The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The world of director, Osamu Matsumoto | Staging Kafka with his unique style with workshops and composition cards
The Castle
Samples of the director's cards for The Castle
The Trial
Samples of the director's cards for The Trial
It is certainly true that Kafka’s writing is shrouded in mystery. There is no single, consistent storyline from beginning to end.
    In Kafka’s writing he doesn’t use expressions like, “he did such-and-such as if ….” For example, he will write, “He jumped back in surprise.” He doesn’t write, “He was surprised so much that he nearly jumped back.” He has his character actually jump. What is interesting is what you might call a caricature aspect of the kind of off-the-wall strait-forwardness you might find in slapstick. So what you need is not the kind of actor who will act a natural impression of surprise without jumping back but an actor who will actually try jumping back. And it is not just with regard to Kafka. If the text says “He stiffened up like a chair on the floor,” we are interested in the kind of actor who will actually try to become a chair.

In other words you were seeking new discoveries by working with Kafka’s original text?
    Yes. And as we do that I am thinking about the general allotment of roles and I get a vague overall picture in my mind of what the final composition of the play will be. I pick up the scenes that look like they will work well on stage and hand-write a rough outline of the play in diagram form.
    And while thinking about how to best piece the parts together, I divide the actors into groups from around the third workshop with the roles assigned in each group and have them actually perform by group and show each other their versions. Although the text they are working from are the same, the actors in one group may deliver lines with very little movement, while another group will do the opposite, with more action than words. The performances of the other groups naturally influence them as they search for a variety of methods of expression. And as I watch this process I study the possibilities for viable scenes.
    I also try out general images at this stage about what the set and stage art should be like, whether a large space is best or a small, confined one. I have the actors run through scenes while seeing what it is like if ten people or so are confined in a small 2.5×2.5m room, and then try it in a large space. These four preliminary workshops offer that kind of opportunity to try out a variety of “sketches” for how the play can be staged.

Kafka was writing novels, not plays, so it must be hard to translate his writings directly into theater as they are. How do you make plays out of his works?
    First of all, I break the long Kafka novel into blocks. And these blocks do not necessarily coincide with the chapters of the novel. A scene of the final play may consist of the last one third of a chapter stuck onto the following chapter. Or I may take what were four or five different interior scenes in the original and lump them together into one scene that I may set in a pub. I show these compositional ideas to the actors in my outline diagram form, then the actor chose parts from these scenes that they feel would be interesting when dramatized and they try acting act them out.
    There are cases where they choose scenes in the novel that have no conversation at all and they transliterate it into dialogue in order to create a scene that can be acted out. In a scene where middle-aged men are drinking in a pub, our older actors with more life experience can improvise appropriate dialogue, but younger actors have a hard time. In a case like that, I may give the young actor a memo telling him or her to try making up some lines where they are badmouthing their boss at work.

In the end, do all these fragmented scenes come together into one finalized play script?
    You can’t really call it a play script because I just make cards about the size of a postcard for each block of the play telling what characters appear, what the set is like and what events happen. For example, with The Castle I had about 50 block cards at first, and after throwing out the ones that looked like they wouldn’t work on stage and combining some others into one scene, I ended up with about 30 cards. For The Trial I had a block that I titled “Josef exhausted at the bank.” It was a scene that in the original novel involved only Josef, the bank manager and the assistant manager, but as the workshops progressed I wrote notes that I wanted to try it as a scene with seven people, including other bank employees. Or, there was a scene that was an interior scene in the original but I got the idea during the workshops that I wanted to try it as an outdoor scene on a town square with a group of people in the background.
I also write down notes [on the cards] about the props to be used; how many tables and chairs, etc. And, although I am not good at drawing, I do simple sketches of the shape of furniture I want. Then I lay out all these cards on a big table in order and do a variety of simulations. Doing this, I see patterns, such as “If we have another bank scene here it will be too heavily repetitious, so let’s eliminate that scene.” I do these simulations over and over. That is how I put together the scenario for Amerika, but with The Castle and The Trial I ended up finding that using same story line as the Kafka original was the most interesting, so I didn’t change the order of events.

Do you write down on the cards things about the actors’ movements, such as, “A enters from the stage left, so we’ll have him come out and do such-and-such at this point.”
    I don’t do much of that kind of notation. I give those kinds of directions in the rehearsals. I think about those things in the final rehearsals once the set plan has come together. Although I do have general images in mind, such as when I want an actor to come out from the back of the stage and when I want them to come out from the wings.

Did you use this card method when you were directing at MODE?
    Yes. The idea was inspired by the “Mass Image Method” that the critic Takaaki Yoshimoto wrote about. In his book he wrote about analyzing social phenomena using images. My directing assistants and staff say that it would be better to put everything in the form of a play script [booklet], but it is easier for me to think in terms of image cards and diagrams. I use different sizes of cards; I will use a small card for a scene that may last ten minutes and a large card for one that lasts 20 minutes. When I line these cards up in the order I am thinking of for the play and see a place where too many large cards come in succession, I realize that that section of the play will be too heavy, so I change the order. In that way I create the balance and rhythm of the play. I am told that this process is similar to how music is composed.

