In a rehearsal studio at the Za-Koenji theater in west-central Tokyo’s Koenji district, trainee actress Yuuhi Suenobu was striving to act the role of a frightened young woman wandering aimlessly in a chaotic wasteland with her injured mother.
The scene unfolding before me was from “The War Plays,” a 1983-85 masterpiece by the iconic antiestablishment playwright Edward Bond that every final-year student at Za-Koenji’s Theater Creation Academy has had to take part in as their graduation challenge since the two-year course at Suginami Ward’s public theater began in 2009.
Running to eight hours in all, Bond’s dystopian trilogy set after a nuclear war will be staged in one performance on the opening day at Za-Koenji next month, and in two halves on consecutive days after that.
Powerful and exacting, this great work by the 81-year-old Londoner who is one of the world’s major living dramatists — but whose plays are only very rarely staged in Japan — will likely be among the most difficult theater challenges many trainees will ever face.
“Imagine the situation in the text!” Yorozu Ikuta, one of the academy’s lecturers who is the play’s director, demanded of Suenobu. “How would you feel if you encountered a person after not seeing any human being for ages — or even any sign of life amid the ruins?
“Surely you would be apprehensive at the very least! Use your imagination!”
Although he was loudly firing questions at Suenobu, Ikuta wasn’t providing any answers. Instead, he called for run-throughs again and again as he drove the aspiring young actress to perform more and more realistically.
As an innocent bystander on a recent visit, I soon realized this kind of grounding was not for the faint-hearted.
Indeed, just before that rehearsal began, I’d been speaking to Suenobu, who explained, “When I graduated from my university, I could either take a master’s course there or pursue my dream of being an actress — and I made up my mind to take on this challenge.
“To be honest, the lessons are very hard, but I believe the teachers regard us not as ‘customers’ of the academy, but as budding comrades and fellow theater creators. That’s why they are so harsh.”
Ever since Za-koenji opened, one of the publically financed theater’s core missions has been to prepare young people for drama careers, whether on stage or off — and central to that aim is its academy.
In the first year, all the dozen or so trainees selected annually by audition and interview to join its two-year, five-day-a-week course follow the same curriculum, comprising a comprehensive study of theater from traditional Japanese performing arts to contemporary acting methods and theories of theater.
Then in their second year, they choose a field to specialize in — whether acting, directing, producing or marketing. However, they must also prepare to play their part, on stage or off, in that climactic performance of “The War Plays” — in which, because of its large cast, some academy graduates and other, outside professional actors also take roles.
Commenting on what the academy offers, Masahiro Miyao — a graduate who is now a working actor and has a part in this year’s “The War Plays” — said, “I was very happy that they taught us all kinds of things we need to really create theater. It’s not like a private acting school, where I suppose the emphasis is mainly on just becoming a famous actor.”
Another graduate actor in “The War Plays,” Hidetomo Araki — who has also started his own theater company — continued, “I clearly remember how Makoto Sato (Za-Koenji’s now 72-year-old artistic director) told us on the first day of the course that he hoped we would become confused every day for the next two years — and we certainly were confused a lot during the course.
“Yet as a result I’ve now got the habit of thinking by myself to resolve problems and overcome difficulties.”
After hearing that, it was no surprise to hear it was Sato who chose “The War Plays” as the graduation challenge — declaring it to be, as Miyao recalled, “The final word in plays for his generation, though he expected younger people would draw out something entirely fresh from it that would surely help to create new outlooks and values.”
Reinforcing that viewpoint, graduating trainee Keisuke Oyama — who said he’d entered the academy because there are very few places to study theater direction — observed, “If I hadn’t come here and instead started a theater company with friends as most young dramatists do, I would just have done my favorite work, which is directing.
“But here, I’ve studied all kinds of things, including dancing and acting, and I’ve also joined events Za-Koenji organized to reach out to local citizens and inspire them about their theater.
“All that has really made me think about the role of a theater, and what we theater creators can offer people.”
Later, however, when I spoke to Sato he was soon lamenting that the number of academy applicants has been falling because, as he sees it, the definition of “actor” has changed.
“I think actors have became more commodities than creators and, for example, schools for people wanting to be voice actors for animation films are more popular now.
“Also, many theater people in Japan are still slaves to conventional ideas and fixed forms, whereas I think it’s essential to renew old concepts from day to day to defining what is the current concept of our theater.
“So, once I am in a rehearsal with the students, I don’t dictate the scene and run through it with them over and over. I like to develop their improvisation skills, because theater is a living art form — not something you learn by rote.”
Then finally, turning to “The War
Plays,” Sato continued, “From having exchanged letters with Bond, I think he especially wanted Japanese to do this play because we still use nuclear power even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
As for what young Japanese like Suenobu think about living in a post-Fukushima world, even though they never experienced the war, why not visit Za-Koenji to possibly find out a lot more?
“The War Plays” runs Feb. 21-25 at Za-Koenji, a five-minute walk from JR Koenji Station in Tokyo. For details, call 03-3223-7500 or visit za-koenji.jp.