Born in Tokyo in 1962, Oriza Hirata is a playwright, director and leader of the theater company Seinendan. He is also the manager of the Komaba Agora Theater in Tokyo and a professor of Osaka University Center of the Study of Communication-Design.
From his involvement in the “small theater” scene as manager of the Komaba Agora Theater in Tokyo, Hirata founded his own theater company Seinendan in 1983 as a company operating mainly out of that theater and began activities as a playwright and director. He went on to present his theory of “Contemporary Colloquial Theater” and to re-examine drama from the standpoint of actual Japanese life, and the resulting new style of “quiet Theater” became a leading trend of the 1990 small theater world. His directing method based on detailed calculation of effect also drew attention and led to a series of productions in collaboration with the playwright Masataka Matsuda that won popular acclaim.
Hirata writes critiques and essay regularly for the press and periodicals not only in field of theater but also on the subjects of education, language and all areas of the arts. In recent years he has fostered international exchange through performances and workshops with France and S. Korea as well as Australia, the USA, Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, Thailand Indonesia and China. Also, based on the Hirata’s workshop methodology written up in school textbooks since 2002, some 300,000 school children have created plays in their classroom using the Hirata method. He has also worked with the handicapped and been involved in a wide range of theater-related activities such as developing drama education programs for local governments in places like Komaba [where his theater is located] and in tie-ups with NPOs.
Using the Komaba Agora Theater Hirata runs and the rehearsal studio and experimental space Atelier Shunpusha, an undefined group of directors an playwrights belonging to Hirata’s theater company Seinendan has been formed called the “Seinendan Link” and is creating its own independent productions since 2002. Through this system, any of the company’s members can submit proposals for productions, which are then developed into actual productions for performance primarily by the younger members of the company and presented as side performance along with the company’s main productions so that their creative activities can become subjects for critical review. This system has enabled several intra-company units to pursue independent activities. Among the Seinendan artists who have gone independent in this way are Shiro Maeda of the Gotand-dan and Motoi Miura of Chiten. Also, since 1989 the Komaba Agora Theater has hosted a performing arts festival aimed at making it easy for regional theater companies to give performances in Tokyo. Since 2001 this festival has been held biannually in the spring and summer under the name “Summit.” Prominent young artists of the day are chosen to serve as festival director and be responsible for the program selection and other important decision-making. The festival director this year is the leader of the theater company Chelfitsch, Toshiki Okada.
Hirata’s awards include the 39th Kishida Kunio Drama Award for playwriting with Tokyo Notes
in 1995, the 5th Yomiuri Theater Grand Prix “Best Play” and “Best Director” awards for Tsuki no Misaki
(The Cape of the Moon
) (written by Masataka Matsuda, directed by Oriza Hirata) in 1997, the 9th Yomiuri Theater Grand Prix “Best Play” award for Ueno Dobutsuen Saisaisai Sugeki
(Attacking the Ueno Zoo for the Fourth Time
) (script, composition, directing by Hirata) in 2002 and the 2nd Asahi Performing Arts Award for Sono Kawa wo Koete – Gogatsu
(Across the River in May
) (Japan-Korea joint playwriting and directing / New National Theater, Tokyo) in 2003. Among his many publications other than plays are Engeki Nyumon
(Introduction to Drama) (Kodansha), Hanashikotoba no Nihongo
(Colloquial Japanese) (a dialogue with Hisashi Inoue, Kodansha) and Geijutsu Rikkoku Ron
(Arts as the Basis of a Nation) (Shueisha).
Komaba Agora Theater
Seinendan et le Centre Dramatique de Thionville-Lorraine
Playwright Oriza Hirata
Directed by Laurent Gutmann
[Tours in France]
22 -26 January, 2007
Centre Dramatique de Thionville-Lorraine
30 January -2 February, 2007
Centre Dramatique National de Besançon
Théâtre National de Strasbourg
23 May -17 June, 2007/03/22
Théâtre de l'Est Parisien
April 5-8, 2007
Theatre Tram, Tokyo
-French with Japanese subtitles in Tokyo
Seinendan 53rd production
Written & Directed by Oriza Hirata
Komaba Agora Theater, TOKYO
-Free On-Demand Subtitle Display Service
New National Theatre, Tokyo Japan-China Joint Project
Written by Hirata Oriza, Li Liuyi
Directed by Li Liuyi, Hirata Oriza
May 15-20, 2007
THE PIT, New National Theatre, Tokyo
April in Beijing, TBA
Studio Theatre, HK Cultural Centre, Hong Kong
|Oriza Hirata has grown from a leader of Japan’s small theater scene with his “contemporary colloquial theater” in the 1990s to become active in multiple fields as a playwright, director, manager of a private-sector small theater, artistic director of a public arts and culture hall and a university professor. In this long interview the 44-year-old opinion leader talks about his recent activities that include ambitious pursuit of international collaborations with Korean, Chinese and French artists.
