These are two things that are naturally connected within me. The production
Nanatsu no Oinori
(Seven Prayers) that we performed recently is an omnibus work consisting of seven plays written and directed one each by our hi-bye company members, and the one I wrote,
Kaneko no Tanjobi
(Kaneko’s Birthday) is simply about a “hidden camera” type trick that one of the company members, Kaneko, played on me on my birthday. I often wonder how private experiences like this can be shared with others, but it is often more successful than you would expect. In the end, people will listen to any kind of story if it is interesting, and they won’t listen if it is boring. I think it is fine as long as you consider the other person’s relationship and explain your intent properly. And, I frequently ask people what they think of a story. With a play in the theater you can’t actually ask the audience, but I am doing theater in that spirit.
In fact, before writing the
story or the family story of
, I did talk with a variety of people about the stories. In the process, what may begin as a purely tragic story starts to take on other interesting aspects. And when you include those in the final writing, it often communicates well. For example, I feel that Japan’s
form of narrative comedy is close to this in a way. I believe that the root of
is simply a comedian relating stories about something that happened to an acquaintance or, in an extreme, things someone said at a bar.
Although both you subject matter and the verbal delivery are based in actual everyday life, your staging methods seem to accentuate the imaginary. With things like the so-called “hi-bye door” which consists on nothing but a metal stand with a doorknob on it, your sets are very simple, and you often have men playing female roles.
Both my staging and stage art were strongly influenced by the Berliner Ensemble production of
(directed by Claus Peymann) that came to Japan in 2002. It was a joint production employing the Stanislavski System that teaches actors to become one with their role and the Brecht-oriented Berliner Ensemble that says playing a role is futile, so you had a combination of actors who were trying to be completely into their role and others who just said their lines without any concern for what the emotions of the character might be. In it all, the most shocking thing for me was when someone shouts “A ship has come!” and then a ship made of paper is brought out (laughs). That really caught me off guard. That instantly erased all the discomfort I had long felt about the need to believe that what you were showing the audience was real. If they had tried to create a magnificent reproduction of a ship for the set, it would still end up as nothing more than an attempt to show off the stage artist’s ability to create something impressive. From the standpoint of stimulating the audience’s imagination, the paper boat is much more effective, and I think it would also be better received from the standpoint of contemporary criticism. We can’t begin to know what things were actually like in theater in the age of the monarchies, but I thought it was very mature and sophisticated at times like when Richard is talking about finally having won the crown and he is holding that flimsy paper crown in his hands.
An actor can never completely become his character. Theater is different from reality. I feel that if you at least begin a play with that intention you will allow the audience to come close to the story and to its characters when they like and in the manner they like. That is why I come out on the stage during the warm-up dressed in a middle-aged woman’s clothes so I can show the audience as early on as possible that I am going to be playing the mother in the play but I am not the mother, that the story is a lie [fiction] from the beginning.
I seems to me that the work in which the three elements of the documentary type subject matter, a truly theatrical structure and the staging came together most clearly was your play
(The Hand) that you premiered in 2008. In this play the same story is told from two different characters’ perspectives, and with a reversal in the temporal order of events.
is a story about a hot-blooded older sister who takes worries about the family’s grandmother falling into a state of dementia as an opportunity to call the broken family back together for a family conference. Her aim is to try to rebuild family bonds but the meeting ends up in a terrible state of affairs. Since it was so direct a story about my actual family, I was worried that it might not have any relevance for other people. So I ended up using some special measures in the way the information is presented and the order of events in the storyline.
At first I was planning to make villains of my older brother who had become very cold toward our grandmother and my father who destroys the hard-won family reunion. But when I interviewed my mother about the events involved, I found that she had a completely differently from the way I did. Especially concerning my older brother, she said it was hard for him to accept my grandmother’s decline into dementia because he had known her in her most vital and energetic period. Since that view didn’t fit into the morality play of right and wrong that I had envisioned, I realized that the only way to resolve the problem was to write from both my and my mother’s perspectives.
That was the first time that I had reworked the structure of a play I was writing and, to be honest, the result was better received than I thought it would be. But I must admit I had mixed feelings when people came to me afterwards saying, “Your brother really was a good person, wasn’t he?” And I thought, “That’s just because that episode comes out later in the play!” (Laughs) I had seen the plays of
and saw how they could create interest simply through the order in which they present the information in a story. I thought it was amazing how they could gain so much just through the composition of the storyline, and it showed me how important the use of the time element is.
Near the end of the play there is a scene where the family comes together to make a pyramid while singing some vaguely remembered song in chorus. It is a touching scene in which the pyramid they are trying to create is symbolic of the attempt of this broken family with its twisted members trying nonetheless to come together again. In
Hikky Cancun Tornado
as well, the pro wrestling scenes that appear repeatedly throughout the play reflect the themes of struggle to get out into the world and to interact with others. The climaxes of your plays seem to consistently have physical expression as a unifying element, don’t they?
I have never been specifically conscious of using “physical” elements. However, I learned from Iwamatsu-san that it is a failure if it depends on words alone. That is why I don’t have much interest in the literary aspects of plays. Said in extreme terms, I have the sense that a play can become more interesting if you just put out there a straight and simple synopsis that, for example, “This is a story about a stay-at-home trying to get out into the world but can’t.”
Eventually, what I want to show is a situation, I guess. For example, in
which is a story about a college student inflicted with a rare disease that causes him to age three years in each year, there is a scene where he is singing a rock song in front of the mirror with all his heart. All by himself, he is going through all the actions like a rock star, just like I did when I was absorbed in Yutaka Ozaki and his music. That is the kind of scene I want to act out myself, and I want to have other actors perform, too. It may be something you could laugh at, but I really want to show that kind of lovable, poignant situation.
