Monday, August 29, 2011

Theater Adventures

"My pleasant discovery in remodeling the so-called Gassho style farmhouse to a theatrical setup was l) that the traditional Japanese housing is basically made of collage concept, and 2) that the interior space is dim and ill-lit, which satisfy the ideal condition to effectuate dramatic sensation."

"Because the house, originally built for a big family, is quite large and has rather tall ceiling. When the internal wooden and sliding partitions are taken out, the entire floor is on just one level, except the earth floor. This is ideal for creating a theatrical stage but the problem was there are more pillars than we find in western homes. I solved this problem, by setting the centrally located “O-e” (the cutout fireplace that served as the drawing room for guests in local dialect) as the stage which the audience can see from the three directions (upfront and two lateral sides). Then the surrounding floors were lowered down to the ground level with different steps for the audience to sit. Upon completion, the stage looked like a Noh theater with aged beams and pillars shining black. However, it has no bright-and-open-air-ness as in the modern Noh theater. You may say it’s a Noh theater of the submerged or deserted houses."

- Tadashi Suzuki, Founder of the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) Quoted and translated from his book “Producer’s Perspective”(1994)


A unspoken requirement for an expatriate is to meet compatriot celebrities sent overseas on a cultural mission. In 1985, Tadashi Suzuki and his troupe hit the road in the U.S. and their last stop was San Diego. An art benefactor in Rancho Santa Fe invited him and a few key troupe members for a reception one afternoon in her big hacienda residence. The benefactor also invited a few local Japanese expatriates to mingle and stimulate conversation. Luckily I got the invitation to the reception. There was a woman there who was introduced as Kayoko Shiraishi, the main actress performing “Trojan Woman” the following day at the UCSD Mandeville Theater in La Jolla. She didn’t speak much and sat modestly in the corner.

It was the producer Suzuki, who mostly spoke feverishly about his Village Toga project, where he was building an intercultural training complex for future actors and musicians. Toga is a village in Toyama Prefecture facing the Japan Sea, at the foot of Noto Peninsula, but further inland on an elevated mountain range. It is one of the villages known for the traditional Gassho-style farm housing. Gassho, in Buddhism, means a prayer, two hands put together with the palms facing inward. Perhaps you have seen the photos of the UNESCO designated tall straw thatched-roof to have snow quickly skid down to the ground. Those farmhouses sounded like producer Suzuki’s new home. I didn’t understand then why he had to go to such a remote resort away from Tokyo.

Actress Shiraishi’s performance at Mandeville was awesome. During a dialog between a man and a woman, Shiraishi cast a flood of long oratory in Japanese against her Caucasian actor’s English speech. At first I thought she was speaking English. Actually, she spoke in eloquent Japanese, so smooth and natural, yet full of vigor and passion. It was fascinating.

Ten years later, I was back in Tokyo and was suffering from severe reverse culture shock. The summer heat which I had forgotten about was unbearable. I chose Toga Mura as my summer resort and escaped alone from Tokyo. I got theater tickets and Minshuku (communal lodging) arrangement for one week. My travel plan was to visit Toyama one week before Toga, Hida-Takayama and Kamioka areas of Japan Alps, and go down to Nagoya to take bullet train back to Tokyo after a week.

My plans were unfortunately disrupted because, upon my arrival there, I learned that Toyama was the site of the National Athletic Meet and no hotels were available all around Toyama. I had to revise my plan from scratch.

I enjoyed my Toga Mura visit. I saw plays by Americans, Argentinians and Indians. I watched Suzuki’s King Lear, Noh music and percussions, etc. I did not see Kayoko Shiraishi and later found out that she left Suzuki & Company. (She became a superstar. In 2005, Shiraishi won the auspicious Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon for her life contribution as distinguished performer and story teller).

The inconvenience at Toga Mura was transportation. Minshuku hotel and Theater complex were located far apart, unfortunately not within walking distance. We depended on commuter buses in the morning and in the evening. However, I made a lot of friends during the commute to and from Toga, including many foreign visitors.

A big surprise in Toga Mura was that the construction of the outdoor theatrical stage was very comparable (or more authentic) to Greek theaters of Dionysos and Delphi. The performance at night with torch fires was unearthly impressive. I know producer Suzuki brought his plays to be performed in Athens and Delphi in Greece. He wanted this secluded Toga Mura Outdoor Theater to become an inspirational place for stage goers to experience imperishable human dramas in a timeless and geography-free manner.

Top Photo:
Ancient Greek theater in Delphi – the source of T. Susuzki’s inspiration to build his Toga Mura Outdoor Theater (capacity 800). Thanks to A. Ikeda of Kitakyushu who brought back the Delphi postcard for me from Greece.

Today's (Fri 8/5) Nikkei announced the SCOT's 2011 summer program at Toga Mura, which includes five plays performed from August 19 to 28. They are:

1. Image of Mother in My Eyes, Return of Japan, Newest Edition
2. Hello from the Ends of the World - with fireworks at the outdoor theater -
3. Electra - Greek play by Sophocles
4. Cyrano de Bergerac - with a Taiwanese actress in the main role
5. Extra Issue - Junichiro Tanizaki

Tadashi Suzuki is quoted as saying, "Drama is a history of reminiscences since the days of Greece. I hope our programs this year is worthy of association with great endeavors in the history of dramas."

No comments: