World-renowned Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki is identified with the view—indeed, he quotes himself often—that "All the world is a hospital and all the men and women are inmates of that hospital." The quote appears in the program note detailing his vision of "Electra," a production that, on stage, evokes a modern dance overflowing with wheelchairs zipping about. (Remember, it is a hospital.)
In Suzuki's "Oedipus Rex"—the far more traditional production that alternates with "Electra"—he manages to merge elements of Noh (a highly ritualized Japanese drama) and Greek tragedy, two discrete traditions that have, he maintains, a great affinity for one another; both embodying pessimistic views of the world.
The two shows (along with "Dionysus"), now on tour in Iowa and California, are splendid examples of Suzuki's experimental aesthetic that promotes, in varying degrees, "a performance style that is eclectic—borrowing from many cultures—and always very physical." "Animal energy" is a phrase Suzuki uses a lot. "But because the spoken word is Japanese," he stresses, "the production is bound to the country of origin—Japan." Subtitles are projected onto a sidewall screen.
Nonetheless, he wants his theatre—Tadashi Suzuki & Company, which has toured the world many times—to speak to an international audience. That's one of the reasons he frequently mounts classics, like "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Dionysus," in addition to "Electra" and "Oedipus." "These texts are familiar to everyone; they have themes common to all cultures," he asserts.
Suzuki believes—hopes—he has created a global language, or what he calls a "common grammar," which transcends and/or incorporates cultural and linguistic differences.
The cheerfully animated 61-year-old Suzuki, who meets with us in a conference room at the Japan Society on East 47th St., and converses with the help of an interpreter, wants to clarify several points.
"If your productions are only talking to people with whom you share a common language and culture—that's entertainment," he remarks. "But if the work is appreciated by those outside your language, culture, and values—that's art. The theatre has a language barrier against multinational participation, so my goal is to diminish that language barrier." Still, he does not eschew his roots, or the spoken word, for that matter.
"Some directors who have the same goals I do," he continues, "have eliminated all linguistics, presenting nothing but a physical performance that is closer to dance. I think that's incorrect. We can work with language. In my production of 'Dionysus,' for example, there are actors speaking in Japanese and others in English."
The common language or "the Suzuki culture" is, as he describes it, based on a breathing method that leads to a release and then channeling of "animal energy, not unlike what happens when a great athlete or flamenco dancer performs. Our actors move better than dancers and sing better than singers. But then that's true of all good actors."
Only half-kidding, he proclaims that his training teaches actors to "move faster and make the voice louder. Actors convey emotions and ideas through the sounds and rhythm of language as opposed to the words. No, this is not a realistic acting style."
Tadashi Suzuki & Company, now celebrating their 30th anniversary, has 25 core actors, some of whom have been with the company for its duration. "We have no stars," insists Suzuki. "All of our actors are stars, although some may be more respected than others."
The company boasts 60 pieces in repertory; and each year it creates two new pieces, taking on average four months to rehearse, explains Suzuki. "We either gravitate towards texts that reflect our vision or we will revise a text to reflect our vision. With 'Electra,' for example, I inserted the work of other writers that supported my vision that 'Electra' is set in an insane asylum and everyone is an inmate there. And there is comedy. Just because it takes place in an asylum doesn't mean it's tragic.
"With 'Oedipus,' I didn't do much with the text short of cutting it. And although there are Noh and Kabuki elements, this production is pretty faithful to the original. Undoubtedly, Westerners who are unfamiliar with Noh or Kabuki will say that's what they're seeing. But that's not accurate. The actors are talking much faster than they would in a Noh production and the lighting is entirely different."
A Child of the '60s—Japanese Style
Suzuki was born in Shizuka, Shimizu, an hour from Tokyo; his background is an amalgam of bourgeois and artistic sensibilities. His grandfather was a Bunraku musician. His father, on the other hand, ran a lumber mill. Suzuki's goal was to escape his father's world. He says, only partly in jest, "I wanted to be a doctor in Africa, or teach in a small remote island, or be a guerrilla fighter in the mountains." He corrects any wrong impression "Not a terrorist. I wanted to get out from where I was. I had no interest in being rich or famous in Tokyo. I wanted to have an adventure, and if I could help others, that would be even better."
His fantasy life notwithstanding, he went on to major in economics and politics at Weseda University, an elite college in Japan. "I wanted to study French Literature, Rimbaud in particular. Rimbaud wandered around the world and had adventures. But the university didn't teach French, only English. So I studied French on my own.
"The truth is, I didn't want to go to college at all. I wanted to write or be in theatre, but my parents violently opposed it. I often skipped classes. That's why it took me six years to graduate."
Shortly after arriving at the university, Suzuki gravitated towards the drama department and became part of a circle of student actors, where, for a while, "I was under the delusion that being an actor was the best job in theatre." He chortles.
After college, he "hung around"; indeed, he was a product of the turbulent '60s, an era of transition in Japan. "There was great confusion as Japan moved from an agricultural to an industrial society," he recalls. "You had large populations accumulating in metropolitan areas, rapid economic growth, and tensions between the values of the traditional and modern periods. There was social anxiety, and lots of student demonstrations.
"So instead of finding employment," Suzuki smiles, "a group of us decided to start a theatre with me as its leader. We were creating a theatre to posit a response to the identity crisis that existed in Japan at that time."
The troupe's first piece, "Dramatic Passion," a collectively created collage of famous Japanese texts, garnered attention among experimental artists almost immediately, with Peter Brook inviting the young actors to perform their piece in Paris.
Suzuki was taken with Brook; not so much with his directing style or even his aesthetics, but rather the international composition of his casts—"that was brand new to me"—and the way in which Brook expanded the notion of where theatre could take place. Productions no longer had to be set on a stage, housed in an auditorium. The concept of environmental and/or site-specific theatre intrigued the young Suzuki.
To this day, where and how a play of his is housed is of great importance to Suzuki. So much so that he has helped design eight major theatres throughout Japan. "These theatres go back to the origins—either the traditional Japanese theatre or the Greek amphitheatre, with some modification, depending on where the theatre is set [e.g., in a rural as opposed to a metropolitan area]. In the future, I'm thinking of creating a kind of Globe Theatre, with a circular shape, for Shakespearean productions. These theatres represent an indigenous theatrical vision."
At the moment, however, Suzuki's attentions are focused on his three productions on tour in the hope that they demonstrate, among other potent aspects, the power of "animal energy in the human body. I want audiences to leave the theatre with a sense of amazement and wonder in the face of human capacity."