Pumpkin and Public Sphere: Interview with Tadashi Suzuki

by Ted Motohashi*

Tadashi Suzuki: Courtesy of Tadashi Suzuki and SCOT

Tadashi Suzuki (1939–), the Thalia Prize Laureate of 2020, is the founder and director of the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT), based in Toga Village in the mountains of Toyama prefecture. He is the creator of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and organizer of Japan’s first international theatre festival (Toga Festival) in 1982. Suzuki also plays a leading role in several other theatrical organizations: as General Artistic Director of Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (1995–2007), as a founding member of the International Theatre Olympics Committee and of the BeSeTo Festival (jointly organized by leading theatre professionals from China, Korea and Japan) and as chairman of the board of directors for the Japan Performing Arts Foundation (2000–10), a nation-wide network of theater professionals in Japan.

Suzuki’s work includes On the Dramatic Passions, The Trojan Women, King Lear, Cyrano de Bergerac, Madame de Sade, Nipponjin and many others. Besides productions with his own company, he has directed several international collaborations creating multilingual and multicultural productions throughout the world. He has also articulated his theories in a number of books including The Way of Acting (1986) and Culture is the Body (2015), and his system of actor training is taught in schools and theatres throughout the world, including the Julliard School in New York and the Moscow Art Theater.     

This interview was conducted on several occasions in the Toga Arts Park from July to October 2021. I heartily thank Tadashi Suzuki for his magnificent generosity and comradeship, and Yoshie Shigemasa, the Chief Producer of SCOT for her help in arranging the interviews.  

Let us begin by exploring your views on urban as opposed to rural spaces for the purposes of your theatre companies. You founded the Waseda Shogekijo in 1966 on the second floor of a Tokyo cafe and led the avant-guard theatre movement in Japan for ten years. During that time, you collaborated with numerous cultural critics and economic leaders and established yourself as one of the young leaders in the Japanese theatre scene. Then, in 1976, to the surprise of many people, you moved your theatrical base from Tokyo to Toga, a remote village deep in the mountains of the Toyama prefecture, which was then inhabited by only 1,500 people. At that time, Japan was at the height of economic growth, and large numbers of people were constantly moving from the countryside of Northwestern Japan (Japan-Sea side) to the big cities of Southeastern Japan (Pacific-Ocean side). Why did you make such a move since it opposed so clearly the trend of the times?

Actually, from the 1970s to the present time, about two million three hundred thousand people (which was more than the entire population of the Toyama and Ishikawa prefectures in the northwest of Japan) have moved to Tokyo and Osaka. In particular, the sheer concentration of industries and population in Tokyo has been staggering. If you conceive of theatrical activities as entertainment, that is to say, a commercial enterprise pandering to the general public, there has been a historical necessity for them to flourish in big cities since the birth of commercial theatres during the European Renaissance.

However, my idea of theatre is different from popular entertainment: it is what brings people spiritual nourishment. My theatre is not a-la-carte but a specialty store; by analogy to medicine, it is not a cold remedy or a digestive medicine which is effective for everyone, but an antibiotic with side-effects that targets particular mental and physical situations to overcome them. What is important for me is not collecting an audience but rather creating an audience.

In big cities where economic efficiency is prioritized, a system of surveillance and management will inevitably be the norm. Consequently, political control over space and human resources gets tighter. However, those restrictions on freedom of social activities are totally opposed to what I consider the role of art to be. All art is predicated on the free use of space and time, and this is especially true in the theatre, which is based on collective cooperation. I believe that an excellent instance of theatrical art could only derive from a space that allows for contingency and coincidence. That is why I founded a group in which we could work together in a very intense collaboration, both physically and verbally, to construct the Suzuki Training Method; as a result, everyone in the group can be theatrically active under common rules. Ultimately, we left Tokyo in order to create a space that activated those rules: in other words, we sought the individually unique space which we might call Suzuki Theatre Factory.

King Lear. Photo: Courtesy of Tadashi Suzuki and SCOT

With regard to the theatre, your motive for moving away from the controlled spaces of big cities is reasonable and clear, but why did you choose Toga, a city in the mountains which requires more than a day of travel time to arrive from Tokyo? Certainly, people such as Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Brook and Pina Bausch managed to create their own theatres outside of large cities, but no one ever founded their theatrical base in a remote village like Toga, which was inhabited at the time by little more than 1500 people. Moreover, after that move, you also founded Mito Arts Theatre in 1988 and Shizuoka Performance Arts Center, and then you became the General Artistic Director in 1995. These places were at the outskirts of Tokyo. What was the logic behind your decision to choose Toga as your base in northwestern Japan, especially since this village was not easily accessible to the general public?

