Drama outsider takes a step into the theater

by Nobuko Tanaka

Kuro Tanino leaped into the spotlight in November 2007 with a production of Henrik Ibsen’s tragicomedy “The Wild Duck” that was almost sold out for a month at Theater 1010 in Tokyo’s Kitasenju.

A practicing psychiatrist, the 32-year-old Tanino and his Niwa Gekidan Penino (Garden Theater Penino) company, which he founded in 2000 with a few university friends, had previously been on the fringes of the theater world, where they put on avant-garde — even “postdrama” — productions. One work involved the “cast” going to Shibuya and chatting up girls on the street, with the only audience being the women themselves or any passersby who realized what was going on.

For his tour de force, the unusual dramatist used his apartment as a multilevel theater space in which he presented an erotic and grotesque fairy tale involving a pig girl and a sheep girl on a higher floor, and a man tied down with a tree rooted in his penis downstairs.

Through such imaginative exploits, Penino has become — largely through blogs and word of mouth — quite the buzz in theater circles. Now, Tanino is hoping to follow up the success of “The Wild Duck” with another of Ibsen’s works, “Little Eyolf.”

How did you start out in theater?

I went to Showa University, and they made all the first-year medical students live in dormitories on a campus at the foot of Mount Fuji. That was intended to cultivate the interpersonal skills we would need to be good doctors, but it was a free atmosphere and fun, and I got to act in a play some friends presented at a Christmas party. None of us had even seen a play before, let alone created one, but we had a great time doing it, and when we moved back to the main campus in Tokyo the second year, I started a theater circle. We were all novices, but it was so interesting to start from that zero point.

Did you set out from the start to create experimental theater?

I was a complete amateur when I started, and, because I’d never had any proper education or training, I didn’t know how to make what’s called theater. So our plays were inevitably experiments at first, but they’ve always been experimental, because we don’t have any regular text-based scripts and lines to learn. As I didn’t have any preconception about theater-making, we’ve been free to try out our rather nonstandard style. I think that approach — creating completely new things without referring to other existing theater methods — is Penino’s strong point.

There are three other members, and they are neither actors nor technical staff. The four of us gather together when we’re starting a new production and discuss for quite a long time what to do. Our ideas usually start from talking about things in daily life, then we use our imagination and discuss stage sets and situations and finally create a play. It’s not like choosing an existing text, writing a new play or appointing actors as other companies do, and no two of our plays have the same form. I’m not at all interested in having a predictable “Penino style.”

How is it working out for you being a director and a psychiatrist?

It’s not working well (laughs). I’m getting more and more involved in theater activity, so I am just working as a supplementary staff member in a busy section of the hospital. As for any connection between the two occupations, when I write plays, I try to make the lines clear for people of any generation, and my career as a psychiatrist probably helps that part a bit.

Did directing Ibsen’s play a year ago affect your approach to theater?

Sometimes I used to get inspiration from manga stories, but usually I’d create an original play in an improvisational way. We’d start rehearsals without a written text and then the actors would note down their lines as we went along. I was lazy and didn’t see any need for scripts.

But when the producer, Hiroshi Sasabe, asked me if I would direct “The Wild Duck” (Sasabe is also producing “Little Eyolf”), it was honestly the first time I’d read someone’s script, and I was shocked by how interesting it was to do that. So I tried to write a play titled “Egao no Toride (A Fort of a Smile),” and last year, inspired by “Little Eyolf,” I wrote “Hoshikage no Jr. (Starlight Jr.)” about the decadent life of adults seen through a little boy’s view. As a new test for myself, I used normal theatrical formulas as in an ordinary Japanese family drama. But I would like to return to a posttheatrical, contemporary style again.

How is “Little Eyolf” going?

My basic stance with both Ibsen’s plays is the same: I didn’t want to change the lines and I didn’t want to stage them as modernized versions like many Ibsen productions these days. I try to be faithful to the original script, because I think everything’s already there, so I just try to present his words clearly. But I think modern actors can explain Ibsen’s words better than actors in his era — especially the personal disclosure in “Little Eyolf.” That’s because with the huge rise in the movie industry, actors have massively developed their technique for expressing inner feelings.

There are also more plays nowadays that express their characters’ psychology through acting rather than detailed story lines. Consequently, this really is the right time to be doing “Little Eyolf.”

“Little Eyolf” runs Feb. 4-15 at Owlspot, a two-minute walk from Higashi Ikebukuro Station on Tokyo’s Yurakucho Subway Line. For more details, call (0570) 000-3337 or visit