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New play tackles the allure—and danger—of our virtual lives

In Kuroko, acclaimed Vancouver playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu challenges viewers to rethink their relationships with the online world.

In Kuroko, acclaimed Vancouver playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu challenges viewers to rethink their online worlds

When playwright Tetsuro had to lock himself away following eye surgery, he tapped into the allure of living a virtual life. (Raymond Shum/Terry Wong)

As Tetsuro Shigematsu headed into eye surgery, he knew the recovery would not be easy.

The normally athletic Vancouver playwright would be cloistered in a dark room with blackout curtains, on pain medication, and forced to lie in bed for several days, with nothing but an iPhone full of audiobooks to keep his mind entertained.

"The experience was a curious one because on one hand I felt that my body was beginning to atrophy, and part of me lamented having to skip my workouts and not eat very much because I wasn't moving," says Shigematsu in an interview with q.

But just as his body was slowed, Shigematsu found his mind "venturing to entirely new worlds and universes" as the mental relief that technology provides took over.

Says playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu, "I began to wonder if this might not be a glimpse of our collective future, as we are all kind of rushing towards this singularity whereby the world that we've always known, of molecules and of atoms, is in fact shifting to ones and zeroes.” (Chris Randle)

"And I began to wonder if this might not be a glimpse of our collective future, as we are all kind of rushing towards this singularity whereby the world that we've always known, of molecules and of atoms, is in fact shifting to ones and zeroes."

That glimpse of our collective future ended up inspiring Kuroko, a new play that delves into our obsession with technology, and how more and more people are trading in-person interaction for virtual lives — with millions taking it to new extremes.

Steeped in modern Japanese culture, the play centres around hikikomori, a phenomenon where young people retreat to their bedrooms and never leave, spending all of their waking hours online, enabled by concerned parents who sustain them by leaving trays of food outside their doors.

In Kuroko, a father named Hiroshi only has a year to live, and in that time, he is determined to get his extremely reclusive 25-year-old daughter Maya to leave her bedroom, which she hasn't done in six years, instead eschewing the real world to explore virtual reality. One day she meets a mysterious player online who presents her with the ultimate challenge: to save her father's life by braving the Suicide Forest, IRL (in real life).

Kuroko straddles the real and virtual worlds using Minecraft-like blocks and inventive costumes. (Chris Randle)

"Japan is a culture very much governed by shame and maintaining face. Parents often don't seek help — not that there's much help to be had because this is such a recent phenomenon, relatively speaking," says Shigematsu.

"And this can go on for years. In fact, the first generation of hikikomori are now middle-aged and their parents are unable to retire. So they've been in their rooms sometimes for decades."

This is far from a tiny niche, adds Shigematsu. In fact, estimates suggest that there are up to three million hikikomori in Japan.

In the work, the playwright also explores kuroko, the black-clad stagehands who help to move Kabuki actors on stages, as well as rental families — a Japanese phenomenon whereby people hire actors to play friends, colleagues and family members at important events such as weddings and business functions.

"For example, if you are a single parent and you're trying to get your kid into a good elementary school, but that elementary school favours two-parent families, then as a single father, you might hire a wife and mother for the day to accompany you to the interview so things will go a little bit more smoothly," says Tetsuro, who explains that people have even staged entire weddings with a hired bride or groom, and hired friends and relatives.

Playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu won acclaim for his solo shows Empire of the Son and 1 Hour Photo. (Chris Randle)

But these practices are far from exclusive to Japan, and as is the case with the hikikomori, Shigematsu uses them as an inroad to talk about our lives in the West.

"I understand that in Silicon Valley, tech start-ups are hiring models and actors to spice up their year-end Christmas parties, because most of their employees are young men on the spectrum who aren't able to socialize very well. And of course, their cover story after they sign their non-disclosure agreements is that, 'Oh, I work in HR and I'm just from a different branch of the company," says Shigematsu.

Of course online, people also purchase Instagram, Twitter and YouTube followers to make their virtual heft seem more significant than it really is.

Actors John Ng (Kim's Convenience) and Kanon Hewitt star in Kuroko. The play was written by acclaimed Vancouver playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu. (Chris Randle)

"So to me, it's interesting that these Japanese-specific phenomena — hikikomori, rental family agencies — are actually reflections of what of things that are happening here in the West," says Shigematsu, pointing out that his daughter just walked by him staring at her iPhone.

"I noticed that on her screen stats for her iPhone, she's spending upwards of eight and a half hours a day on her phone — and I'm equally guilty. We all spend so much time looking at our screens and less time looking at each other. So for me, that's an interesting glimpse of where we're at and where we're going."

For Shigematsu, a former CBC Radio host and writer for This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the show also represents a significant shift. Kuroko follows his widely acclaimed and hugely popular shows Empire of the Son and 1 Hour Photo, both of which were solo works that he wrote and performed.

But Shigematsu doesn't appear in Kuroko; rather, the theatrical world he created is being brought to life by an all-Asian cast that includes Kanon Hewitt, Lou Ticzon, Manami Hara and Donna Soares, as well as John Ng of Kim's Convenience.

Director Amiel Gladstone says he was immediately drawn to the project, both because of Shigematsu's previous works, and because he was interested in delving into "a global first-world phenomenon that was going to have a different lens on it for a Canadian audience."

It's estimated that in Japan, there are as many as three million people living as hikikomori — young people who wall themselves off from society and live in an entirely virtual world. (Chris Randle)

But for a story that's largely about virtual reality, Gladstone and set designer Sophie Tang opted to go relatively low-tech; still, the staging came with its own analog complexities — and ended up with a unique visual style.

"There are many different locations. There are things happening in the virtual world and in real life, and we jump back and forth. There are people playing avatars and then themselves in this space. And so we needed a very theatrical way of doing this, and something that felt efficient and imaginative," says Gladstone.

"And Sophie came up with the idea of a world based on blocks, which are very much like Minecraft blocks. And so depending on how we manipulate those blocks, they can be different colours and they can be everything from a suburban Tokyo kitchen to a forest."

For Shigematsu, the greatest challenge in creating Kuroko was navigating the story's many moving pieces, and the characters whose lives overlap and intersect at various points. As a former radio host and the creator of two solo shows, he knew how to grab people's attention, and adjust as needed to keep it.

"But writing and communicating ideas and story through the oblique angle of characters on stage and acting a scene as if it were real life, that is a real interface that you're designing for the audience that sustains attention in an entirely different way," he says.

"And so for me, it was just mind boggling how a slight adjustment here would have a ripple effect downstream. And trying to keep it all together was really an amazing creative journey for me."

I'm hoping that by watching this play, when people leave the theatre, instead of pulling out their phones to book a car share to get home, they'll actually take a moment to look at each other, maybe even make eye contact. For me, that might be that momentary epiphany, that momentary awakening from our slumber.- Tetsuro Shigematsu

It's also an amazing journey for the characters, who have to confront their virtual lives, and make some tough decisions, as we all do. Shigematsu describes himself as a gearheard who celebrates technology, but also recognizes what we lose in personal interaction — or even in something as small as watching a film, which many of us now do in 10-minute snippets on Netflix.

"Technology is so convenient and it is so rare that we have this sustained period of interaction or attention," he says.

"I'm hoping that by watching this play, when people leave the theatre, instead of pulling out their phones to book a car share to get home, they'll actually take a moment to look at each other, maybe even make eye contact," says Shigematsu. "And for me, that might be that momentary epiphany, that momentary awakening from our slumber."

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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