(Premiere: Jan. 2000 at Studio Denega)
In the not-so-distant future there is even more chaos in the school education environment and the increasingly powerless Ministry of Education has introduced a policy by which school faculties decide among themselves who will serve as school principal. As the person who must take final responsibility whenever there is an incident or misconduct occurring at a school, there are great pressures on the principal, and the death rate among principals is soaring as a result. The play is set in a public middle school in Aomori Pref. where debate is going on concerning who should be chosen as the new principal. The discussions, open elections and debate heat up, but still no decision can be reached amidst the outpouring of individual feelings.
Ore no Kabane wo Koeteike (Leave my dead body and press onward)
(Premiere: April 2002 at Namioka Contemporary Art Space)
At a long-established radio station in Aomori city, an aggressive new president has been brought in to restructure and get the station out of its deteriorated financial situation. He initiates a “360-degree Evaluation System” (employees are evaluated by their superiors, peers, subordinates and the employee him/herself) with the aim of firing all redundant staff to reduce the payroll. As part of this initiative the younger employees are asked to come up with a list of candidates for management-level firings. Among the six younger employees gathered to create the list the weighted discussion commences with some making accusations about subordinate bullying, some who want nothing to do with other people’s business and some who try to argue on principles.
Gekidan Subaru The Third Stage
Oya no Kao ga Mitai (I’d like to see the faces of such parents)
(Premiere: Feb. 2008 at Theater Tops)
In a private Catholic girls middle school in the city, a student has committed suicide. A group of parents have been gathered in a school conference room one evening. They are the parents of the children named [for bullying] in the suicide letter of the deceased child. The parents are all from different family backgrounds, life environments and professions, but they all rant on with one-sided defenses of their children and try to place the blame on the school environment. But when a second and third suicide note are brought out along with eye-witness evidence [of the bullying], the true faces of the parents begin to be revealed.
Oya no Kao ga Mitai, first edition
Photo: Wataru Umehara
Aomori Chuo High School Drama Club
Seito Sokai (Student General Meeting)
(Premiere: Dec. 1998)
The day before the General Meeting of the student body, the members of the student council organizing committee have gathered for a rehearsal. At the insistence of some of the male students they decide to have another discussion about whether to propose a movement to eliminate school uniforms. In the process of discussing whether uniforms should be eliminated or not and whether or not it is really right to decide it by majority vote, the debate heats up and gets off course in a direction that drive the organizing committee into a real crisis situation.
Aomori Chuo High School Drama Club
(Premiere: Dec. 2007)
The setting is an ordinary classroom in an ordinary town high school. The only thing unusual is that one of the students has suddenly turned into a kappa (a green human-like river creature of Japanese folk tales). The students have vowed together to accept their “transformed” friend, but what comes to school is the kappa-Himeno wearing a school uniform. But faced with the smelly, slimy reality of Himeno, the students who had vowed to be accepting turn away one by one from the diminishing group of the understanding supporters. And with each incident of rejection, Himeno becomes more and more kappa-like.
(Aug. 2008, National high school drama contest at Gunma Prefecture’s Kiryu City Performing Arts Center)
Photo: harasei photo studio/Toshiaki Hara
|That was where you eventually got into high school theater.
At the time, Hirosaki Theater was receiving support from the Agency of Cultural Affairs, and the conditions of that arrangement was that the company had to put on four productions a year. That meant that in order to continue teaching and acting at the same time I had to take off a week from my teaching four times a year to perform in the company’s productions. Even if some of those could be worked into the longer school vacations, there were no other teachers taking that much time off. Although at first the headmaster and the other teachers had been encouraging with regard to my acting endeavors, after a while their patience grew thinner each time I asked for time off. I soon realized that I would have to prove the value of having a teacher involved in theater. And, after struggling with that problem for a while, I decided that I should become the advisor for our high school’s drama club. I thought that would be the best way to use my experience in theater to make a contribution to the school.
Until that time I had been a coach of the school’s tennis team. It was a school that placed greater importance on sports, while there was a tendency to be looked down on culture-oriented clubs. If there was something like a caste system among the school’s clubs, the drama club was definitely of the lowest caste (laughs). In fact our school’s drama club had never made it past the local competition to compete in the prefectural level competition. But I was determined to take them to the prefectural level, so I wrote a play for our drama club. That was the first play I had written in my life and I titled it Shitsucho.
At the beginning of the school year (April in Japan) the students in each class are assigned or elected to different positions, like the library assistants, physical education assistants, health program assistants. I took an incident that actually happened in my class and made it into a play. It was an incident where all the positions were decided except the representatives for the student committee. I had the ten or so students who hadn’t been assigned or elected to any position stay after school and discuss among themselves who would be the student committee reps. And, as I had promised, our drama club was able to make it to the prefectural drama competition with that play.