(Interviewer: Akihiko Senda)
You were born in 1962 and are still just 44 years old. But your accomplishments as a playwright, director, leader to the theater company Seinendan and as owner and representative of the small private theater Komaba Agora Theater seem to belie your age. Until March of this year were also serving as artistic director for the public venue the Fujimi City Municipal Culture Hall KIRARI FUJIMI in Saitama Prefecture, and since April 2006 you have served as a professor for the Osaka University Center of the Study of Communication-Design. You are involved in an amazing array of activities that is certainly rare among theater people.
When you say it like that, I guess I sound like one of the power elite in some developing country (laughs). Those people might serve as a government Minister and be an artist at the same time; they do just about everything, don’t they. And, in the field of the arts, Japan is still a developing country in some ways. So, I tell myself that it is not really so strange that an odd person like me should be doing things like this (laughs).
Anyway, it is the understanding of the people around me that enable me to be acting in these capacities. At Osaka University it am a kind of research position that doesn’t obligate me to be teaching classes. But, it wouldn’t be interesting if I don’t have any contact with the students, so I do classes and seminars. Before Osaka I was involved in the setting up of an interdisciplinary theater arts course for the Department of Humanities, School of Integrated Culture of Obirin University, and I taught there for about four years. In the end I was in the position of a department Dean involved with about 500 students. Compared to that, the present assignment at Osaka will be a lot easier.
What is “Communication-Design?” What do you do in that position?
It is difficult to explain, but in simple terms what I am doing is to develop a program that uses theater to help students in the sciences who will someday be doctors, lawyers and academicians to acquire communication skills. Eventually I hope to see the program we develop become a required course, and I would like to see it effect changes in the entrance exam system in Japan as well.
“Communication Design” is a very new concept. For example, if doctors are lacking in communication skills, that problem won’t be solved by teaching them how to give speeches. There are design elements and organizational elements that can encourage better communication in the doctor’s office, such as the positions of the doctor’s and the patient’s chairs, the color of the walls, the lighting, and these elements can create an environment that encourages the patient to ask the doctor questions and bring out answers that can reduce medical/diagnostic error. Communication design is a concept that involves looking at the architectural design and the design of everything from organizational elements to the medical equipment and facilities from the standpoint of communication, for the purpose of creating an environment in which malpractice is less likely to occur.
This kind of special design is exactly what is done on the stage in theater. The theater space is one that is designed for communication and then inviting the audience into that environment to spend a certain amount of time. Therefore, there are many aspects of communication design where the know-how of the theater can be applied.
It is a cross-disciplinary approach, isn’t it?
That’s right. For example, one of the projects we are working on now is with researchers who are working on the development of robots to be used in care-giving for the elderly and the disabled. Because these are machines that will be used in care-giving, they need to be familiar and unimposing in appearance so that the elderly will feel at ease with them. Honda’s robot ASIMO is a sophisticated robot that walks on two legs and is designed not to lose its balance even when it is pushed, but the kind of robot we are going to develop is one the naturally staggers if it is pushed and one that naturally makes mistakes in speech. In order to do this, we have linguists and cognitive psychologists participating in the team, but it turns out that, as a playwright, I am able to write dialog for the robot that is more real and natural than the expressions that the linguists try hard to put together from an academic standpoint.
The academic approach until now has been one of eliminating noise, and although that may make things more functional, they (science) seem to have trouble giving quantitative values to random elements that we feel reality in and to make formulas based on them. Particularly with regard to language, it seems that the variables are so many that it is especially difficult. This is why experts today in brain physiology, cognitive psychology and linguistics unanimously agree that the final work as to be completed by artists, not scientists.
This is where the “contemporary colloquial theater theory” I have given expression to in recent years comes in. There are cognitive psychology researchers who are studying why this type of theater is perceived as more realistic. Because they are so discreet when it comes to evaluation, they say that they can only understand about 1% of what the artists are doing. Nonetheless, it seems that the artist’s input has considerable effect in improving the functioning of robots and computers from the standpoint of user friendliness.
Are there any other projects you are involved in?
Another is a “Community Café” project that is planned to begin in autumn 2008. The venue is in the new station facility of the Nakanoshima subway station in Osaka. It will operate as a regular café normally, but for two hours beginning at 5:30 we will have Osaka University professors in the areas of philosophy and other advanced sciences and economics coming in to participate in discussions. They will lead discussion about subjects like the meaning of love, whether or not “natural death with dignity” is permissible, why divorce among seniors is increasing, etc. Directly above the station is the stock exchange, so we may see stock brokers joining in the discussions when the subjects are in the economic field. It will be a place for holding dialog with the general public.