There was an obvious reason why I created the theatres in Mito and Shizuoka according to my ideals; that is, to construct an anti-establishment network to surround the theatres in big cities which had lost the three most important elements of theatre, which are body, language and space, because they were immersed in commercialism. Therefore, I organized and hosted the second Theatre Olympics in 1999, not in Tokyo but in Shizuoka. I also foresaw at the time that globalization would weaken the restrictions of national boundaries while simultaneously increasing the flow of goods, workforce and information. That is to say, I was afraid this acceleration would allow economic enterprises to function more effectively, at the cost of marginalizing spiritual and artistic values. When I considered how the theatre could evolve in response to these situations, I came to rely on the principle of collectivity.

What do you imagine was key to uniting the residents in remote villages like Toga, where they have several meters of snow in winter and heavily depend on the government subsidies to survive, having only agriculture, forestry and construction works on public contracts as their principal sources of income? The answer is “solidarity” in the face of myriad hardship in living. It is easy to characterize such Japanese villages as feudalistic and caught up in tradition, but these Japanese villages have sustained themselves for many centuries by helping each other in difficult circumstances.

Let me share a couple of episodes which I myself witnessed. Five years had passed since we had first come to Toga, and I was thinking that we simply could not stay there any longer as debts had been mounting, when the village mayor at the time told me he would be very sad if we left because we had already become an important part of village life. I was quite moved by his words. In another instance, I was walking with the mayor along the river one day, after a period of heavy rainfall, when he said to me in a lowered voice, “Look, Mr. Suzuki, the river is raging. If a bridge is washed away, the subsidy from the central government for our construction works will increase. I would hope for this kind of disaster, but only provided that no one should die.” I was very surprised, and quite stirred, when he emphasized that “no one should die.” Then, I realized that the village administrators had to make every effort possible to maintain facilities so that villagers would not move away. Therefore, I and several other members of my company decided to become village residents, both administratively as well as practically. In order to show our determination to live here, as a sign of solidarity with the villagers, we built houses here, help cutting grass and clearing snow and stay here during the new-year season: it is very important to show our will to share the village lives in concrete and meaningful ways.

In the West, people invariably spend the Christmas holidays at the place they consider as home.

Yes, that’s exactly right. Unless we prove our loyalty and commitment through our daily activities, we won’t be trusted by the villagers. As a sign of their trust and confidence, the villagers released fish for our source of protein, and they have been steadfastly supporting our activities for 45 years. Now, thanks to some of the villagers who taught us how to grow vegetables, we produce our own fresh produce on a regular basis.

There is the vitally interdependent relationship between SCOT and the village of Toga, because if Toga ceases to exist as a living community, our works here must also end. And I came to believe, though it may sound audacious, that SCOT’s presence is now an indispensable component of the Toga community.

Toga Open-Air Amphitheater in winter. Photo: Courtesy of Tadashi Suzuki and SCOT

At Toga, you have built theatres which you can use whenever you want, and your company has bonded with a local community of kindred spirits.  You have also insisted that such developments are indispensable to your theatrical productions. Moreover, the Suzuki Training Method, unprecedented in Japan, has engendered a powerful feeling of solidarity within the company. What is the philosophy behind all these practices?

People might view our group of kindred spirits as one united by a common economic interest. However, our value is based not on individual interests but on a strong community spirit and a shared worldview which questions dominant powers and mainstream institutions. As a demonstration of our solidarity with the community, our company SCOT does not charge admission fees to our plays. Instead, we ask the spectators to pay whatever each chooses to give.

Those who want to pay can give as much as they wish, yet no one is under any obligation to pay at all. So, young people do not have to worry about money when they come to see our productions. As a result, the audience also becomes our trusted ally. I call this communal spirit created among the villagers, audience and SCOT members at Toga a non-expedient public awareness. It is not an anti-social public awareness but rather a communal awareness shaped by a critical attitude toward society. Therefore, the Theatre Olympics are not mere theatre festivals, but more importantly function as alternatives to national competitions. In the Theatre Olympics, we critically urge the world to examine itself through a single unified voice that transcends national boundaries and languages.

You founded the Theatre Olympics in 1994 along with 10 theatre practitioners from around the world, and you have been at the center of this organization, from the first Theatre Olympics of 1995 held in Greece, up to the 9th Theatre Olympics of 2019held jointly in Japan and Russia. Could you please describe the vision and philosophy that have shaped this foundation?

