The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Yukio Ninagawa's new theatrical venture Confronting the realities the common people' history together with the elderly and young people
Yukio Ninagawa's new theatrical venture Confronting the realities the common people' history together with the elderly and young people
Saitama Gold Theater
Founded in 2006 out of Ninagawa’s desire to search for a new form of theater based in the personal histories of the people of age, this theater project for people over 55 years of age seeks to nurture professional actors. Ninagawa personally spent two weeks auditioning people of over 55 years of age from among 1,200 applicants and selected 48 final members between the ages of 55 and 80. All the members gather four hours a day, five days a week for basic training and acting instruction by Ninagawa and his staff. The activities are characterized by etude sessions using the texts of plays by Kunio Shimizu, a playwright who led the angura (underground) theater and political theater movements of the day, working with Ninagawa from 1969 to ’74 (important works in the history of modern Japanese theater) and other classic drama like Chekov. Performances in 2006 included the interim performance called “Pro-cess” in July (anthology) and in December (Kunio Shimizu’s Karasu yo, Oretachi wa Dangan o komeru).
In 2007, the company preformed its first official production with the work Senjo no Picnic (Picnic on the Boat) written for this production by Ryo Iwamatsu. In 2008 the company performed two old works by Kunio Shimizu, Omoide no Nihon ichimannen for the Pro-cess program and Between 95kg and 97kg for the company’s second official production. Between 95kg and 97kg is a work written for the second official production of the company GEKI-SYA NINAGAWA STUDIO (present NINAGAWA STUDIO) founded by Ninagawa with young actors in 1984. In 2009, the company performed My Night at Ando’s written specially for this production by Keralino Sandorovich. In the future, plans call for Saitama Gold Theater to present new plays written by newly commissioned playwrights at a pace of one a year. Presently the company has 42 members.
Saitama Gold Theater 2rd performance
Between 95kg and 97kg

(May. 28 – Jun. 5, 2008 at Saitama Arts Theater - Large rehearsal room)
Written by Kunio Shimizu
Directed by Yukio Ninagawa
Between 95kg and 97kg
Photo: Maiko Miyagawa
Saitama Gold Theater 3rd performance
My Night at Ando’s

(Jun. 18 – Jul. 1, 2009 at Saitama Arts Theater - Small theater)
Written by Keralino Sandrovich
Directed by Yukio Ninagawa
My Night at Ando's
Photo: Maiko Miyagawa
Launching Gold Theater as a quest for reality based in the history of the people

Next I would like to ask you about the Gold Theater project. What were the origins of your idea to work primarily with middle and senior age people with the aim of nurturing professional actors?
There is one fear, you might say, that I have had regarding my directing since early in my career. It is a fear of what the people of the older generation who don’t express their opinions and have lived normal lives would think if they saw my plays. Would my plays be meaningful in light of the personal histories they have lived? I have feared that if the elderly or people who don’t usually express their opinions saw our plays they might think, “The things made by these people who just went to school and studied are superficial, lacking in substance.” That is a very strong insecurity I have long had.
  An example I sometimes use when explaining this is, “If the Komadori sisters (twin sisters who worked their up as singers through dire poverty and hardships in the hard early years of the postwar to become the stars of an era) suddenly came flying across our stage the whole play would freeze and come to stop.” I even thought seriously about how it would be to create a play where Hamlet is giving his “To be or not to be” lines and suddenly the Komadori sisters come out. If the Komadori sisters suddenly came out in the midst of one of our classic plays in translation and crossed the stage in their long-sleeved kimonos playing their shamisen, ben ben ben ben, our play would be blown away in an instant. In other words, I have thought that in the face of the actual “history of the common people” that has been live by the Japanese in the postwar era, exemplified by the Komadori sisters, our dramas, which are based on what we have earned from European drama, would probably be frozen over in an instant. It is because of this complex I have long held that I began the Gold Theater project, so I would be working with the very people of the elderly generation whose lives have that meaning for me, even if it is not exactly that of the Komadori sisters.
  In fact, when considered relative the one extreme of the elderly (the common people), the plays I create as a director probably aren’t much at all. When I work with them it is not to create a theatrical sideshow with amateurs but with the hope that by working with these elderly for whom reality is of a different order—forgetfulness, difficulties in physical movement, inability to deliver lines smoothly—a different kind of reality from the theatrical type I normally to create will emerge in our the productions. I’m doing it in with real seriousness, because there is the possibility that it could shoot to the heart of the theater I have been doing until now.