Now that you mention it, it certainly does seem to me that your plays have a musical-type composition to them.
    When I decide that I want some particular kind of movement or a scene with a particular image at some point in a play I may ask a choreographer Shigehiro Ide to choreograph something for us and make it purely a dance scene instead of a real drama scene. But after it is choreographed and I see the final result in the context of the overall flow of the play, I may decide it is too heavy and end having to say, “I guess we don’t need it after all.” (Laughs) There have also been cases where I completely forget about a scene that was interesting when we first read it in the early stages of the workshops until one of the actors asks “Aren’t you going to use that scene that was interesting back in the workshops?” (Laughs)

So, that is another aspect of the Matsumoto “card directing system”? (Laughs)
    I call it a “composition chart.” Since there is no play script in booklet form for the staff to refer to, I have them take down the necessary directions in a notebook with the music and lighting cues that will be needed. When we were working on The Castle and The Trial the directing assistant went to the trouble of typing everything into a word processor and printed out something like a play script, but the contents would have to be changed almost every day. I’d have to say things like, “Sorry, I cut this part. Please tear it out.” Or, I’d be asked if they could consider some section of the composition finalized and I’d say OK, but then after thinking about it overnight I’d decide to substitute it with a different scene make-up. It was with The Trial that I gave the staff and the actors the hardest time. I didn’t realize until the final dress rehearsal that the play’s running time was too long, and there was no time to correct it. So I kept working on it even after the performance run began. It was running as a double bill with The Man Who Disappeared (Shissosha) and I re-worked the composition of The Trial during the performance of Shissosha, cutting three scenes that shortened the production by 20 minutes.

Is that how it happened? I remember commenting in a year-end review that year in a magazine that it would have been better to shorten a bit. And I guess I went on the wrong night (laughs).
    For example, in the scene where Josef K. and his lover the dancer are at a pub and they happen to meet a detective they know, there was originally a dance scene there. I took that out. The trouble is, however, when you take out one scene, you have to change everything from the set changes to the quick costume changes. After changing the make-up of the scenes I go to the my assistant director, the stage director and the costume staff to discuss with them how much we can get done, and they might say that the actors have to help with the set change so they won’t have time to change costumes. So then I have to go back and change the make-up of the scenes again. Of course the actors aren’t expecting the play composition to be changed suddenly when we have already been through five evenings of performances, so they are understandable surprised when I show them the new composition chart. I know that I really make things difficult for the actors and the staff. I usually prepare about twice the number of scenes for a play than will actually be performed in the end. In the case of The Trial, the first full rehearsals ran for five hours, but in the final performances I had that down to 2 hours and 55 minutes.

Is it a process of gradually cutting out the unnecessary parts?
    As we work, the actors must be thinking, “This part will probably be cut out in the end anyway.” I think they are probably predicting along the way which scenes will eventually be cut. Usually I start cutting scenes from about two weeks prior to the opening night. With The Trial, it was five hours long a month before opening and I started cutting early. But it wasn’t until we got into the final dress rehearsal that I realized I hadn’t cut it enough. And it is not just a process of cutting out scenes that aren’t necessary. For example, a 15-minute scene can sometimes be condensed into a 10-minute scene and made simpler. I feel that can also made the scene communicate its point better.
    I’m told sometimes that if that is the case, why don’t I write a script that way in the first place. But I can’t do that, because that would undermine my fundamental workshop type working method.

Normally, if one is doing a Chekhov play for example, there is the script and you stage a production based on the script, but in your case you have the actors act everything imaginable and then cut away what you don’t need until the record of that process becomes the final equivalent of a script. It certainly would be natural for your actors to get a bit angry (laughs).
    Yes, that’s true (laughs). Since part of the interest of Kafka is the way the characters talk on and on about unrelated things or insignificant things, I would like to leave in some of those parts. But I work together with the actors to cut out the things that don’t need to be said twice. The things that emerge from that process become more interesting. From what I hear from people who have participated in the contemporary dance artist Pina Bausch’s workshops, it seems that she has the dancers work a great volume of etudes into dances and then eliminates most of them in the end. Even if a particular scene may be cut in the end, the physical experience of having worked on it and thought about it will definitely remain. I believe that concept is close to what I am doing.
    I want to spend time on this process, but in Japanese theater the most you can expect to be able to use a theater for dress rehearsals is the two days before the opening, so you are really going into the performances with a lot of uncertainty. And in my case I want to start cutting things and introducing new scenes after seeing the dress rehearsal. And, it occurred to me that perhaps a public theater could offer an environment where I could have that freedom.
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