All the World's a Stage

Doug and Wendy Ishii are more than mere players in the realms of science and theater.

Doug Ishii watches his wife, Wendy, from across the room as she mingles with her guests. He's traded in his lab coat for a collared shirt, and peppered silver hair is the only indication that the Japanese man grinning toward the hostess could be a day over sixty. Wendy wears violet-blue beads in her ears and around her neck, a perfect match with the party's decor and a sharp contrast to her bright-red hair. As she floats through the lobby, Wendy looks genuinely moved that each person enjoying free wine and appetizers chose to attend her fundraiser, whether or not they ultimately decide to donate to her theater's $3 million capital campaign.

It's rare that the couple would be in the same room during the early evening hours of the work week. Had this been any other Wednesday, Doug would still be in his lab in the physiology building at Colorado State University, studying the impact a special protein has on the brains of diabetic rats and theorizing on what that could mean for humans. Doug has spent his whole career studying this single molecule, and he believes he's finally close to a major medical breakthrough: a cure for Alzheimer's Disease. A small bioscience company in Sacramento, California, is growing Doug's protein in rice plants, and if they succeed, the only major obstacle to clinical trials will be the tens of millions of dollars Doug must raise from grants and investors. Needless to say, evenings spent at home with his wife are rare. Not that Wendy would be there if he did arrive in time for dinner. Her work with Bas Bleu, the 49-seat salon theater she started in 1992, keeps her just as busy, especially now that she has to raise $1.5 million by December in order to buy the 100-year-old warehouse the company has already moved into.

When Wendy has a few moments to steal herself away from the party, she is quick to explain just what a thespian like herself has in common with a molecular biologist, aside from their schedules and the fact that she's managed to spark in him a love for Samuel Beckett's plays. "I'm only as good as my last role," she says. "He's as good as his last experiment. We both survive on grants, and we always have our hand out, fundraising."

Doug and Wendy Ishii are joined by science and art.
Mark Manger
Doug and Wendy Ishii are joined by science and art.
A star is born: Doug Ishii started his childhood in a San 
Francisco housing project.
A star is born: Doug Ishii started his childhood in a San Francisco housing project.

Doug laughs in agreement, then pauses before slowly and carefully articulating his thoughts on the subject. "We're both involved in a certain amount of risk-taking," he adds. "And in theater, as in science, you have to be willing to put yourself out there and to take risks. Without taking risks and without courting the possibility of failure, you can't really hope to make significant advances. You can do safe science or you can do risky science, and it's in risky science where you can make large jumps -- and theater is like that as well."

As Wendy returns to her guests, Doug continues to ponder this notion of risk. He and Wendy aren't afraid of taking dangerous leaps with their careers or their livelihood, because they aren't afraid of being poor, he says. Been there. Done that.


Douglas Ishii was born in a stable.

His parents, William Takeo Ishii and Fusaye Hatanaka, were born in the United States, though they both returned to Japan with their families when they were still children. Doug's mother, Fusaye, came back to the U.S. when she was twelve to live with her grandmother, and his father, William, came back to go to medical school. The two met in San Francisco and married in 1939. They had their first child in 1941, before Pearl Harbor was bombed, and Fusaye was pregnant again in 1942, when 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were evacuated from their homes. The family was ordered to sell everything and go to their assigned assembly center, bringing only what they could carry. When William spoke out against the government for incarcerating American citizens who had committed no crime, he was jailed, leaving his twenty-year-old wife to take their one-year-old son and report to the Santa Anita racetrack, where horse stalls had been converted to living quarters. Shortly after they arrived -- carrying just two suitcases, one filled with diapers and one with baby food -- Fusaye gave birth to Doug.

From the racetrack, Fusaye and her sons were moved to what the U.S. government called a "detention center." "But we knew what they were," Doug says. The concentration camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guards armed with machine guns. The barracks, hastily erected in the desert, had sand and snow coming in through the planks. Mess halls and latrines were shared; the only privacy came from the blankets that families put up between the individual quarters. Doug's family was held like this for four and a half years.

When the war was over, the government gave them $25 and a bus ticket, and they used it to get to a housing project in San Francisco. William had contracted tuberculosis in jail and was unable to join his family. That left Fusaye to support the children by cleaning and cooking in wealthy homes. Books were Doug's escape from his bleak, violent neighborhood. He would go to the Bayview branch of the San Francisco Public Library and read six books every two weeks, everything from science fiction to Dostoyevsky. The reading and studying paid off: After high school, he attended the University of California at Berkeley. State schools in California did not charge tuition at the time, so he was able to go for just $76 a semester in incidental fees. (That policy changed after Ronald Reagan became governor in 1967.) Doug started out studying philosophy and creative writing, but he quickly found himself drawn to science and chose a biochemistry major.

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