Tadashi Suzuki and Asian World Theatre
Tadashi Suzuki is a Japanese theatre director, practitioner and writer who created a unique style of physical theatre and actor training. His theatre is often characterized by the organization of his actors on stage into Chorus and protagonist/s; the repetition of powerful imagery or metaphors such as a mental hospital; the use of simple staging which relies on performer, lighting and sound to create a sense of mood, place and time rather than complex scenery; the structural use of collage and juxtaposition which is underpinned by the use of simple unifying framing devices and a sense of the ‘animal energy’ (the psychophysical forces of the theatrical encounter between performer and self and performer and the audience).
Born on June 20th 1939 in the small port mura (village) Shimizu, Japan situated beneath Mount Fuji, Tadashi was the third child of a timber merchant. His world was fashioned by the bombings of Shimizu harbour at the end of WWII, his memories of living in a cramped traditional Japanese house and the tumultuous world of a post-WWII Japan trying to rebuild itself. His was the world described in many of the Japanese novels and films of the 1950’s, a Japan caught between traditional and Western values. In many senses this can be considered one of the major pre-occupations and central explorations of his work as a drama practitioner.
At Waseda University, from 1958 until 1964, he studied Political Science and Economics. To avoid loneliness he soon joined the drama society called the WFS (Waseda Free Stage) where he met with revolutionary Socialist radicals. The first production he worked on was as an actor in Hauptmann’s The Weavers. He later worked as an actor and dramaturg on Gorki’s The Lower Depths.
“Everybody had to submit reports once or twice a week. Actors had to write about their role’s personality, social background, age, personal history, family tree, everything. They even had to sketch a portrait of their character in costume, and always they kept on debating. I like debate now, because of this experience.” (Goto 1988:49)
But like many before him, his intellect and aesthetics meant that he could easily see the inadequacies of the performance methods and the training provided by shingeki (social realism) and it was this frustration which drove Suzuki to give up acting and take up directing.
“When drama is produced under the banner of revolutionary ideals, so much else goes missing, like kindness and consideration.” (Carruthers 2004:12)
By 1960, Suzuki became President of the WFS, where he became a moderate but outspoken political spokesperson. Around this time, Suzuki directed and produced a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
“I thought we should produce a play about the kind of social structure in which we were enmeshed at that time . . . When I read Death of a Salesman, I found it very interesting, for it could be Japan too. It’s a tragedy about urban consumer society in an era of high economic growth – the world of the salaryman.”
Miller had a significant impact on Suzuki as a director/playmaker particularly through Miller’s pre-occupation with the differences between reality, illusion and perception and his technique of transforming space unexpectedly through the device of the ‘mental flashback’. Importantly, it was during this production that Suzuki met worked with the actors who were core foundation members of the Waseda Little Theatre company, Ono Hiroshi and Takeuchi Hiroko (who later became Suzuki’s wife).
As President of the WFS, Suzuki changed the direction of the company away from shingeki to an angura (underground) theatre influenced more by the absurdism and surrealism. He directed Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies and then went on to direct many theatre pieces (initially with the WFS and later with his Waseda Little Theatre company) by a young radical Japanese student named Betsuyaku Minoru (who later achieved notoriety as Japan’s first Absurd playwright). These included A and B and one Woman, Kashima ari (A Vacancy), The Gate, The Elephant, The Little Match Girl, The Smile of Dr Maximilian and Hokuro sôsêji (Hokuro Sausages).
The Elephant was a stylistic departure from anything Suzuki had mounted before. The story of the play revolves around two surviving victims of the Hiroshima’s atom bomb blast. The play itself is a dark minimalist absurd play which makes use of repetitive lines and actions and Suzuki’s production was made all the more startling by the passive neutral acting style of Ono Seki and the simple but symbolically rich décor.
Tokyo, like many places in the world, became part of a global upsurge of student led revolt. In Japan, the revolutionary movement centred its anger on the presence of American military bases. Foremost among the Japanese revolutionary theatre groups were Satoh Mkaoto’s Jokyo Gekijo, which was nicknamed Aka tento (Red Tent) because of the red tent which they pitched as their performance space, the Center 68/69 led by Satoh Makoto and nicknamed Kuro tento (Black Tent), Terayama Shuji’s Tenjô Sajiki and Suzuki’s and Minoru’s Waseda Little Theatre (WLT) later known as SCOT.