In order to make it a space that can be used with flexibility as the occasion requires, I have involved a landscape artist and designers with me on the café’s planning and design stage. As a commuter station there will be fewer people getting on and off at this station on Saturdays and Sundays, so we are planning to work with the dance-related NPO named Dance Box to operate a joint arts space on the weekends.
Lately the university has a so-called “satellite campus” program that holds classes at accessible locations like in front of stations, but it is only being used as an efficient means to solicit students and not serving to make intellectual contributions of feedback to the society at large. One of my ideologies lately is that we have to be aggressive about actively creating intellectual interaction in the communities.
Listening to these activities, I feel a breath of thought that has not been seen before among Japan’s theater people. In the field of theater itself, you have created a world of theater that you call “contemporary colloquial theater theory.” This and the “quiet theater” that you and others engaged in since the 1990s represents a new development in Japanese theater. Could you tell us in your own words what “contemporary colloquial theater theory” is?
It is difficult to specify an exact point of origin but Japan has a history of modern theater of about 80 to 100 years. There are two issues that I focus on in this tradition.
One is the concern that during Japan’s direct importation of Western drama we also directly imported the way of writing plays as well. The other is the concern that, since theater failed to break out of the grasp of ideology, the expression of ideas and philosophies became the main concern and the problems of language took a second seat in terms of importance, leaving the language of drama dominated by ideology. Also—and this is the point of contention—I believe that not only our Shingeki (“New Theater”) but also the small theater scene since the 1960s have failed to emerge from the grasp of ideology.
The importation of Western drama was unavoidable, but that importation happened somewhat later the importation in other fields like music and literature, and also that on the popular level that introduction was quite haphazard in form—which was probably fine in itself—and since the importation was not conducted in an organized manner, it didn’t have time for the necessary maturation. This seems to me to be its definitive fault or characteristic as a modern art form.
The fact that the development of Japan’s modern theater was completely different from other genre is something that Japan’s theater people should have been taking into consideration and dealing with, but I think that I am about the only one speaking out and writing consistently about this issue to the public.
In short, the essence of the contemporary colloquial theater we were doing was a movement to take the ideology-dominated drama language that had resulted from the direct importation of Western theater and recreate it from the standpoint of language itself.
One easy to understand example is the question of grammatical order of words and the points of accent in their presentation. Japanese is a language in which the grammatical order can be changed rather freely and in normal colloquial speech we speak in repetitions of phrase in which the words we which to stress are brought to the front of the phrase or sentence. However, because playwrights have conformed to the fixed pattern of writing scripts in literary rather than colloquial sentence form, the actors are forced to speak with a strange placement of accents on the important words that is not natural to normal spoken Japanese, and the actors that are able to do this skillfully have been considered good actors.
The result is a bizarre system of speech that seems to be Japanese but is not really. This is a description that was used by Hideo Kobayashi in speaking about Ikutaro Nishida, and it refers to how, under this strange system, wrestling with the translation-like lines of drama-in-translation plays has become the measure of an actor and the scripts playwrights write.
Well, I guess all this is something that couldn’t have been avoided, perhaps the simple but largest discovery of contemporary colloquial theater was saying that, no, it is a problem of how the plays are written. If you just change the grammatical order [to more natural spoken Japanese] actors won’t have to use the exaggerated accentuation.
In this way, I believe that there was a major change in the way playwrights of the contemporary colloquial theater and “quiet theater” movements wrote plays. When we look at plays written in the language used in playwriting up to the 1980s, they somehow feel old-fashioned now. Of course it is a different question if a particular stylization is involved, but I think that everyone is aware of this now.
At the same time, another thing that contemporary colloquial theater sought to do, as the “silent theater” playwright Shogo Ota says, “Drama should not be only a collection of the dramatic moments of life. Shouldn’t it also be composed of non-dramatic elements as well?”
When my contemporary colloquial theater was introduced in France, the people there were really surprised at how a narrative play with acts could be composed purely of drama language that is simply a collection of verbal fragments. When you think about it, that may be something that the Japanese are especially good at. That is exactly what a lot of Haiku is. Take the famous haiku Kaki kueba / kane ga naru nari / Horyuji (Eating persimmon / the temple bell rings’ / Horyuji Temple) for example. There is no direct relationship between the persimmon and the bell and the temple, but when you put the three together they define a certain world of the perceptions. So, the French were very impressed by the way things that they would call fragments or collage could be put together in a time continuum.