Theatre for Humility Toward Otherness: Spirituality, Prayer and Hope: Interview with Satoshi Miyagi

by Tomoka Tsukamoto* and Ted Motohashi**

The Epic of Gilgamesh, the latest work by Satoshi Miyagi, General Artistic Director of the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC), was performed at the Claude Levi-Strauss Theatre, Musée du quai Branly, Paris, in February 2022. This work was commissioned by the museum, following Inaba and Navajo’s White Rabbit, another commissioned work to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the museum’s opening in 2016.

Inaba and Navajo’s White Rabbit. Photo: SPAC

Miyagi chose The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest epics of the Ancient Orient, because of his continued interest in oral literature. As a theatre director, Miyagi has been deeply concerned with the relationship which we may take for granted between words and letters, body and space, orality and aurality. In Miyagi’s latest work, chorus and actors play musical instruments, and even puppets are manipulated to tell stories.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Théâtre Claude Lévi-Strauss, Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac; Gilgamesh: Kouichi Ohtaka, Enkidu: Yuya Daidomumon. Photo: Jean Couturier

Satoshi Miyagi’s original production method, the so-called “two persons in one role” (or “two-in-one”) method, divides one theatrical character into a mover—that is, one who acts—and a speaker—one who narrates lines. However, in actuality, within the same work a particular role may be neatly divided between a speaker and mover, but, at other times, multiple speakers, such as a chorus, correspond to one mover, or one speaker takes the role of multiple movers, so that the roles are not wholly fixed on a one-to-one correspondence. These variations reflect differences in the characters and the social hierarchy in which they are entangled.

We sometimes wonder if there is any director who can better listen to the voices and sounds of the dead and the living. Satoshi Miyagi has produced many classic works with his unique dramaturgical technique and innovative focus on the text. His textual interpretation amounts to an aural philosophy that excavates the hidden voice in the text.

One of his most renowned works is probably Mahabharata: The Adventures of King Nara, performed in July 2014 at the legendary Boulbon quarry during the Avignon Festival. This work has been performed not only in Europe but also in various parts of the world, such as the King Abdulaziz World Cultural Center in Saudi Arabia (2018) and the Pacific International Theatre Festival in Vladivostok, Russia (2021).

In 2017, Miyagi opened the Avignon Festival, as the first non-European director to be so honored, with his staging of Sophocles’ Antigone at the Cour d’honneur du Palais des Papes. He filled the stage with water and several large stones as in a Japanese temple garden and appropriated the worldview based on the non-binary Buddhist religion, which explained how to break the retaliatory chain of violence in the actual world.

Révélation. Inyi: Mikari. Photo: Simon Gosselin

Miyagi’s idea of requiescat for the repose of the soul of the dead is manifested not only in Antigone but also in The Winter’s Tale (2017), Miyagi-Noh Othello (2018) and Révélation (2018). Révélation, written by Cameroon-born novelist/playwright Léonora Miano and commissioned by the La Colline National Theatre in France, depicted the controversial issue of African leaders’ collusion in the slave trade as an artistic representation of spiritual atonement.[1]

In recent times, Miyagi and his company seem to prioritize calming the spirits of the dead and soothing the living souls who suffer from present hardships and atrocities.

Le Lièvre blanc d’Inaba et des Navajos | Spectacle au Théâtre Claude Lévi-Strauss

Satoshi Miyagi was born in Tokyo in 1959 and studied theory of the theatre at the University of Tokyo. During his university years, he created several solo performances called Miyagi Satoshi Show, and he founded the Ku=Nauka Theatre Company in 1990. For Ku=Nauka, he established his hallmark two-in-one method with live music played by the actors, with Izumi Kyoka’s Tenshu Monogatari (The Tale of Castle Tower) and Euripides’ Medea. In 2007, he succeeded Tadashi Suzuki as General Artistic Director of the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center.