In the 1990s, as the political structures defined by the Cold War collapsed, not only did ethnic and religious conflicts intensify around the world, but the progress of globalization also brought about great economic disparities. The Theatre Olympics was created by directors and playwrights from Greece, Spain, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, the United States and Japan, all of whom understood the imminent crisis in such strained political and economic circumstances. We were an international committee of artists in the true sense of the term. An artist is not a person who merely creates engaging projects or considers problems within a closed community or nation.

Since the era of the Ancient Greeks, it has been the artists who have addressed, through their creative projects, the crises among different ethnic groups, and in doing so they have forged a universal point of view. Our goal of ​​sharing the cultural assets of each nation has nurtured the Theatre Olympics and has defined in part the essence of our collaboration.

Electra. Photo: Courtesy of Tadashi Suzuki and SCOT

The next question concerns the role of tradition and innovation. Many people might get the impression from your stage settings that your work is very different from the majority of theatre in Japan. Also, your theatre is constantly compared to traditional plays such as Noh and Kabuki. How do you feel about these views of your work?

The first thing to keep in mind regarding Japanese theatre is the vocalization method peculiar to the Japanese language. Since Japanese is not a stress accent language like English and many other Indo-European languages, but rather a high-low pitch language, it naturally has its own musicality. Therefore, actors must acquire a sense of the physical properties which the Japanese language can express. In Noh and Kabuki performances, a specific theatrical space was created for physical expression that enabled actors to reveal a unique style and animal energy, in what I call the pre-linguistic domain.

My own theatre also shares this drive in creating a unique physical dimension to expose the actor’s animal energy. In other words, in its essence, my theatre can be said to aim at establishing a new style of physical expression in modern times. And this force is based on the ability of the physical body to achieve spatial awareness and vocalization through instruction in the Suzuki Training Method.

The Trojan Women. Photo: Courtesy of Tadashi Suzuki and SCOT

Regarding that tradition, you often mentioned the regeneration of tradition in the past. You seem to be very critical not only of the practice of contemporary theatre but also of traditional theatre. Are you concerned that modern Japanese theatre has borrowed from the West, and that traditional Japanese theatre is nowadays performed as it is?

Generally speaking, if we think of tradition as the sustainability of the rules that establish society, looking at the history of theatre, Ancient Greek tragedy treats a criminal or murderer who breaks the rules as a victim of the society. In contrast, Renaissance theatre, including the work of Shakespeare, assumes that criminals are responsible individuals and should be punished because they are rebels against society. I think that the current Japanese traditional theatre is nothing more than a skeleton that only imitates the pattern because it has lost the Japanese vocalization and physicality I mentioned earlier. At the same time, this can also be said of modern Japanese theatre, which has only imitated the form without trying to acquire the spirit of the modern Western theatre of realism.

As far as I am concerned, instead of performing the representative works of modern Western theatre such as Ibsen and Chekhov as they are, I use only fragments of their plays within my own composition in a bricolage style. This is because I think that there are few things in those plays that appeal to the modern Japanese audience due to the constraints of their own time and place.

I used the word comrade earlier, but it can be rephrased as partisanship. In other words, I’m not performing because I like certain plays and writers. There must be a premise that we as interpreters should feel comradely towards a writer’s critical spirit. I am here to produce plays to reform the society and nation in which I live and to rewrite its history. Admittedly, there are natural peculiarities of cultures and times in every region, and unless I find some kind of universality in those peculiarities, I will not include extractions from these plays in my production.

Ivanov. Photo: Courtesy of Tadashi Suzuki and SCOT

It’s been 46 years since you set up your base here in Toga. I think your company has faced many difficulties during this period, but at the present time, the village of Toga has only 400 residents, as compared to the 1,500 people who were living there at the time of your arrival. Do you think it will be possible to continue your theatrical activities in such an environment?

In modern times, Japan has been shaped by a large population flow from the countryside to the city, and the speed of this shift is still unabated. Therefore, a traditional Japanese village centered on agriculture in its original form will not survive. This situation, unfortunately, is the new reality. This means that in Toga, SCOT will have to play a central role in the future, creating employment around the theatre village and arts park. We have built 6 theatres in the Toga Arts Park, added dormitories to accommodate 150 people and also cultivated a field to grow vegetables to help the members of the theatre company become self-supporting. A considerable amount of labor is required to maintain and preserve the diverse facilities in this vast area, but the local government, residents and members of the theatre company will continue to work together as a self-sufficient and self-supportive community. We will continue to cultivate the spirit of the theatre to motivate our creative performances, while, at the same time, cultivating the land to produce our own food supply. To that end, the support of local governments and the support of spectators who come to see SCOT’s production from all over the world are indispensable.

