国際交流基金 The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network Japan

Artist Interview アーティストインタビュー

Mar. 22, 2021
Kuro Tanino

With コロナの視点


An Interview with Kuro Tanino
Revealing a new “With Corona” Perspective

Kuro Tanino (theatre director)

With a parallel career as a psychiatrist, Kuro Tanino (leader of the theater company Niwa Gekidan Penino) has created a unique world of theater that presents the viewers with stage art that is detailed to the point of obstinacy. In addition to his activities in arts festivals in Japan and abroad, in recent years he has conducted programs to high acclaim at the Aubade Hall in his native Toyama City in Toyama prefecture that are deeply oriented toward the local citizenry. The new condition brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic have prompted Kuro to venture into virtual reality (VR) methods, resulting in two works presented as Dark Master VR and Egao no Toride ’20 Kikyou (literally: The Fortress of Smiles ’20 Homecoming). In this interview, we talk with Kuro about his creative work and the potential of VR in this time when the Covid-19 pandemic has forced a state of seclusion on people.
Interview: Masashi Nomura (stage producer, dramaturg), Eiko Tsuboike (Editor of Performing Arts Network Japan)

Change of heart as a creator and the potential of participation type theater

From February (2020) when the call went out to cancel events, will you tell us about the effects it had on you when the COVID-19 pandemic raged on?
On the tour of Takonyudo boukyaku no gi (*1), we had begun preparing the stage in Fukuoka on February 24, but in the middle of that things began to change rapidly. In Fukuoka we took the virus infection countermeasure of reducing the number of audience seats, and we were able to get through the three performances, but the performances in Mie Prefecture that were scheduled had to be cancelled. Since that play had a large-scale set that turned the whole theater into a Buddhist temple and we had engaged a large staff to make the stage sets for the tour, that resulted in quite a big loss. And since we also had performances scheduled for Theatre TRAM in Tokyo but the permission to build the set had not passed the fire department regulations, the tour resulted in a tremendous financial loss for our theater company when you included that.
Originally, what had been your plans for 2020?
Until May, we were scheduled to carry out the Takonyudo tour (Fukuoka, Mie, Tokyo), then in June we had audience participation type events planned in Toyama, and in September we were scheduled to perform Egao no Toride (The Fortress of Smiles) at the Festival d'Automne à Paris in France. In October, we were scheduled to perform The Dark Master in Tokyo (*2), and in December we had scheduled a second “all Toyama” version of Egao no Toride (The Fortress of Smiles). In 2021, we had a tour of performances of The Dark Master VR scheduled in North America. Of all of these, the only one that was actually performed live was Egao no Toride in Toyama. With The Dark Master, we had changed to a VR version for Tokyo, but although preparations were also underway for a tour of cities in the U.S. including New York, it was never realized.

Since I established our Niwa Gekidan Penino company in 2000, 2020 was our 20th anniversary year. So, I was pouring 20 years of thoughts and experiences into the Egao no Toride (The Fortress of Smiles) production that we planned to perform in my hometown in Toyama, and that is why I added the subtitle ’20 Kikyou (2020 Homecoming) to the title. We have been performing in overseas festivals for more than ten years, and for a company like ours that mounts productions with large-scale sets, it has been very hard work. You have to be physically strong to keep up with it. To begin with, I think the international festivals should be for young people. What’s more, I had been perhaps too conscious of trying to expand my theater activities on an ongoing basis not only in Japan but overseas as well, to the point that, I must admit, I’ve gotten a bit tired.

