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The cast of Min Kahng's "The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga" at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

‘Four Immigrants’: From Manga to Musical

Scenic designer Andrew Boyce took inspiration from comic strips for the design of a musical about Japanese immigrants in San Francisco.

This month, Theatreworks Silicon Valley kicks off its 2017-18 season with the world premiere of The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, created and composed by Min Kahng (July 12-Aug. 6). The musical, about four Japanese immigrants in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, is based on the graphic novel by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama (translated by Frederik L. Schodt as The Four Immigrants Manga). For scenic designer Andrew Boyce, the biggest challenge was how to take a two-dimensional medium, manga, and make it live in three dimensions onstage. One key, Boyce says, is the “slapstick, vaudevillian sensibility” of Kahng’s music.

But the show’s main visual inspiration comes directly from the manga frames themselves. “There’s a lot of language about one character, or a couple of characters, literally jumping from frame to frame,” Boyce says of Kahng’s script. “What we came up with was this idea of an abstraction of frames, where we’re using sliding panels that have a thickness to them. And we also have a dark vertical line that moves up and down, to carve out these different arrangements of space in the larger frame of the proscenium.

“That idea is also supported and reinforced by a fleet of individually rolling frames, which the actors will reposition and use to comic effect in different ways, and align with the larger machinery in the set, to create different spatial arrangements. It’s all kind of hand-crafted and spontaneous, and fluid.”

There will also be projections, says Boyce, including photographs and, hopefully, Kiyama’s drawings (“That’s the piece of the visual language that’s still most up in the air,” he says, speaking two months before the first preview). But the big idea, says Boyce, is to support “the visual language set out by the original artist, that allows the musical to kind of piggyback on that work, and telling the immigrant experience in an accessible and clever and subversively powerful way. And the design wants to lean into that aesthetic and capture that feeling of those comic strips as closely as we can.”

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