Theatre as a dialogue – “Symposium” by Tokyo Deathlock

“Theatre is a dialogue with the audience”, states director Tada Junnosuke in the brochure of “Symposium”, the latest work by Tokyo Deathlock. Not by chance, the title of the performance was inspired by Plato’s dialogue on love. Performed at ST Spot in Yokohama (July 13th –21st) and Kirari Fujimi (July 27th – 28th), “Symposium” is a rare form of communitarian theatre, relying on the participation of the audience to such a degree that each performance is inevitably different from the other.

No matter the theatre genre involved, as I mentioned elsewhere, my own position regarding the role of the audience is that the spectator is no way a passive entity, even if all what he does is to watch the show from his seat. Theatre does not only require imagination from the side of the audience, but it also calls on to the spectator to be its witness. Looking, interpreting and figuring out become a hermeneutical process that infers meaning to the performance. It is a process without which theatre cannot come into being in the first place.

However, from the point of view of the performer, the spectator’s stance is privileged in its “passivity”, being too safe and uninvolved. Contemporary theatre, oversensitive to any kind of unequal relationships, has set out to developing methods of involving the audience in a more active way.

The reason why theatre creators themselves want to do away with the imaginary barrier between them and the audience is their conviction that the problem with the spectators’ passivity is a political one. Overwhelmed by historical events unfolding before eyes, we show the tendency to hide away, thinking that it doesn’t concern us. The idea of becoming an “active agent” is indeed terrifying, as it implies a certain degree of responsibility towards the community we live in. The attempt to turn the spectator into an actor, which we so often see in contemporary theatre, is backed by the belief that if people can get involved in a fictional setting, then they could probably take action also their real lives and in the public sphere, bringing a change into better to their environment.

However noble their intention may be, performances that involve the audience tend to be intrusive, relying too much on aggressiveness and on truths that bother. It’s enough to mention performances like those of Marina Abramović that changed theatre history once and for all, in which the performer hurts herself so bad in front of the audience, that the viewers are impelled to intervene and put a stop to the performance by calling the ambulance. Or a theatre containing such a display of violence that the spectators are instantly filled with terror – it is not their imagination that’s called for, but the memories that nobody wants to remember, memories of violence caused by the society they live in (see the works of Societas Rafaello Sanzio). Or a half naked Hamlet stepping down from the stage into the audience, making his way through the seats packed with spectators while shouting his lines (see Thomas Ostermeier’s “Hamlet”). Or a performance that involves the audience through popular songs and energetic choreography, ending with the stupefied, baffled spectators singing on stage, while the actors leave the hall through the doors behind the audience seats (see Banana Gakuen’s performance at Festival/Tokyo 2011). The list could continue on and on, with examples from both East and West.

Although radical and to some extent even traumatizing, all these methods have a point and a statement to make. With some variation, it all goes around the fact that man does a lame job in managing his own aggressive instincts. In criticizing social aggression and military acts of violence, or even more subtle acts of aggression going on in society, so common that people are not even aware of anymore, this is the theatrical version of fighting fire with fire.

In this theatre landscape where differences between actor and spectator tend to be blurred, a performance that involves the audience without resorting to some form of violence is a rare sight.

The keyword that seems to guide the latest work of director Tokyo Deathlock is “community”. Director Tada Junnosuke aims for a theatre that engages everyone present, performers and audience. This reminds me of Ranciere’s statement that theatre should be a “communitarian act” (see this essay on the “emancipated spectator”).

In “Symposium” the performers use their own names, acting with their own persona. Not only do they come from different places (Tokyo, Seoul, Kyōto, Aomori, Yokohama), but they also belong to different professional groups, more or less related to the theatre. It is only for this performance that they gathered here.

From the start, the spectators knew that this was not going to be a usual night in the theatre. We were asked at the entrance to take our shoes off. The room we entered was entirely white, with no objects in it apart from some chairs close to the walls. Projector screens showed images of the ones present and a joyful tune helped relieving the thrills of the wait, creating a cozy atmosphere. Nobody noticed when the actors came in – there was nothing differentiating them from the ones who had came to see the play. It was only when they took their seats that we knew the performance had started.

With the spectators in the middle, the actors started talking about what they had done in their free time. We soon realize that these were not lines written in some script, but that the performers were talking from their own experience. Their discussion flows naturally like a talk between people who don’t know each other very well yet, which helps the audience get acquainted with the actors. Moreover, it seems that especially the ones who came from outside the Tokyo region, whether they need a translator or not, have a lot to tell, so the discussion gets more and more vivid. Gradually, their thought exchange leaves the individual level, embracing topics that concern them all as a group and Japanese society as a whole – such as the coming elections (it was a few days before the government was elected) or the cultural exchange with other countries, the opportunities and the risks that a vivid international communication entails. Subtle gestures of the actors, like standing on their chairs, indicated differences of opinion among them. In spite of the tension, it was obvious nonetheless that they respected each other’s opinions.

