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
Photo: Masaru Iwasaki
Japan-Czech Republic Joint Contemporary Puppetry Project
The Japan Foundation + DRAK present
Based on Romeo and Juliet by W. Shakespeare

(Toured in Hradec, Warsaw, Prague, Pécs, Tokyo, Iida, Sapporo; June-August, 2001)
Photo: Naoki Harada

Visual sketches for puppets and stage arts
One of your representative works is Macbeth and, if I remember correctly, it premiered in 1992. It is a solo play where you act the part of Macbeth wearing a mask while you manipulate a puppet in the role of Lady Macbeth.
    My Macbeth is a work that I created with Matasek while I was training at the Academy in Prague. We decided to work on a play that we both knew, and it turned out to be Macbeth. I believed I had no talent as an actor and I didn’t want to do a solo play by myself, but I was told that it would sell (laughs). It is a silent drama and also a colorless one with the set, the puppet and my costume all in white, black or silver.

Did you design the puppet and the stage art?
That’s correct. Vysohlid said I should make a device of scrap iron that would produce sound, so I made a set with a ladder in the middle and branches extending out form which I hung a crown made of sheet metal and scrap and masks and puppets in away that I could make sounds at I physically manipulated or dumped into the different parts in the course of the play. When I performed the piece in Japan, however, I made it a colorful set instead of a monochrome one.
    During one performance of Macbeth I lose about one kilo in weight. At first I didn’t know about proper breathing technique and I thought I was going to die along with Macbeth out there in the course of the performance (laughs). There were several times when I wanted to just quit in the middle of the performance.

Why did you make it a silent drama?
    With all my plays, not just Macbeth, I make it a point to avoid bringing in words with meaning. The main reason for this is to ensure that it is a piece that I can perform anywhere. There are some exceptions, like Romeo and Juliet ( A PLAGUE O’BOTH YOUR HOUSES!!!), but since I have clients in many countries, I am in trouble if I don’t have a repertoire that can be performed anywhere regardless of the local language.
    But now I want to create plays that use words. But when I say words with meaning I mean words in the sense of the yatta! (I did it!) in HEROES where you know what the character is saying even if you don’t know the language in which it is spoken. It is a difficult task, however.

What made you think to make Lady Macbeth a puppet?
    Since the Czech theater principle is that everything that appears on the stage must have meaning, you could never see anything like the kuroko (black costumed hooded stage hands) of Japanese traditional Bunraku and Kabuki theater whose very costume says, “Pretend I don’t exist.”
    If you are going to appear on stage it must be in a capacity that gives vital information to the audience. So, I experimented with a number of possibilities and finally concluded that, no matter how hard I might try to act out the part of Lady Macbeth with my own body, it is still going to look like a man (laughs). So I decided Lady Macbeth would be a puppet.
    In the play I make my entrance as a dark, unseemly figure with the look of a poor itinerant street performer, and I begin to pick up things resembling bones lying by the roadside and piece them together into a mask. When I put on the mask I become Macbeth, and at the end of the play I remove the mask and return to original dark figure before leaving the stage. Matasek said to me, “Aren’t there men who think they are dominating their wives but in fact the wives are manipulating them?” That made me realize and adopt a relationship in which the puppeteer is actually being controlled by the puppet.

This concept is different from the “dezukai” (the main puppeteer appearing on stage without a head/face covering) of Bunraku, isn’t it?
    Yes. But it isn’t as if they don’t know about dezukai and the concept. During the socialist era when the puppet theater company people were all civil servants with their income guaranteed by the government 100%, they were able to try all kinds of methods. That is when they brought the puppeteer out from behind the wall that had always kept them out of sight and came to the conclusion that the puppeteer has to be able to perform as an actor as well.

Do you write a text for your silent dramas?
    I write a text and I draw pictures. Countless times I have written a script full of stage notes only to have Matasek cross them all out and have me write the text over again. During the course of rehearsals the contents also change, so rather than writing a scenario as such I will draw pictures to check the balance of the symbolic elements of the things that appear on stage. For example, in the case of Lady Macbeth the symbolic elements include the fact that she is a woman, she is small, she is a puppet being manipulated but she is actually controlling her man. I draw pictures to make sure these elements are being communicated visually.
    In addition to these drawings, I make life-sized design drawings of the puppets. When I make the puppets myself I know what I want, but when I have them made for me by the company’s workshop I do a full life-size, 1 to 1 scale blueprint of the puppet to make sure there is no misunderstanding. And in the latter case, when I have the workshop make the puppet, I will still do the final finishing myself.

You order puppets to be made by a workshop?
    As I mentioned earlier, many of the puppet theater s in the Czech Republic are first sector public institutions. In the case of the puppet theater company in Ostrava called Divadlo Loutek Ostrava (The Municipal Puppet Theatre Ostrava) it has 20 actors/puppeteers, three people staff the puppet workshop, two or three people staff the large props workshop and two or three people are in charge of the costume department. I send my orders for puppets props and costumes to them in the form of design drawings or blueprints. At the theater there are performances every morning at 8:30 and 10:00, so the work in the workshops starts before that at about 6:00 in the morning. After the performances, the actors rehearse through the afternoon into the evening. Then the day ends with design work and scenario corrections and revisions at night.
    On some days there are also two stages in the afternoon, so we are working at 100% capacity full time. At Ostrava we give 470 performances a year. The capacity of our theater is 250 people and with the school children coming to see a new puppet play every semester, they are coming by bus all the time and the theater is always full. Our puppet theater works are divided in ones for nursery school and lower elementary school age, ones for mid- to upper elementary school to middle school and high school and then a third type for adults, and we are making new plays every year. So the performers have to have an active repertoire of about ten plays that they are performing in rotation day by day.
    The theater has a producer and an artistic director and there is also a dramaturge who is responsible for planning the marketing strategy concerning why the theater should be doing this particular work at this time and taste the staging should be done in. There is also a division of labor in the theater work, with staff in charge of taking care of the puppets after the performance and other staff in charge of hanging up the costumes.

Such facilities and a staffing certainly show what an important position puppet theater still has today in Czech society.
    As it’s written in the travel guidebook, during the Hapsburg rule of the 18th and 19th centuries, the only places where the use of Czech language was permitted in public performance was in the puppet theaters and by traveling performers. So, the Czech Republic has that history where puppet theater was helping to maintain the national identity. That’s why the national Academy for the Arts has a puppet theater department. It is a country with a special fondness for theater, and even its former president, Vaclav Havel, is a comic playwright. If you translate that into Japanese politics it would be as if Koki Mitani were Prime Minister (laughs).

It truly is an interesting country (laughs).
    Havel became president thanks to the active support of the country’s cultural elite and theater people, but he ended up saying it was too stressful a job for him. On a national telecast he even said, he’d rather be in bed with a woman than be president (laughs). That’s the kind of country it is.

What is the relationship between puppet theater and other forms of theater?
    It is a relationship where the boundaries are unclear. Now Matasek isn’t doing puppet theater but creating plays for the national theater. At the Ostrava puppet theater as well you don’t see puppets appearing much anymore, and they are now writing plays that don’t include puppets. And since all of the puppeteers can also act, the profession is becoming more and more borderless.
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