“Τhe essence of theatre lies in the presence of the actors” – Tadashi Suzuki
My theatre company, SCOT, is based in the village of Toga in Toyama Prefecture, 600 km from Tokyo. It is a mountainous area facing the Sea of Japan. Toga Village is 600 meters above sea level and stretches 23 kilometers from east to west and 52 kilometers from north to south. The current population is 500. Most of the residents are elderly, since many young people have moved out to the cities. We started performing in this village 44 years ago in 1976, leaving our small theatre in Tokyo.
There are now four indoor theatres and two open-air theatres in a part of the village, but in the early days when we moved, we worked only in one theatre space, which was converted from an old house.
I would like to talk briefly about why I chose to work in this place. There are two reasons for this. The first is to create a theatre that is suited to my philosophy of theatre, and the second is to establish my ideal acting style for actors.
Looking back on the history of Japanese physical culture, most of the things that arose in the pre-modern past and survived to the present are those in which the body retains a close relationship with space. Theatre, dance, tea ceremony, sumo and Buddhism, the physical cultural activities produced by these Japanese peoples, claim their existence as ritualistic acts that are uniquely integrated with space.
To take theatre as an example, Noh and Kabuki, both recognized as traditional Japanese theatre, are also performed in a unique space (theatre). From a different point of view, Noh and Kabuki are created as ritualistic physical activities associated with these unique theatrical spaces and can be seen as asserting their own individuality. In other words, the uniqueness of the architectural space is an inseparable element of the theatre known as Noh and Kabuki.
My theatre is a space built in a past architectural style that cannot be found in today’s Japanese cities. These spaces, or houses, were built in the days before Japan was a modern nation and were used by the farmers of the snow country to live with their large families. These old houses were not only used for daily life but also for work.
In today’s Japanese society, the family system and the economic activities that support family life have changed, so these large space buildings have become irrelevant. I have reclaimed it into a space that fits my philosophy of theatre and theatrical practice objectives.
This building is commonly referred to as the gassho-zukuri style. If you try to create such a space in contemporary Japan, you will be faced with a great challenge. This is because these spaces are all created from plants, mainly trees. Not only because the materials are hard to find, but also because the artisans to create these spaces are hard to find in Japan today. Even if it were possible, it would take a lot of money and time to make it happen.
The wood for this space is cut from the slope of the mountain. The wood is bent in various parts due to the weight of the snow, and there are no straight lines in the shape of the wood. The thickness of each piece of wood is also different. It takes a lot of time and technical ingenuity to combine these different woods into a living space. Since this is a two-story building, there are a number of pillars supporting the ceiling. However, because the pillars are not of uniform thickness, the spacing between them is not the same. Naturally, the interstices between the pillars are not the same size as that of the tatami mats, made from rice stalks, placed between those pillars.
The gassho-zukuri style of architecture, which was built before the modernization of Japan, is completely different from the modern way of thinking about space composition. The gassho-zukuri was not built based on theory or blueprints, but rather on the materials available in the natural environment in which people lived and worked.
Since this was before the modernization of Japanese society, there was a limit to what materials could be gathered in the heavy snowfall areas of the mountainous country, and the geographical range of such materials was limited. People had to rely only on animal energy (that is, human power) and the ingenuity of how they used that energy, since it was in an era where non-animal energy (electric and thermal power) could not be used. And the space of a structure that could withstand the weight of heavy snowfall was composed of wood and plants (roofs are made of stems of Miscanthus sinensis). Therefore, the process of completing a space was a struggle between materials and animal energy, or, to put it another way, a gathering of coincidental products created by nature and combining them as if they were an inevitable encounter. The construction sites in those times became a continuous process of trial and error.
The French cultural anthropologist Lévi-Strauss proposed the concept of bricolage in his book. The term refers to the work of mingling that is already there and devising something new to emerge. To borrow his term, the gassho-zukuri can be seen as the very space created by the bricolage.
This space is characterized by a series of smaller spaces that cannot be measured by a uniform standard. Therefore, different levels of darkness are created throughout the space. It is a space where no matter how you light it, there is always a shadow somewhere.
