Any time you go to a theater in Japan you are sure to be handed several colorful flyers for other shows — and among them you will almost certainly find the face of Tetsuya Chiba. At 46, and the father of three boys, Chiba is one of the country’s most popular and best-known stage actors, known as much for his performances in samurai spectaculars as he is for serious or experimental small-scale productions.
In 2006, Chiba expanded his repertoire even further when he debuted as a director, working with Theatre Project Tokyo (TPT) to stage Scottish playwright John Byrne’s 1978 semi-autobiographical tale, “The Slab Boys,” a work about the dead-end lives of a group of youths from poor families. He then directed three more plays for TPT, including English playwright Simon Stephen’s “On the Shore of the Wide World,” a depiction of the hopes and thwarted dreams of an ordinary north of England working-class family that last year garnered him a prestigious Yomiuri Theater Award.
Next month, Chiba takes on a particularly challenging project with the Tokyo-based SIS Company, when he directs celebrity TV, stage and screen actors Shinichi Tsutsumi, Kyoko Koizumi and Nao Omori in Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo.”
This work by Albee, a titan of U.S. drama and master of the darkly absurd, started life as the playwright’s debut masterpiece “The Zoo Story” in 1958, which focuses on an encounter in New York’s Central Park between two strangers — a middle-class publisher named Peter (Tsutsumi) and a stressed-out lower-class man named Jerry (Omori). Fifty years later, Albee wrote a short play based on a conversation that Peter and his wife, Ann (Koizumi), had just before that fateful meeting in the park. “At Home at the Zoo” is a two-act play based on the two previous works, which Albee now insists is the only version he will allow to be staged.
How did you become an actor?
I went to the Yokohama Academy of Broadcast Film (now the Japan Academy of Moving Images), and learned acting there. However, long before that I raised my hand for a leading part in a play at my elementary school, and my classmates all said I was a genius actor (Laughs) . . . So that pleasure led me to join a drama circle at a junior high school. But there were only few boys and lots of girls in the group, so I’d often run out of the rehearsal room because I was too shy to talk with girls.
Why did you decide to start directing when you were in such great demand as an actor?
I’d always thought directors were stupid, and I always resisted their suggestions when I was young (laughs). To be honest, though, I did direct once long ago, when I paid for a small theater group to perform a play I’d written. But at the closing-night party, lots of the actors and staff complained that I’d tried to take total control of everything, so they hadn’t enjoyed it much. That made me think I wasn’t cut out to be a director. When I eventually gave it another shot, though, with “The Slab Boys,” I changed my attitude and listened carefully to young actors’ opinions and never told them from the get-go how to act.
Now, when in the rehearsal room, I always calmly ask actors how they think everything is going and wait for their replies — sometimes, though, I would love to tell them exactly how to act their part! (Laughs)
What do you think the role of a director should be?
Being an actor and being a director are as different as being on stage and being part of the audience. I believe that actors, just like any other people, can’t fully adjust and evolve in just a monthlong rehearsal period, so I devote myself to drawing their natural best out of them.
A director can easily become a bit of a dictator in rehearsals, but I think it’s very important to explain to actors why I want something done specifically one way or another. That way, they fully understand what my vision is.
I think that if the cast has a common understanding of a play and its staging, then a community of ideas develops and it’s all likely to work out much better. So I believe a director is like a traffic controller, someone who ensures the best creative flow, who takes in everything that’s going on so that he or she can get the best out of each actor. I love to see plays in which all the actors are working in a lively way, so I’m always trying to make sure actors enjoy the experience together. When I work with young actors, in particular, I always do my best to enhance their performances so they’ll get other roles offered to them and love the theater even more.
What is your impression of “At Home at the Zoo?”
It seems a bit complicated and absurd at first, but actually the characters’ conversations aren’t really so strange — our daily lives are all a bit absurd to some degree anyway. It reminds me of when I was in my teens watching difficult, esoteric films such as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I didn’t understand it, but I watched it again and again and really enjoyed it. Compared to TV, theater stages a lot more esoteric stuff, but even the drama world here is now leaning more toward works that are easy to understand.
I’d like to urge audiences not to hesitate entering Albee’s absurdist world. Even if they don’t completely understand it, I hope they can still feel free to enjoy it.
What should audiences look out for in this play?
First of all, there’s the interaction of three great actors live on stage as they talk virtually nonstop through the two acts. I decided to not have an interval between the acts, not even a brief lights-out, so the scene will move magically from Peter and Ann’s living room to outdoors in Central Park. The stage designer Rumi Matsui had a great idea for how to make this work, and that’s really worth watching out for.
“At Home at the Zoo” runs from June 17 till July 19 at Theatre Tram, a 2-minute walk from Sangenjaya Station on the Denen-toshi or Setagaya lines; tickets ¥7,000. For more information, call the SIS Company at (03) 5423-5906, or visit www.siscompany.com