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Exporter of the art

Times Staff Writer

It might be a misnomer to call Naomi Iizuka a Los Angeles playwright, although she has lived here since 1996, crafting a large, diverse body of work for the stage -- and ignoring Hollywood as if screenwriting were entirely beside the point.

In a modest, Spanish-style house on a hillside in Mount Washington, she creates plays that have been hailed as distinctive and poetic by important folks in the national theater establishment -- but that, with a single exception at a small theater, have never been produced in her adopted hometown.

In contrast to the worlds of weirdness and desperation she sometimes calls forth in her scripts, Iizuka’s home is an airy yet cozy place with musical instruments strewn about and odd little knickknacks over the fireplace, including a coyote’s skull and a mannequin’s long white hand. She lives with actor-musician Bruce McKenzie, her partner of 12 years.

It’s a place where Iizuka, a slender, calm but animated woman with a smiling, roundish face framed in parentheses of dark hair, can chat in her sun room, show a visitor the almost preternaturally orderly and uncluttered study where she works, and give no hint of egotism, neurosis or any of the discontents to which the creative personality is commonly assumed to be prey.

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“Everybody who works with her, thereafter always misses her, because she makes the creative process a pleasure,” says Jon Jory. In his former post as artistic director of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Jory gave Iizuka her biggest career boost, programming three of her works from 1997 to 2000. She will be back at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville -- probably the nation’s highest-profile annual coming-out party for new drama -- with the March 20 premiere of her play “At the Vanishing Point.” It documents everyday life in a historic, working-class Louisville, Ky., neighborhood but brings a ghostly, speculative twist to the now-familiar, interview-based genre of reality theater.

At 38, after making a reputation as an experimenter, Iizuka and her work appear to be coming more into focus for major stages. In 2002, Berkeley Repertory and New York’s Public Theater staged “36 Views,” a story of mystery and intrigue set in a rarefied world of art scholars and dealers in Asian antiquities.

The New York Times’ described it as a “cagey and absorbing drama” invested with “a sound, probing intelligence.” Other productions of “36 Views” have followed at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., and at Oregon’s Portland Center Stage. The Laguna Playhouse plans to mount “36 Views” next season, giving Iizuka her first credit on a regional stage in Southern California.

The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis has commissioned her to go to Cambodia this year and research a play about how that nation is trying to come to terms with a genocidal legacy -- and how America figures into that history. The Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis will open a teen-oriented stage in 2005 with Iizuka’s “Anon(ymous).” In it, she transposes “The Odyssey” of Homer to contemporary America, focusing on the wanderings and struggles of young immigrants from Asia, Africa and Mexico.

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There are even glimmerings of action in Los Angeles: After returning from Louisville, Iizuka plans to finish drafting “Strike-Slip,” commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum as part of a grant-funded initiative to bring more L.A. stories to the stage. “It’s about the culture of catastrophe in the Los Angeles basin,” Iizuka says, demurring on the details but noting that her research has included consultations with a seismologist and interviews with an LAPD homicide detective.

Iizuka’s oeuvre stretches from the Navy bars of San Diego, where she set “Skin,” a contemporary adaptation of Georg Buchner’s bleak 19th century drama, “Woyzeck” (it’s her only play to have been done in L.A., in a 1998 staging by the Relentless Theatre Company), to the streets of Minneapolis, where she met the gaggle of homeless kids who inspired “Polaroid Stories,” her modern retelling of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” With “36 Views,” she went upscale to the salons of the art world and academia; the play grew from memories of her girlhood, when she would leaf through her parents’ books of Japanese art.

Iizuka has found material for plays by running into people on the long walks she likes to take and in the interviewing she has done for semidocumentary pieces about Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood and San Francisco’s Mission District. She also has mined stories and characters by browsing in bookstores -- such as the one in San Diego where, while in grad school, she first encountered the work of Kentucky photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. The focal character in “At the Vanishing Point” is patterned after Meatyard, who died in 1972.

The one place Iizuka doesn’t search for stories, it seems, is her own psyche.

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“I see myself watching and observing a lot,” she says. “I love being able to get out of my room and talk to people who will tell me something I don’t know. I like investigating a really difficult question that you need to immerse yourself in. If you have something to focus on that is not yourself and your own autobiographical story, it actually ends up being far more interesting.”

