“The Yellow Raincoat Squad’ is charming and engaging. This is another one of those productions that defies description but is a must-see for all ages,” wrote Catherine Lamm in The British Theatre Guide in August, 2009. Lamm was reviewing one of Japan’s best-kept theatrical secrets: The Original Tempo (TOT), a nonverbal but highly kinetic Osaka-based performance-arts group whose multi-media shows are founded on the concept: Let’s play — and have fun — with plays.
TOT have, over the years, garnered fans and awards at international arts festivals in eight countries across Europe and Asia, including the five stars awarded by Lamm for their performance at the Edinburgh Fringe 2009.
Yet, amazingly, in light of such worldwide acclaim, with shows in Singapore, South Korea, Slovenia and Romania, TOT’s upcoming two-day “season” in Tokyo will be the first time they’ve ever played in its homeland’s capital.
Though TOT had just returned from a European tour taking in Slovakia, Hungary and Romania the day before, its founder, 41-year-old playwright and director, Masahiro Kinoshita — also known as Worry Kinoshita after he misheard someone say he looked like Wally from the kids’ book “Where’s Wally?” — dismissed any jetlag to talk about the troupe’s international ventures.
Why did you decide to spend so much time overseas?
Traditional Japanese theater companies are quite often invited to eastern Europe, but people there don’t have much chance to see contemporary groups like TOT, so we get a warm and friendly welcome. Also, I love the beautiful nature and clear blue skies.
Have you consciously focused on playing abroad more than in Japan?
Yes and no. Besides TOT, I run a company called Sunday, with whom I’ve been writing and directing and presenting new works in Kansai since my 20s. However, as TOT’s repertoire is nonverbal, it’s suitable to be staged anywhere, so right from the start we decided to commit to performing at foreign theater festivals.
That way, we didn’t have to do what most local theater companies have to, which is to advance in Tokyo before venturing abroad — a process that easily takes up to five or six years. Plus it can be cheaper to work abroad than at home, because we often get government subsidies for overseas performances.
After I started TOT in 2003, I also organized the Osaka Short Plays Festival, an occasional theater event. Through that I’ve worked with artists from other genres such as music and dance, and I realized that — unlike many in the drama world — they were happy to perform overseas, without any hesitation. One of those connections led to our first overseas performance, in South Korea in 2005.
It was bold to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2008 as virtual unknowns. Why did you do that?
Actually, we went there because we’d decided to sink or swim in terms of continuing to tour abroad. On the first day, there was only one person in the 50-seat auditorium — just one! Of course, we were really disappointed. We sometimes involve audience members in our show, but with only one person, we had to bring out some of the backstage staff, too. But it turned out that sole person in the audience was David Pollock, a well-known drama critic for The Scotsman newspaper — and he gave us four stars in a review. That set the ball rolling.
After having around 15 years’ experience in Japan, we had a good following and usually played to packed houses. But the shock of our Edinburgh debut made us look around at what was going on there, and we realized that it was normal to do street PR, so we started handing out flyers and putting up posters from dawn to dusk. That was a great experience; we really enjoyed trying to build up an audience from scratch. Eventually, we had a full house on the last day of our two-week run. So the next year we went back and performed for the full month — and we got five stars as well as offers from many other festivals. What happened there reminded me why I wanted to create theater, but if we had just stayed in Japan we would never have had those experiences.
How is performing abroad different from in Japan?
If we perform abroad, we get an instant response — unlike in Japan where reviews often don’t get published until shows have closed. At festivals I also really enjoy chatting with artists from other cultural backgrounds, and exchanging opinions about drama in bars or pubs.
Why did you start nonverbal performances with TOT?
Well, after I’d been writing dialogue-based plays for more than 10 years, I started to think again about that format — of actors remembering lines and re-presenting them on stage. I thought theater could be freer and more exciting.
So I abandoned text and tried to create exciting works that emphasized the spirit of “play.” That’s where TOT came from; it’s a different way of thinking if we don’t use words — though we make sounds with everyday things such as cans, water and cardboard, and also take pictures of each other and audience members to help with communication.
Doesn’t it create some frustration when there are no words?
I realized, while writing plays, that I gave too much information, and that it was better for audiences to work out things for themselves rather than be supplied with too many clues and have the story spelled out. I wanted to produce a theater experience similar to looking at pictures in a gallery, where viewers can decide whatever they want about what they see on stage.
That audience-initiative concept applies to my narrative plays, too, as I try to leave free-imagination zones, rather than have actors convey most of the theater experience.
So what’s next?
Well it’s not to dive into the Tokyo drama world, where many companies and people seem to work as if on a production line.
I want to work in an unfettered way in Kansai. I also think that staging works outdoors rather than in theater buildings has huge possibilities in terms of audiences being more creatively engaged. I also would like to introduce audiences in Japan to a lot more unusual foreign plays via an international theater festival in Osaka.
I want to make theater a more casual cultural activity that’s closer to people and their daily lives. Theater is not an object, it’s a tool for making people’s lives more enjoyable and connecting them with others.