When at some point the direction gave the signal that it was time for a break, the performers brought in cookies and soft drinks that they shared with the audience. The tension that we were all feeling until a moment ago was suddenly relieved. During break time the actors left their chairs and started talking to the members of the audience. By the time the screens showed a direction that we should all talk about SNS, we had already formed small groups. We all use Twitter or Facebook or both, so the group chat flowed naturally, while we were still nibbling our cookies.

For about twenty minutes a festive atmosphere filled the room, reminding of a real banquet. As the break ended, the subject of the performers’ talk turned to “love”. Each one of them was called to the moderator’s seat to tell their thoughts on love and the most puzzling was the five minute long discourse of the Korean actor, who spoke all the way in his native language without translation. Although no one in the room understood what he was saying, we all knew what he was talking about. In the end the translator came only to summarize his discourse in a sentence: “Wouldn’t it be possible for us to love each other in spite of our differences?”

Toward the end director Tada, who had been watching the performance all along, delivering directions through the projector screens, came himself to the moderator’s seat. His discourse was short, mentioning that there are things we can speak about and things that we shouldn’t try to put in words. This is when a five minute long silence was installed. We all knew that this silence was also about love, so there was nothing more that we needed to know.

In the interval of approximately one hour and a half, we had been guided from reality into fiction and back. The process of becoming familiar with the performers and the other members of the audience ran so smooth that, before we even realized it, we were already within the fictional setting of the “Symposium”, chatting friendly with people that we may never meet again.

Actually, the strength of this work lies in that each performance would be different from the other. First, the members of the audience would never be the same, and second, the talk that breaks the ice in the beginning would surely start each time with a different topic. For the spectator this means he has experienced a once in a lifetime event. This is only possible in an “open theatre”, where the script doesn’t contain lines, but only the broad contours of a framework within which actors and spectators are supposed to perform together.

In this process, not only the spectator’s status, but also the actor’s status is put into question. The freedom to choose the extent in which one should share personal experience in a performance, the freedom to choose one’s own words and to share one’s real thoughts (as long as they are relevant to the work), is something that an actor could only enjoy in an open theatre like the concept suggested by Tokyo Deathlock.

As long as the theatre world is still marked by the prejudice that there can be no drama without conflict, there is a real need for variation when it comes to performer – spectator interaction. The answer to what is theatre, what differentiates it from other art forms and what can it bring to enrich our lives is in direct relationship with that need.

Tokyo Deathlock’s “Symposium” responds to that very need for a variety of forms in which the audience helps shaping the theatre performance. As far as I’m concerned, the simple joy that I had the chance to take part in the “Symposium” is doubled by the revelation that I encountered a theatre work in which audience and performers are treated like equals.

In the video below you can see a previous performance by Tokyo Deathlock, “Love” (2010) – shown at the TPAM Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama:


“Travels in narratives” – the program of Festival/Tokyo 2013

The program for this year’s edition of Festival/Tokyo was announced a few days ago! From November 9th through December 8th we’ll have the chance to see works of artists from Japan and abroad, all themed around “travels in narratives”.

The Main Program of this edition, gathering internationally acclaimed artists, promises to be a very intense one, with many works that challenge the borders between performing arts.

The Emerging Artists Program features the works of young theatre creators from Japan, India, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and China. Moreover, there is the Open Program with symposia, free access events and the popular F/T Mob that will warm up the spirits in the area around the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre.

Allow me to mention here some of the performances that literally made my heart beat faster when I read the program (please pardon the exclamation points that mark my overflowing enthusiasm :)):

  • Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan – Kinoshita-Kabuki’s contemporary take on the Edo period ghost story by Tsuruya Nanboku (November 21st – 24th);
  • Yotsuya Zotanshu + Yotsuya Kaidan – tour performances based on the same kabuki play as above, created by Nakano Shigeki and Nagashima Kaku (November 9th -24th) [Oiwa’s story seems to be as inspirational as ever!]
  • A version of Elfriede Jelinek’s “Prolog?” under the direction of Miyawaza Akio [apparently, performing techniques from Noh will be used in order to explore memories of the past ← this is a must-see!]
  • Port B’s “Tokyo Heterotopia” (November 9th – December 8th) [Did I mention how much I like Port B’s concept of tour theatre? I described it in this Blogcamp in F/T article on last year’s “Kein Licht II”]
  • Current Location” by chelfitsch (November 28th– December 30th). [You can read my thoughts on this work here].
  • A performance by Rimini Protokoll called 100% Tokyo (November 29th – December 1st ) [I’ve been dying to see their work for years now!]
  • A series of works by Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué: “The Pixelated Revolution”, “Riding on a cloud” and “33rpm and a few seconds“.

