Exploring life’s vacant lot: Ota’s Sarachi
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"One night a house lifted off the ground and began to float lightly into the pitch dark sky. As it flew through the air, it made a wooshing sound, they say. The people inside pleaded with the house to please stop. And then it did.”
So begins Sarachi (Vacant Lot), which playwright/director/producer Ota Shogo brings to Ann Arbor in May, sponsored by the Center for Japanese Studies, the International Institute, and the Office of Major Events
Although Ota is internationally renowned for silent plays, Sarachi is a dialogue piece, and will be performed using U-M School of Music supra-titles to provide an English translation. The play reveals a middle-aged couple forced to come to grips with a sense of ennui that has fallen over their lives, a fact literally represented by the sudden disappearance of their house. The wife and husband push, pull, drag, and crawl their way through the theater-space and their lives on a search for the meaning of reality.
While “avant-garde drama” may conjure up scenes of forbidding theoretical experimentation, Ota makes a point to try to connect with his audience. In Sarachi a stark stage space and minimal props—a sink, some lumber, concrete blocks—are used to raise basic questions about what it means to be alive. In less than 90 minutes it weaves back and forth through memory and conjecture to not only inquire after existence, but to also inquire into the construction and perception of the reality of existence. Ota doesn’t necessarily provide the answers, but works to invite further questions.
Sarachi seems particularly relevant given recent advances in technology—like virtual reality—that have made the possibility of “other” realities palpable to a wider audience. Terminator 2, The Crow, and Toy Story for example, have dragged us further toward an existential morass by creating convincing computer generated realities. Ota’s technique draws on the strength of theater as a performance medium of presence—as opposed to the absence inherent in films—as a way to try to gain a foothold on the slippery slope of human perception.
Born in Japanese-occupied Jinan, China, in 1939, Ota was educated in Japan, eventually dropping out of the Economics Faculty of Gakushuin University. He helped found Tenkei-Gekijo (Transformation Theater) in Tokyo in 1968, and over the next 20 years wrote and directed as the leader of that troupe. Though Tenkei-Gekijo disbanded in 1988 for financial reasons, Ota himself continues to write, produce, and direct, increasingly out side of Japan, including a multinational production of Sarachi in Berlin in 1992. He is noted for unique staging techniques that have involved filling the stage with sand, water, or debris, and for a series of silent dramas that have gained critical attention in Japan and abroad.
By the early 1980s, at a time when more and more plays in Japan tended to be fast-paced and talkative, he adopted an extremely slow pace and created dramas filled with silence. In Komachi Fuden (Rumor of Komachi), the old woman heroine does not speak a single word. This tendency is even more pronounced in the completely silent Mizu no Eki (Water Station). In this latter play, a multitude of ragged travelers enact various silent dramas as they pass slowly, very slowly, in front of a faucet from which flows a thin stream of water. This is minimalist theater reduced to its essentials. Since 1981, Mizu no Eki had been performed more than 200 times in 24 cities around the world.
Ota’s productions structured on dialogue, like Sarachi, have much in common with his silent plays as all attempt to engage the audience in a complicated structure of physical presence and thought. To Ota, “The fact of human presence implies the presence of life and of consciousness, of those who reject summation, of those beyond conceptualization, of hose capable of multiple interpretation.”
Modern theater audiences have grown up on TV and film, and too much theater is indistinguishable from the cluttered cultural landscape of its two-dimensional brethren. Ota’s goal in production is to take advantage of living actors to explode these dimensions of engagement, to explore the boundaries between the vicarious and the experiential.
In The Hope of Drama, Ota likened the difficulty of exposing the living present with the difficulty of conveying to others a dream one had the night before. “In the middle of relating the experience, we realize the listener won’t truly understand it. What we want to communicate about the dream, together with the unexpected wonder, is the total experience of floundering in the marvelous time-space of the dream world. We cannot convey the total experience, we can only skim the surface of the totality. No one tries to share what s/he knows cannot be shared. Communicating dreams, or any personal experience is difficult, so we commonly divide talk into the easy-to-communicate and the not-easy-to-communicate and learn to select the former as conversation topics and to avoid the latter.”
Ota engages the audience in the not-so-easy-to-communicate through various “slow motion” techniques which focus attention on the physical presence of the actors. These can be as simple and complete as the total elimination of dialogue in his silent plays, or as complex as the mixture of realism and artifice in both the dialogue and the staging of Sarachi. Repeatedly, in Sarachi, the husband and wife call 15-second time-outs. A simple, yet effective device that forces contemplation, and one that resonates with Ota’s philosophy of production. “I feel uncomfortable that I cannot walk at my own pace. I feel uncomfortable at the quick tempo of expression. It is a kind of subjugation. I wish to become genuinely free form the shackles of culture. I remember reading that the music Nietzsche heard in a hallucination was adagio. Maybe in order to reach the depths of our psyche a slow tempo like adagio is indispensable.”
Not everyone agrees with Ota of course, and cross cultural performance has its pitfalls. Although critics have generally been receptive, in 1988, Erika Munk dismissed Ota’s New York International Festival of the Arts production of Water Station as “the epitomal generic festival piece: silent, to avoid language problems; ‘universal’ in theme, to avoid cultural misunderstandings; exotic, to justify its travels; recognizable avant-garde in its externals, as festivals are inevitably dedicated to some concept of the new; conformist at heart, as festivals are invariably financed by institutions and people with money.”
It is certainly worth noting, that unlike some of the perhaps more famous Japanese playwright/directors that had to make their mark before him (Suzuki Tadashi, Kara Juro, Terayama Shuji), there is a noticeable lack of “Japaneseness” in an Ota production. The Attraction for a foreign audience is certainly not in any sort of Asian experience, but in its universal, even ordinary, humanness. Ota’s self-stated goal reflects this: “We only really [notice] living bodies when something happens to them. But I wondered if I could make them visible in a normal situation.”
It is not an easy task to locate value in ordinary activity, especially across cultures. As Ota put it in an interview with Japanese theater critic Nishido Kojin, “Life itself is fundamentally coincidence and baseless[ness]. There seems to be n o reason that we are born. Regardless of that, it is true that we exist here, now. I wondered if I could grasp that fact in a positive way.”
Ota Shogo’s contribution to theater is fundamentally revealed in stage practices that try to recover “living” life from “social” life. The problem, Ota states, is that, “We do not see—we only look. By which I mean that we are stratified by labels or definitions... we can pass right by the items themselves.” To go beyond requires a structure or method that allows as audience to reflect on things below the surface.
In Sarachi, Ota strips away the social veneer that is a fundamental obstacle to a true examination of life. The characters’ house has been torn away, their clothing consists of simple white shifts, and the few material goods they have access to—a radio, a basket—resonate with memory and life to serve as simple tools which force the characters to come to grips with the elemental. Ota’s staging technique attempts to mute the easy-to-talk-about, and endeavors to allow one to experience what lies underneath. It is a desolate process, necessarily unhurried, not always comforting, but ultimately revealing.
Brett Johnson is a doctoral candidate in Theater Arts at the University of Minnesota This Summer Term at U-M he will teach “From Genji to Godzilla and Beyond: Japanese Popluar Culture.”