The formation of the WLT with Betsuyaku Minoru in 1966, gave Suzuki the platform with which to experiment with developing a new form of theatre and a new form of actor training. The WLT production of Minoru’s The Little Match Girl won much critical acclaim. This adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen story depicts the interaction between a destitute woman and two apparent strangers and the play’s combination of didactic narration, unemotional dialogue and interrogative undertones made the play the perfect instrument for Suzuki’s to begin his experiments with theatre style and form. Enduring stylistic elements started to emerge from Suzuki’s experiments with this minimalist absurdism started to emerge including the use of symbolic staging (the single lamppost in his work with Betsuyaku Minoru is reminiscent of Beckett’s tree in Waiting for Godot) Suzuki’s close collaboration with significant angura playwrights such as Betsuyaku Minoru, Sato Makato (My Beatles or the Funeral) and Juro Kara (Virgin Mask), also coincide with his move to and use of intimate theatre spaces, his close work with actress Kayoko Shiraishi and his rediscovery of the aesthetics and forms of Noh and kabuki which were the springboard for Suzuki’s discovery of his own style and techniques.
Around this time, the WLT moved to a small converted 120 seater space above a coffee shop in the Shinjuku area. Lack of funding meant that most actors were not paid and a true sense of an artist collective prevailed. Limited spatial and technical resources in the Shinjuku space helped to shift Suzuki’s emphasis to a more physical theatre centred on the actor.
“It was a great discovery for me that energy of the actor alone enabled the actor to be accessible to many people.” (Goto 1988:52)
Although Suzuki worked closely with prominent playwrights, his work clearly used the director as dramaturg to shift the primacy of performance making away from the playwright. He successfully accomplished relocating value away from the written text towards the actor and performance.
Suzuki’s readings and experiments with kabuki and Noh gave him some stylistic elements to help develop his performance style further and helped him develop his notion of ‘the grammar of the feet’. From kabuki he embraced the sewamono or domestic settings and storylines, the mei (the symbolic picturesque stance taken by a kabuki actor to establish a character) and kesho (the rice powder white faced makeup used by kabuki to create the face and expressions of the actor). From Noh and readings of the works of the Zeami (1363-1443), he took the narrative and narrational elements of Geki nō, the aesthetic movement qualities of the Furyū nō, the ritualistic qualities and movements of the oldest form of Noh Okina including the stamping of the feet, and the seven performance qualities described by Zeami including Hana (花, flower), Yūgen (幽玄 transcendental beauty), Kokoro or shin (心, heart/mind), Rōjaku (老弱, elimination of unnecessary vocal or movement elements), Myō (妙, stage charm), Monomane (物真似, imitation or mimesis) and Kabu-isshin (歌舞一心, unity of the heart and mind in the song-dance).
In finding and setting up a personal and professional relationship with Kayoko Shiraishi, Suzuki found a performer who could flawlessly personify his theories about Japanese performance, and its mind, body, spirit and voice. Shiraishi’s extraordinary vocal range, her controlled but flexible movements and her powerful demeanor meant that some Japanese audiences thought she was an atavistic reincarnation of Okuni, the 17th Century magical artiste originator of kabuki. Between them, Suzuki and Shiraishi created an experiential but measured performances which released a strongly physical form of theatre.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Gekiteki naru mono o megutte I and II (translated as “In search of whatever is dramatic,” these pieces are known in English as “On the Dramatic Passions I ” and “On the Dramatic Passions II “). In On the Dramatic Passions I, Suzuki juxtaposes many texts, the simple framing device of an acting teacher showing his female student different scenes and techniques helped to make the piece both an experiment in post-modern intertextuality and a springboard for Shiraishi’s considerable acting talents. In On the Dramatic Passions II, the main character is a madwoman imprisoned by her family who acts out several stories and characters from classic Kabuki. Arranged as a collage of seemingly unconnected scenes, the play focuses on unrequited passions and savage hatreds of the central character played by Shiraishi Kayoko.
