The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Directing through the worlds of Brecht and Kabuki Exploring the world of director Kazuyoshi Kushida
A play written by Tsuruya Namboku IV. It premiered in 1817 under the title Sakurahime Azumabunsho. The daughter of an upper class family, Sakurahime is raped by the servant Gonsuke. Her womanly instincts awakened by the incident, she gives up her life of privilege to marry Gonsuke and ends up sinking to the life of a prostitute. It was performed for the sixth Cocoon Kabuki production in 2005.
Matsumoto Art Center
Opened in 2004, Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre is an arts and culture facility run by Matsumoto City, Nagano Pref. The administrative and artistic director is the actor and director Kazuyoshi Kushida. The facilities include a horseshoe type main hall (1800 seats), a small hall (288 seats) and a roll-back type experimental theater (360-seat capacity). The architectural design is by the famous Japanese architect Toyoo Ito. The facility serves as one of the main venues for the international classical music Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
(2005, at Matsumoto Art Center)
Photo: Tomohiro Akutsu (bottom), Takeshi Yamada (above)
Grimm Grimm Grimm
Grimm Grimm Grimm
(2006, at Matsumoto Art Center)
Photo: Takeshi Yamada
By the way, in you contemporary theater productions you also appear as an actor. Have you ever thought that you would like to act in one of your Kabuki productions?
There are some parts where I feel that an actor like Sasano is necessary to make the part work but I don’t have an actor to fill the part, but I feel that I still need to be watching the play objectively from the audience side. If it weren’t for that, I would prefer to be watching the audience from up on the stage. But for now, Kanzaburo is serving that function for me. In New York, however, I am thinking of appearing as a kuroko (on-stage assistant wearing black clothes and hood for anonymity). I hope you will look forward to seeking what kind of kuroko I come out as.

Since you began directing the Cocoon Kabuki and the Heisei Nakamura-za, I believe that those developments have set the stage for the Kabuki world to accept talent from the contemporary theater world.
I believe that Hideki Noda’s writing and directing Togitatsu no Utare and Noda-ban Nezumi Kozo as well as Yukio Ninagawa’s directing of a Kabuki version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night were all made possible because of your achievements.

I believe that these were all developments that should have happened in the first place. It is good for people like Noda to write things like that as literature and it was good when Ninagawa did a Kabuki version of Shakespeare. And I think things will become even more interesting when other directors do different versions of the works I have done using different Kabuki actors.

You mean in the same way that various directors do different versions of Shakespeare’s plays?
Yes. That will bring an even higher level of artistic tension and stimulate other Kabuki actors. I think that such a period is definitely coming.

Can Molière and Brecht also be done in Kabuki versions?
I think they can. There are plenty of actors in the Kabuki world. And if that happens, the repertoire will become more interesting. Recently I saw a Black Tent Theater production that set Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children in the context of a battlefield during Japan’s 16th century Period of Warring States. It was the kind of play that could be re-staged as a Kabuki play almost exactly as it is and I believe it would be quite interesting.
A play like Ren Saito’s Cusco that we did at On-Theater Jiyu Gekijo could also be done as a Kabuki play.
Another interesting thing that can be done is for non-Kabuki actors and to do plays from the Kabuki repertoire. We are now planning to do a production of Sakura Hime directed by myself that would be performed as a Kabuki play and then as a contemporary theater play in alternate months. I think that plan will be realized the year after next.

That sounds extremely interesting. In the contemporary theater version would Sakura princess by played by a woman?
In the Kabuki version a male onnagata actor will play her and in the contemporary theater version a female actress will. I believe that the interpretation of the play will change when it is done as a contemporary theater play as compared to Kabuki production. And that may involve some misinterpretation, but that is the area I would like to pursue.

You are currently serving as artistic director and administrative director of the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre. Your activities there have included the highly acclaimed production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle resulting from three years of workshops and performing it in an improvised outdoor amphitheater style stage created in the indoor theater rather than using the existing audience seating. I would like to conclude this interview by asking you about your work there. I believe there are very few people in Japan who have experienced serving as both a private-sector commercial theater’s artistic director and a public theater’s artistic director. Having done both now what is you impression?
There have been many surprises and many interesting things. As I look back now and think about why I accepted the position, first of all, when we opened the underground theater Jiyu Gekijo in Roppongi, it was in the days before we even had the title artistic director and I think that during those years I always wished that the small space we had there was a proper theater. That is why I had the desire to move to Theater Cocoon when I got that offer and why I eventually took the offer from Matsumoto too. Later I realized that my feelings in that area had always been consistent.
My feeling was that a theater is not just a box where plays are made but that a theater exists because there are people there, and my fundamental feeling was always that because it is there it should be used to exert some kind of influence. That is why I believe I always had an interest in theaters.
When I was at Theater Cocoon, the [Bunkamura] corporate people were always worrying about what the stockholders and the company thought, and now that I am at the public theater [in Matsumoto] it is a case of thinking about what the public at large thinks. In the case of the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre there was an opposition movement during the planning stage about using such a large amount of tax money to build the theater facility. And since I went there, I learned a lot in the first year about how much I should become involved in the political aspects and what the causes of the controversy had been. It is not a case where I am the one who is defending the public theater. I want to hear the opposing opinions because they are interesting, and there were many things that I felt were well based. And, rather than simply not listening, I think that the best relationship is one where there is opposition, debate and finally one side admitting that the other has a good point. There are a number of issues involved in how to best use tax money and I am now making efforts daily to convince people in that area.

