Our series of introductions to the Rashomon cast begins with Bill Hohnke, the director. Bill is also playing the Husband. Bill is a founding member of the HPCP and has played numerous roles in HPCP shows (some coveted, some less so). Bill has also directed An Evening of Horror and Suspense and The Good Doctor. Bill teaches music, and has composed music for several HPCP shows.
Q. How did you first encounter Rashomon, and what was it that made you want to direct it?
Bill: I saw Rashomon performed at the American College Theatre festival in Evansville, Indiana. I was in college and it struck me as the most compelling piece of theatre I had ever seen. I loved the idea that, behind the inflated egos and noble exteriors of the characters, they are really just comically foolish and hopeless like the rest of us.
Q. A lot of spectators will identify the title Rashomon immediately with the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film based on Ryûnosuke Akutagawa’s stories (“Rashomon” and “In a Grove”). Fay Kanin and Michael Kanin’s 1959 stage play is clearly inspired in part by the film. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the play and the film, and whether or how the film has shaped the way you’re approaching the play?
Bill: The production I saw in college was done as stylized study in kabuki theatre. Before I saw the film, I wanted to try that experiment myself. But after seeing the film I realized that I would rather stay true to the naturalistic acting style than a forced kabuki theme. Rashomon is not kabuki at all, except for some hints of it in the make up design.
Q. The 1959 Broadway production of Rashomon had a rotating stage, a live horse, trick ropes–basically they seem to have been going for something very illusionistic. You’re designing the set as well as directing–can you tell us about what your goals for the set are, and how you are pursuing them?
Bill: My goal for the set was for it to be able to portray all of the scenes depending upon how it is lit. Fortunately, the story does not require elaborate production values to tell. The first Japanese No plays were performed in front of a tree. I read something that said that purity of theatrical storytelling died the minute someone put a set piece onstage and called it a house. I like to hope that the spectacle of the show is not required for someone to appreciate a good story. We’ve done what we can.
Q. Rashomon is, as you’ve said, it’s also an exploration of the nature of truth. Each of the three people involved in the violent encounter at the heart of this play has his or her own story; the woodcutter who witnessed all this has his; there’s no way to reconcile all of them. This idea has been used so many times since then–by everything from Brian Friel’s Faith Healer to the X-Files‘ “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”–that people now talk about “the Rashomon effect.” What do you think fascinates people about the Rashomon effect?
Bill: I think that the Rashomon effect fascinates people because, in theory, the audience gets to see “truth”. After dealing with a barrage of half truth, mis-characterization, and deception, the play finally shows us the “true events” of what happened at the end of it all. It’s fun to think that, at some point, we the audience get to finally see the real story. We’d love that to happen in real life. We’d love to see the whole picture of “what’s really going on” in our own lives rather than just doing our best to piece it together from the scant information we can get and never really knowing if we are right. Of course the irony is that the whole play is ultimately a lie and we are lured into the satisfaction of “Aha! Now we know the real story!” without a true story actually existing. It’s still fun to pretend.
Q. I’ve spent more time than you want to know about writing about how the meaning of a play is changed by the performance context–the time, the place, the audience, the political situation. Do you think that’s happened with Rashomon? Are you seeing anything new in the play as you’re directing it now, in the age of Infowars, twitterbots, and “fake news”?
Bill: People use lies creatively. They are creating the world that they want to exist using lies. If enough people accept the lies as truth, then that person is successful. In the case of Rashomon, the scale is small. The liars in the court will only affect a city’s worth of people, if that. But now, using the Internet, we can tell lies on a global scale which can bring about creation very quickly. In general, I feel that the creative power of lies tends to be aimed at benefiting the liar, whereas the creative power of the truth is aimed at benefiting everyone. It’s everywhere now.
Q. So, over the past few years you have stepped in numerous times to take on a role after the actor originally cast in it has dropped out–and let me just say again, from the bottom of my heart, how much I and the other HPCP directors appreciate your doing this. This is the first time you’ve had to do that for your own show. What’s that like?
Bill: Stepping into a role lets me do some of the detail work that I enjoy about acting. Leaving acting up to the actors is what a director should be about. But I’m more of a control freak at heart, so acting a role gives me something to tightly control while the other actors can just do their thing instead of me being overly concerned about the minutiae of their performances.
Q. Is there anything else you want people to know about the show?
I think people will enjoy it.
Bill Hohnke, interviewed by Susan Harris