment of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops when he was stationed in Manchuria and he got nowhere. That one incident gave me artistic license to invest in the rest of the play. It became the opportunity missed that gives the hero the determination to succeed at all costs. The other part I really enjoyed was the re-writing that takes place during the rehearsal period, it’s quite liberating when you know it just make the work better. I also had a fantastic dramaturge that I worked with, Richard Tulloch and the director, Monica Main.
MC: What does it mean to you to be a part of the New York Fringe Festival?
SVS: It’s a long time since I’ve been to North America. I toured a few times in the nineties and noughties with Barking Gecko Theatre Company on the US and Canadian Children’s Festivals Circuits. The last time was 2006 when we did several Canadian Festivals with another of my plays, the Award winning “Hidden Dragons”. I am very proud of that play and that tour.
Generally speaking, though, touring is not easy, although I love it, and that is because we are geographically challenged living in Perth, the most isolated city in the world. It’s even isolated in terms of Australia. Ironically, the nearest capital city to Perth is Denpasar in Bali, Indonesia.
“The Warrior and The Princess” is a big story with universal themes that we want to share with a larger audience. So, as a group, Blue Moose, we thought, where would be the best place for us to take this show?
We specifically approached the New York International Fringe Festival with “The Warrior and The Princess” because we thought that New York was the ideal place for the subject matter of the play. There are foundations like Visas for Life that have Sugihara as their inspiration, and there are descendants of Sugihara survivors living in New York. We want to share this story with them as well as with a wider audience. We want to inspire others the way Sugihara has inspired us. Being part of FringeNYC enables us to do this.
MC: Where can we learn more about you and your show (e.g. website, twitter)?
SVS: This is the Blue Moose website. You can find out more about “The Warrior and The Princess” there.
Part Two: Proust’s Questionnaire:
What is your idea of perfect happiness? A cat purring on my lap and a good book in my hand, because if the book was in my lap, the cat would be purring on it.
What is your greatest fear? Forgetting my lines or what play I’m in.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Self-doubt.
What is the trait you most deplore in others? Self-assuredness.
Which living person do you most admire? Sir David Attenborough.
What is your greatest extravagance? Pole dance lessons.
What is your current state of mind? Anxious.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Which virtues are you referring to? Bushido? If so, honour, because if you have fairness, courage, benevolence, respect and loyalty, chances are you’re honourable.
On what occasion do you lie? When I absolutely HAVE to.
What do you most dislike about your appearance? The lumpy bits.
Which living person do you most despise? I try not to despise anyone. Sometimes I have to try VERY hard.
What is the quality you most like in a man? If I like the person, I like them.
What is the quality you most like in a woman? If I like the person, I like them
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
What or who is the greatest love of your life? The smell of the grease paint.
When and where were you happiest? Hoping that’s something to look forward to, although I was pretty happy when “The Warrior and The Princess” was nominated for a prestigious Australian Writer’s Guild (AWGIE) Award.
Which talent would you most like to have? The one that consistently doubles in value.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My feet.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Still being alive.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? This is one of those occasions when I would absolutely HAVE to lie…
Where would you most like to live? UK.
What is your most treasured possession? My flexibility.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Day time TV.
What is your favorite occupation? Acting.
What is your most marked characteristic? Being annoying.
What do you most value in your friends? Acceptance.
Who are your favorite writers? I have lots. I really like Martin McDonagh, Stephen Adly Guirgis and that guy, William Shakespeare.
Who is your hero of fiction? Fox Mulder or maybe Arthur Dent
Which historical figure do you most identify with? Alexander The Great, because I’m short and want to conquer the world.
Who are your heroes in real life? Chiune Sugihara.
What are your favorite names? I quite like Greek names.
What is it that you most dislike? When my dogs eat manure then try to lick me, and the dustbin.
What is your greatest regret? Not learning to be a contortionist as a child
How would you like to die? Quickly.
What is your motto? Wear them down with persistence.