If you brighten a certain place, you create dark shadows in direct proportion. If you try to keep the whole thing equally bright, you have no choice but to dim the whole thing. It is a non-homogeneous space where brightness and darkness live together at the same time. If we are talking about a completely homogeneous brightness, then we have no choice but to make the space dark with no light source anywhere. I felt that the characteristics of this space provided possibilities for my new conception of theater.
I believe that the hallmark of a theatre being a theatre is the presence of actors. But when I say the word actor, I am not implying an opposing entity to the language. I use the word actor by giving it the meaning of a body that vocalizes words and comes into contact with others. I use it in the sense of someone who vocalizes the words being thought or written in silence, and in doing so establishes a relationship with others, activates their thoughts and acts by being engaged in a dialogue.
And this human being, named an actor, is the owner of an individual body that refuses to share it with others. In other words, s/he is a person who establishes a collaborative expressive activity with others via his/her body, claiming individual differences. From a different point of view, each actor possesses in his/her body a secret, or “incommensurable,” that cannot be shared with others or a darkness, or the “unknowable.” An actor with a singular life history as an individual speaks a language that s/he can share with others in front of an audience while showing his/her own unique body.
The encounter between the body and the words is accidental at first. The process of making that coincidence seem inevitable, this is the actor’s job. And it is through this process that the director conveys to the audience a unified perception of the world of a collective. I think this is the job of the director working with the actors.
My work as a director begins with confronting the unmeasurable secrets and darkness of the individual human being. Therefore, the rehearsal process for the completion of a piece is a process of trial and error, similar to the process of building a gassho-zukuri house with non-homogeneous actors. I think of the stage work that comes out of this process as a form of bricolage.
The term “universal space” is used in modern architecture. It refers to the space created by the German architect Mies van der Rohe’s architectural philosophy and is also known as a homogeneous space. A typical example of this is the office buildings that have emerged in modern times. Every place is the same, and there is no qualitative difference between them. Most contemporary Japanese theatres are built on the premise of this homogeneous space. It is a space dominated by the idea that it is better to pay as little attention as possible to the personal secrets of history and the invisible darkness of the human mind; in other words, to the singularity of the individual.
My theatrical practice is a critique of this modern thinking, the thinking that evaluates people and space from the perspective of homogeneity. I believe that theater has been needed by many people because it has existed as an act of confirming that human beings are heterogeneous and cannot be visibly measured by the same standards. Based on this fact, I believe that theater has appealed for the establishment of common rules for the coexistence of human beings.
If I have to articulate the raison d’être for the existence of theatre in simple words, it is a cultural device that seeks to find out how to confront difference and sameness, coincidence and necessity for human beings, as well as how to confront a group of peoples and nations.
It is this way of thinking that has led me to build not only a gassho-zukuri style theater, but also an open-air theater in the wilderness, where unpredictability is the essence of nature, and to present multilingual stage productions with actors from many different countries.
Next, here are my thoughts on the existence of stage actors.
There are four things that an actor must be aware of at all times. They are the center of gravity, breathing, energy and voice. I believe that an actor’s abilities are proportional to the degree to which he has developed a stable center of gravity, oxygenation through breathing, energy burning, the voice that is emitted and concentration on these. In everyday social situations, if these physical abilities are developed, the range of action and the ability to adapt to a changing environment and to reach out to others is increased, as well as the safety of life support. Many people, however, are not particularly aware of these, unless they become ill.
The professional conduct of a stage actor, the excellence of his/her performance, depends on the intensity of his/her concentration, developed through conscious training in these necessary things. The training of concentration on these is essential for the actor who presents his/her body and utters his/her voice from the stage to the audience.
Let me emphasize again here. The word body is generally used to refer to the visible body, which is made up of a visible face, torso, hands and legs; all of them are also made up of muscles. When I say the body, however, I am referring to the center of gravity, oxygen, energy and speech that is uttered as invisible words.
My training for actors was devised out of the need to know how to make the invisible that reside inside this visible body feel as if the former are out there for us to see, and how to make the superiority of the actor’s concentration on them a standardized value system that can be shared among the collective. As a director, I wanted to have an impartial standard for judging an actor’s ability, an objectivity that the members of the collective could agree on.
