A Case Study of the Intercultural Production of Väike Jumalanna (The Little Goddess)
A devising theatre practitioner, Izumi Ashizawa has been facing the challenges and privileges of creating multi-lingual and intercultural works in different countries for the past 15 years. Each project presented its own unique developmental process, based on the specific traits of the local actors, designers and technicians. In this essay, Ashizawa examines the collaborative creative process of an original intercultural musical puppet play Väike Jumalanna (The Little Goddess) that she wrote and directed at the National Estonian Drama Theatre (Eesti Draamateater) in Tallinn, Estonia, in January 2018. The article investigates the creative process of a multicultural/ multilingual musical production from an artist’s perspective.
Keywords: Eesti Draamateater, Esthonia, Bunraku, Väike Jumalanna, Nepal, living goddess
When I first received an invitation from Eesti Draamateater and Eesti Muusika-ja Teatriakadeemia in Tallinn to create a devised theatre piece to represent and transmit (both aesthetically and pedagogically) the culture of my motherland, Japan, I knew neither the performers nor the creative team. The only thing I knew was that I would be working with a multi-cultural ensemble. Our actors, musicians and creative team came from five different nations and cultures: Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Japan and the U.S.A. For me, this became an incentive to compose a play whose themes and characters would represent a cultural, aesthetic and philosophical hybrid.
Ideas of alienation, displacement and the loss of personal cultural values informed the making of Väike Jumalanna (The Little Goddess);we invoked magical realism and musical puppetry in order to creatively embody these concepts. At the same time, Väike Jumalanna was devised specifically for Estonian audience and within the repertory system of the Estonian national theatre, co-produced by Eesti Draamateater (the National Estonian Drama Theatre) and Eesti Muusika-ja Teatriakadeemia (Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre), in January 2018. Given the context of the cultural makeup of the play’s contributors, Väike Jumalanna did not have the feel of an imported product. Väike Jumalanna had turned into an original play about migration that had emerged from the local context of its own making.
Inspired by the living goddess practice in Nepal and the ancient Shinto ritual of young shaman girls in Japan, the play tells a story of a young girl who is chosen to be a living goddess. Framed through three different layers of storytelling, it uses magical realism and the Japanese acting techniques. Haru, a male narrator, recollects the story of his former lover, Tara, the human goddess. This is the first or outer framing device of Väike Jumalanna. The second frame presents itself through the gaze of Tara’s spirit, who looks at her own past. The inner frame is the entirety of Tara’s own story: a girl from a small village in the mountains is born with a physical disability and is chosen to be a goddess. The goddess’s worshippers make Tara believe that she is special, and thus entitled to be a living goddess until her first menstruation.
This play is inspired by the ritual of the living goddess from the Nepalese mythology, but the final story is my own fictional creation. In the play, the ancestors concocted the living goddess religious system in order to survive during the times of natural disasters. For them, the goddess served as a tool to release psychological distress. Today, the tradition survives unchanged, although the world around it has drastically altered. In order to validate this obsolete tradition in the changing world, the religious worshipers cling onto the mystic ritual more vehemently and make the goddess practice believable.
In the play, Tara slowly loses her sense of reality. She starts to believe that she is indeed a goddess with magical powers. Because of her isolated living conditions and the so-called “ritual happenings” that worshippers perform on her (in reality—can be seen as a child abuse), imagination becomes her only means of survival. Following the climax of the play, Tara—a child—transforms into a young woman as the fictional world around her collapses. She is now destined to lose her goddess status, to be chased out of the palace and to be forced to seek out a normal human life.
Creative Process: A Director’s Memoir
When I look back at the creative process that defined the making of Väike Jumalanna, I can identify three steps that made this work an example of the theatre of migration. These steps included deconstructing conventional practices of the rehearsal process; working on hybrid themes and aesthetic approaches; and breaking the hierarchical structure of the script.
1. Deconstructing conventional structure of the rehearsal process and establishing new rules
Although the production was presented only in Estonian, English and Estonian were the languages that we used in our creative process. Our team members came from five different countries and cultures, so we had to seek and establish our own creative language of working and creating theatre meaning, which would not be dependent on words or dialogue. As a director, I aimed to bring out everyone’s best skills, mix them and create a performance language of our own. As we had never worked together before, there was no pre-existing work ethic or trust among us as a team.
In order to build this trust and develop our common creative language, I set up pre-rehearsal training sessions. My own training amalgamates different systems of Japanese and European physical acting mixed with experimental vocal techniques. This training is extremely demanding: it is highly physical and requires a lot of concentration and stamina. Thus, it was quite challenging for some of the ensemble members to follow our work. However, having all actors, musicians and designers in the same room during this training period helped to overcome these difficulties. This became an essential step for our creation.