From among the modern European classics, Miyagi directed Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Hugo’s Madame Borgia. His other notable performances include Macbeth and Hamlet, modern Japanese masterpieces such as Izumi Kyoka’s Yashagaike (Demon Lake), Miyazawa Kenji’s The Biography of Gusko-budori, and Mishima Yukio’s Kurotokage (Black Lizard). Every year, Miyagi organizes the World Theatre Festival Shizuoka, to which he invites the most highly acclaimed professionals in international theatre to present shows that reflect the company’s spirit of diversity and artistic excellence. He received the Japanese Minister of Education Award in 2018 in Japan and the French Arts and Culture Medal Chevalier in 2019.

Satoshi Miyagi. Photo: Ryota Atarashi

We would like to thank Mr. Miyagi for taking time from his busy schedule to participate in the interview presented below, and Ms. Takako Oishi, SPAC representative, for adjusting Mr. Miyagi’s schedule to allow for his participation.

Satoshi Miyagi. Inside Out: Electric Japan
“Two-in-One” Method: Dissociation Between Speech and Body

How did you develop the two persons in one role (“two-in-one”) method, the style synonymous with your company?

Before we established Ku=Nauka, I was doing a solo performance called Miyagi Satoshi Show. In other words, my performance was not a traditional solo play as I played a third-person narrator just like Rakugo, not a character. The script of this one-person show was taken from a novel, and I performed the storyline from a writer’s point of view. I interpreted it according to the premise that my role was a narrative rather than a dialogue.

The actor as the narrator is like a bottle with a hollow inside, into which various things enter. In other words, in Miyagi Satoshi Show, I tried to be the ultimate figure of the narrator, aiming for a kind of transparency. Being a hollow bottle or a window, I, the narrator, can let you see various things behind that window.

What I aimed for was based on a principle contrasting with modern Western dramaturgy, in which the artist is at the forefront of his or her creation, saying, “I created it as I saw the world in this way.” However, even in the European history of sculptures, we cannot find this definite “I”—the creator’s self-image—in sculptures up to the Middle Ages or the early Renaissance. What you see is a kind of prayer, I think. That is also the case with painting: for example, when we look at the Virgin of Vladimir, which is said to be the best icon in Russia, we feel that the person who created it is transparent and praying there, as if the prayers of countless people pass through the window of this icon. What I wanted to do was to create that kind of experience for the audience.

Can we call Miyagi Satoshi Show a solo-performance piece, then?

Yes. I played multiple roles by myself in Miyagi Satoshi Show, but there was a language barrier in this. As long as I played in Japanese, the audience was limited to only those who can speak Japanese. I call this language barrier in the theatre “protectionist trade” because the production cannot be relativized to theatre in other countries. Consequently, modern Japanese theatre stopped developing, and Japanese actors did not have to compete with actors from other countries. I was not satisfied with that result and thought about trying various techniques, such as memorizing the whole performance in French.

Mahabharata: The Adventures of King Nara. Photo: Ryota Atarashi

Nevertheless, when I imagined a person whose native language was not Japanese doing a solo performance in Japanese, I thought that this was a pretty difficult accomplishment. Therefore, I wondered if there was a way to let people who do not speak Japanese enjoy themselves and make the actors feel like they are competing with actors who do not speak Japanese as their mother tongue. So, I concluded that I could not overcome this language barrier with this solo-play method.

As a result, I came up the idea of performing one role with multiple people, which was the opposite of one actor playing multiple roles. It was different from the life-sized, so-called “realistic acting.” For that purpose, I started to think about the “two people playing one role” method; that is, separating the person who spoke the line, or the speaker, and the person who acted, or the mover.

Teaser du spectacle “Mahabharata”

Your first production in the two-in-one method was Hamlet, wasn’t it?

Yes. In order to achieve this separation between speech and action, we needed a concrete technique that would create an exciting stage production. At first, I thought it would be interesting to divide anyway, without thinking about a technique. In 1990, I tried this division with Hamlet at Tokyo’s Aoyama Amphitheatre. At that time, I thought it was necessary to ensure that there was no unnaturalness in the division for the audience’s sake. Therefore, I divided the characters of Hamlet according to a political hierarchy which represented the world as a binary division of servants and royalty. For instance, in the old St. Petersburg, the royal family spoke French, and the servants spoke Russian, didn’t they? If you apply a similar assumption in Hamlet, Hamlet and Ophelia speak in French, a language that the servants do not understand. So, I divided the characters into a group of servants and royalty, and when the royals spoke, they just moved their mouths without any sound. Furthermore, the servants spoke their lines by guessing what the royals must be saying.

