The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
A look into the world of performer Noriyuki Sawa With the new form of puppetry known as figure theatre
What did you actually do in the Babel Tower workshop?
    As you know, the Tower of Babel is a story from the Old Testament about a huge tower that the people were building to try to get up to God’s height in the heavens. This angered God and he made the people, who all spoke the same language at the time, suddenly all speak different languages. Babel Tower is a theatrical workshop based on the idea of how people of different languages find ways to communicate in a confused post-nuclear holocaust world. I believe there were 27 people from 15 different countries in the workshop and we were all told to speak only in our native language, which meant we were speaking in 15 different languages.
    The play begins with a scene where a tower of about 200 cardboard boxes has collapsed and we are all crawling out from under that rubble. The actual work of putting together the play was done in English, but even the English that we from the 15 countries spoke wasn’t good enough for real communication, and I myself am very bad at English.
    On the second day of the workshop we are all unable to communicate, but we decide to at least decide when lunchtime will be. One French person said the restaurant he liked was only open from 2:00 to 4:00 so let’s make that the lunchtime. Then the Germans said, we are here to work, so we don’t need a lunch any longer than from 12:00 to 12:45. The British said that they wanted a tea time at 3:00, and the Italian said, “I’m fine with any time as long as I get enough to eat and can have some time for a nap after eating.” That made Krofta mad. He said “Everybody shut up!” and the lunch hour was set from 12:00 to 1:00.
    It is such a typical story that you can’t help but laugh. When someone asked me, “Nori, what time do you want lunch to be?” I said, Any time is OK with me.” Then I was told, “You Japanese!” (Laughs) That was how those five weeks went.

Didn’t you make any puppets there?
    I went to a scrap heap and found some rubbish to make puppets with, but Krofta’s basic rule was only to bring in a puppet when one was absolutely necessary. That was a firm rule. If you can’t answer the question, “Why is a puppet necessary here?” then it is best for you to just walk through the scene yourself as a person. That concept was completely different from any puppet theater I had known until then.
    For example there is a scene where a baby comes floating down a river in a cardboard box and we come out dressed in rags and rescue the baby in the box. But there is no puppet of a baby in the box actually, there is just the sound of a rattle to express the presence of the baby and we all act as if there is a real baby in the box. Then at the end we show the audience that the box is actually empty.
    In Krofta’s mind, we can manipulate a box to make it look like there is a baby inside because we are puppet theater puppeteers, but it is nothing more than an empty box. He said that through this work he wanted to show us that a baby is a symbol of the future and hope, but that hope should be inside of us, the puppeteers. The work that came out of that Babel Tower workshop was actually performed as a finished work the following year by his DRAK puppet theater company. And of the original 27 people who participated in the original summer workshop I was the only one to perform in the DRAK production. We also toured with that production and there was a long run in Prague of about two months.

Was something like that Babel Tower workshop revolutionary at the time in Europe?
    I believe Krofta was doing that kind of workshop in various places around Europe at the time. But the one I attended had people from 15 countries, so it certainly must have been one of the largest he did.

Czech puppet theater is world renowned and the DRAK company is especially famous. Can you tell us about DRAK in some more detail?
    All the larger cities in the Czech Republic have public puppet theater companies, and DRAK (which means dragon in Czech) is the public company of the city of Hradec Kralove with a history of about 50 years.
    During the 1960s a woman producer Jana Drazdakova brought Krofta, the artist Petr Matasek and the musician Jiri Vysohlid to DRAK. These three geniuses worked together on her productions from the 60s through the 90s and there presence brought great changes to Czech puppet theater.
    At the same time there was a major rebirth in puppet theater in Poland. It was a time when the socialist system was breaking down and there was a sense of urgency that if they didn’t do something to tie in with the audience, the theaters would go under. That is when they started creating plays where live actors began performing on the same stage with the puppets. Up through the 1990s DRAK was the front-runner in that renovation of puppet theater. Now those three artists are all in their mid-60s and Matasek already quit DRAK seven or eight years ago. With the change of generation taking place now things are undoubtedly changing, but for those 30 years I feel it is safe to say that DRAK was a world leader.
    DRAK has created a variety of different works involving an interaction of puppets and people. For example, in a collaborative project with Israel they created a work in which people in a closed train bound for a Jewish concentration camp turn into puppets during the course of the journey. There was also a work that was an omnibus of Beatles numbers, which had been banned during the communist era. While singing the words of the Beatles song Nowhere Man about man who can’t see the truth; “he’s as blind as he can be” “just sees what he wants to see” “isn’t he a bit like you and me”—I think that’s what the lines were. And as they sing they are taking apart an anatomical model of the human body. At the “he is blind” part they take the eyes out, at the “he doesn’t speak” part they take out the throat and the innards and throw them into a bucket along with the bones. When there is little left of the anatomy model but bones, they begin manipulating it as a puppet. It is at once very comical and grotesque at the same time. With Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da a boy and a girl playing with each other using puppets made of crumpled up pieces of paper with test notes on them, and in the end they burn them.

Did you become an actual member of the DRAK company?
    I did many collaborations with DRAK but I never actually joined the company. In 1992 I began studying drama and puppet theater as a student of the Czech national Academy of Performing Arts in Prague where Krofta taught. The department had a very long name including “alternative” and “figurative” and “artistic expression relating to puppets,” and it was a name that Krofta had created. For a while the word “alternative” was the buzzword in Europe and it expressed the idea that if there was one main path there would always be an alternative path and either of them could be walked with freedom. I entered the design department of a school that aimed to raise actors who could also use puppets, singers who could also dance, mask actors who could also do acrobatics. And my instructor of that faculty was Matasek.
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