Songha prepares for a Wilde John the Baptist


Special To The Japan Times

A year ago, Songha Cho changed his professional name to plain and simple Songha — explaining that there is no appropriate kanji for Cho, though there is for Songha. That problem, the third-generation Korean-Japanese said, is just one of many complications faced in daily life here by people with Korean ancestry — a situation that leaves many, like him, confused about their identity.

“My father was a newspaper journalist and he loved brass-band music, and my mother was a top-class dancer with the Kumgangsan Opera Troupe, but after I was born they both gave up their artistic dreams to open a restaurant in central Tokyo’s Ueno district. They wanted to be sure of giving me, their only child, a good start in life.

“Luckily, my parents taught me a lot about the history between Korea and Japan, and we’d often discuss it. And even though they had both traded creativity for security, they never insisted on me taking over the restaurant. In fact they encouraged me to be an actor.”

It’s March 26 — Songha’s 31st birthday — and we meet at the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) in Hatsudai, where next month he will take the central role of John the Baptist in an all-new version of the radical Irish aesthete Oscar Wilde’s decadently erotic “Salome” — a play so risqué that when it was written in 1891, it was refused a performance licence in Paris.

Translated from Wilde’s original French script by Akutagawa Prize-winner Keiichiro Hirano, this Japanese version of “Salome” is directed by Amon Miyamoto (of “Pacific Overtures” fame) with costumes by fashion-world luminary Yohji Yamamoto.

For Songha, it marks a return to the theater where his performance as the energetic sprite Puck in John Caird’s 2007 version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” became a turning point in his career. Back then, Caird, an honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, saw a potential in Songha, then a relative unknown who sang an Aerosmith rock song at the audition.

Since then, Songha has worked steadily with some of the Japan’s leading directors — including Hideki Noda, Ryo Iwamatsu, Tamiya Kuriyama as well as the English avant-garde maestro renowned for his “physical theater,” Simon McBurney.

Why did you become an actor?

I used to play guitar and sing in a punk rock band at high school and I always tried to play better, shout louder, but I was never satisfied with my performances. One day, a friend asked me to be in his play. It was a serious drama set in a prison cell — and that was the first time I experienced silence during a performance.

I realized the tension within that silence was exactly what I’d been trying, and failing, to achieve, and that it transcended any level of noise. It’s fabulous to be on stage and share that experience with the auditorium. I’ve been completely hooked on that tension in theater ever since.

I read that the award-winning U.S. director Robert Allan Ackerman offered you the title role in his 2004 production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America” after he saw you performing in a little theater in Tokyo. And that helped launch your career internationally and got you offers from John Caird and Simon McBurney.

Rob (Ackerman) said he liked the high tone of my voice, but all he’d tell me as a director was that I should say my lines in a loud, high voice (Laughs).

At first, I wasn’t familiar with translated foreign plays because I’d mainly worked with people of my own generation doing original plays set in a current Japanese context. But when I read “Angels in America” (an epic drama about the spread of Aids in the uncaring America of the 1980s) I was hugely moved.

Rob taught me how important it is to closely read and analyze the text. I hadn’t been doing that much because of working with writer-directors who usually had definite ideas of what they wanted and told the cast how they wanted them to perform.

In contrast, Rob and also John (Caird) spent a lot of time reading the text with the actors, asking for their opinions and then waiting patiently for their answers. I remember John said that his goal was to make a triangular bond between the play, the actors and the audiences, once the director had cleared out at the last stage of the creation.

That was an amazing comment. I understood a director’s role clearly from that. People like that are real educators.

What was it like to play the major role of Shun-kin’s devoted lover Sasuke in the 2008 world premiere of Simon McBurney’s “Shun-kin” (based on Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 novel, “Shunkinsho”)?

He was so different from any director I’d worked with. He was not an educator type and he wasn’t like a Japanese playwright-director. He would passionately and constantly shout in the rehearsal room. I remember he once yelled at me: “Don’t do as I told you to do!” I had to think hard about what I could do instead (Laughs). If I had waited hesitantly for suggestions, Simon would have been furious.

He required me to combine the mental process of carefully thinking about the script and analyzing it with strong body-aware physical movements. I understand that now, and actually combining those extremes is the undercurrent of my acting style now. But, to be honest, it was a hard time for me.

Simon is an out-and-out, true-born artist, and he can’t see or think about anything else when he’s making a play. He sets the bar very high and never compromises on quality.

Once, he told me that I would “get everything” — like having an epiphany — and that I would become a fine actor when I reached old age and lose the advantage of physical strength. Until then, he said I just had to keep struggling and striving.

I don’t know why, but I strongly believe I must work with him again in the future to outgrow my old self and become more mature.

Rehearsals for “Salome” at the NNTT will start soon. How are you approaching this play?

Every day, I read and reread Hirano’s translated script, which he’s rendered in today’s colloquial language. The director (Amon Miyamoto) says he wants to make a vibrant, vivid new “Salome,” so I want to rise to the challenge of creating a standout Jochanaan (John the Baptist) with human frailties instead of the conventional mysterious prophet who is spiritually enlightened. I would like to create a “Songha original.”

“Salome” runs from May 31-June 17 at the New National Theatre Tokyo. Tickets are ¥1,500, ¥3,150, ¥5,250 and ¥7,350. For more details, call the NNTT at (03) 5352-9999 or visit