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Person to Know: The Japanese Theatre Director Calling for a Return to Live Art Form

By Bianca Husodo

Tadashi Suzuki, 79, is the renowned Japanese theatre director who coined the Suzuki Method of Actor Training.
Suzuki Company of Toga
Tadashi Suzuki, 79, is the renowned Japanese theatre director who coined the Suzuki Method of Actor Training.

In an increasingly virtual point of time, where merchants of attention — Google, Instagram, Facebook, Apple, et al. — flourish in clicks and eyeballs, humanity is being redefined. The world’s vastness is narrowed down to handheld pixels. Communication is stripped off of its real-world realness, coolly disembodied through screens. In its pursuit for liberation, humanity, inadvertently, is digitally desensitised. 

Against the modern adage of “If it wasn’t on Instagram, did it even happen?”, live theatre is one of the few remaining stickler establishments stubborn in its ban on the whipping out of phones and their recording utility. The theatre demands its audience to sit in collective silence and absorb the physicality in real time and in real life; a unique experience that only happens when and where it happens.

Seminal Japanese theatre director Tadashi Suzuki belongs to a rare breed of luminaries who refuses to succumb to the digitisation of human life. He invented the Suzuki Method of Actor Training, an acting method which, as Suzuki theorised, taps into the actors’ primal energy, connecting their voice and imagination to it. The method devises exercises for actors to practise body language — strange, spasmodic movements which seemingly defy the natural movements of muscles. On stage, the narrative’s gravity is stretched into physical extremities: Actors would wheel or slowly push their feet forward, barely lifting them from the stage, rather than walk; they would collapse to the floor with the suddenness of a rifle shot; their visages would be painted in the theatrical expressiveness of Kabuki.

Ahead of his Singapore International Festival of Arts-headlining play, “Dionysus”, Suzuki, over email correspondence translated by an assistant, wrote, “We are dominated by iPhones and Virtual Reality; there is a risk of the human being retreating into an isolated existence with increasingly less connection to immediate physical reality: a risk that the balance between the five senses will erode, and with it, the richness of the human experience.”

The director’s art, then, seeks to reach audiences not through the intellect but through the senses and instincts. The distinctive gait of Suzuki’s actors, their odd way of moving through the stage are his method’s non-lingual medium of communication.

Fendi SiregarAt Yogyakarta’s Prambanan Temple, Suzuki Tadashi leading a “Dionysus” rehearsal.
At Yogyakarta’s Prambanan Temple, Suzuki Tadashi leading a “Dionysus” rehearsal.

In one of his books, “The Way of Acting,” he wrote that “an actor's basic sense of his physicality comes from his feet.” He expanded on that notion, describing how individuals in the modern world have lost touch with the world they inhabit. “Television and movies made us lose our sight,” Suzuki said. “Microphones and amplifiers made us lose our ears. We no longer walk with bare feet and so our soles have lost the sense of touch.” His mission, as a maker of theatre, he said in his email, is to “bring people together in a forum where we can collectively interrogate and reflect on the human experience.”

Suzuki, born in port city Shimizu in the Shizuoka prefecture, grew up in a family of traditional Bunraku puppet theatre performers. “I have a very clear memory of my grandfather playing shamisen and singing. It was actually rather shocking to me as a child and in some ways drove me away from studying traditional Japanese arts at first.” Perhaps, in rebellion against his family’s traditions, Suzuki, moving to Tokyo to study at Waseda University, turned to French and Russian literature. There, Suzuki joined a theatre club. It was then that the burgeoning director came to realise the theatre’s capacity as a social instrument, choosing to return to his Japanese roots. He melded it with his newfound Western perspective, pushing the traditional art form to expand beyond its prescribed limitations. Suzuki, then, built his own universal Pan-Asian lens for theatre.

In his hands, ancient gore-laden Greek fables of conflicts and vengeance adopt a dramatic austere edge. Opulent costumes and billowing drapery offset his stark, minimalist stage settings. Accompanying music flows to rhythms and wind instruments that are unmistakably Japanese.

Suzuki Company of TogaThe costumes of “Dionysus” are designed by Indonesian designer Auguste Soesastro and Suzuki himself.
The costumes of “Dionysus” are designed by Indonesian designer Auguste Soesastro and Suzuki himself.

For the upcoming “Dionysus” play, Suzuki collaborated with Indonesian theatre group Purnati — he was introduced to its founding director through theatre artist Robert Wilson — working with a multicultural cast of Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese actors. The play, Suzuki’s twist of one of Grecian literature’s greatest dramas “The Bacchae”, re-envisions the narrative with groups of actors portraying each leading character. Its stage-sweeping costumes are designed by Suzuki himself in a collaboration with Indonesian designer Auguste Soesastro. A musical score, composed by renowned Japanese composer Takada Midori, features Indonesian instruments.

To Suzuki, these forms of visceral, multicultural performance are paramount in bringing the focus of the theatre back to what takes place between actor and spectator. “To combat our increasingly less connection to immediate physical reality, the live physical experience of the theatre needs to be as dynamic as possible,” he wrote.

The theatre is an art form scaled to the human, and stubbornly so, relying on the absolute necessity of physical audience — and it has a critical role now more than ever, according to Suzuki. “If it continues to try to imitate the virtual reality versions of storytelling, as is happening in many areas, it eventually becomes obsolescent,” said Suzuki. “It needs to claim its rightful place in society as an essential live art form.”

Tadashi Suzuki’s “Dionysus” is set to play at Singapore International Festival of Arts on 17 and 18 May at Victoria Theatre.

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