However, when we tried this method, the production became very ordinary and banal [laughter], looking something like a then-popular non-established theatre style in the 1990s in Japan. I had to think more about how it should work differently. First, I wondered if the selection of the play was not appropriate. I thought that people from any country could understand Hamlet, but I started to think that there might be suitable or unsuitable plays for the separation between the mover and the speaker. And I started to study Western opera librettos and Japanese Bunraku verses.

In that process, I discovered that the opera librettos before Wagner and the Tokohon, the floor book or script for the Gidayu singers of Bunraku, were made with a surprisingly similar idea. There are two types of lyrics, one that spreads emotions and feelings only, and the other that is made up solely of singing and instrumental music. In both cases, you have to convey the content and meaning of the words properly through what I call “lyrical flowers”; that is, sad if you are sad, happy if you are happy, hate if you hate, and revenge if you want to take revenge.

I noticed that in the case of Bunraku and opera, these divisions were properly done, but Hamlet isn’t written in such a way. Opera isn’t divided into dialogue and movement, but it is similar to separating dialogue and movement. Recitatives, which convey meaning, usually have a simple accompaniment. I realized that I had to do something like this to create a script for the two-in-one method.

So, the two-in-one method had an evolutionary process.

Next to Hamlet, we did Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1991), in which we divided the text into arias and recitatives when the effect of the two-in-one method started to appear. Moreover, when we tried this method in Tenshu Monogatari (The Tale of Castle Tower, 1996), I thought we had finally reached a point at which this unique method could reveal in the drama what could not be expressed by common realistic acting.

Tenshu Monogatari. Tomi-hime: Mikari, Kame-hime: Yuumi Sakakibara. Photo: K. Miura 

You said before that the two-in-one method is a way to reveal the original separation of speech and body in human lives, which was forcefully connected in the form of the modern Western ego. For example, how did you apply different dramaturgical principles to Shakespeare? You adapted and produced Othello and The Winter’s Tale in the two-in-one method, but you did Hamlet (2008) in the usual one-person-in-one-role method.

Before I answer your question, I would like to discuss the forceful conjunction of speech and body in human lives. When I performed alone in Miyagi Satoshi Show, I intentionally tried to expose the gap between speech and body. For example, I deliberately delayed my bodily movement by about 15 seconds, which would have corresponded to what I said. However, even if I tried to express, through this gap between body and speech, the idea that “Look, I’m torn so much,” I saw that the audience wanted to find in me an ideal person, with a unity of logos and pathos, words and body. And I became somewhat tired of using all my energy for the sake of the delusions of these people.

A good example of how speech and body are fundamentally dissociated is what we say when we are very fond of or love a person. In what words do we say this? Even if we say, “I love you” or “I like you,” we feel that the words do not fully convey what we feel inside. There are no words that hit the center of the target, and we say something extra or a little off. The words “I love you” are not easy to use in a drama. That is because what we say is always already separated from what we really want to say.

Hamlet. Morimasa Takeishi as Hamlet. Photo: K. Miura

We may wonder if there are words that are not separated from the body, which could convey what the body felt, and I thought that the words in Manyoshū (the oldest songbook in Japan, 7th to 8th century A.D.) could be the case. In Manyoshū, when we hear the word “Yomigaere!” (Resurrect!), you can imagine that the body of a person who died is united with the wish expressed in this speech. However, when Kokin Wakashū (the second oldest songbook) was compiled around 900, I think the separation of speech from the body was already established. At first, I thought that the ancient people had a moment when the body and the words were coordinated, but this union was lost in modern times. However, while we performed overseas, I gradually realized that this was not the case: instead, I came to understand that the moment humans acquired language, language and body started to diverge.

