I first encountered Toshiki Okada’s work back in 2009, when his company chelfitsch was touring his 2004 play Five Days in March, and was blown away by Okada’s vision as an artist. The usual comparison I make is between Five Days and Sarah Kane’s Blasted, notwithstanding their drastically different tones and styles. Just as Blasted was born of Kane’s attempt to understand the relationship “between a common rape in a Leeds hotel room and what’s happening in Bosnia,” so too is Okada drawing links between seemingly disparate subjects involving war and violence. Whereas Kane achieves this through collapsing space, allowing the violence of war to invade a posh hotel in England, Okada is more understated and expansive. He simply sets up a situation in which actors tell the stories–non-linear, somewhat fragmentary–of their friends in Tokyo around the time of the US invasion of Iraq: protesting half-heartedly, hooking up for meaningless sex, taking ironic joy in bad films. Each story intersects with the others–or promises to–so that what emerges is a patchwork quilt. And then it just ends, with stories hanging. It’s not abrupt so much as decisively incomplete.
The effect is to suggest that if only the play continued, if only you got to continue connecting these stories and experiences, layer by layer, eventually they’d spiral outward, a sort of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” effect. You’d arrive at the planners of the war in the White House or 10 Downing Street, the intelligence agents cooking the books in Foggy Bottom, the soldiers patrolling the streets of Basra, their families in Columbus or New York or Edinburgh or Warsaw. It suggests that if only we had the time and the capacity that we could grasp the impossible whole and understand the relationships between us and these Japanese hipsters and the world-historical event that seems both so important and immediate yet so distant and abstract. The play was, to use one of of those vague and inscrutable critic expressions, an “achievement,” and one so subtle that you could almost completely miss it if you didn’t pay attention.
“Toshiki Okada seems to write plays about nothing, about really minute, very interior and slight things, but there’s something very substantial moving underneath the surface that’s rarely pointed to in the text,” director Dan Rothenberg told me over the phone a few weeks ago. “That’s the funny thing, right? It doesn’t feel like subtext that’s repressed–to me anyway. It’s the same way you don’t feel the motion of the planet, yet it’s there all the time. You’re talking about everything.”
I spoke with Rothenberg one Sunday morning in August, as he was waiting to go to rehearsal in Philadelphia, where Pig Iron Theater Company was rehearsing their collaboration with Okada, Zero Cost House, which opens this weekend as part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and runs through Sept. 22.
Rothenberg came to Okada’s work not too long before I did, but in a more circuitous route. After more than a decade as one of the co-artistic directors of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theater Company, Rothenberg was about to take a sabbatical and got offered the chance to direct one of Okada’s plays in New York.
It was an unusual pairing because Rothenberg isn’t exactly the sort of theater maker who reads “plays.” Pig Iron is an ensemble-driven devising company with an interest in movement, physicality, masks, and varieties of performance styles (“We’re kind of acting-state nerds,” Rothenberg offered off-handedly. “We really like acting states you don’t normally see in the theater”). But just as in Five Days, one thing had led to another. Okada was still a fairly unknown commodity when one of the producers of the Play Company, an Off-Broadway company dedicated to international plays, came across of a fragment of one of his texts and, interest piqued, commissioned a translation by Aya Ogawa, then at the Japan Society, who’d been doing the super-title cards for chelfitsch’s international tours. Ogawa was acquainted with Rothenberg, and the Play Company, aware that Okada was as much a director and movement artist as a writer, decided that Rothenberg might be a better fit for the play than a more traditional director.
The result was the widely celebrated production of Enjoy, produced by the Play Company at 59E59 Theaters in 2010. Many more New Yorkers, in my experience, came to Okada’s work through Enjoy than through Okada’s own direction. Which is funny because when Rothenberg decided to do the show, he had no idea what Okada was all about.
“She sent me the script,” he explained. “So my first encounter with Toshiki Okada, I had no idea who he was, I had never seen his work nor heard of it–his profile has been rising rapidly, and I think in ’08 he was still pretty unknown in the States. And so I read the script of Enjoy, and I was drawn to it because it was the exact opposite of what Pig Iron did.”
Okada’s language was both spare and verbose at once; it was “pages and pages of description, every so often with something approaching a scene,” Rothenberg said. A few months after he accepted the job, he saw Okada’s work and even traveled to Japan to meet with him.