What I want to do has changed over time, to the point where I find myself wanting to intentionally get away from the activities I have been pursuing until now. Children tend to be free and random in the things they do, so they are by nature hard to control. When I ask myself if I have that kind of freedom in the things I do, I would have to say I don’t at all. I feel that my life lacks a positive balance, and by doing Egao no Toride ’20 Kikyou (The Fortress of Smiles), I felt that I wanted to return the way I used to be. When I was a child, I used play by going catch catfish in the creek, or going into the bamboo grove and making things out of wood. The feeling that I want to get to the way I was then, to be at one with nature and spend time in an environment where I never knew what would happen next has gotten stronger lately. It surely has something to do with the corona pandemic, but even before this, the feeling that personally I wanted to get away from the present environment I am in has been getting stronger.
In other words, the changes in your state of mind as an artist and raging of the COVID-19 pandemic just happened to come at the same time, did they?
Well, yes. In a sense, the fact that the virus is a thing of nature and you don’t know what course it will take or how to control it seemed to overlap with my feeling of wanting to move more with the flow of nature. This was something I hadn’t experienced before, but being in this situation gave me a lot of things to think about.
In March, the call was out for everyone to restrain themselves and April brought the declaration of the state of emergency due to the pandemic, which made the future unpredictable. What did you do at that time?
The biggest cause of stress at that time was the inability to meet with people and the inability to get around. Concerning the new work I was scheduled to create for performances at KAAT (Kanagawa Arts Theater) in 2021, considering the unpredictability of things, I was having a difficult getting an idea for the contents of a new work.

Since that was the case, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk to people I didn’t normally have the chance to really talk with. Since Zoom made it easy to talk with such people online, that is what I wanted to do. People like priests and funeral parlor proprietors, doctors, educators, the people at the local delicatessen and the master at the bar that I went to often but never had a chance to really talk with. My intentions was to talk to those kinds of people around town and hear what they were thinking about in order to find material for my new work.

From around June I was able to actually go out and talk to them directly instead of using Zoom. I also went to pubs and private bars, but there was no one there that I could talk with. They were completely close-contact environments, and since the matrons and masters were all older people, the customers tended to be self-restrained. Especially the bar matrons were mostly hardened veterans, they might talk to you cheerfully, but you could tell times were hard for them.
Were there any particular things that you learned from talking with those people around town during the corona pandemic?
Taking for example a funeral parlor owner, they have a lot of connections in places you wouldn’t know about, and even when there aren’t any funerals, they still have a lot of influence at the florist shops, the local drinkeries and the catering services. The corona pandemic hit all of these businesses especially hard. They constitute a “small community” that most of us aren’t aware of and there were a lot of interest unknown things going on there behind the scenes. In my new work, I think that these types of unseen connections, these connections that aren’t aware of, are going to be one of the themes. To begin with, the plan for this new work came partly from the fact that a number of people at KAAT, like Nagatsuka-san , were very interested in the projects I was doing in my native Toyama, and the creative method took into consideration thoughts about how to connect to local communities.
I think the first play that you created working in your unique on-site working method was the re-creation of your work The Dark Master that you staged in Osaka in 2016. Was there some change of heart for you as a writer and director that led to that?
That Kansai version of The Dark Master was performed in a small theater in the Tennoji restaurant and bar district of Osaka. For the theater space we made a design that looked like a theater that would blend well into such a district. The stage art was such that you couldn’t really tell whether it was a theater or a real Western-style restaurant. And then we created the work using actors and stage staff we met for the first time when they showed up for our open-call auditions. The first work where I began to think about creating a work that was more deeply rooted in the community was the joint production of Egao no Toride (The Fortress of Smiles) that we did with the Kinosaki International Arts Center. We made the setting of the story the fishing port of Kinosaki and put together the production with the help of the local people. They gave us tours of the fishing port, props and consumable items. And after that, the first work that we did where everything from the story to the stage art and actors came from and were made by the local people was the Toyama production The Dark Master 2019 TOYAMA.

If I were asked if I had a change of heart as an artist, I think I would have to say that I did. The ideal is that a work should leave something palpable and positive behind in the place where it was performed. It may be a song, or it may be a single word. It may be OK if it is just a new item on the menu of a local pub (laughs). I came to think that I want something to happen because of the work being performed there that will remain as a form of inheritance. There is an aspect of theater as something that “once you have seen it its over” and then it’s gone, but my concern is that there might be something more that can be left behind in a positive sense. For me, as a theater maker who has long continued to create fiction, I now have that kind of humble dream. Making it come true is difficult, but I feel that in Toyama we have gradually begun to climb the first few steps toward that dream.

