Kabuki and bagpipes

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Feb. 28, 2001, written by Jeff Iseminger

Have you ever met a Japanese-American bagpiper? Then let us introduce to you to kilt-clad David Furumoto, who’s taken to the bagpipes like a Scotsman to tweeds.

To some this may seem like cultural confusion, but Furumoto considers it just plain fusion. And he loves every culture-mixing minute of it.

Furumoto joined the faculty this fall as an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Drama. His mission — and he has chosen to accept it — is to expose American students to traditional Asian theater, including the 400-year-old kabuki style.

Not only that, he wants to show how other hallowed theater such as Shakespearean and classical Greek drama can be fused with kabuki. Next fall Furumoto will direct his kabuki adaptation of the Euripedes play “Trojan Woman” for University Theater.

Kabuki features elaborately costumed performers who use stylized movements, dances and songs to enact tragedies and comedies. “Kabuki has a fantastical, energetic acting style,” says Furumoto. “It counters the stereotype of the cool, collected Japanese temperament.”

That very energy links kabuki to Shakespearean drama, he says. He can show you by reciting the opening soliloquy in “Richard III” — “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York” — as both a Shakespearean and a kabuki actor would.

The similarity is startling, in part because both styles are so, well, theatrical. “It’s an amazingly good fit,” he says.

But why study kabuki, a student might ask, when you don’t perform it in American theater? “To be successful in kabuki,” says Furumoto, “you must be totally into your character. You can tap that theater-filling energy and emotional focus of kabuki and add a whole new depth to your acting.”

Kabuki seemed synonymous with boredom to Furumoto as a high school student in Honolulu. That’s why he dragged his feet when his mother asked him to go with her to a kabuki performance. But go he did, and change his life he did.

“My plans on becoming a marine biologist took an abrupt turn,” he says with a smile. “I was captivated by the power of kabuki. By the time I walked out of the theater, I had memorized many of the lines.”

He went on to study Asian and Western theater at the University of Hawaii and study kabuki under master teachers in Tokyo. Since coming to the mainland, Furumoto has worked with such theater companies as the Berkeley Rep, San Francisco Mime Troupe and Seattle Children’s Theatre.

Two years ago he was commissioned by the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre to write the play “Wondrous Tales of Old Japan,” which toured the Midwest. This past holiday break he directed the same play for a spring tour by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Kabuki wasn’t the only passion sparked in Furumoto by a serendipitous encounter in high school. At a sidewalk sale one day, he bought an LP because he thought the cover was cool. It showed a man standing along the parapet of a castle playing one of the world’s most distinctive instruments: the bagpipes.

“Once I played the album, I knew I had to play the instrument,” he says. So he began taking lessons, and once he was ready for his first recital, his instructor told him he had to have a kilt.

Here’s where it gets a little Twilight Zoney. Before ordering his kilt, Furumoto looked through a book of tartans. He assumed he had no connections to any clan, so he picked the plaid he liked best: the Ferguson tartan.

He only later learned from his mother that a family branch of the Fergusons is Ferris — her maiden name. If a tartan ever called to someone, it was Ferguson-to-Furumoto, over and out. In the end, it may have been destiny, not serendipity.

He’s taken his bagpipes to highland games competitions up and down the West Coast and hopes to join a local band in Madison. “Right now I’m focusing on playing pibroch, the classical bagpipe equivalent of Bach’s fugue style,” he says.

Though kabuki and the bagpipes may seem an odd couple indeed, the two artistic expressions share a common bond: theatricality. Kabuki is an on-stage dynamo, and the bagpipes, as Furumoto puts it, “is not a shy instrument.”

By simply following his passions, Furumoto has upheld the traditions of both his parents, fusing Scottish and Japanese cultures. Fusion, he believes, hasn’t muddied his cultural identity, only enhanced it. And you don’t have to be a Japanese-Scottish bagpiper/kabuki expert to enjoy the blessings of fusion.

“I hope that people from different cultures can enjoy each other, instead of kill each other,” he says, “One good way we can do that is through music and theater.”