As I have already mentioned, we have a unique system in which the audience pays on a voluntary basis, so we do not charge an obligatory admission fee. This summer we even offered a small gift to our audience. In our agricultural production plan, we had miscalculated the size of the planted area for ​​pumpkins, which was larger than what we had thought, and as a result 500 pumpkins were harvested (laughter). That’s why we gave away a pumpkin free to everyone who came to the theatre festival. I think that this kind of homemade gift, not a monetary exchange, will foster a true public trust.

Greetings from the Edge of the World I at the Toga Open-Air Amphitheater. Photo: Courtesy of Tadashi Suzuki and SCOT

Indeed, when we come to the Toga Theatre Festival, there are diverse people from all over the world, including the locals of Toga, the governor of Toyama Prefecture and other government officials, as well as business people and renowned intellectuals from major cities. The diversity of the audience, including young people who come from afar to see your plays, is simply amazing. You have always said that what you care about is not simply staging theatrical activities but also reforming the world to bring about changes in Japanese society. Certainly, I get such an impression from recent works such as Greetings from the Edge of the World I and II and Madame de Sade written by Yukio Mishima. While you have directed a number of European classics, your focus seems centered more recently on Japanese works, with a particular concern for its modern history. What are your own thoughts regarding this shift in focus?

What I do in Toga is theatre as a social movement. What provides the greatest happiness for human beings cannot be the pursuit of money based on self-interest. Isn’t it rather to bring joy, not only to family members and people close to us, but also to others? And for that purpose, I don’t think there is a more suitable means to realize this goal than a live theatrical performance, where you can see the reaction of the audience in front of you. The term economy in the Chinese language means to promote the country and save the people. Isn’t that what the theatre is aiming to achieve?

In recent years, my work has shifted from European classic to Japanese theatre, but that does not mean that my priorities have become nationalistic. It is true that when we perform in Toga, with its largely Japanese audience, the stage is designed primarily to make a critical assessment of Japanese society, but, in fact, the theme itself is global. My basic attitude is the same as when I direct European classics.

I truly believe that while every work has its own historical and regional peculiarities, if you study them deeply, you will surely discover some universal elements. Otherwise, it’s not a quality work. I identify myself not as Japanese but as a Toga resident in Japan. For the artist, such regional, cultural and historical specificity guarantees internationality and universality.

I believe that by means of an international mindset which projects compatible spiritual and artistic values, we the artists can find ways for different ethnic groups, nations and cultures to coexist in these uncertain and troubled times.

Madame de Sade. Photo: Courtesy of Tadashi Suzuki and SCOT

Earlier you talked about sharing aspirations by giving away free pumpkins, and I for one brought home a huge pumpkin a few weeks ago, after I had come to see your plays. I also share your views that a comradely relationship born out of such interactions will transcend regional and ethnic differences and can create public spheres as a result. With this in mind, I would like to ask you about future prospects for activities in Toga Village. As the latest recipient of the illustrious Thalia Award by AICT/IATC, could you please tell us about the new directions you foresee in Toga from an international perspective.

The reason we founded the Theatre Olympics as a group of comrades is not to compete against each other but, rather, to collaborate with like-minded colleagues who all identify with and cherish multiple nationalities and cultures; that is to say, we endeavor to allow the particular and the universal to coexist. Therefore, regardless of nationality or language, if the critical ideas are shared—that is, if we can gather in Toga as a base for spiritual globalization—the people who work here need not be Japanese nationals at all. This place is always open to anyone who wants to learn the Suzuki Training Method, and that method is fundamentally supported by what I call Toga philosophy, based on my ideas about body, language and theatrical space. In other words, the Suzuki Method is not just a technique for physical training but is crucially related to ​​the place called Toga where we live, grow crops and consume the products of our own cultivation.

Each day, we train ourselves to produce theatre through the cultivation of mind, body and land. It is a life philosophy accompanied by the wisdom of developing our bodies and land at the same time. I hope that many people from all over the world will visit Toga to share and develop this idea together.

Tadashi Suzuki handling a power shovel with the Thalia Prize cane in his hand. Photo: Courtesy of Tadashi Suzuki and SCOT

Note: Translated from Japanese by Ted Motohashi 

*Ted Motohashi is Professor of Cultural Studies, Tokyo University of Economics, and serves as President of the Japanese affiliate of the IATC. He completed his D.Phil. in Literature from the University of York, U.K., in 1995.  His publications include several books on drama, cultural and postcolonial studies, and, most recently, he edited, with Poonam Trivedi and Paromita Chakravarti, All the World’s His Stage: Asian Interventions in Global Shakespeare (Routledge, 2020). Ted Motohashi is also a leading translator into Japanese of works by Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Rey Chow, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, amongst others.

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