Originally, what made me begin to think in that way is that somewhere inside is the feeling that I want to be loved, like a child wants to be loved. I have a feeling that I want theater-making itself to be loved. Tickets for the all-Toyama version of The Dark Master were all sold out and 1,200 people came to see it. I think that is an incredible number considering the fact that the population of the city is just about 400,000 and the population of the whole prefecture is just a million. In terms of population ratio, that would be the equivalent of 130,000 in Tokyo.

When we were working on the production, we went out drinking every night, and in regional towns like Toyama the pubs and bars are a strong network that make it an effective route for making connections. In Toyama, it is important that you be able to drink in a gentlemanly manner (laughs) at a variety of pubs, and if you can do that, they really love you. On the day of the final performance I received congratulatory bouquets from a lot of the bars and pubs I had frequented (laughs).

In time we may see something like people such as a cleaning lady or a man working in the boiler room of a multi-tenant building come to the theater dressed up a bit and saying with excitement, “Tanino, you’re going to do it next time. Behind it all, that is what I am aiming for and that is what I am working tenaciously for … as I drink. By my second week in Toyama, the people in the streets of the bar and pub district were calling me danna (master). (Laughs)

Theater can’t do something like developing a medicine that will cure the ills of great numbers of people. I do this because I believe that theater has the ability to approach individual people with a persistent message.
Regardless of whether the bar matrons like theater or not, is it a case of getting men that you have become friends with at the bars interested to see what you are doing at the theater?
That is enough. I want to create an atmosphere that makes it easy for them to come to the theater. The work Jigokudani Onsen Mumyo no Yado (Jigokudani Hot Springs Ignorance Inn) (*3) we presented in 2015, a man at a pub in Morishita in Tokyo made the props for us. When I was folding origami cranes known as Senbazuru (literally: a thousand cranes) at a pub I went to after rehearsal, somebody asked me what I was doing. And when I said I was planning to use the cranes in my play, a man said, “I’ll help you,” and before long everyone at the shop was folding cranes with me (laughs). And because of that, they all came to see the play.

Things like this also had a good effect on the work. For example, the café-pub matron was an interesting character wherever she went, and from her deep trough of life experience, she would often come out suddenly with very weighty comments. And I used a number of them in my stage script.
It seems that from before the COVID-19 pandemic, the audience that came to the theater to see your plays were largely a set group. Since the coming of the pandemic, there has been an increase in the number of online presentations and events, but it doesn’t seem like that has had much affect in terms of growing your audience. This is something that has been pointed out by Takayama-san in his interview with PANJ. Is that why you want to use your own method to bring people in the communities to the theater where they can meet with other people they don’t know in an atmosphere that is open and free?
That’s right. I believe in the potential of theater.
Once the declaration of the state of emergence was nullified, you held an audience participation type event titled Meditation – The day before daylight on June 20th as the second of your “All-Toyama” series. That event can be viewed on YouTube, and it is s work that used the entire space of the 2,200-seat Aubade Hall including the audience seating as the stage as one large space. In darkness with the continuing reverberation of low-frequency sound, 30 participants wearing full-face helmets walk to seats in the audience area spaced and lighted by spotlight to indicate seating positions. There they sit in silence. The sound goes silent, the hall becomes completely dark and their meditation begins…. Finally, music begins in the darkness. As if consumed in a universal space, it becomes a work in which the hall seems to expand without limits. About this work, you said, “I created it in this time when it is difficult for people to gather and it is difficult to foresee the future, in hopes of giving people who love the theater a chance to share an opportunity to gather and to think and to hope.”
I proposed that we try doing something like this. Because I want to create an opportunity for the people who work at Aubade Hall to meet with the people who usually come to the hall to see theater performances. At the time the theater staff was forced to spend their time at the theater with nothing to do [because of the pandemic]. That must be hard for them. I got the idea that I wanted to take this opportunity to help each and every one of the people who work there to feel a renewed pride in the fact that they work at a theater, and I want them to enjoy their job. So I wanted to create an opportunity for all of the employees, from the theater managers to the security people and the ticket center people, to get up and take a place on the stage, and although the number could only be a few, I wanted some audience to come too. We had them all put on full-face helmets, take infection control measures and then spend time together in the dark theater. I want to create time when people could actually have other people there in front of them. This was a work, an event, born of my sense of gratitude for all of the time the theaters have been there for me.
This has been a time [with the pandemic] when we hear statements like “arts and culture are extravagances that are not necessary or urgent, and we see inflammatory statements on the Net that theater people are few and distant from others. In this kind of environment, it has been easy for people who work at theaters to lose their self-confidence.
Yes, that is true. That has been really painful to hear. And that is why I had a strong desire to help build the theater people’s motivation. With the present limitations on travel, there is a limit to what we could do, so we went online to talk about this and that which we could do. I had them use a camera to walk me through what was being done so that eventually we could put the work together. The people at Aubade Hall really enjoyed participating in it all.
I heard that there were some people from other halls involved too, and that some of them had gotten inspired to start something themselves.
There are things that I think can be done with some creative thought, so that even if theaters can’t do their usual drama and dance works or musicals and the like, I think there are a lot of things that can be done by approaching the theater as one large space. Our Meditation was one such project that took that approach.