Iizuka was born in Tokyo to a Japanese father and an American mother with Spanish and Cuban roots. From age 6, she lived in Chevy Chase, Md., where her parents moved after her father left the hotel business to work for the World Bank. As a schoolgirl, she loved studying Latin and ancient myths. Those interests persisted at Yale, where she concentrated in classics and literature. Plays weren’t important to her until she fell in with campus thespians. Iizuka covered the Yale drama scene for her college paper and began taking trips to New York to see experimental theater. She wrote her first play after enrolling at Yale Law School, where she planned to follow in the footsteps of her attorney mother. A summer internship at a Wall Street firm changed her mind, and she lit out for Oakland to crash with friends and write. In 1992 she earned her master’s degree in playwriting from UC San Diego. There she fell in love with McKenzie, a founder of the Sledgehammer Theatre. They met when he played a talking simian in a UCSD production of “Monkey Story,” the play Iizuka wrote during her year of law school.

She spent a couple of years in Minnesota, teaching playwriting to recovering addicts, to kids living in hamlets near the Canadian border and to aspiring professionals. She learned that her passion for teaching was comparable to -- and dovetailed with -- her compulsion to write. Now she is an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara. Far from putting a drain on her own work, she says, teaching other playwrights sharpens it. “I learn an enormous amount by watching my students and having to articulate the process and revise my assumptions all the time about what writing is and what theater is.”

Iizuka says she urges her students to be aggressive in sending their scripts to potential producers but can’t hold herself out as a good example. “I’m not very good at, for want of a better word, career stuff.”

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Michael Dixon, then the literary manager of Actors Theatre of Louisville, now at the Guthrie, came across one of her plays in a mid-1990s workshop at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. That led to Jory’s picking another of Iizuka’s scripts, “Polaroid Stories,” for the 1997 Humana Festival and directing it himself.

“Polaroid Stories” includes the following stage direction: “Skinheadgirl slowly turns into a star, bright and glowing, a neon girl, a constellation in a sky full of stars. She lights up the dark, flickers, and then burns out.”

Similar demands abound in Iizuka’s plays; she might as well be telling producers to pass on her stuff unless they’re willing to eschew realism in favor of something risky and strange.

“Naomi challenges and pushes buttons,” says Chay Yew, the playwright-director who heads the Taper’s Asian Theatre Workshop. He has tried to push Iizuka’s work since falling for “Skin” a decade ago. Recently he directed “36 Views” in Rochester and Portland.

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Although classical Japanese art is the subject of “36 Views” and two Asian-American women are pivotal characters, Yew says Iizuka’s work, which usually leaves the characters’ races unspecified, does not really fit under any ethnic rubric.

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” he says.

“Her writing breaks that box we put people in.”

Being ignored by producers in her own city -- apart from a commission by the now-defunct A.S.K. Theatre Projects, which yielded “36 Views,” and her Taper commission -- doesn’t upset her.

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Nor does she worry about getting her stories onto movie and television screens. She says her eight-year L.A. tenure has been free of any contact with Hollywood. A glut of theater projects and her steady teaching load are enough to sustain and fulfill her.

“I’m not trying to romanticize some sort of artistic life, but I think freedom to do what I want is important,” Iizuka says. “I think if paychecks had been really important to me I would have stayed in law school.”

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Some of Iizuka’s voices

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From “At the Vanishing Point” (2004)

Maudie Totten: The last year of his life he took pictures of all of us. He was making a family album, he said.... He had us in these masks, kinda like Halloween masks. He said he wanted to be able to see us, to really see the people we were, and with the masks, he could do that.... We knew he was leaving us, we knew that, and it was hard, it was so hard. They’d come one last time, and we’d gone out to the point.... It was such a beautiful day, so clear and bright ... and the sky was so blue, and the smell of grass and earth and new leaves. And underneath it all, you could hear the river. But the thing I remember most, what I remember was looking across a field and seeing my sister and Gene, these two people who loved each other and who had built a life together, a whole entire life, and he’s leaning towards her, and he’s saying something I can’t hear, and as I watch them, I think of all the things that pass between them, all the things I have no words for, all the things alive in that precise point in time, the tiniest things.

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From “36 Views” (2002)

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Darius Wheeler, a dealer in Asian art and antiquities, and his lover, Setsuko Hearn, a professor of East Asian literature.

Hearn: Who do you look like, your mother or your father?

Wheeler: My father.

Hearn: And are you like him?

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Wheeler: In a way, I guess. He was an amateur collector.... Got hooked when he was in the navy, stationed in Tokyo right after the war.... He bought this Hokusai print ... Mount Fuji at sunset, crimson sky, seen across the Bay of Kuroda. He paid a lot of money for it, more than he had to spend. Ten years later, I remember coming home, and looking at it and realizing it was a fake.

Hearn: Did you tell him?

Wheeler: No.

Hearn: But you thought less of him.

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Wheeler: My father loved the print. He loved it with a big and undiscerning heart. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t what he thought it was.

Hearn: Love is blind. Is that the moral of the story?


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