Ninagawa’s golden oldies reach a whole new stage in life

Nobuko Tanaka finds the cast of Saitama Gold Theater aglow as their acting dreams come true thanks to one of the world's great directors

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“After a performance at the 232-seat Maison de la Culture du Japon in Paris, one of the Japanese staff there said I had a ‘splendid voice.’ I didn’t buy anything in Paris, but that was the best possible souvenir,” said Kiyoshi Takahashi, 85, the oldest male member of Saitama Gold Theater.

Seven years before receiving that praise for his international acting debut in May this year, Takahashi had seen a notice in a newspaper announcing two days of open auditions for a new project — the creation of SGT by world-renowned dramatist Yukio Ninagawa, who was then aged 70.

“It said acting experience wasn’t required, but applicants had to be at least 55 and physically fit enough. Though I had no stage background, I applied because I knew I would at least meet Ninagawa, who I’d seen on stage in the 1960s,” Takahashi explained.

“I enjoyed the audition at the Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater, where Ninagawa is artistic director, and I got to be King Lear for a while. However, I really never expected that a month later I would get a letter telling me I’d been chosen to join the new SGT.”

In fact Takahashi was one of more than 1,200 people who answered that advert, forcing the relentlessly busy Ninagawa to spend 15 days — not two as he’d intended — auditioning and meeting individually each of the 1,011 candidates who turned up.

Finally, when he launched SGT in April 2006, the director had selected a 48-strong team with an average age of 66½. Since then, the amateur troupe (now numbering 41 members, with an average age of 74) has carved out a serious “professional” reputation in Japan’s mainstream theater world — which generally relies on young casts with great bodies and model looks to put the proverbial posteriors on seats.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Ninagawa looked back on those early days and confessed, “When I started SGT in 2006, honestly, I had no idea how much the project would advance and develop as it went on.”

Despite that initial uncertainty, though, Ninagawa’s resolve to create SGT was by no means a whim. In fact, back in 2005 when he was offered the position of artistic director at the publicly funded Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater, he insisted on being able to pursue this project as a condition of him taking the job.

“Most people in the arts world don’t have any particular respect for old people, and certainly no mental complex regarding them,” he explained.

“But in my case, I was always frightened of being criticized by older people — like my mother would say my work is a just a trifle compared to what her generation went through; their war experience, for example. So I got a complex about older people, and I always worried what they would think and whether they just thought my work was self-indulgence.

“Those feelings were big triggers for me to tackle this project — to create theater together with older people.”

With Ninagawa invariably at the helm, SGT has so far staged a total of 12 works one after another over 101 performances — each time creating a critical and audience sensation for the sheer quality of the acting and the overall productions. And forget any thoughts of fawning based on sentimentality, because leading contemporary playwrights such as Ryo Iwamatsu, Keralino Sandorovich and Shu Matsui have each put their own reputations on the line by writing new works for SGT to premiere.

However, for its four-show sell-out overseas debut from May 30 to June 1 in Paris, SGT again performed veteran author Kunio Shimizu’s “Karasu yo, Oretachi wa Tama wo Komeru (Raven, we shall load Bullets)” — which in 2006 had been its second-ever staging. That masterwork from 1971 — by when the news had for a few years been full of student demonstrations in Japan — depicts a riot that turns bloody when old women and housewives storm a courtroom in support of two protesters put on trial.

Speaking last week, Gasho Kitazawa, 70, who Ninagawa selected both in 2006 and this time to play the role of the court secretary, spoke about his seven-year journey as a full-time actor.

“Though I played the same role again,” he said, “I faced it anew. To be honest, seven years ago I was completely occupied just remembering my lines and movements and trying to create the character from my book knowledge of having studied law at university.

“This time, I went to a district court in Saitama and observed the secretary’s job first-hand. I learned a lot, so I changed my costumes and created the character all over again. In that sense, I think I’ve developed a bit as an actor.”

But even though Kitazawa went to such lengths to prepare for his role this time, quite unexpectedly he found himself struggling with what should have been almost second nature — one phrase in one of his most straightforward lines.

“It’s odd, but I repeatedly tripped up on the same word, and making that mistake over and over again became a trauma for me,” he said. “This is one of the dangers of doing live theater performances — but only I can overcome it by myself, by my own efforts. And I think I am managing to do so; it’s getting better and I’m getting closer to my goal.”

Kitazawa is now really sold on acting and has made himself known to many theater companies and collaborated with young dramatists and a number of small-scale companies.

From those wider experiences, he said, he has come to realize just what a favorable environment SGT is compared to private small-scale companies. “SGT is part of a public theater and it can use a brilliant rehearsal room there at any time,” he noted with a smile. “But those young dramatists have to book and pay for a rehearsal space, and they often do their rehearsals after finishing their daily jobs.

“However,” he continued in a more serious vein, “they have lots of time to do theater in their lives, whereas we only have few chances left — so I don’t think you’ll find SGT members giving up this golden chance, because we know we are the luckiest actors in the world.”

