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:

On the coexistence of modern and traditional performing arts

Noh Matsukaze (C) Hibiki-no-kai

The presence of traditional performing arts gives a very special dynamics to the theatre environment in Japan. To be sure, noh and kabuki enjoy great popularity nowadays and attract large audiences through their own specific style. However, surprisingly enough, the various performing arts are handled separately in public discourse and although they coexist, they rarely interact. We sometimes hear of theatre companies that employ noh acting techniques in their work or of kabuki actors performing contemporary theatre, but such projects tend to be temporary.

The reason for this rift between the Japanese performing arts is that there is a practical need on the part of traditional ones to keep their specificity. Their style developed at separate stages in history and holds the mark of very different circumstances in terms of Zeitgeist and social background.

Like everywhere in the world, the first performing arts in Japan were ritual dances and plays offered to deities in ritual services. It was around the middle of the 14th century when one of these practices, sarugaku no noh, began receiving the support of the resourceful warrior class and developed into a stage art with a high level of sophistication. Because the competition between actors and troupes was fierce at the time, the only way for the actors was to devote their life to the art, paying utmost attention to their acting style and to the choice of subjects and of words. Their performances had to captivate their patrons, who had great admiration for the past, for the elegant culture of the Heian period (794-1185). In this sense, noh 能 embodies the aesthetic ideals of the dignified warrior class.

Advertisement for a Kabuki performance (to be held in November 2012)

By the 17th century, when noh became an art restricted to the enjoyment of the military elite, a new kind of performance was receiving passionate applause from the commoners – kabuki  歌舞伎. Its appearance was possible because Edo period was a time of peace, allowing for a certain degree of freedom in every area of artistic expression. Kabuki reflects the taste for dramatic developments and spectacular stage effects of the chōnin, the people living in the cities. With an aesthetic ranging from stylized beauty to the grotesque, with characters displaying strong emotions and plots brimming with dramatism, kabuki has been captivating audiences for over three centuries.

The restoration of imperial power (1868) brought with it the abolishment of the warrior class. For noh this meant the loss of its supporters and it risked falling into oblivion, if it weren’t for the intervention of Japanese ambassadors to the West, who saw in it the equivalent to Western opera and asked for it to be preserved. On the other hand, kabuki also had a hard time when Western theatre, called shingeki  新劇, was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century. Shingeki (which means, by the way, new theatre, in relation to the old theatrical forms) has had its own history of turning points since then and had to take up the challenge of producing original creations that reflected the present times.

Actually, the presence of performing arts with long tradition accounts for some of the general characteristics of the Japanese stage. The fact that you can go to the theatre any time of the year (there is no off-season) or the fact of one company having two or three performances in a single day, for example, might be explained through the theatre practices that existed before shingeki began to be performed in Japan. In short, even if direct interaction is seldom, the different performing arts do influence each other and their coexistence results in a very stimulating environment for theatrical expression.

The Actor, the Mirror and the Audience

One of the last things the actor sees before entering the stage is his own reflection in the mirror, while checking if his appearance matches the concept of his role.

It is not by chance that the room behind the curtain in Noh theatre is called kagami no ma (the room of the mirror), for it is the place where the actor enters his role, while putting on his mask in front of a large mirror.  There must be a process of synchronization involved, meant to bring in unison that what you are (an actor) with what you temporarily should become (the role).

At the end of the performance, the last thing the actor sees as he is about to retire from the stage is the audience – applauding the show most often than not. What a relief it must be to see smiling faces, with looks expressing enthusiasm in response to a good act. But what if the spectators are frowning? To all the ones who put their efforts into creating a performance, the audience is itself a mirror, reflecting the degree in which their work succeeded in moving the hearts of the viewers.

In all performing arts the mirror, either in its material form, or simply as a metaphor, works as a powerful and magical device, shared by all the ones involved, whether they are actors or members of the audience, or that somewhat suspicious instance called “the critic”. There are even artists who conceive their work as a mirror, trying to make the best possible use of the image reflected in it.

Whether you are already fascinated, as I am, by the world of the theatre or not yet, I invite you to read what the Mirror has to tell – as it witnesses the short-lived miracles created by talented people, all of whom seem to share the belief that dreams and illusions have the power to awaken and to enlighten.