In addition to creating and presenting new works, hi-bye is also actively re-staging or doing revivals of your existing works. In particular you have done regional tours of your works
Hikky Cancun Tornado
and they have become representative works of the company’s repertoire in the process.
The more I restage or do repeat performances of a work, the less I feel that I am recreating my own experiences and the more I feel that the work becomes something belonging to the actors and the audience. I don’t feel that I am suited, either technically or psychologically, to the process of writing new works one after another, and I think it is better for me to be content with repeating performances of my plays that people say they like. From the second performance onward there are always things that can be added on to the basic contents to communicate more, and I can think of ways for the actors and us to get more out of it.
At the same time you have been expanding your solo activities outside your company with productions like the renewal of
Sono Zoku no Na wa Kazoku
), you also expanded your company members to seven in 2009 and did a production titled
Nanatsu no Oinori
(Seven Prayers) as an omnibus work consisting of one play each by the seven members. What is your thinking now about hi-bye as a company?
When actors become members of a company it can gradually make them lazy until they completely forget their original motivation for working in theater. Even though the potential for what each actor can do in a work is infinite, they can reach a point where they are simply waiting to be told what to do by the director.
It was actually this problem that caused me to increase the number of members and also to plan the production
Nanatsu no Oinori
. When I confess to Oriza Hirata-san and
that I was thinking of quitting it all if things went on like they were. But they said quitting is easy, but before doing that why not try increasing the number of members. I realized that indeed when we were just four and two were getting lazy, it really bothered me, but I found that when it was just two out of seven, I was able to accept it with more tolerance (laughs).
Also, with regard to
Nanatsu no Oinori
I had the feeling that giving them the experience of doing their own writing and directing would be helpful when they were invited by other directors to work outside the company. Because it can only be good to experience the tension and excitement of knowing that whether the work was interesting or not it would all come back to you. There is nothing lost in experiencing that feeling of responsibility and it should change a person’s way of looking at a script.
Besides being responsible for their own work, what else do you feel is necessary for the actors of hi-bye?
What would it be? Of course, a big things is having people that I can share things I find interesting with, but on the whole, what we have is a group of people whose facial expressions are interesting when they talk, and who aren’t very skillful talkers and aren’t good at striking good-looking postures on the stage.
You could say that I value essence, and concerning things like personality or the enunciation of word endings, I tell the actors to go back to the way they usually talk. In my workshops and such I don’t tell them how I want them to present their lines, instead I often tell them that all of them have experienced at least 20 years of life, so I want them to use their own experiences. Because it isn’t my intent to stage the “words” in the script. The actors should be able to create something unique on stage because of the experiences they have lived and carry inside them, and that should be easier for them and also more beneficial for them.
From what you have said, it seems to me that the foundation of your creative process is repeatedly telling about your personal experiences until they become stories with a universal essence. What kinds of subjects and methods are you thinking about for the future?
I believe that no matter what the original subject matter is, the success as a story depends on how it is told. For the “Factory Tour Group” event that we did at Atelier Helicopter I used the hi-bye actor Takenori Kaneko as the subject and wrote a short work called “Half the Life of Kaneko.” It was 80% true stories from his life and the rest was a complete lie (fiction) about how he tried to commit suicide and I saved him and he went on to become a hi-bye actor. Apparently some of the audience took it as the truth and came up afterwards to say how sorry they were to hear what sad experiences we had been through. Until then I had always been interested in writing about myself and the things I knew, but with this Kaneko work I discovered that people could enjoy my work the same way even when it slid into the realm of fiction. That doesn’t mean that fiction is suddenly going to start making up larger portions of my writing, however.
I have felt that someday I would like to write about subjects from after my stay-at-home period, like my experiences in cram school or at the college, but my feeling now is that there is not too much more that I can write about myself. For my next work I plan to write seriously about someone I have been interviewing. I can tell you specifically that it is about a woman who keeps getting involved in extramarital affairs. I really like interviewing people and I want to continue asking people about how they have lived and sharing in their fears and interests. By doing that, I feel that I can continue to write about a variety of subjects, and that is something I would definitely like to do.
Born 1974 in Tokyo. Lived as a stay-at-home from the age of 15 until about 20. Iwai graduated from Toho Gakuen College of Drama and Music in 2001 and in 2002 he participated as a stand-in in the Takenaka Naoto no Kai production of Gekko no Tsutsushimi (written and directed by Ryo Iwamatsu), which became his introduction to vernacular style theater. In 2003 he founded the theater company hi-bye and presented as its inaugural production the play Hikky Cancun Tornado about a stay-at-home youth who longs to be a pro wrestler. Since then he has written and directed all the hi-bye productions and acted in them as well. Many of his works are gritty but laughable comedies based on Iwai’s own personal experiences. His thoroughly objective treating of the theme of human relationship of protagonists overly self-conscious and concerned about the distances between the self and the other invariably create humor and poignancy. In recent years Iwai has worked increasingly outside his own company as a director actor and scenario writer. Representative works include Onegai Hokago (2007), Te (The Hand) (2008) and Nagerareyasui Ishi (2011) among others. Hikky Cancun Tornado is also scheduled to be performed at the South Korean performing arts market PAMS in Oct. 2011.
(Oct. 2008 at Performance Gallery “Littlemore Chika”)
Photo: Tsukasa Aoki
(May. 2010 at Atelier Helicopter)
Photo: Wakana Hikino
Hikky Cancun Tornado
(Oct. 2009 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space)
Photo: Wakana Hikino