In contrast, 77-year-old Fumiko Kamio — who says she was “an ordinary housewife before SGT” — looked embarrassed about having been the PR poster girl for the Paris triumph, shown clad in a kimono with wild hair and clenched teeth bared as she fired a machinegun in the court.

“My daughter laughed at me,” she said, “and in mid-March I was told by Ninagawa not to get my hair done until after this performance — so I would look like a shabby old lady. That’s harsh, isn’t it?

“On top of that, I didn’t know how I could act the part of one of the incensed old ladies shouting radical slogans and yelling out dirty words like kusokurae (damn shit)! As you know, women of our generation were brought up to not even laugh with an open mouth — so I never imagined I could do that stuff in front of strangers. But I did it and I actually felt comfortable.

“That was my surprising discovery this time, as I think I found something new in myself that I’d never known all my life.”

As part of realizing her new self, Kamio has started to do stretch exercises alone every day. “As an actress, I want to try being beautiful, even though Ninagawa told us to show our real figures as oldies. After all, we are kind of exhibition specimens of oldies, aren’t we?”

Meanwhile, Ritsuko Tamura, 73, who has lived alone in Saitama and apart from her family since joining SGT, had a completely different take on stage glamour — denying she should be called an “actress” at all, because she believes that denotes a gorgeous-looking star. Instead, she described herself as an “actor” because, she said, actors are simply people who express themselves on stage.

“When I was selected for SGT, I came here from a small town in Yamagata Prefecture up north in the Tohoku region. So at first I felt apart from the big-city Tokyo atmosphere and was always reserved among the other, more assertive SGT members. But then I learned how to be in such a big group and, before saying anything, I’d listen to the others and then take one step or a half-step forward … this is my way.”

Because of — or perhaps despite — that, Ninagawa awarded Tamura the play’s title role — that of an old lady named Karasu (Raven). Asked whether she felt tense performing in front of French audiences, she replied with conviction: “I didn’t feel any differences between Saitama and Paris. For me, Tokyo (Saitama) is already too big. I just act for all I’m worth on every occasion, anywhere.

“I would like to urge older people, or anyone, to just go for whatever they really love to do — and as soon as possible. Don’t hesitate; step forward.”

For Takahashi, though — who had auditioned just to at least meet Ninagawa — his success at being selected for SGT was soon blighted when, a year later, he contracted a condition called acute suppurative osteomyelitis, which paralysed him below the waist.

“I asked my wife to call the theater to say I’d quit the company,” he said, explaining that he was resigned to dying and couldn’t even open heartwarming letters from his SGT colleagues.

“Then one day I visited a different treatment room with a doctor who believed in music as therapy, and the first time I went there my favorite film music — Petro Mascagni’s “Cavalerria Rusticana” — was playing. It was as if my body got such a shock that magically my dead legs reacted.

“At that moment, instantly, I remembered I was a member of SGT and was set on doing theater. Then, when I started my rehabilitation, I luckily met a brilliant nurse who helped me so much, and now she always comes to see me on stage.”

Laughing off any heroics over his brush with the final curtain, Takahashi instead revealed what life-lessons his most recent stage role had taught him.

“I’d always had trouble with missing my cues in rehearsals,” he said, “but then I went back and reread how Ninagawa described his original inspiration for SGT, where he said, ‘I thought it would be possible for older people to meet themselves anew by expressing themselves through acting based on their long life-experience.’

“That took me back to March 10, 1945, the day of the terrible firebombing of Tokyo. I grew up downtown, and that morning I saw everything burned out and people just charred husks, and I again felt so strongly what I’d felt so many times before — that all wars are terrible disasters.

“So after I reread Ninagawa’s staement, the next day when I walked onto the stage to act in that play — which was a battlefield between the old ladies and establishment figures — I could say my lines without any problems.

“That was the moment I really understood what Ninagawa expected us to realize: We have enough experience to express most scenes as our own feelings. He wanted us to embody that.”

Next week, further reward for Ninagawa’s vision — and the dedication and talent of his SGT members — will come when the company takes a truly momentous leap by presenting a dance-theater work created specifically for it by Azusa Seyama, a core member since 2000 of the world-renowned German dance company Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal.

After an exclusive dance workshop she ran for SGT last summer, Seyama said how much she wanted to realize a public performance with them. Now, speaking of their “Work in Progress” that the public will get a first glimpse of this coming week, she said, “It is an enjoyable and great experience for me to be creating a piece with the SGT members, and I have been so impressed by their very open and sincere attitude.”

In fact, though, this current piece is just the start of a three-year dance-theater project being launched by Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater — a project whose ultimate fruition will be an entire, full-length production. And that will be yet another SGT life-experience not to be missed.

“Saitama Gold Theater × Azusa Seyama, Work in Progress” runs Aug. 14-16 at Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater, an 8-min. walk from JR Yonohonmachi Station on the Saikyo Line from Shinjuku or Ikebukuro stations. For further details, call Saitama Arts Foundation at (0570) 064-939 or visit www.saf.or.jp.