Although Suzuki still persisted to experiment with collage and intertextuality (Don Hamlet 1973), by 1974, he had expanded his readings and experiments to Ancient Greek Theatre. He became interested in the ‘universal spiritual and ritual’ elements of Ancient Greek Theatre and the challenge of recontextualising classic European theatre in Japanese performance contexts and seeking deeper cross-cultural connections between Western and Eastern theatre. To this end, he experimented with blending Greek narrative and structural elements with Japanese dramatic form. Suzuki’s version of Euripides’ The Trojan Women (1974) was set and framed in the context of the fantasies of an old Japanese street beggar woman who, having been moved out a war-ravished Tokyo after World War Ⅱ, laments her fate and the fate of Japan. The play’s Trojan Queen’s and her princesses’ wailing and loss were transposed immediately by the framing device of the beggar into modern Japan and through the use of Greek Chorus movement and vocal conventions, the mythic proportions of everyday stories, passion and suffering were made apparent. In the first performance of the play, Suzuki consciously contrasted dramatic acting styles by using Shiraishi Kayoko (the non-naturalistic post-modern) alongside legendary Noh actor Kanze Hisao (the traditional) and Shingeki actress Ichihara Etsuko (the naturalistic).
“For Suzuki, the contemporary presentation of Greek Drama relies less on interpretation and contextualization of the text and more on finding the appropriate mode of acting.” (Allain 2009:152)
One may be reminded of Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood (an adaptation of Macbeth), in which he attempted to deal with Macbeth’s story transposed into medieval Japan with samurai and witches. Suzuki in his The Trojan Women, however, seems to me to have gone deeper in search of common mythical layers of human (especially female) passion and suffering.
Suzuki proceeded further with his experiments to use both Japanese and American actors in his bilingual production of The Bacchae. It was a logical and necessary step in his insatiable quest for answers to the fundamental question: What makes it possible for histrionic acts and theatrical events to exist at all? And how can they be justified? Suzuki seems to believe that we should go beyond the apathies which numb the rootless Shingeki as well as the tradition-bound Noh and Kabuki. Through his rigorous and continuous negotiation of the many dislocations between traditional Japanese theatre and Western-imported realism, he, more than any other living Japanese theatre artist, has contributed substantially to the modernization and postmodernization of Japanese theatre.
Since 1982, he has been organizing an annual international theatre festival in Toga – the first theatre festival in Japan. Suzuki helped introduced Japanese and Asian audiences to the works of Robert Wilson, Kantor, Yuri Lyubimov, Theodoros Terzopoulos, Georges Lavaudant, Lee Breuer, Anne Bogart and Ratan Thiyam. Suzuki created an original method of actor training which combines Eastern and Western techniques and he has taught his system in many places throughout the world, including The Julliard School in New York and Moscow Art Theatre. Between 1995 and 2007 he was the General Artistic Director at Shizuoka Performing Arts Center. He is a member of the International Theatre Olympics Committee and is a co-founder of BeSeTo – a festival jointly organized by Japan, China and Korea in their capital cities (hence the name: Be – Beijing, Se – Seul, To – Tokyo). He is the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Japan Performing Arts Foundation.
As a result of a long-term collaboration between Suzuki and the famous Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, eight unique theatre spaces were build in Toga, including an innovative amphitheater on water. Suzuki’s works include On the Dramatic Passions, The Trojan Women, Dionysus, King Lear, Cyrano de Bergerac, Madame de Sade, and many others. Besides productions with his own company, he has worked as a director in the international collaborative projects in United States (The Tale of Lear), Russia (King Lear, Electra), Australia (The Chronicle of Macbeth) and Germany (Oedipus).
Suzuki believes in a form of universal theatre which overcomes cultural and national barriers. Themes taken from Western culture (from Euripides to Chekhov) meet up with the tradition of nō theatre and kabuki in his works; and ancient songs, movement and combat techniques merge together in his innovative methods of physical and vocal work. Suzuki has articulated his theories in a number of books. His concerns include the structure of a theater group, the creation and use of theatrical space, and the overcoming of cultural and national barriers in the interest of creating work based on that which is universal. Suzuki’s philosophies concerning the humanistic relationship between man and earth defies spirituality in the traditional sense and his style involves rigorous training practices that demand an extreme level of body control and physical exertion.