A type of “Nesting theater” using stage art to create a place to be

I think of your theater works as something I call “Nesting Theater,” in which it seems that each time you create stage art that becomes like a “nest” that you can retreat into. And since it is a place of your own making, you can feel comfortable there, and it is safe and a place where you can indulge in delusion. But now you are enjoying making the nests not by yourself but with others, so the nests that you make become ones where everyone feels good.
I see. This is the first time I have been told something like that. For a long time I have thought that the stage art in theater is pitiful in nature, because when the play is over it is destined to be thrown out and burned, and to change that fate, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could get the people who see a play can come to think of the sets as something of their own that belongs to them. So for the stage art of Takonyudo boukyaku no gi I tried using crowdfunding so that the audience could join in the finishing of the temple set by pasting up their own ofuda (Buddhist talisman hung in temples), and in that way leave their mark on the stage art as a sign that they had come to see the play. I think this has connected to what we are doing now in Toyama, where we build the stage art along with the local citizens. My aim is to borrow the strength of many and bring it together into the creation of one work. So it would be good if these efforts can eventually lead to a nest that will make many people feel good.
There can be nests that resemble existing things in the world like temples, but perhaps there can also be uncommon nests that have never existed before. Such a nest of the largest scale ever I believe was the outdoor performance Moon that you did at the 2017 Fuji no kuni -World Theatre Festival Shizuoka. In it the participants wore helmets modeled after those of astronauts and, as if transformed into the inhabitants of some strange planet in some far-off corner of the universe, were soon spontaneously acting out some sort of wordless ceremony. The fact that it created an enormous nest in the form of an unseen planet through the ceremony was indeed fascinating, but I think the greatest invention was the smallest of nests you created in the form of the full-face helmet the participants wore. Simply putting on that helmet enabled the participants to enter a nest where they felt safe and secure.
Definitely, it can be seen that way. In simple terms, with Moon I wanted to create a situation similar to the psychic phenomenon represented by the mythical Japanese Kokkuri-san (a psychic phenomenon in which the spirit of a fox becomes possessed and moves a coin in the liking of a finger across the characters written on a paper to prophesize something as in table turning or a seance). It was an audience-participation work, but we gave them no notice or instructions of what they should do, so that there could be an effect like a chain reaction among the participants once one of them began to do something for whatever reason. I wanted to try to make a very large-scale artwork, an installation that was based on that kind of group psychology reactions.