Hamlet/SPAC 2020–2021 programs Promotional videos

It is your unique observation that once we acquire language, we are separated from the surrounding world.

Just consider the process by which a baby acquires words. Before she or he acquires language, the baby just cries, laughs and makes various noises without any linguistic framework. Since this framework is highly consistent and systematic, you can roughly understand what the baby wants when listening to that voice. For example, when a baby who has not learned to say “I’m hungry” cries “Wen Wen,” adults around it quickly ask, “Are you hungry?” However, once humans begin to use the word “hungry,” adults verbally understand that they are hungry, but they will not see the baby’s condition in the same way as they viewed it before the baby acquired that word. While the baby cried without saying a word, those around it were very attentive, but they then stopped showing the same concern. Then, the baby learns to lie, saying “I’m hungry” even when it is not, as the world has now become strange.

Many adults may have forgotten that, but almost everyone has had a similar experience. Therefore, the experience that words separate the individual from the world is actually held in everyone’s mind and body. So, I came to think that the dissociation between words and body is not a modern pathology but a universal phenomenon from the time at which humans acquired words.

Some people might say that the two-in-one dramaturgy is similar to that of Bunraku.

In case of Bunraku, it is taken for granted that words are separated from bodies. The only desire for Tayū, the singer, is to express the sentiment well by singing the verses, and he does not want to move his body on the stage at all. However, in the two-in-one method which we developed, the dissociated partners, the mover and the speaker, are yearning for each other, so to speak. In other words, it is a dramaturgy in which words seek the body, and the body seeks words. By highlighting the dissociation concretely and visually, I wanted the audience to feel how much the separated partners desired each other. My aim was to make the audience vividly envision the union of speech and action when they actually see them drastically severed.

When my actors become silent movers, they will be frustrated because they will not be able to say what they want, and they have to express their sentiments solely with their bodies. On the other hand, the actors who become speakers want to move, but they have to sit down to let their voices perform the action instead. In this way, due to these restrictions on the actors, I wanted the audience to imagine a kind of wholeness in which movement, speech and music are integrated. In that sense, my dramaturgical aim is totally different from Bunraku’s.

Then, why do some Shakespearean plays work in the two-in-one and others do not?

Generally speaking, the Renaissance view of human beings was that the individual was unique, the only such person in the world, and that view pervades many of Shakespeare’s plays. In Shakespearean plays, if an actor can express the feeling that the individual is unique, he or she plays that role well. If a play has been performed effectively with that approach, I think it is hard to surpass it, even if I try to do the same play with the two-in-one method.

In Hamlet, the protagonist doubts his own desire, so I think this play could be a borderline work in which two separate actors play one role. That could also be the case with plays by Chekhov in which people do not grasp their desires. So, I do not think that Chekhov is suitable for the two-in-one method.

The Winter’s Tale is rather atypical for a Shakespearean play in that Shakespeare did not write the kind of uniqueness or hugeness of Lear or Othello, for instance, and in that sense, I thought that our two-in-onemethod could be better applied there.

The Winter’s Tale. Leontes: Kouichi Ohtaka, Hermione: Mikari. Photo:K. Miura

Many improbable events occur in Shakespeare’s last four Romance plays, from Leontes’ jealousy to Apollo’s oracles, from marine disasters to human resurrections. Is your choice of The Winter’s Tale for the two-in-one method related to these allegorical characteristics?

That could be the case. Usually, when narrating an event, we think we should write various episodes to make the reader believe in the incident by increasing the degree of reality. The parable is the exactly the opposite, isn’t it? Nothing is written based on reality, as if beans were thrown away and a tree reached heaven overnight. The same is true for Mahabharata.

Your well-known masterpieces, Medea and Antigone, are done in the two-in-one method. Do you think that the Greek tragedies are compatible with that method?