Tadashi Suzuki Exercises and Discussion
“The basis for theatre craft is the work of the feet…”
“The whole body posture depends on it while the gestures of hands and arms only add an expression. In many cases feet have also an influence on the strength of the voice… Actor’s craft begins with realizing that he stands on the ground – strongly, as if he was rooted, or on a contrary – as if he was about to take off and fly away with lightness.” (Tadashi Suzuki The Grammar of Feet)
Suzuki training concentrates on philosophical and spiritual preparation and examination of the nature of acting, the approach to the stage and the place of purpose and function of performance in contemporary society. He often speaks of recovering the use of ‘animal’ energy, or reconnecting to nature in a world where we are losing a connection to nature. He believes in a universal or world theatre where culture, gender, sexuality and body shape and form are not significant.
Exercise 1 –“Hah”
The group stands in a silent circle and on a given signal everyone vocalizes the sound “Hah!”. This sound should be guttural and bouncing from the diaphragm. Then each individual jumps and utters the “Hah” when they land. Jump and land in an open position with the knees and arms bent but connect and open to the earth. You can also have individuals lead the action or try to synchronize the jump and “Hah” at the same time as a group.
Exercise 2 – Stomping (Asi-byoshi)
The stomping used by Suzuki has its origins in Japanese Asi-byoshi. Suzuki believes it links the actor to the earth and strengthens the body and breath. The exercise starts with a strong rhythm being made by a drum or with the feet of the participants. The feet pound as the participants move through the space for 2 to 5 minutes. Try to keep the centre of gravity low and controlled, especially in the pelvic region. The upper part of the body is still and motionless and the force of the stomp must be maintained and a connection is set up with the ground with each stomp. When the drum beat or stomping ceases then the participant uses the last of the energy to sink slowly to the ground. Controlled stillness is maintained. The beat can be resumed and the participants can slowly rise (like puppets or trees meeting the sun) and begin the process again.
Exercise 3 – Sliding the Feet (Sur-ashi)
This exercise is used to rhythmically, physically and symbolically connect the participant to the earth. This can be combined with synchronised or patterned movement to develop a group or ensemble performance. A drum beat starts and the participants move using a low centre of gravity sliding the feet and maintaining contact with the ground. This can initially be done in socks but eventually should be done in bare feet. The upper body does not move. Participants follow an imagined square grid (3X3 or 4 X4) on the ground (no circular, diagonal or curved movements on the floor). The readiness but not anticipation to change direction should always be there. The focus can be changed on cues (or drum beats) from internal, to external involving only the space to intensely making eye contact with other participants.
Exercise 4 – Statues (Sutachuuzu)
This exercise is meant to establish the link between the energy of the earth and the energy of the sky (depths and heights). It also helps to bring stable movement on stage. The participants do a Suzuki crouch, low centre of gravity, feet apart. At a drum-beat or cue the participants rise with precision and speed onto the toes, at the same time creating a pose or statue. On second drum beat or cue the participants return to the crouch. As the sequence is repeated, each pose or statue should be unique. Eventually the voice is added. Start in the crouch in silence. Vocalise as you move and then maintain dynamic silence in the actual pose or statue. Return in silence to the crouch.
The basic attributes of Suzuki’s ‘Grammar of the Actor’ can be seen as:
· Connect to the ground, act from the feet and connect into the power of ‘animal energy’
· Radiate power from the ‘centre’ or pelvic area to achieve a heightened physicality
· Control and charge the voice from the diaphragm using tension and power
· Use the energy to achieve a power in stillness
· Use a presentational style of acting with grounded power
· Reconstruct or re-contextualise ‘classic’ plays from different cultures and find the universal
· Work as an ensemble or a chorus
· Establish a connection with your own body (the spiritual home) and then performance space (mura or the sacred space)
· Create an affinity with nature – perform outdoors
Further Reading and Resources on Tadashi Suzuki
Allain, P. 2009. The Theatre Practice of Tadashi Suzuki. Methuen Drama, London.
Carruthers, I. & Yasunari, T. 2004. The Theatre of Tadashi Suzuki. Cambridge University Press. London.
Goto, Y. 1988. Suzuki Tadashi: Innovator of Japanese Theatre. PhD Dissertation. University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
Quante, M. 2004. Hegel’s Concept of Action. Cambridge University Press. London.
Suzuki, T. 1993.The Way of Acting: The Theatre Writings of Tadashi Suzuki, Theatre Communications Group, (1993) ISBN 978-0930452568
Paul Allain, The Art of Stillness: The Theater Practice of Tadashi Suzuki, Palgrave Macmillan, (2003) ISBN 978-1403961709
Suzuki Method – Stomping