In order to reduce the amount of information necessary for normal communication to a minimum, I had the participants wear a helmet with a mirror face shield. With that on, I created a situation where you couldn’t tell the other people’s gender, or age or language. And indeed, as you just said, that freed them in a way and gave them a sense of safety and security.
Wearing that helmet put you in an atmosphere that made it easy the retreat into a nest, but at the same time, it also had the reverse effect of freeing you to escape from your own identity. Taking that idea to an extreme, the minute you put on that helmet, the helmet enabled you to retreat into a kind of independent theater, and looking back from the present perspective, it seems to me to have been a work that anticipated the coming coronavirus age.
In fact, it wasn’t just a case of getting the cooperation of the participants to create an artwork, but rather, I planned it to be a work that gave a sense of narrative when seen in overview. That narrative, that story, is one of astronauts trying to save a planet from an unknown infectious virus. So, I had a deflated balloon that would represent the planet when the participants inflated it and then come alive when they lit lights inside it. In the end, the space becomes beautifully vibrant with an array of different colored balloons.

The challenge to use VR

What kinds of theater can be realized in this time of the coronavirus? Recently, we see a lot of works that would be better off seen in the real theater environment instead being broadcast online, or being traced in VR, but it seems to me that your type of “Nesting theater” is inherently well suited to VR type production. In your work The Dark Master VR, you set up the theater with individual enclosures where the audience members sat separately in a way that you could make them appear as customers sitting at a counter in a Western-style restaurant, and the cameras were arranged so that they could look at the play from that perspective. Was VR a new tool for you?
VR is something that I had been interested in for some time. Since VR goggles became available at a reasonable price, from about two or three years earlier, and ASMR video (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) that stimulated both the visual and aural senses with 3D binaural recordings came to be seen rather regularly on YouTube. So, I had begun to thing that a lot of interesting things could be done by using different combinations of media. With a setting like the Western-style restaurant of The Dark Master, you can get into it in a subjective way by eating the food and smelling the food being prepared and the like. And since it is also a story where the restaurant’s master brainwashes and synchronizes with the young man that has come there as a customer, I had the idea that it would lend itself well to VR. Then with the advent of the corona pandemic, when I thought about how it could be done in a way that would never be cancelled as a result, I finally decided to use VR. The audiences would view it from individual cubicles, and there would be no actors coming out. Of course, it would require the cooperation of the theater staff, but it could use a system that was operable by just a staff of two. We wouldn’t need to use the backstage changing rooms either, and the stage art could be set up quickly and easily.

But, since the plan was not to do it as a VR presentation originally, I had to re-write the stage script and turn down the actors we had originally enlisted to perform it, ad in that sense it was a painful decision. It was also a time when it was difficult to meet with everyone one-by-one. But through it all, I was strongly dedicated to the conviction that I would not allow the production to be cancelled.
How much did you change the script and the staging between the VR version and the live theater version?
I changed it quite a bit. In the end, the length of the script for the VR version was close to that of the original manga it is based on. I felt that when dong in the film version I had to have it progress in a way that was closer to the original manga. In the VR version you have to wear the headset, which, with its weight, is not suited to a long story. So, I made the VR version quite different compared to the live theater version, and the result is that the VR version has very little feeling of “dramatic” development. The most interesting thing in VR is the strength of the physical experience, and with regard to the visuals, they come at you in 3D, and that gives you the sensation, the feeling, that you can touch the things you see and smell the dishes being cooked. On the other hand, when you raise those physical sensation, it weakens the strength of emotional feeling that you get from the dramatic aspects of the story. So, I tried to cut away the sense of narrative, of storytelling, as much as possible, and I reduced the cast to just three characters. Since the technology continues to improve in terms of things like the definition of the goggle and the focusing response, if we are able to improve our editing capabilities to keep pace, I think there are a lot of new possibilities that will emerge.
Are there any particular creative devices that you used with the VR version?
With the VR version this time, when you sit in one of the audience cubicles, the partition in front of you and to the two sides are all magic-mirror surfaces. When you put on the VR goggles, at first you see yourself reflected in those mirror surfaces, but finally, they go transparent. But rather than just showing the video through the goggles, I took measures to bring attention to the real world as well. The basic idea I apply is that the VR world and the real world are the same. When seen in terms of something like quantum theory, the whole world is made up of miniscule particles, and what we see as the real world is all determined by the conditions that those particles are in. When you look at a TV screen up close, it is just a collection of little particles, but when you view the screen from a distance you get a sense of actually being present in a real scene. Our consciousness is the same, when we perceive something as delicious or a sound as something with a delicious feeling, it is still just a matter of the conditions of those miniscule particles of matter. We could go on to say that emotions like feeling happy, feeling bored or feeling something is repulsive are also just a matter of the conditions of the particles, in a sense.