It is akin to a medical doctor and patient doing CT scans and blood tests to observe the inner workings of the body and share the idiosyncrasies and deficiencies of that individual. Stated differently, it is an exercise in diagnosing what it takes to excel and which aspects need to be further developed in order for the audience to feel that a great mind and body are present in front of them.
What are my advantages and what are my flaws and weaknesses when I am trying to achieve what I consider to be a high standard of performance? There may be flaws and weaknesses, so I created a place to ask questions about how to overcome them. I think it is fair to say that I created a place to encourage the creativity of the stage actors.
Obviously, the flaws and weaknesses that appear as obstacles in the process of accomplishing a goal are different for each person, and the process of overcoming these obstacles is different for each individual. There is no general answer for overcoming them. The only way to do this is to find your own unique way to achieve that goal. My training is to help you do that.
I recently had the opportunity to go to Tokyo. I was surprised when I got on a train for the first time in a long time. It was daytime, so there were not many passengers, and I was able to see the entire train carriage. Nearly everyone in their seats had their smartphones in their hands and were concentrating on the screen; about 30 percent of the people had earphones in their ears and were listening to something. A while ago, I would have seen one or two people reading the newspaper or the weekly magazine, but none of them were.
I am no stranger to the lives of younger members of my company, so I am no stranger to the fact that smartphones are becoming a necessity in our lives. What surprised me, however, was not that they were obsessed with their smartphones, but that when the train stopped at the station and passengers came and went, not one of them looked up and looked at the newly arrived passengers. This scene made me think that if a criminal or terrorist walked in and carried out a random murder, few people would be able to respond instantly.
Maybe I have been in the habit of staring at other people’s presence and their movements for so long as a director that I am overly sensitive to the movements of others. Maybe it is an over-observation based on my own professional experience, but a group of people who are so unaware of other people’s presence seemed uncanny to me.
As a matter of fact, a while ago, seven people were killed one by one by a car and a knife in a crowded area of Tokyo. It happened in a very short amount of time. When I learned of this incident, I was very surprised. How could one person kill so many people in an instant? I wondered if the people killed were texting and listening to music on their smartphones and were oblivious to what was going on around them until just before they were killed by the car and the knife. I used to wonder about that.
With the advent of computers, we can talk to each other while looking at the other person’s face, even if our bodies are not in the same place. In this form of communication, only a small amount of animal energy is used. Computers have diminished the opportunities for humans to meet each other directly, to interact with each other using a lot of animal energy, and to promote mutual understanding. Even when such opportunities exist, there are more places where non-animal energy has come to mediate between people.
A society in which humans are dependent on computers and the heavy use of non-animal energy to establish communication is accelerating the trend toward de-embodimentality in all areas. In such a society, what kind of raison d’être for theater and its activity can be given in the future? I think this is a serious question posed to theater professionals.
The French philosopher Merleau Ponty wondered what the essence of a thing is, and said it is that which persists in any variable situation without being subjected to change. Considering this point of view, we must say that the essence of theatre lies in the presence of the actors.
Theatre has been an expressive activity for more than 2,000 years, since the times of ancient Greece, based on the presence of animal energy that emanates from the body of the actor. And it has continued to expose the various problems that humans encounter that force them to constantly form groups and live together. I believe that theatre is a wonderful means of expressing that, by basing it on the body, still possesses the ability to critique the deficiencies of civilization that maintain and control society by using non-animal energy.
*Tadashi Suzuki is the founder and director of the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) based in Toga Village. He is the organizer of Japan’s first international theatre festival (Toga Festival) and the creator of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training. He directed a large number of plays: The Trojan Women, Madame de Sade, The Tale of Lear, Oedipus Rex, Lear, Cyrano de Bergerac, among others. A collection of his writings in English, Culture Is the Body, is published by the Theatre Communications Group in New York. The book has been translated and published in many countries including China, Italy, Lithuania, Greece, and Indonesia. He has taught his system of actor training in schools and theatres throughout the world. Suzuki’s primary concerns include: the structure of a theatre group, the creation and use of theatrical space, and the overcoming of cultural and national barriers in the interest of creating work that is truly universal. Suzuki has established in Toga one of the largest international theatre centers in the world. The facility includes six theatres, rehearsal rooms, offices, lodgings, restaurants, etc. (For more on Suzuki and his company visit his webpage).