For professor’s latest show, woodcut sets in motion a story of UW-Madison connections

September 17, 2021

A woodblock print by UW-Madison alumnus Jim Furstenberg captures the intricacy of the characters in “Rashomon”.

The woodcut on display in the lobby of the Ronald E. Mitchell Theater and Theater Department shows a simple scene: a man and a woman in a bamboo grove. They represent the characters of husband and wife in “Rashomon”, the flagship film of 1950 by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.

In the print, the husband looks forward to it; his wife watches from behind – but is his gaze loving or malicious?

The print was created by the late School of Education alumnus Jim Furstenberg when he was a graduate student at UW-Madison in the 1960s. It was loaned to the Department of Theater and Drama by his wife, Barbara, to be featured throughout the department’s production of the play “Rashomon,” adapted from the Kurosawa film by Fay and Michael Kanin.

The play, directed by Professor David Furumoto – who retired from the department last summer – was a smash hit in July and returns to the Mitchell Theater from September 16-26.

Barbara Furstenberg said Jim was inspired to create the copy after seeing Kurosawa’s film on campus.

For Furumoto, the play’s director, what he loves most about the woodcut is that it captures the theme of the play – “the elusive nature of truth” – and the intricacies of characters.

At first, the premise of the play seems simple: In a forest grove, a samurai is found dead, his wife assaulted, and a notorious bandit is captured. But as the mystery of the crime unfolds, witnesses tell very different stories of what happened.

You can see a duality in the woman’s expression in Furstenberg’s print, Furumoto says.

“It’s this character where you don’t really know which version you want to believe in,” he explains. “In some cases, it was this victim who was attacked and who was treated very badly not only by the bandit, but also by her own husband.

“But at the same time, there’s another story, where she’s a cold-blooded opportunist.”

UW-Madison ties that span decades

In the print hides another story: UW-Madison connections that stretch back decades.

Jim and Barbara Furstenberg both graduated with a PhD from UW-Madison in the 1950s and 1960s. Jim studied Arts Education for his BA and MA degrees, and then earned a PhD in Arts Education. adults. Barbara obtained an interdepartmental bachelor’s degree from American institutions, as well as a teaching certificate and a doctorate in history.

Photo by Barbara Furstenberg
Barbara furstenberg

“The education I received (at UW-Madison) has been a defining part of my life,” says Barbara Furstenberg. This is one of the reasons she has kept in touch with the university over the years.

After completing their studies, Jim and Barbara Furstenberg moved to Hawaii so that Jim could work at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts. Barbara eventually found a job as director of community engagement at the University of Hawaii.

Another alumnus of UW-Madison, James brandon, had started the Asian theater program at the University of Hawaii. One evening, Barbara and Jim went to see a college production by Brandon, presented in the traditional Japanese Kabuki style.

They were struck by one of the performers of the play: a freshman at college named David Furumoto, who would later become a professor at UW-Madison.

“He had such a dynamic character that I barely looked at the other actor,” Barbara said. “He just totally got your attention to him.”

It was Furumoto’s first major role in college, and he continued to do more performing – and ultimately directing – while pursuing his BA and MA in Fine Arts. After graduating, working and studying in both Japan and Hawaii for several years, he finally decided to move to California to pursue an acting career, and the Furstenbergs lost his track.

Years later, the Furstenbergs returned to Madison after retirement to be closer to their family. They went to see a show at the University Theater one evening. “It was shortly after we arrived,” says Barbara, “and Jim opens the program and he says,“ David Furumoto is on faculty! “

Opening pupils’ eyes to oriental traditions

Photo by David Furumoto
David furumoto

Furumoto joined the faculty of the Department of Theater and Drama in 2000. He brought to UW-Madison very valuable perspective and experience with traditional oriental forms of theater not often performed in the United States. .

Furumoto says that while some of his drama students over the years questioned the value of learning these traditional forms, they eventually got there.

“Yes, it’s a different culture,” he says. “But if you really start looking, what are all the actors trying to do?” “

Whatever style they use, actors aim to play a character and tell a story.

Furumoto is convinced that Western actors can learn a lot from stylized techniques – be it Japanese kabuki or Italian commedia dell’arte – especially when it comes to how they relate to their physical bodies on stage. .

“I firmly believe that an actor has to have a very solid, what I call a ‘core’, and nothing helps that core more than studying a stylized form of theater,” he said.

Rashomon production
The Department of Theater and Drama’s production of “Rashomon” will run through September 26 at the Department’s Mitchell Theater.

Although his expertise is in Japanese theater, over the years he has also enjoyed merging Western scripts with Eastern techniques. For example, he once directed a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in the Kabuki style.

Before retiring, Furumoto chose “Rashomon” for his final production at UW-Madison because he wanted to be able to apply his knowledge of Japanese theater and provide the students of the department with the opportunity to perform and experience these techniques. stylized.

The message he would like to convey? “It’s not just Shakespeare and the Greeks in the theater,” he says.

“Rashomon” will be presented September 16-26 at the Mitchell Theater in the Department of Theater and Drama. Learn more and to buy tickets.

Editor’s Note: The poster for this production includes a content warning for depictions of physical violence and sexual assault, as well as information about campus resources for survivors.

About Selena J. Killeen

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