Another thing I would note, as I mentioned earlier about the fact that my feeling recently is that I want to get away from doing things too consciously, or intentionally, and recently I want to take the same approach with issues like the fact that human beings are only concerned with human beings. For example, issues like harassment and discrimination are things we have to think about, but aside from questions of right or wrong, there is the alternative ultra-objective or materialistic approach of seeing it all as the conditions of the minute particles of matter. When I was working on the VR version, I thought that I wanted to try thinking that way as an overall perspective. But having said that, during the run of the VR presentations, I was told that there were participants in Toyama who were concerned about the safety of the event in light of the corona pandemic, so a day when there was no performance, I got up early and went all the way to Toyama to hear directly from the people about their concerns. But at the same time I was trying to think in terms everything as particles. So, there I was, and I was thinking that my head was going to split in two! (Laughs).

Anyway, I tried to work into this VR version the view that the digital space and the physical “real world” were basically the same.
It’s no wonder you felt like your head was splitting in two. Because you were in fact going back and forth between two extremes during the corona pandemic (laughs).
In fact, in the Shinkansen super-express train on the way back from that rushed meeting in Toyama, I was laughing at myself and thinking, “What are you trying to do?” In order to accommodate the COVID-19 countermeasures, the VR version was put together on an extremely tight schedule of one day for writing the new script, three days of rehearsals and five days of filming, and once it was done, even with no actors or staff present, the performance could be seen with one click on the button. In contrast, with the Toyama production of The Fortress of Smiles, my approach was that theater is something that you have to pour all the time you can into in order to do it right. I wanted it to be a work that in which the participants could feel the progression of the four seasons, so I divided the rehearsals into one week each in May, August and September. So, at the same time I was doing a completely different project based on the concept that in this time of the coronavirus we will spread out the schedule to take the time to create theater as it should be done.
But in terms of your creative method those two extremes are both justifiable, aren’t they. Would you tell us about any new discoveries you had from your experience in working with VR?
There are many constraint put on audiences during theater performances, things like they have to try not to sneeze or get up to go to the lavatory during the middle of a performance. As a result of that they have to try their best to concentrate on the what is happening on the stage. And aided by that unconscious effect on the audience, at least I have benefitted by having my works be overrated, I believe. That is something I felt as we were filming, and it made me feel a bit apologetic. It may be that, due to the fact that when the performance is over, nothing remains and the lack of any way for the audience to verify their recollections of what has happened, this might be the cause of some overrating. I was painfully aware of this as we were filming the VR work, which will afterwards remain, and therefore be there to be reviewed. Also, while filming, there will always be pressure to get to a take that you can say is OK as the final useable footage. That feeling, that pressure, is completely different from working on [live] theater rehearsals. That gets you to a point where you begin to convince yourself that the take you just gave the OK on must have been really good, and that puts you into a really positive and bright mood during the filming (laughs).