In starting this project were you conscious of the activities of the avant-garde Polish thespian Tadeusz Kantor and the theater company for the elderly he leads, Cricot 2? They performed The Dead Class in Japan in 1982. Did you see that performance?
Yes, I saw it. It was quite a shock for me, so the image remained in my mind. I remember thinking at the time, “So this is what they do as avant-garde in Europe” and I didn’t think of it as immature as theater. It was not a manipulation of things purely on the conceptual level but opened up the possibility of looking at the human being relatively from a different angle; for example in The Dead Class the old people talk about their life when they were children and students in school. I was deeply impressed by the intellectual depth of it all. The idea is can we do something in a different form from Kantor. One variation might only take it close to Shuji Terayama.

It has been three years since you launched the Gold Theater program in 2006. How much of the things you had in mind are actually being achieved?
For example, there is an elderly member named Mr. Toyama, and watching him perform I see qualities that no ordinary professional actor can match. In his voice, his gestures, the way he speaks and his timing (effective pause) he has a completely different quality of acting that no professional actor could begin to approach. Seeing that has made me realize the value of this program.
  The people of Gold Theater deal with a certain condition that is age and aging. Their memories are inconsistent. It is difficult for them to memorize new things. Something they were able to do yesterday they may not necessarily be able to do again today. And, sometimes they will be able to do something today that they were unable to do yesterday. This means that we have to create our plays in a way that embraces all the qualities of the lives of the aged. You can’t take a certain portion of it to focus on, you have to deal with it all, you have to compose things so that if someone forgets a line, it will be alright. In that context, the director can’t afford to sit in his usually place out in the audience seats. He (I) has to be there on stage to fill in those gaps when they occur. In other words, it can’t be a process where we are working toward artistic completion but rather we must show the entirety as theater, including all of these aspects of age.
  We take the attitude that the things that come with age, the forgetting, the sudden recollections, the inconsistence in forms of expression, will all happen on stage during the play, and we make all manner of measures so that the play will still go on successfully when and if these things happen. I accept all of the things that have happened in the 74 years of (my) life and I prepare a play to go on stage before an audience. If that concession is not made, that play cannot be called theater. That defines a realm of drama in which, yes, this can also be called theater, or by seeing the play can bring new discoveries in one’s life, as I think our recent play (My Night at Ando’s by Keralino Sandorovich) did.

There do appear to be parts that are better than if it were done by elderly professional actors, aren’t there? We find ourselves being attracted to the way a particular person’s life and presence come out naturally on stage.
There definitely is something in that, isn’t there? One of our members how was in a Kamikaze squadron when the war ended and made it back alive even says he gets more frightened and nervous on stage than he ever did during the war! (Laughs) Working with people like this who have experienced more in their lives than me and seeing how hard they try on stage, with a different level of intensity, is a true enjoyment. Also, the members seem to get younger through their involvement in these plays. If for no other reason than purely how interesting the stage is. The enjoyment of seeing what they can create and bring to the audience brings them alive, and seeing this I feel once again that indeed you can call this theater.

It appears that your becoming artistic director of the public theater facility Saitama Arts Theater has laid the foundation that makes the Gold Theater and Next Theater programs possible. This is something that is not easily achieved in the public sector.
Yes. Since it is a public institution, in theory we have to give substantial information, including statistics, proving how these groups are contributing to the community, but in this area Saitama Prefecture has given me a considerable amount of leeway to deal with these questions as we go along, and this is also possible because it is a public-sector theater. And as we continue to bring results and the audience supports the activities of these people and asks the prefecture for more support, we may eventually get more funding as necessary.
  For a public-sector theater it is better if it is not decided from the beginning what the budget is, what the specific requests are and what the salaries will be. The best relationship is if there are people in charge at the prefectural and facility levels who will look honestly at the specific contents of the activities and decide on an appropriate level of support given those activities. I personally would like to see a situation in which we show that we are not wasting any money and putting our full efforts into this work and continuing to provide products that satisfy the audiences and, seeing that, the prefectural side will evaluate honestly that amount of funding and other forms of support we should be getting.
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