These are just some of the highlights of this year’s F/T. I didn’t even get to mention the ones in the Emerging Artists Program, which is just as intriguing.

In the hope I turned on your curiosity, I invite you to check out the details of the program on F/T’s homepage:

Tokyo theatres in September

Daylight time getting shorter and rain falling almost every day are signs that we are enjoying the last days of summer. However temperatures are still high, good over 30°C, so there is probably no better place than the theatre for those seeking shelter from the heat 🙂

The event that everyone is talking about right now is the SIS Company production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” 『かもめ』Kamome at the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon, running from September 4th through the 28th . Not only does it boast the direction of Keralino Sandorovich, one of the most original theatre creators of the moment, but it also comes with a remarkable cast, featuring names like Ikuta Tōma, Aoi Yū, Nomura Mansai and Ōtake Shinobu, who are best known as stars of the screen.

The performance that I’m personally looking forward to is “Dear Late Summer Sister” 『夏の終わりの妹Natsu no owari no imōto, which is the latest work of U-ench saisei jigyōdan 遊園地再生事業団, the theatre company run by Miyazawa Akio. I had the chance to hear a reading of the play back in July, that’s why I can tell for sure it is worth it. It is the story of Jahana Motoko, a woman born in Okinawa, who moves to Tokyo. She tries to get a license as an interviewer, in order to be able to ask people questions – about the earthquake that hit the Tōhoku region in 2011, about the U.S. military bases in Okinawa, things that the people around here have the tendency to avoid talking about. The whole frame of the story is permeated by the healthy humor and the broad theatrical vision that are Miyazawa’s trademark. It will be running at the Owlspot in Ikebukuro from September 13th through the 22nd.

Talking about play readings, the Kyōto based theatre company Chiten 地点, whose unforgettable staging of Elfriede Jelinek’s “Kein Licht” last year at Festival/Tokyo is stiil vivid in the memory of Tokyo audiences, will be doing a reading of Büchner’s “Lenz” at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo (September 13th -14th). Given the affinity of Chiten’s director Miura Motoi with the theatre of German speaking countries, it promises to be a very original interpretation of the classic. This reading is part of a series of events marking the anniversary of 200 years since the birth of Georg Büchner. A performance of “Woyzeck” combining dance and theatre in an experimental attempt to project this 19th century work into our times, is also part of the program (Komaba Agora theatre, September 13th-23rd). For more information, please visit the webpage of the Goethe-Institut.

From the smaller scale performances going on this month I picked up “Kappore!” 『かっぽれ!夏』of theatre company green flowers, winner of last year’s edition of Ikebukuro Theatre festival, an event organized by the local authorities of the Toshima district in Tokyo. Their prize-winning work Fukigenna Maria no kigen (“The deadline of bad-tempered Maria”) featured the story of Mori Mari, daughter of writer Mori Ōgai, and her inner struggles concerning the publication of her own novels. “Kappore!” focuses on a fictional family of rakugoka, performers of the art of rakugo – a kind of stand-up comedy that thrives in Japan ever since the Edo period. Where there is rakugo, there is laughter, so the play promises to be interesting. It will run from September 6th through the 8th at the Owlspot Theater.

Two performances at the Ōji shogekijo, Hana to sakana (“Flowers and fish”) by theatre group Jūnana senchi 十七戦地 (September 12th-17th), which promises to be a good-taste SF, and Ma-n-da-ra, an adaptation of a three-century old horror story by Gekidan Rokkotsumikandōkōkai 劇団肋骨蜜柑同好会 (September 19th – 23rd), are also among my pick-ups for this month.

Hagoromo ©

Hagoromo ©

The most awaited event of the month in the world of Noh is a special performance marking the anniversary of 30 years since the opening of the National Noh Theater, which will be held on September 17th. After the opening act – Tsurukame, a short congratulatory Noh, played by Kondō Kannosuke (Hōshō school), the program will feature Hagoromo “The Celestial Feather Robe”, with actor Tomoeda Akio of the Kita school playing the main role, then a kyōgen piece, Iori no ume, starring Nomura Man, and another Noh play in the end – the very entertaining Shakkyō, performed by Kanze Tetsunojō.

Hagoromo 『羽衣』is the story of a celestial maiden, whose robe of feathers is about to be taken away by a fisherman. As she cannot fly back to heaven without her robe, the maiden promises to perform a celestial dance, so she receives her robe back. After her dance of joy she thanks the fisherman and disappears into the sky. This very simple plot is the subject of various legends that are close to the heart of the Japanese, that is why this Noh play is one of the most often performed ones. The words of the angel – “doubt is a thing of the earth, there is no deceiving in the realm of the sky” – have a special echo and are the highlight of this Noh, besides the dance itself.

Please take the time to have a look at the stage photos of Hagoromo on, as they will reveal why this Noh is held dear by everyone who has heard the story of the celestial maiden and her feather robe.