From the technical aspect, the system for producing the stereophonic sound, the CG processing and everything down to the editing capabilities, all enable the possibilities to try achieving a very high level of work. Everything about what can and can’t be done with VR, what kind of effect could be achieved by changing the script in such-and-such a way, it was all a completely new learning experience, so I really enjoyed it.
How about the response from the audience?
About 90% of the people who saw it were seeing VR for the first time, I believe. And though they had all seen the same video, they hadn’t seen it together, so there wasn’t the type of strangely tangible shared feeling among the members of the audience that you get with a real theater performance. In addition, and since they all watched in alone in their own cubicle, where they could get into the visuals with their heightened sensory effects, most of the responses we got tended to be very simple descriptions of their experience. They said things like they felt [VR] sickness (similar to car sickness), or that it gave them strange perceptions, or conversely, some said it “felt good” or it was “very graphic.” Since as the creator I had wanted them to enjoy it, we made announcements that if they began to feel sick (VR sickness) they should take off their goggles, still there was a certain sized group that could not accept it. It was something like what you might expect to hear it you asked a young couple who were both virgins what their first sex experience had been like. There were both positive and negative responses, but having that opportunity to hear the audience’s response to their first VR experience was a very valuable experience for me.
With both theater and film, there is a certain shared code, a certain line you do not cross in terms of what can be done and what can’t and there is no confusion about it for the audiences, but I don’t think VR has reached the point where such a line exists yet, and since every viewer is basically a beginner in that sense, it seems understandable that they would respond with descriptions of such physical impressions as well as impressions of the work. That aside, I would like to ask you about the other extreme. What kinds of things do you keep in mind when you go about creating a theater production for a work like Egao no Toride ’20 Kikyou (The Fortress of Smiles) that all sorts of people from the community join in creative process?
In such a work, most of the participants have little or even no experience in theater. They all come from different occupations and home environments, so I try to keep the attitude in mind that the final performance is little more than the icing on the cake, and I tell them that. The important thing is not the final performance but the studio work in the rehearsals, the actual work of putting the play together. At the same time, I tell them that if they are afraid of corona infection we can stop at any time. Even if it is in the middle of a performance, for example, we can always stop. I tell them, let’s all agree on that approach. The all have family and their daily work, and some live with the elderly or family members who have disabilities. Those things can’t be controlled, and I have no intention of controlling them from the beginning, and this is the one thing I can lead them in.
You said that with VR, success is determined by the ability to film useable footage, but with a theater production like The Fortress of Smiles you seem to be taking the completely opposite approach that they should not worry about the final performance—which could be considered the equivalent of the “useable footage”—and that things can always be put off until later, don’t you?
The reason I don’t really like doing community workshops that are done and completed in a short time is that a rather large number of the participants are looking to gain exactly that kind of “useable footage.” What I want to communicate through projects like the ones I do in Toyama is that creating a theater work is not something that you can take away some type of useable “form” from in a short time, but rather it is a process of watching the “long takes” that rehearsals are and picking up from that the “natural forces” that emerge and piecing them together into something lasting. On the other hand, from working on the VR project, I find that the things you might call preparations that I learned to do in order to increase the “useable footage” ratio I could get turn out to be things that I think were lacking until now in may work in theater production making. Though it will depend also on what VR work I do from now on, I think there will be a positive sort of reciprocity between in the two.

By the way, with The Fortress of Smiles, I plan to take a rather large amount of film to record all of the creative work going into the rehearsals and the stage art. It is not that I want to create a film work, but mostly I want to do it for the people involved. When we are filming, it creates and atmosphere where everyone feels that the time they are spending in the work is important, and it also leaves a record that indeed they had done something of value. I think this is very important at a time like this.
So it seems that what is important for you now, regardless of the coronavirus pandemic, is what can be done to create theater while putting in to it a lot of time and moments where you can take deep breaths, isn’t it?
I think that probably theater is something where someone can fantasize about new relationships or associations or create impossible ones. Also, the actors may read the script in depth until they image relationships that aren’t even written in it, and as they fantasize, the world of the drama, the story expands as a result. Eventually, these imaginings will expand beyond the script and connect to new questions such as why we are here and what turns the wheels of society. One of the aspects of theater is this way that it brings people together to create larger and greater connections and relationships. As for what makes those relationships grow, it certainly can’t be done without curiosity and without love and nurturing. That is why, as a playwright, I want to be able to inspire the people involved to feel those things.
You have a lot of experience doing creative work in theater overseas, and I’m sure you have experienced many differences. With regard to how you view the corona phenomenon, do you see the possibility that the contemporary nature of the coronavirus experience will contribute to the opening of new doors in the world of artistic creativity?
That is a difficult question. I absolutely don’t know. One of the reasons that my experiences working abroad have had a great effect on my work is because it has introduced me to new things that I didn’t know much about. The uncertainties that these new discoveries brought have been important in maintaining my curiosity concerning the nature and potential of theater, but now I have lost that input. That is why I have to say that I just don’t know. That is why the current restrictions on activities have been so hard for me.
There is still information available, but it is not the same as the things that are born in the process of moving about, is it?
That’s right. It is different. Even if I can’t go abroad, I can encounter new thing wrapped in uncertainty close at hand. But with declaration of a state of emergency even those encounters are now restricted. It is my desire to do something about that state that has me trying to do what I can domestically.
That brings us back to the original question of what your next new work will be like.
It won’t be VR, it will be a work of theater in the inherent sense of the word. What that means now is that I want to create a work that will make the viewer feel that they have been on a journey when they finish seeing it. It will be set in a two-story multi-tenant building on a street lined with small eateries and bars in some town somewhere, and it will be a very unique place. There is a place that I know must be having a hard time with the corona pandemic and I go drinking there often because I want to help protect it, and it is the thought that in time it will be gone too that has made me want to make a theater work about it. And around it is a multinational entertainment district that has a slight air of danger and suspicious goings on that make it attractive. That is the place that I want to make into a theater work. I want the local people to join with me in making it too, and there is a matron of a bar there that I want to have play a role in it, so I am now in the process of trying to convince her to (laughs). Unlike my VR work, I want to try throwing myself into a super-troublesome project.
We are really looking forward to your new work. Thank for giving us this precious interview today.