“Pretty quickly I knew I was interested in Toshiki’s performance style, which was not quite my thing,” he recalled. “It was different from anything I’d done before and pretty different from anything I’d seen before, and I wasn’t going to attempt it, I wasn’t going to attempt his performance style.”
The results were nevertheless extremely successful. “I remember him saying, ‘I thought they were just going to get a regular director, but I see that you’re more than a regular director,’ when I met him in Japan,” Rothenberg said. “And he came and saw the production in New York, and said, ‘I’m really pleased with this production, I’m going to steal some things from it.’”
The success of Enjoy was what laid the groundwork for Zero Cost House. Pig Iron has a history of partnering with different artists to introduce new ideas and methods into the company’s practice, and shortly after Enjoy, Rothenberg proposed to Okada that he consider working with them. It would mark a pretty radical shift for Okada, whose previous work had been as a writer directing his own work. With Pig Iron, Okada willingly gave up the auteur reins.
The original concept of the play was amorphous, and in part was originally driven by Rothenberg’s desire to explore and bring to the US Okada’s distinctive physical work. Earlier works like Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech and Five Days in March employ a rich and subtle physical vocabulary the performers use to embody their characters’ experiences. Highly gestural and repetitive, the movement usually appears abstract but is frequently exaggerated or even concrete in ways that slowly reveal themselves. Then reality, in the form of yet another major event, intruded.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake produced a tsunami that devastated huge swaths of coastal Japan, claiming more than 13,000 lives, and setting off the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. As Rothenberg bluntly puts it: “The tsunami is that thing beneath the surface of this play.”
The tsunami and Fukushima disaster unfolded just two month before Okada was to travel to the US for his first developmental residency with the company, at Playmakers Rep in North Carolina, and it led to a dramatic shift in the trajectory of the collaboration and indeed, in Okada’s own life. In interviews, he’s spoken of how the disaster led him to reject a sort of cynicism he saw in his earlier work. In an interview with Culturebot last winter, when asked how the disaster had shifted his outlook, Okada explained:
Currently, I have a strong interest in writing fictional works. You might say that everything that I’ve written/created has been fiction, however, when I was creating my past works, I wasn’t consciously creating ‘fictional’ plays. Since the earthquake hit Japan, I’ve strongly felt the need to write fictional stories. I have started to consider “fiction” as not an “unreal fabrication” but rather an “alternative” to reality. I think the current society in Japan should change to this alternative reality. That is why I have started to think that “fictional stories are needed.”
At the time, I didn’t fully grasp what he meant. Rothenberg elaborated for me. “It’s not just a turning point for him, as an artist,” he explained, “that’s the subject of the play. It is how to grapple with cynicism. Early on in the process, he said, ‘Cynicism is always in the room and you can’t ignore it.’ The play is really sly about it–the play really invites a cynical dismissive response to things then makes you go, ‘Hey, wait a minute…’”
Zero Cost House is several things. First, it’s an exploration of Okada’s fascination with Thoreau’s On Walden Pond, a book he was invested in at a younger age, which his relationship to changed following the disaster, when, according to Rothenberg, “Walder became concrete” to Okada. Along with a number of other leading Japanese artists, Okada chose to leave the cultural center of Tokyo–threatened with fallout and contaminated food–and moved with his family to Kumamoto, which also happens to be the original home of one of the play’s other main sources: artist Kyohei Sakaguchi.
For more than a decade, Sakaguchi has been exploring how people create living spaces, what they require to construct a home, and thereby demonstrating how little, effectively, is required. In 2004 he published a book, Zero Yen House, that explored in aesthetic and philosophical terms, the housing of the homeless or near-homeless (the term itself becomes problematic) in Japan, people effectively living off the grid. Not only did that project provide the Okada-Pig Iron collaboration its title, but it served as part of Okada’s–Sakaguchi’s friend, the two having risen as members of Japanese cultural scene at the same time–personal transformation as he sought to reconstruct a different way of life with his family.
Thus the Pig Iron collaboration has become a truly fascinating project, in which Okada, already one of his generation’s pre-eminent theater artists, has produced an autobiographical work in which he’s actively sought to fictionalize his own experience as an exercise in trying to imagine a different way of living. It’s an attempt, through working through something deeply personal, to encourage his fellow Japanese (and others, no doubt, but following the tsunami it has special urgency there) to imagine a different way of living. All of which strangely enough is being performed and even generated by a group of American performers.