In the case of public theaters in Japan, one of the things that has to be done is for the government to make a connection to the people and another thing is to create the kind of high-quality productions that can be shown to the world with pride. I would imagine that it is very difficult to achieve both of those aims, and I would like to ask you what you are doing in those areas.
That is something that I have had in mind from the beginning, and I would say that it is very difficult problem to divide works into things that the citizens will accept, things that are for the popular audience and things that are avant-garde. The other day I had a debate with the artistic director of another public theater who said that avant-garde work is no good for regional audiences. That made me angry and I asked him what avant-garde is. For example, the butoh group Dairakudakan was active in Omachi city in Nagano Prefecture and the farmers from that area came to see their performances. One of [butoh dancer] Kazuo Ono’s students is active in Matsumoto, where his day job is running a bar, but then he whitewashes his body and puts on a samurai hairstyle and goes out on the street to dance. When he does that children gather to watch, and when he makes threatening gestures they get scared and run away, which I thought was very healthy. This is a case where there is a solid relationship between the performer and the audience. No matter how many people you gather in Tokyo who talk knowingly about butoh and can tell you what school a performer is from, I don’t think it is really established successfully as a form of expression with that kind of performer-audience relationship.
These are the things I am thinking about as I do my best to try and create once again a sense of value in theater and create works that people will think are truly interesting. In fact, right now I am thinking about creating a theater company connected with the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre and we are preparing to launch the company next year. The core of the company will be my former students from the Nihon University Arts Dept. who have moved to Matsumoto. There are already five who have moved there.
Recently, the professional actress Atsumi Hiraguri joined them for an experimental performance at Russia’s Alexander Vampilov, and at that time they made flyers saying that they were creating a theater company in Matsumoto and asking people to join in and distributed them to the audience. That stirred up a lot of interest and people told them that they would take some of the leaflets back to their offices to distribute. The entrance fee had been set at \1,000, but an amazingly large number of people turned out for the performance.
Before that we did a test performance of a work based on the Grimm Fairytales where there was no entrance fee and many families came, which was a response that I thought was very good. Of course it is no good if they try to do something too difficult from the beginning. It is better to start out by building a relationship with people who at first tell them that they are still green and bring them rice balls to eat because they are sure that the players are too poor to have enough to eat and cheer them on saying, “Eat this and try harder to do a good play next time.”
So, rather than saying that high-level works won’t be well received or dismissing the mass audience as a low-level one, we should be listening once again to the audience as we work and proceed within that relationship. I believe that there is great potential in having everyone growing as they help a young theater company grow in an interactive relationship.

We see more and more public theaters working together in tie-up relationships. What do you think of this?
It is a method that should be pursued, but I feel that there is a danger of the projects failing if it is done from the attitude that it is more convenient or because more money moves that way. Also, it runs against my temperament to work with someone I have never met before simply because they are part of an organization. I can understand if it is a case where two people who think the same way work together and eventually that two becomes five and then ten, but I don’t trust a project that comes out of an organization of people who don’t share a common sense of what their goals are.

In Matsumoto there is the classical music festival “Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto” that is organized by people including [conductor] Seiji Ozawa. Do you have any ideas about perhaps creating a theater festival?
The Saito Kinen Festival is run on a program of alternating years of opera and non-opera programs, and there has been talk of making the non-opera years more drama-oriented. I think it would be good if things gradually evolve in that direction.

When I listen to you talk, it seems to me that your ideas about theater haven’t changed much since your Jiyu Gekijo days.
It is not something that I am conscious of, but I feel that when I watch theater, whether it is Kabuki of Brecht, I can see that aspect. When I was first training as an actor at the Haiyu-za, there was an incredible director named Koreya Senda. One night when I returned to the studio to get something I had forgotten, I looked in the studio and saw Mr. Senda there all alone painting a large cow’s-head mask. I remember thinking what a cool person he was. More than his reputation or achievements as a director, I thought that that image of the man was great.
When I was at the Bungaku-za for a little over a year, there was an actress named Haruko Sugimura. She was a great actress, but there was one time when we did a performance in one of the regional cities and when the performance was over and the actors took their bows and the curtain came down, she bowed once more to the back of the curtain. That was another time when I thought, “This is an incredible person.” I remember thinking that everyone was foolish for not seeing her bowing, for not seeing that important lesson. I can’t say that I have really learned a lot over the years, but I will never forget the image of the back of Haruko Sugimura bowing at the curtain when no one was watching and Senda painting the cow mask all alone at night. I believe it was because they loved and enjoyed their work so much. And I think that Kabuki must be that kind of thing too.
But there is an enjoyment that is not an internalized but projected outward. I’m going to take audience aback, or I’m going to make them happy. Something in it that is not just smiling, there is also anger and sadness. I think it is sharing those things with a group of fellow theater people that is the true enjoyment. In the case of Sannin Kichisa, I think it is a play that author Mokuami wrote with the desire to make a big hit, but as he also writing it, there was probably also a secret knowledge at the tip of his pen that there would be people who will feel an affinity for these petty hoodlums even though they know that they will eventually be plucked out of society.
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