*1 Takonyudo boukyaku no gi
In an elaborate set that changes the whole theater into a temple, a pseudo-Buddhist ceremony for a sacred octopus is conducted. It is an immersive theater experience in which the audience enters the fictional temple as “believers,” and listen to the modified sutra chants and strange performances of eight priests.

Takonyudo boukyaku no gi

Niwa Gekidan Penino
Takonyudo boukyaku no gi

(Oct. 2019 at ROHM Theatre Kyoto)
Photo: Yoshikazu

*2 The Dark Master
First performed by Niwa Gekidan Penino in 2003 based on a short story by one of the representative manga script writers of the baby boom generation, Caribu Marley. The loner-type master of a run-down Western-style restaurant steals the soul of a young backpacker who has come in as a customer and proceeds to brainwash him and train him to take over the restaurant as the master’s successor. A stage set is built in the image of a real Western-style restaurant and in it food is actually prepared. The play takes the form of immersive theater in which the voice of the offstage master, who never shows himself, is heard giving instructions to the young successor via earphones, and the audience also listens to the same voice through earphones.

The Dark Master

Niwa Gekidan Penino
The Dark Master

(May. 2016 at Oval Theater)
Photo: Takashi Horikawa

*3 Jigokudani Onsen, Mumyo no Yado
The winner of the 60th (2016) Kishida Drama Award. It is a work that tell the story of the events of one night that occur among the guests at a spa deep in the mountains where a father-son puppeteer team have been invited to perform. It was performed on a highly detailed set that replicated an old two-story spa inn built on a revolving stage.
“Play of the Month” Jigokudani Onsen, Mumyo no Yado

Jigokudani Onsen, Mumyo no Yado
Jigokudani Onsen, Mumyo no Yado

Niwa Gekidan Penino
Jigokudani Onsen, Mumyo no Yado

(Aug. 2015 at Morishita Studio - C Studio)
Photos: Shinsuke Sugino

Egao no Toride

Niwa Gekidan Penino
Egao no Toride (Recreation)

(Nov. 2018 at independent theatre 2nd)
Photo: Takashi Horikawa

Kuro Tanino ✕ All Toyama 2nd Stage series
Meditation –The day before daylight–

(Jun, 20, 2020 at Aubade Hall)
Photo: Yanagihara Photo Office


M Project MOON (World Theatre Festival Shizuoka 2017)
Venue: Open Air Theatre UDO
Photo: Chiye Namegai

ダークマスター VR

The Dark Master VR
(Oct. 2020 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre-Theatre East)
Photo: Keizo Maeda (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre)