Winter 2009, Theatre Forum
From ōta Shōgo's Earth Station to Wang Chong's e-Station
Japanese playwright-director Ota Shogo (b. 1939), renowned internationally for his experimental theatre of divestiture, passed on in 2007. Since his death new collections of his plays and essays as well as a special edition by Theatre Arts, the IACT-Japan theatre periodical, have been pubtished honoring his contribution to contemporary Japanese theatre.
The first performance in explicit homage to Ota Shogo has unexpectedly come from China. The e-Station (2008), conceived and directed by emerging artist Wang Chong, was staged by his performance group Théatre du Rêve Expérimental at the Qiseguang Theatre as part of the Beijing Youth Theatre Festival in September 2008.
The term "station" in the title references the wordless Station play series that Ota devised between 1981 and 1998. The Water Station (Mizu no Eki 1981), The Earth Station (Chi no Eki 1985), The Wind Station (Kaze no Eki 1986), The Sand Station (Suna no Eki 1993), The Water Station 2 (1995), and The Water Station 3 (1998). In this article I will examine how in The e-Station Wang applies Ota's concept of divestiture and where he crucially diverges from it.
The overall human action in The e-Station unfolds slowly. Six characters with cell phones in hand appear out of the audience in almost slow motion so that they seem to swim leisurely through the air. A woman finds a video camera in the freezer compartment of a fridge and shoots the seated audience. The clip is immediately projected on the upstage back wall. The same woman salutes a TV positioned downstage center when it is hoisted up into the air tike a flag on a pole. The characters then proceed to become increasingly entangled with the electronic equipment that is strewn on the stage floor. [Photo 2] A man and a woman try to establish contact with each other only to get enmeshed in the wires and cables with the woman developing a deeper attachment to her emouse than to him. [Photo 3] Two other women and another man also interact, yet again their attempts are fruitless. The man turns away and genuflects to his computer game controller and the women separately carry a variety of old keyboards. [Photo 4] Far upstage another man, who at first attempted to hang himself from the curly cable of a keyboard, tries to break out of this e-world prematurely and collides against the metal shutters of the building entrance to no avail.
Eventually, dropping their equipment, all the characters leave this stultifying world through the now opened shutters. [Photo 5] Throughout the play, hardly a word has been spoken and no new relationships have been formed. While they seem to escape into real time, whether their departure will lead to a better life is left open to interpretation. The shutters descend relentlessly, and the audience is left behind in darkness with the battered e-goods on stage and their own state-of-the-art cell phones, iPods, and calculators on their person.
One of Wang's main themes is alienation in today's technologically dominated society. [Photo 6] To convey it, he uses slow movement, lack of speech and, to a lesser extent, bare space. As these methods are a direct and conscious application of Ota Shogo's performance code of divestiture, it is appropriate at this point to turn to Ota's views on the objective of theatre.
Ota believes that only what is difficult to express should be the material of art (1988, 37). In his case, this means to move away from portraying individual consciousness and social activity (Ota 1980, 76) and attend to the nature of human existence. As quoted in Boyd x, his specific artistic aim is to create a "perspective of death" that enables spectators to "distance themselves from society and see humans not as individuals, but as a species." To this end, he adapts the medieval no actor Zeami's concept of "doing nothing" by using silence (i.e. no words), stillness, and empty space. Radically divesting a play of conventional elements like words, speed, and socio-cultural specificity creates an aesthetic distance from society so great that when the spectators leave the auditorium after the show and return to "normal" life, they feel assailed by the artificial rhythm-tempo of modern urban life. What had been familiar and taken for granted has been profoundly defamiliarized.
The Earth Station1, the second play in Ota's Station series, utilizes divestiture in order to expose how humans have destroyed their environment and become homeless in the universe. The absence of social specificity, however, enables spectators to interpret the collapse of civilization in a variety of ways: its cause could be war, the backfiring of technological progress, natural disaster or even terrorism. A range of interpretations beyond the existential, can be accommodated, should such be preferred.
Dominating the stage is a mountain of debris five meters high, piled with discarded items of modern civilization. [Photo 1] At an extremely slow walk of two meters in five minutes (Ota 1990, 151) travelers take the single winding footpath that leads up and over this mountain of devastation to a doubtful future. Individual actions-like sitting down, screaming, ironing, or giving birth-are conducted at varied speeds. [Photos 7-8] Apart from a nonsensical patter song by three Daughters-of-the-Wind, the characters do not speak.
In this play the stage is obviously not empty. The mise-en-scène is filled by the mountain, the junk, and fourteen travelers. However the overall impression is of the world emptying out. Everything is gradually and painfully returning to dust. The phlegmatic movement of the characters becomes a metaphor of the excruciating process of decomposition and re-absorption, bringing into question the sustainability of the earth. [Photo 9]
The combination of slowness, silence, and emptiness tends to draw the audience into a state akin to sensory deprivation. This is Ota's intent, for the fostering of a perspective of death depends on the audience's temporary withdrawal from socially constructed perception. It can take a spectator twenty or more minutes to adjust to an Ota performance. Those who cannot accept his demanding performance code may leave the auditorium or escape mental arrest by spinning out stories for the characters.
Although Wang did not know about The Earth Station when he was devising his own performance piece, he has applied Ota's code of divestiture quite rigorously to The e-Station. First, the inexorable slow movement of the characters reenforces the sense of people clinging to e-technology. Next, throughout the play there is no speech except for one short cellphone conversation by a male character at the beginning of the play. Last, the theatre is treated as if it were found space. The machinery of the stage is exposed, enabling the audience to see the bare walls, ceiling, and scaffolding, making the space seem paradoxically more like a rundown warehouse than a theatre. Provided with pipe chairs on stage, the audience is brought close to the actors. The major props are the television, placed on a vertically mobile metal rack, and the two-door fridge. While these items provide a sense of elevation, everything else is less than knee high. Thus despite the numerous props, the stage appears strangely uncrowded.
Do we then conclude that Wang has successfully followed in his master's footsteps by creating the perspective of death and aesthetically distancing the spectator from social life? I think not. Nor is that Wang's aim. For, though his play is dedicated to Ota, Wang is not simply imitating him.
The crucial difference between Wang's application of divestiture and Ota's is that Wang audaciously makes divestiture serve social commentary, for his focus is on contemporary issues and the impact they have on the individual and community. This orientation is revealed through two additional aspects of Wang's theatre not present in Ota's conceptualization. First is Wang's persistent use of fast-paced mediated images throughout the play. Images of telegraph poles and cables are repeated endlessly on the TV screen. Projected in rapid succession on the back wall stage left are the credits, a portrait of Ota Shogo, neologisms containing the Chinese character for "electric," street scenes, and people or penguins passing by. This pace keeps the audience tied to socially constructed urban rhythm-tempos and concerns. The two variant speeds of the screen images and the characters' slow movement pull the audience's attention in different directions and thus inhibit a full development of the perspective of death.
The second is noise. Harsh metallic effects are pervasive in the play and the TV emits noise rather than meaningful sound. Indeed the mechanical noises that overlay the play provide the audience with distracting sensory data so that the dearth of language is less noticeable.
At the same time, the lack of spoken words enables references to and subtle criticism of China's national policies. The salutation of the TV-flag can be read as a comment on the power of the military as well as technology. Also the projection on the back wall of one of the group's street rehearsals in which their actions drew the attention of some soldiers passing by reflects present political conditions. Anyone who has walked around Tiananmen Square, where military presence is conspicuous, would understand the allusion. Criticism of the Beijing Olympics was also incorporated in an unspoken way through an association of green images. First, there was a shot of green traffic lights; then a clip of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, during which the performers' bodies were turned green by lights embedded in their costumes. Following this was a shot of falling stocks and shares indicated in green lighting on a Chinese stock exchange screen (i.e. electricalized wealth); then finally a shot of an outdoor rehearsal, starting with green trees nearby. (Wang, email)
The differing rehearsal and training methods used by Ota and Wang are also indicative of the divergence in their orientations-existential and socio-political. It is helpful to keep in mind that Ota had his own theatre troupe for twenty years, and the principal actors worked with him for almost as long as that. Wang's performance group is relatively new, and he works with audition-based productions and recruits new members through the internet.
In rehearsals, Ota provided his actors with literary, dramatic, and visual materials to nurture their imagination beyond the discussion of the rough outline he gave them. Written down after productions in a form resembling free verse, his Station playscripts are what he calls "documentations" of a process of devising and collaborative creation with his troupe. Ota's training method was grounded in yoga, though he, a heavy smoker, did not himself conduct the sessions. Also utilized regularly were slow walking exercises, alone or with others; lower body centering with vocatization; developing the "gaze", a decentered look into midair without eye contact with anyone; and finally improvisation.2
Two characteristics distinguish Wang's training from Ota's. First it is more interactive. Wang states that
we spent the first two weeks just walking-walking as a group, walking hand-in-hand, walking with chairs and personal belongings, and walking to find each performer's own physical expressions. We discovered some possibitities in slowness-it may transform a mundane movement into something theatrical and spectacular. Then we began group improvisations-first without forming any clear connection between performers, then establishing meaningful relationships, especially gendered ones (Wang, email).
The second characteristic is that Wang used external factors, such as unrelated audio-visual input and outsiders, as stimuli. In the last three weeks of rehearsal, the sounds of live TV broadcasting and fast-paced music were introduced to test the actors' concentration and slow pace. Public rehearsals were also held in such places as hallways and lobbies, where passersby, un-informed of the performance work, were walking and talking at ordinary speed, and thus offered a contrastive and challenging environment for the actors. Some of the rehearsals were held at the ancient city wall of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty capital.
As a spectator of The e-Station, I found the difference between the first and last shows startling. The last one was almost ten minutes shorter than the first. It had no words at all whereas the opening show began with a character "talking" with sixth-century philosopher Lao Tzu over his cell phone. Furthermore, in the last show, shadows made by strong side tights were crawling up the walls and replaced the onstage video camera shooting of the first. At the final exodus of the last show, a female character turned around and left facing backwards, thereby evoking the lingering fascination of the e-world. It is clear that Wang Chong does not stop fine-tuning his work.
The value of Wang's complex adaptation of the via negativa of divestiture is that he succeeds in returning socio-cultural contextualization without undoing the stripped-down effect of the unusual performance code. The mesmerizing quality of divestiture is amply efficacious, forcing the viewer to confront the bleakness of human "progress" while the speed and content of the audio-visual images remind the viewer of the local, temporal processes, both attractive and coercive, which bind us to society.
Finally Wang's respect for Ota's theatre of divestiture is certainly commendable, yet his play should not be overshadowed by the spectre of Ota Shogo. It is an independent work that does not necessitate knowledge of Ota's theory for an audience to enjoy.
1 The English translation of Phe Earth Station will be included in the forthcoming Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Drama edited by J. Thomas Rimer, Mori Mitsuya, and M. Cody Poulton.
2 For further details on Ota's rehearsal and training method, refer to Chapter 6 in Boyd.
3 For a related article see Ellen Orenstein's "Shogo Ota's Slow Tempo and Silence in Phe Water Station," TheatreForum 28: 37-42.
Boyd, Mari. The Aesthetics of Quietude: Ota Shogo and the Theatre of Divestiture. Tokyo: Sophia UP, 2006.
Ota Shogo. Ragyo no Gekijo: Ota Shogo Engekironshu [The Divested Theatre: Collected Essays by Ota Shogo]. Tokyo: Jiritsu Shobo, 1980.
_____. "Geki no Kibo" [Hope for Drama]. In Geki no Kibo. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1988. 8-87.
_____. Chi no Eki [The Earth Station]. In Geki no Kibo. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1988. 117-40.
_____. The Water Station. Trans. Mari Boyd. Asian Theatre Journal 7:2 (Fall 1990): 150-84.
Wang, Chong. Email correspondence with author. 28 September 2008.
_____. Théatre du Rêve Expérimental. 16 Nov. 2009. .
Mari Boyd teaches literature at Sophia University in Tokyo. Author of The Aesthetics of Quietude: Ota Shogo and the Theatre of Divestiture (Sophia UP, 2006), she is also translation editor of and contributor to Half a Century of Japanese Theater Vols I-X (Kinokuniya 1999-2008) and Koji Hasegawa's Plays (Ohta Publishers, 2002).
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