Greek tragedies were not intended originally to express an individual personality or character. In that sense, if a director imbues a Greek tragedy with realism, the purpose and means are not suitable in the first place. Characters in Greek tragedies represent abstract metaphors, symbolizing, for example, a substantial historical shift such as the transition from a female society to a male society, embodied in those more-than-individual characters, such as Electra, Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra: they are not life-sized people. The separation of words and actions is the perfect technique for depicting a character who is not a life-sized person.

Medea. Mikari as Medea. Photo: Takuma Uchida
Space: Appeasing the Spirit

When we saw your productions in historic outdoor spaces such as the Boulbon quarry and the Cour d’honneur du Palais des Papes in Avignon, we immediately sensed an awe for the place; indeed, prayer might be the best word to describe this sensation. Given the spiritual quality of the place, how did you develop a particular dramaturgy that paid special attention to the venue’s historical significance?

In recent times, SPAC has viewed itself as a theatre company devoted exclusively to prayers for the dead souls which occupy a historical setting. In every place, there remain souls of the dead, and such stirrings are felt to be particularly strong in some places. For example, Sunpujo-Koen (Sunpu Castle Park) in Shizuoka, where SPAC performs in the “Fuji no Kuni ⇄ World Theatre Festival” in May, has witnessed widespread death and destruction from the Middle Ages to the early Edo period. The Cour d’honneur du Palais des Papes in Avignon has also witnessed many tragic incidents over time. These places inevitably house the mortified thoughts, regrets and chagrin of many people, and these sentiments have not been placated. Through transparent bottles of actors in the theatre, I have come to believe that the audience can encounter these souls.

Antigone. Photo: Ryota Atarashi

The theatre is an act of calling forth the dead, an artistic ritual to summon them. I firmly believe that historically, the theatre has possessed the capacity and mechanism to attract people who are not physically present. If you perform at the Sunpu Castle or the Cour d’honneur du Palais des Papes, many dead people will appear there, and the audience will meet them.

SPAC-Shizuoka Performing Arts Center “Antigone”

We the living also feel reposed by your works, too.

Let me tell you how I became aware of the spiritual specificity of theatrical space. In 1996, we performed Tenshu Monogatari at Yushima Seido in Tokyo. Yushima Seido had a U-shaped building with an open courtyard. In retrospect, I now see that our attitude was rather arrogant, as we were trying to manipulate the space as we liked. Then, on the first day of the performance, we had an unstoppable downpour [laughs]. I know it may sound strange, but up to that point, I had been allowed to do whatever I wanted to do for days, but then there was a sudden washout. Afterwards, I noticed that this place was a Confucian temple, and we had paid no respect to the space, as we were thinking only of its physical conditions. At that moment, I realized how arrogant I had been. The next day, I offered a prayer to the grave of Confucius.

We have heard that you always pray before a rehearsal or performance.

The atmosphere of Confucius’s temple was gentle and soothing when I prayed [laughs]. I had not given it much thought at that time, but gradually, some things have come to my mind whenever we do a play. That feeling of respect or humility towards the past and the dead must be universal.

Zusyonosuke: Kouichi Ohtaka, Tomi-hime: Mikarienshu Monogatari. Photo:K. Miura
Opera: The Local and the Universal

We understand that you are a theatre director who is very particular about the musicality of a performance. You also have a deep knowledge of opera repertoire and have directed many operas. Why would you want to direct an opera?

As I have said, I constructed my two-in-one dramaturgy through studying opera librettos such as Salome, Electra, which premiered in 1995, and Tristan und Isolde, which premiered in 2001. I directed these works as plays, but studying opera librettos was very useful in refining the two-in-one method, as they had a two-fold structure divided between arias and recitatives. The work initially featured as an opera had a similar structure that I elaborated in the two-in-one method.

However, as you say, directing an opera itself is an entirely different type of commitment. What makes an opera so attractive, particularly to the director, is that it has something impossible to achieve. No matter how hard a director or conductor tries, they cannot control the whole work; there is always something inaccessible. Typically, a modern-day drama, theatre for the last 100 years or so, was constructed on the principle that one artist created the work as an expression of their worldview.

Even now, the European view of theatre seems to be quite similar. So, actors can enjoy acting and do whatever they like, but their work as a whole is still seen as the work of an artist. But in the case of opera, there are always elements that are beyond the reach of one artist. It will never be the work of a single person. I’m not saying we should resign; on the contrary, a director experiences the pleasure of getting closer to the core of the work, knowing that it is ultimately impossible.

You do not seem very interested in directing musicals, although many Western theatre directors have staged musicals.

I haven’t had much contact with musicals, so I may be slightly prejudiced against the genre, but many artistic projects from the United States, especially movies and musicals, have attracted people from various backgrounds. I went to New York in the early 1990s and stayed there for some time to see plays and dance performances. Many Asians and Eastern Europeans were active in the entertainment industry there, but it seemed to me that everyone was performing according to the same standard. The fixed ruler of measurement may be helpful to sell products worldwide, but in the case of artistic performance, I thought that standardization was too much like the approach used in sports.

On the other hand, producing an opera requires the director to embrace diversity, as operas were originally written in a variety of languages. Moreover, for those who perform in an opera, one’s native language is not a central concern. For example, when we stage an opera by Dvorak, it is often the case that we all work hard to learn Czech as part of a team where there are no native Czech speakers. However, I have observed that the production of musicals utilizes an approach in which English dominates, and hence the productions can become monolithic.

Tenshu Monogatari. Zusyonosuke: Kouichi Ohtaka, Tomi-hime: Mikari. Photo: K. Miura
Philosophy: Encountering the Past and Processing into the Future

We would like to hear more about the philosophical ideas upon which your theatre is based. When you directed Olivier Py’s Grimm’s Fairy Tale: The Girl, the Devil and the Mill (premiered in 2011), you advocated the idea of “weak theatre” and “rehabilitation of poetry.”

I have been trying to find a different criterion so that people are not judged according to the binary values of being strong or weak. Instead, I have tried to relativize the idea that the actor on the stage is a person who can do better or be more potent than the audience. In other words, when an actor is on stage, he or she tends to insist, “I’m louder, I can move faster, I’m better than you,” and so on. I wanted to reinterpret the actor’s appearance on stage according to another type of standard; I wanted to avoid encouraging the actor to try to outdo the audience.

Grimm’s Fairy Tale: The Girl, the Devil and the Mill. Devil: Takeishi Morimasa, Gardener: Yuya Daidomumon. Photo: K. Miura

When I wondered what kind of person would aim for such a result, I thought of Buddha in his later years. Jesus, on the other hand, died young, at the height of his physical prowess, so Jesus is clearly powerful in some sense. However, Buddha lived for quite some years. We can imagine that Jesus probably delivered his Sermon on the Mount with a wonderfully resonant voice, but when Buddha said, “Just walk alone like a rhinoceros horn,” I think his voice was neither overwhelming nor colorful, but rather nondescript. Then, why did the sentence “Just walk alone like a rhinoceros horn” sink into the disciples’ minds so deeply that it would revolutionize their lives? In my mind’s eye, Buddha’s words fell from heaven like rain, and the image I have is that the speaker, the audience and the actor were all drenched by his delivery.

If the actors deliver their lines similarly, their performances will relativize the relationship between the stage and the audience. The audience will no longer idealize the actor on the stage, and the actor’s and the audience’s bodies will immerse themselves simultaneously in the spoken word. I often wondered if such a process could transform the relationship between the stage and the audience in a powerful new way.

Grimm’s Fairy Tale:The Girl, the Devil and the Mill. ©SPAC

It sounds so delicate that it may be hard to actually realize on the stage.

For this reason, I decided to try something that could actualize the idea of weak theatre. I came up with this idea when I saw Olivier Py’s Letters to Young Actors, performed in 2010, which suggested that the actor didn’t speak, but rather listened to the lines. In addition, Py writes in this play that while some ideas cannot be expressed in words, it is possible to reach the shore of concepts that cannot be said in words. But since we can only reach the shore, we need a kind of humility, as the power of words can only reach the shore, not the core.

Grimm’s Fairy Tale: The Girl, the Devil and the Mill was not staged with the two-in-one method but rather utilized your idea of weak theatre, in which the actors seem to spill words as if they had dropped from heaven rather than spoken with a conscious intention. We also think, for example, that in your Antigone, which was performed in the two-in-one method, the actor’s way of uttering the lines was utterly different from that in Grimm’s Fairy Tale: The Girl, the Devil and the Mill; when we saw it, however, we felt that we had been soaked by the rain of the speakers’ utterances. Do you think it had something to do with transformations in your ideological stance toward the play regarding the relationship between the stage and the audience?

I think that the attitude of the actors as they perform on stage has changed since the production of Grimm’s Fairy Tale: The Girl, the Devil and the Mill. They all have come to realize that they are not on the stage because they are better than the average person in the auditorium. I mentioned earlier that we have come to regard ourselves as a theatre group that is dedicated to prayers to the souls of the dead, and this particular focus has increased our confidence as a theatre company. The troupe members have become confident that they perform the plays to realize goals which differ from those of other companies in the world today. When they are on stage, and they do not have to rely on what is better or worse, they will naturally become humble. The result is similar to what we aim for in weak theatre, in terms of a transformed relationship between stage and audience.

Othello. Mikari as Desdemona. Photo: K. Miura

So, the key seems to be modesty or humility when confronted with otherness. In recent years, you have produced in succession a kind of requiem theatre in The Winter Tale, Antigone, Miyagi-Noh Othello and Révélation. Perhaps many Western audiences associate these plays with responses to the chronic violence in the modern world or the recent environmental issues and pandemics that we have face globally. For instance, you have set Antigone against the backdrop of Buddhist ideologies of resurrection and forgiveness. It could be natural for many Western audiences to refer to the idea of peace and reconciliation in the Orient, and it is true to some degree. However, we feel that your theatre is somehow going beyond the straight criticism of the modern world. How much do you intend to take a critical stance toward those issues today?

Through my theatre, I would like to suggest tentatively how we might move forward and take a step towards a better future. Essentially, the theatre is an encounter between present bodies and words written in the past. In that sense, the theatre presupposes the wisdom to live in the future by continuing to learn from the past. Of course, it could also include specific suggestions such as how the killings and destruction should stop. However, for those who have witnessed such atrocities and have seen their representation in the theatre, the words written 2,500 years ago would immediately be connected to today’s lived experience, which is the power of theatrical experiences.

In simple terms, I intend to induce hope in some way, taking a frozen foot one step further, as it were. Therefore, I would like to excavate the buried thoughts of a soul, a pity or chagrin which those people were unable to express when they were alive. These thoughts be may tens of thousands of years old, but the present bodies of the actor on the stage allow the audience to face them.

Othello. Photo: K. Miura

The use of open space and time is also a serious concern for us as we continue to live amid the spread of infectious diseases. Speaking of the direct challenges the present generation currently faces, global ecology is one of the most significant contemporary issues associated with war, gender inequality, and discrimination against minorities. The next issue of Critical Stages will feature Theatre and Ecology, and your Yashagaike and The Epic of Gilgamesh also deal with ecological themes. Could you briefly describe your interest in ecology?

Western modernity is based on the idea and practice of changing space according to our needs, and I would like to relativize that attitude. After all, what I am concerned with is, in a word, human arrogance or humility. As our experiences in the Confucius Temple have shown, after sincerely apologizing to Confucius and expressing gratitude, the space came to my aide. Since then, I have not attempted to confront the space or twist it according to my own needs. I always try to enter the bosom of space and beg the space to be on my side.

In that sense, I think dealing with space is also an ecological issue. Humans are natural demons, as they want to think that they are superior to nature. I want to overcome that kind of arrogance. Deforestation is a typical case in point. Though it can make our town look magnificent and show off its power, the belief that they dominated the forest in this way eventually led to the destruction of Mesopotamia and its regions. Mohenjo-Daro also felled the surrounding forests, burned bricks, felled too much and was destroyed by so-called desertification. And these ecological issues have already been dealt with in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The sense of accomplishment and civic pride was first obtained when the natural environment was conquered. When nature is conquered, everyone admires the conqueror as a great leader. But apparently, that jeopardized the future in the long run.