After a few days of training and routine exercises, I added coordination exercises useful for puppetry. On the fifth day, I introduced the image-based exercises that we would later connect to the dramaturgy of the play. At this stage, I did not tell the actors the purpose of each exercise, as, at that point, we had not begun working on the script yet. This approach gave the team a chance to access their imagination and associations rooted in their impulses and instincts. (Figure 1) I asked the performers to do experimental work with their bodies and voices, and then I asked them to translate these experiments into their work with puppets.
We repeated these experiments with different materials and in different versions, and, later, they became the scenes in the play. (Figure 2) After this period of experimentation, we dove into the formal play analysis and scene blocking. As we broke a traditional theatre convention to start rehearsals with table-work, we succeeded in challenging the hierarchy of logos over visual elements on stage. Above all, this helped to establish nonhierarchical collaborative relationships within the creative team.
Listening to, gauging, processing and editing various and, sometimes, contrasting voices was my critical task—valuing all the perspectives, yet choosing the most effective. The experimental techniques of scene development that we practiced made this difficult task the most efficient and harmonious. I asked the performers to cast aside all preconceived judgments; specifically, at the beginning of the process and during the experimental stage. In this way, they all became involved into the collective decision making. For instance, we had been looking for the most powerful way to represent protagonist’s voice on stage. From the moment she was selected as a living deity, Tara was not allowed to speak or show her emotions in public. The character could freely express her feelings only in her imaginary world. We wanted to show a clear difference between her voice and other characters’. Tara, the child, was played by the puppet. So, Tara’s voice during her childhood had to be different from that of grown-up Tara, played by the actress.
To achieve this, we used multiple vocal experiments with the puppeteers who worked with the puppet Tara. But, for a long time, we could not find the right solution. One day, during the tragic scene of the death of Tara’s sister, the second puppeteer made a mourning sound. The two voices of two puppeteers created an effect of eerie echo and otherworldly atmosphere. It was a moment of realization and solution. We used these two voices to enact Tara’s internal monologues as a child and then, later, to create a kind of muffled voice for her speeches as a living goddess.
2. Hybrid theme and aesthetic approaches
The idea of mixing the living goddess practice of Nepal and the long-forgotten practice of young girl worship in Shinto religion, before the Middle Ages, in Japan became the first step in the multilayered dramaturgy of this production. The hybrid cultural makeup of our creative team allowed me to use hybrid approaches in storytelling. From the moment I got involved with this project, I intended to depict the practice of the living goddess as the core theme of the play. In my home country of Japan, the practice of worshiping a young girl is long-forgotten. In order to present this practice in the most truthful manner, I decided to use the Nepali Kumari worship as a model for my play.
Kumari practice is based on the belief that a goddess possesses the body of a chosen young girl. It is said that the prototype of the Nepali goddess and the Japanese deity share the same mythological root from the ancient Near East: it traveled through Central Asia, via the silk road, to turn into a form of goddess in Nepal and something different in Japan. It was natural for me to trace this route back to Nepal to better understand the belief mechanism of the living goddess practice and to create a hybrid version of the living goddess rituals in my play.
This process of creation turned into a cycle of personal migration. I took a research trip to Nepal in June 2017. I visited the Royal Kumari (living goddess) Palace in Kathmandu and observed the Nepali religious practices. This research trip served as cornerstone to the dramaturgical structure and writing of the play. In Väike Jumalanna, the ritual scenes, although fictionalized, are based on the religious practices that I observed in Nepal. The politics around the living goddess and historical transition of the value of the goddess are also inspired by the actual history of Nepal’s Kumari.
In the course of dramaturgical research, tracing the historical roots of the living goddess practices throughout Asia, I found out that the mother-earth goddess named Tara has been admired as one of the oldest and most powerful goddesses in various regions’ mythologies. Thus, when the time came to name the protagonist of my play, I felt “Tara” would be the natural fit for it. Later, when I started rehearsals in Estonia, I discovered that, in the Estonian myths, the chief male god is called Taara. The actors felt an immediate connection to Väike Jumalanna when they first read the play because of the name of the protagonist. They also thought that the animistic philosophy of Shinto was like the Estonian beliefs in nature. Although the source materials came from distant places, we found many similarities between them, and these discoveries enriched the play. We adopted the Japanese puppetry-inspired technique in this production and intertwined it with other aesthetic formats in the performance. This choice was based on the doll-like idol condition of the protagonist. The stylistic shift of a character representation from puppet to human became the visual manifestation of the protagonist’s transformation from a pre-puberty goddess into an adult woman.
In other words, I wanted to stylistically juxtapose the protagonist’s three lives: Tara as a goddess, Tara’s world of imagination and a grown-up Tara banished from the throne. I envisioned the goddess on the throne—not permitted to speak or show her emotions—as a puppet. The sharpest the contrast between inanimate goddess puppet and her admirers (performed by human actors) was, the more grotesque the image became. It helped us to depict and comment on the mechanisms of human beliefs and behaviors. (Figure 3)
The only human puppets in the play were Tara and Haru (Tara’s first and only love) as children. These puppets were modeled after Japanese Bunraku and were animated by two puppeteers clothed in black from head to toe. Female actors animated Tara and male actors manipulated Haru, in order to encode the gender politics in puppeteering. As Bunraku is performed only by men (as with all other Japanese traditional theatre), using two female puppeteers for Tara was a conscious decision to contest this tradition. In addition, in Bunraku, puppeteers only animate the puppet, whereas the characters’ voices are handled by the chanters, Gidayu. In Väike Jumalanna, the puppeteers animated puppets and spoke for them. This exemplifies the technique of stylistic translation common in intercultural theatre practices.
In the scenes that took place in Tara’s imagination, all characters were surrealistic. They presented an amalgamation of different myths from various cultures. There were half-water buffalo-half-human creatures; a hairy eyeless monster with two heads, who, later, revealed himself to be a deity; a fox statue that moved and spoke (Figure 4); and a caterpillar that, later, transformed into a butterfly. When the time of Tara’s puberty came, rose petals fell between her legs, representing menstrual blood, and the cocoon puppet cracked open as a butterfly emerged from it. This transformation was completed when the puppet of Tara disappeared and a human actress as Tara stepped in front of the throne. The rest of the play was performed by human Tara and Haru, who used puppet-like and melodramatic gestures, inspired by Kabuki techniques.
3. Breaking hierarchical structures of a play script
Designing Väike Jumalanna took place simultaneously with the writing of the script. The scenographer, Kristjan Strut, traveled from Estonia to New York for our initial meeting in August 2017. At this stage, there existed only the general concept of the play and several opening scenes, but most of the script was not written. The scene of Tara’s suicide had two potential versions: drowning or hanging. At that first meeting, Kristjan Strut informed me of the negative visual connotation that hanging ropes have in the Estonian culture. After careful consideration, I opted to use drowning as a performative image of Tara’s suicide. Based on this critical decision, we decided to use a sandbox as our set, so it would represent water in one scene and a rice field or a forest in others. Envisioning this scenography, I composed the rest of the play using sand as my artistic tool. Because the designer arrived at the early stage of collaboration, his input significantly added to the unique visual language of this production. It helped us shift the position of the play script from the top of the hierarchical pyramid of traditional theatre structures and practices.
The trailer is taken from the Facebook page of Eesti Draamateatere
Creating Väike Jumalanna exemplifies how the dramaturgy of migration can contest the
conventions of traditional theater. Thematic
approaches, creative process and systematic structure helped to establish the
identity of theatre done by
translational artists and about migration.
 The actual Bunraku utilizes three male puppeteers for one puppet. However, we chose to use two puppeteers to operate one puppet.
*Izumi Ashizawa (Director/ Playwright/ Performer/ Puppet-Mask and Costume Designer) is the artistic director of Izumi Ashizawa Performance and Associate Professor of Devising Theatre and Performance Art at State University of New York at Stony Brook. Originally founded in 2002, Izumi Ashizawa Performance explores the physical story-telling with unconventional puppetry and object animation and masks. Based on Japanese physical performance techniques, Ashizawa’s movement techniques are taught around the world and her devised pieces have been performed internationally, including the U.S.A., Japan, the U.K., Canada, Norway, Russia, Austria, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Romania, Poland, Turkey, Iran, Australia, the Cayman Islands, Peru, Cyprus and Estonia. Izumi Ashizawa won numerous awards, including the Medal of Honor for Cultural Excellence from the City of Piura in Peru, the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Faculty Achievement Award Excellence in Directing and Technology, Capital Fringe Director’s Award, UNESCO-Aschberg Award, IIFUT Best Performance Award, Tehran Municipality Culture and Arts Organization Award, Australian Government Fund for the Arts, and Norwegian Cultural Fund, APAP Cultural Exchange Fund, SUNY Stony Brook College of Arts and Science Dean’s Excellence Award and Presidential Guest Artist award. She is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.
Copyright © 2019 Izumi Ashizawa
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