Under the Radar 2012: An Interview With chelfitsch’s Toshiki Okada
Toshiki Okada, the Japanese playwright and director of the company chelfitsch, is already recognized as one of the most exciting artists of his generation. His 2004 play Five Days in March, which explored the links between the day-to-day life of young Tokyo hipsters and the US invasion of Iraq using a combination of anti-performative techniques, movement, and richly colloquial dialogue, established Okada internationally. The show toured widely and built bridges for the artist with presenters in the US and Europe. This January, chelfitsch brings a triptych, Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech, to the Japan Society as part of Under the Radar (Jan. 5-14; tickets $22).
The following interview was conducted by and translated from the Japanese for Culturebot by the Japan Society. For scholars and Japanese speaking readers, the original, including Okada’s responses in Japanese, is available here as a PDF.
Your company’s name “chelfitsch.” I know it’s a childish version of the English word “selfish,” but I’m curious where it came from, and what it means to you, if anything?
It meant myself when I named it. Because I thought myself childish and selfish. I was twenty three years old. But it changed its meaning after the company’s name got to be known. When a critic said “chelfitsch” describes the social situation of our time in Japan, especially Tokyo, I was somehow convinced of it. Then I got to like using this explanation.
What were the ideas you set out to explore in Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech and what influenced the script? I understand it’s a triptych—is it three separate plays or are they interconnected somehow?
I created this piece when the “non-full-time employees” issue [Editor’s and translator’s note: temporary employment is a rising issue in Japan as companies have been able to hire more and more employees on temp contracts; this has created a two-tiered society in which younger workers have been denied access to the security and benefits their parents enoyed as Japan’s Fordist model is transformed; see here for an NPR article] became a serious problem in Japan. That is, my play was influenced by this ongoing issue. At the same time, I wanted to address the universal issue of unemployment through the portrayal of Japan’s local situation, which I believed that non-Japanese audiences could sympathize with. I think that audiences can enjoy each of the three parts of this triptych even if each one is presented independently. However, because the three parts have become so closely connected to one another (from Japan Society: “Air Conditioner” was written originally as a stand-alone play and the two other parts were added three years later), I now believe that the three parts should be presented in sequence as one evening-length piece.
What is the creative process like working with your actors? Do you bring in a finished script or does the text change through collaboration? Do you provide them parts of the movement, like a choreographer, or do the actors generate the movement through improvisation?
My text changes constantly–it even changes daily throughout the rehearsal period. Especially for this piece, subtle changes took place often, because I tried to sync up the music with the performance. There are various ways of creating movement. Since I am not a choreographer, I am not capable of creating movement from scratch. Instead, I ask my actors to extract natural movements from each of their lines and I simply pick up these moves, or manipulate them. For example, I instruct the actors to “exaggerate their movements” or “repeat the same movement over again.” Sometimes their particular movement inspires me to come up with another and I suggest that the actors try out these new movements. Basically, improvisation is the starting point of setting my choreography, but improvisation takes places even during the performance.
You’ve said in other interviews that since the success of Five Days in March that you’ve been thinking more about how you want to affect your audience, citing Bertolt Brecht. What are you trying to accomplish in Hot Pepper…? What do you hope to convey?
There was a time when I began to think about a method of linking text and body movement, different from the method that my company developed during Five Days in March. One of the ideas was to widen the apparent lag or gap between the text and body movement and to exaggerate the performance into something like dance. I tried to materialize this idea in a few shorter pieces. Hot Pepper was the first full length piece based on this idea.
Your writing is hyper-colloquial, but now you’re creating work with the expectation that non-Japanese speakers will see it. Does this affect writing in any way? What has been your experience touring and performing for non-speakers? I saw both your version of Five Days in March, as well as Witness Relocation’s English version, and the experience of the text was very different.
I believe spoken language in theatre is important, but at the same time it is only part of theatre. And I think also language must affect the body that speaks it. Language affects not only speech but also the whole performance.
With all the touring, you’ve been exposed to many other artists and their practices. Has this affected how you create work? Have you responded or been inspired by others?
When I sit in a café of a theater where my work is being performed, I really feel what type of function the performing arts play in the lives of the local people living in the city. I have experienced this feeling in each of the different cities where my work has been performed. These experiences have influenced me greatly and I have begun to hope that theater will have more of a “public function” in Japan’s society.
Since your work seems to deal with the experiences you or your friends or your collaborators have in their daily lives, I’m curious what’s happening for you now, and where you may be going in your new work. I know it’s been a tumultuous time in Japan, with political shifts and economic issues and of course the Fukushima incident. Are these things you’ll be responding to in future works?
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.” I will make my next new work with this idea in mind.
For more information, PerformingArts.jp has two extensive interviews with Okada, from 2005 and 2010. For all of Culturebot’s coverage of Under the Radar 2012 see here, and for all related APAP 2012 events, see here.