Gilgamesh accomplished so much, and at first glance, he looked like a conqueror. But in fact, he had a hollow void within. About 3,500 years ago, this kind of mental dissatisfaction had already been described in the literature, and it had an environmental resonance. The same is true of the current discrepancy between the Global North and Global South. The so-called rich countries, which have been exploiting the planet, destroy themselves.[2]

Until you lose, you will not know what you have really lost.

Or, after getting it, one says that such a thing is not worth it.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Humbaba: Noriyuki Sawa (Puppeteer). ©Musée du quai Branly. Photo: Xavier Pierre
Activities at SPAC: The Local Community as a Nursery

In the previous issue of Critical Stages, we published an interview with Tadashi Suzuki, the first General Artistic Director of SPAC. SPAC is the only global standard public theatre in Japan. In a talk after the performance the other day, you said that “the local community is a kind of nursery for the artists,” which struck our hearts and minds. How would you reflect upon the past years as the General Artistic Director of SPAC?

Since I came to Shizuoka, my attitudes towards the audience have experienced a drastic change. Before that, I thought theatre was made for those who understood it. But in Shizuoka, as the actors and staff live locally, they frequently meet the local people in their daily lives, and these people are the ones who come to our theatres to watch the plays. These things rarely happen in a big city like Tokyo.

Let me tell you an episode that changed my attitude toward the local audience in Shizuoka. One day I gave a brief talk to introduce a play before the performance as a preface to make it more accessible to the audience. I thought that the threshold would be lowered at least by lecturing beforehand. But when I looked around at the audience, many faces seemed to say, “I will probably not understand this play, but I’m sure the people around me will understand it.” Most people had that kind of expression. I felt sorry for them because many must have felt that I still managed to understand this much, and that seemed acceptable. I do not want my audience to watch a play with this feeling, a kind of inferiority complex. 

Since I had such an experience, I have always tried to make my productions more accessible to the broader section of society. If I had stayed in Tokyo or produced my plays only in places like Paris and New York, I do not think I would have realized this. Therefore, I think I am fortunate to have met these people in Shizuoka. I want to continue building a bridge between SPAC and the people, which is what makes SPAC genuinely local and universal, I firmly believe.

SPAC and SHIZUOKA: The Land of Mt. Fuji and Art. ©SPAC

February 5, 2022


[1] For a discussion of oral/aural dramaturgies in Miyagi’s production of Révélation, see Tomoka Tsukamoto and Ted Motohashi, “Aural/Oral Histories of Pain and Trust in Miyagi Satoshi’s Révélation,Critical Stages, no. 24, December 2021.

[2] For the ecological dimensions of Miyagi’s production of Yashagaike and other plays, see Tomoka Tsukamoto and Ted Motohashi, “Gender, Ecology, and Theatre of Catastrophe: The Apocalyptic Vision and the Deconstruction of Western Modernity in Satoshi Miyagi’s Demon Lake,” Critical Stages, no. 26, to be published in December 2022. 

*Tomoka Tsukamoto is a theatre critic, as well as a member of IATC and the General Secretary of its Japanese section. She received her MA in Drama Studies from the Nihon University in 1996. Her publications include a book on Satoshi Miyagi’s theatre, in Japanese, and most recently an essay on Miyagi’s works, “Deconstructing the Saussurean System of Signification: Satoshi Miyagi and His Mimetic Dramaturgy in Miyagi-Noh Othello,” (with Ted Motohashi), Critical Survey, vol. 33, no. 1, Shakespeare and Japan, edited by Graham Holderness (Spring, 2021), pp. 23–47. 

**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; most recently, he edited, with Poonam Trivedi and Paromita Chakravarti, All the World’s His Stage: Asian Interventions in Global Shakespeare (Routledge, 2020). He 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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