Satoshi Ago has been in the news lately following his appointment as artistic director of the small but pioneering Kyoto theater, Atelier Gekken. Since long before that, however, the playwright, actor and director has been renowned for his thought-provoking “theater of mechanical reproduction.”
Strongly influenced by the work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Ago took that name he gives to his approach to drama from the German philosopher’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Indeed, in his trilogy “Passages,” shown from 2012 to 2014, he attempted to demonstrate his belief derived from Benjamin that “theater is fundamentally reproducible.”
In the final part of the trilogy, for instance, Ago, 38, dramatized Benjamin’s last 30 minutes of life before he killed himself while fleeing from the Nazis — except that there were no actors on stage. Instead, audiences were invited into the black-box space Ago set up at Atelier Gekken to watch newsreels and handle objects including letters, texts, a suitcase, shoes and other memorabilia. Hence each “performance,” with a different audience, was a reproduction of the others.
Unlike Benjamin, Ago takes the view that an artwork’s authenticity (what Benjamin termed its “aura”) is not diminished through it being reproduced. Instead he puts emphasis on the audience members rather than, as conventional dramatists would have it, the actors being the main readers and creators of dramaturgy. Indeed, it was Ago’s declared purpose with that trilogy, “to demonstrate that theater is fundamentally created by its audiences.”
Now he’s gone even further. In his new project titled “Stories on Pure Language: The Tower of Babel I,” Ago explores the theatricality inherent in the bodies of audiences within a performance space. Although the Old Testament story of the work’s title tells how the angry Lord robbed the people of the Earth of their unified language and split them into countless mutually unintelligible groups as punishment for trying to build a structure to reach Heaven, Ago regards that outcome not as chaos but as a kind of factory to expand the world using languages and stories.
In a trial version at the Kyoto Arts Center in spring, the audience was told they would be the “builders” of this language factory, or “creators” of the Tower of Babel, using their bodies and voices to bring the edifice to life.
In practice, each member was given a different “builder’s manual” to reconstruct the story of O, who they were told was an artificial-life scientist, before being led together into the black-box space with microphones hanging from the ceiling. There they encountered O — actually Ago made to look like an old woman dressed in black and waiting to die — who asks them to narrate alternative versions of her life. Soon it transpires that O’s research and personal life have both been failures, and that by having others recount alternative versions to her, she hopes to find salvation.
As the audience-actors narrate their stories, their words are projected onto a digital screen and are also recorded to form an archive for the evolving work. Hence, for instance, the upcoming Tokyo iteration will make use of the voices recorded in Kyoto, while Ago plans to take this project to Tohoku next year — so accumulating a range of stories and accents with which to create his own Babel-speak, or “pure language.”
“Stories on Pure Language: The Tower of Babel I” runs Sept. 26-28 at Morishita Studio in Tokyo. For details, visit www.agosatoshi.com/tower_of_babel_1.