Among the plays you have written, there are a number that share the format where a group of people gather in place meeting to discuss a problem, and this is a pattern that was already there in your maiden work, Shitsucho, isn’t it?
There is definitely a format I like and use frequently that you might call the “conference type,” in which the scenario develops around the process of discussion of an issue. I rewrote Shitsucho two years later so that the scenario became one of a school choosing its own new principal. I titled it Shomei? (The Calling) and a production of it was also performed by the Hirosaki Theater company. Among my other plays of this type are Ore no Kabane wo Koeteike (Leave my dead body and press onward) in which a radio station must decide which of its employees will be laid off in a restructuring, and you could also call Oya no Kao ga Mitai (I’d like to see the faces of such parents) that I wrote for the Gekidan Subaru company a “conference type” as well, because it involves a meeting of the parents of children that have been the perpetrators of a case of bullying.
When you work as a teacher you are often forced to think about the true meaning of democracy. In a school class, things are decided all the time by a show of hands, and if the vote is decided by a count of 20 to 21, then the 20 side becomes “wrong” simply because they lacked one more person. And when there is a disagreement among the children, they usually try to settle it with a vote. They seldom try to debate or talk things out. And doesn’t this contribute to the unique ways of thinking and action that the Japanese have? It was my idea that this can be condensed into “conference type” stage scenarios set in the school environment is what led me to think of the plays of this type.
After you became its advisor [and playwright], the accomplishments of the Aomori Chuo High School drama club have exceptional. Your club has twice one the national high school drama contest, with Shugaku Ryoko (School trip) in 2005 and Kappa in 2008. And Seito Sokai (Student general meeting) in 1999 won the Excellence Prize and Shugaku Ryoko was even invited to perform overseas in South Korea. Shugaku Ryoko also toured nationwide as an officially selected play for high school audiences in a production by the professional theater company Seinen Gekidan. Furthermore, the Aomori Chuo High School drama club was also the recipient To-o Award (organized by Aomori’s To-o Nippo newspaper) that recognizes persons or groups who had contributed to the development of Aomori Prefecture.
None of these accomplishments are things that I expected or aimed for. At first it was all simply a means for me to continue theater and an outgrowth of my sense of responsibility as a teacher. But, once I started working with the drama club it became so interesting that I don’t think I will ever be able to give it up. High school students make so much progress in a very short time.
Teachers have what can be the extremely highhanded job of teaching people things. Education that is truly worthy of the name is of course something that takes a lot of time, and often the results are hard to see. But, with regard to theater, if I tell the student that “This is what we should aim for,” the drama club members will work together very hard to achieve that goal, and in the process they will acquire the tools and the skills they need and continue to make progress. If the scriptwriting is behind schedule and it doesn’t get finished until three days before the performance, they will still give a solid performance. This is because they are at the age in their lives when they have the best powers of memorization. For someone like me in the position of instructor, you are able to be there can witness them learning and progressing so fast that you can almost hear the gears turning in their head. Nothing is more exciting and rewarding than that.
Also, there were a good number of people around me who criticized high school drama as being a closed world. That may be true in some aspects, but it is absolutely not true to say that the plays coming out of high school drama don’t have the power to move people. Although you have the limitations of the fact that the actors are all in the 16 to 18 age group, it only means that you need to work within that given framework, and in that respect there is no difference between high school theater and what we do at my Watanabe Genshiro Shoten company. Shugaku Ryoko as good proof of that fact, and I consider it a victory for high school theater.
What are the types of ideas or inspirations you have received from high school theater as a playwright?
Through my experience with Shugaku Ryoko, I learned that it is not really a defeat if all of what the playwright intends to say is not communicated to all the people in the audience. It made me come to think that a play is something that the viewer should be able to enjoy each at their own level.
Shugaku Ryoko (School trip) is a story about a raucous night when a group of high school girls from Aomori who are a school trip and get into a fight at the inn where they are staying in Okinawa and end up in a pillow fight. That is the scenario on a superficial level. And it is also fine with me if the audience simply laughs at that superficial slapstick level of the play. But the five girls who at the center of the story are actually representations of America, Iraq, Japan and Russia and metaphorically, the pillows they through can be seen as the [N. Korean] Taepodong-2 missiles that fly over Japan or the shower of metal that fell on Okinawa. And of course, it is good if there are people in the audience who understand that and appreciate the play at that level. I believe Shugaku Ryoko is the first play that I wrote making intentional and strategic use of the possibility of it being seen from those two levels of audience understanding.
In high school theater, it is a natural assumption that not only these people creating the production but also the audience watching it are high school students. They make all their judgments based on their only one or two years of theater experience when deciding whether the play is interesting or not. So, I believe that a play should have something for to take home for people of all levels, from high school students and people who are knowledgeable about theater.