INTERVIEW: “9,000 paper balloons” can finally be experienced in person

Photo: 9000 Paper Balloons, by Maiko Kikuchi and Spencer Lott, will play the Japan Society. Photo courtesy of HERE / Provided by Matt Ross PR with permission.


The new puppet and animation show 9000 paper balloons was put on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but creators Maiko Kikuchi and Spencer Lott were able to persevere and bring their personal show to a virtual format in late 2021, courtesy of HERE Arts Center. Now viewers have the chance to experience the puppets in person, thanks to the Japan Society of New York.

Scheduled from October 28 to 30, 9000 paper balloons will play for only three performances in Midtown Manhattan. To give viewers an idea of ​​what to expect this weekend, here’s Hollywood soapboxes original story on the show, with some edits.


Maiko Kikuchi and Spencer Lott have been busy during these pandemic months, trying to find a suitable outlet for their theatrical collaboration. As COVID-19 continued to delay their plans for an in-person show, they decided to produce a work accessible on streaming platforms and available to viewers around the world. The result of their efforts is 9000 paper balloons, a puppet and animation work directed by Aya Ogawa. …

In 9000 Paper Balloons, Kikuchi and Lott’s family stories are shared with the audience, and it’s time to reflect on the distance between two friends, two cultures, and two sides of a shared history. Both performers had family members who were involved in World War II, with Kikuchi’s grandfather serving for Japan and Lott’s grandfather serving for the United States. This play, named after the surreal secret weapons that floated above the United States during the global conflict, depicts their ancestral ties to warfare, but also how, in contemporary times, they have coalesced around of peace and collaboration.

“I heard a story from Radiolab about these paper balloons,” Lott said in a recent phone interview. “I was vacuuming my living room and stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t believe this was a true story. I knew his story is a joint American-Japanese story, so that was the perfect excuse to ask Maiko to collaborate on something. I didn’t know more than the radiolab story at the time, and I knew that Maiko’s grandfather had served in Japan. So it was early, but I felt like it was such a tragic but also inspiring story, so theatrical and surreal. It was like something puppets could do well.

Kikuchi said his grandfather was in training during the war years. Indeed, at the end of the conflict, he was still in training and far from his family home. Eventually he was returned as a prisoner and served a four-year sentence.

“So it did [for] huge trauma to him,” said Kikuchi, whose credits include Daydream tutorial, pink bunny and Reverie Anthology. “He hated America until he died, and then Spencer’s grandfather was a navigator in the Army Air Corps. So our grandfathers didn’t really [fight] in battles, but they definitely served in World War II.

9000 paper balloons took Kikuchi and Lott about five years. Throughout this period, numerous news stories impacted the development of the play.

“There’s been a lot of political upheaval,” Lott said. “There was a ton of anti-Asian sentiment, and we were always like, ‘Should we be more on the nose on our show? Should we be more political when talking about [this]?’ We said, “You know what, this collaboration is the message itself — the fact that we’re friends, artists, collaborators, and finding ways to work and look to our past. But also, as we look to the future, we are much closer than our grandfathers were. … It’s a turbulent time right now, but hopefully this piece can be a time when we can close the distance between us.

9000 paper balloons was supposed to premiere in December 2020, but that was obviously pushed back due to the closure of cinemas around the world. Then the team started talking about a spring 2021 premiere, but that couldn’t happen either. In the end, they decided that an in-person staging was going to be too difficult. …

“It was kind of devastating after working on it for five years, so we decided to pivot,” said Lott, whose credits include A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Sesame Street and The relationship. “We would at least have a version accessible and viewable in both the United States and Japan, and so we went to this pre-recorded [version]. … I hope it still feels like doing a play, with theater artists and theatrical techniques, and I hope it’s like that even though it’s filmed. We worked really hard to make sure you felt some momentum. There are no internal cuts within the scene and that sort of thing, so we did our best to try to fit in with what we could achieve.

The collaboration between the two artists is a key element of 9000 balloons, and they brought their individual expertise to different parts of the development process. “The animation is completely done by myself,” Kikuchi said. “I have experience as an animator, but all the puppet design, especially the three-dimensional puppets…it’s designed by Spencer. I do more visual visual art in two dimensions.

Kikuchi said the piece starts out quite simply, with two-dimensional images and enclosed spaces that continue to expand and eventually incorporate puppets and three-dimensionality. This structuring is important for the work because it speaks not only of the theatricality, but also of the path traveled by the two collaborators.

Puppets and animation allow Kikuchi and Lott to symbolically tell this story of their family’s history in the most powerful way. “Puppets can do and say things that people can’t, and so you use the puppet as a symbol,” Lott said. “We wanted a world that looked like ours, but wasn’t. It was heightened and surreal and fantastical, and so we felt like the animation was the perfect backdrop for that sort of thing.

By John Soltes / Editor / [email protected]

9000 Paper Balloons, by Maiko Kikuchi and Spencer Lott, will perform at the Japan Society, October 28-30. Click here for more information and tickets.

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