Stage

'Disturbance' gives a voice to victims of domestic violence

by Rachael Merritt

Contributing Writer

Standing alone, high up on the balcony of the Musicasa theater in Tokyo, the character of Jane — a wife, mother and a victim of domestic abuse — leaves a red analog phone with a coiled cable hanging over the balustrade.

“That’s a bit of poetic license,” says British artist and director Tania Coke, who is playing the role of Jane in the upcoming production of a play titled “Disturbance.” “She tried to contact the outside world for help, but help didn’t come. The phone is just dangling, unanswered.”

This is the moment that Jane, who has remained silent for the duration of the play, speaks for the first time. She offers a melancholic metaphor about how her identity is reflected in the pale pebbles that line the driveway below. They too have been walked upon, trampled over and torn away from their natural environment by measures beyond their control.

The lines are cryptic and subtle, which was partly why Coke was attracted to the newly adapted production.

“The words are so carefully chosen, each one has so much power and as all good poetry does, it has a freshness,” Coke says. “It evokes images and associations that you don’t expect.”

Inspired by the writings and poetry of Ivy Alvarez, “The Disturbance Project” was a joint collaboration from the creative minds of composer and producer Mark Ferris and director Rachel Walzer.

Finding a voice: Tania Coke (front) and Evan Spreen star in 'Disturbance,' a play that tackles the topic of domestic violence. | KELLY HAAVALDSRUD
Finding a voice: Tania Coke (front) and Evan Spreen star in ‘Disturbance,’ a play that tackles the topic of domestic violence. | KELLY HAAVALDSRUD

Based on a true story, “Disturbance” is a musical and dramatic adaptation based upon the lives of an ordinary family of four who harbors a dark secret. Behind closed doors, Jane is ritually subjected to violence from her husband.

It was the directorial decision of Walzer to depict Jane as a silent figure, a commentary on the notion that most victims of domestic abuse find difficulty in vocalizing their experiences and reaching out for help.

The idea of a mute stage actor is rare in itself, a challenge many performers might struggle to interpret — but not Coke, a specialist in corporeal mime.

Nicknamed “the art of the thinking body,” corporeal mime is an acting method where every aspect of the body is utilized as a tool of communication and expression. Through carefully calculated and deliberately mapped movement, posture and rhythm, the artist delivers their performance through movement alone.

“It’s exactly the same as in poetry,” Coke says. “Ivy would have spent hours choosing which words, which order, which combination in order to create different sounds, impressions and sensations … we use those choices as performers to create different impressions.”

It was a chance encounter with the technique in an acting workshop when Coke was 25 years old that sparked her interest in performing, a passion that quickly morphed into a career.

Graduating from Oxford University with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, Coke says it was a “shock to the system” when she found herself quitting her career in business and professionally pursuing her new-found love of corporeal mime.

“It was like something just shattered inside of me, it was almost as if I had found my voice,” she says.

After she completed a three-year diploma at London’s International School of Corporeal Mime, Coke joined a company of professional mime actors, “Theatre de l’Ange Fou,” working under the creative direction of Steven Wasson and Corinne Soum, the last assistants to the creator of corporeal mime, Etienne Decroux (1898-1991).

It was only after her career change that Coke realized there was more in common with her current and former career than she had originally envisaged.

“I was totally unaware, when I was in the business world, how your physical presence in a meeting and in an interview, will affect the people around you and yourself, I see the world through different eyes now.”

When asked how a British actress found herself living and working in Japan, Coke offers a one-word explanation: “Love.”

After meeting husband Kentaro Suyama in London, the pair moved to Japan in 2010 and set up their acting school Tarinainanika in Tokyo to pass on their knowledge of corporeal mime to the next generation of performers. The method remains largely unknown in Japan.

Almost 10 years later, Coke’s passion for creating and teaching has not diminished. Together with Suyama, she recently moved to Osaka and is currently in the process of refurbishing an old family warehouse into the newest location for their drama school.

With the opening night of “Disturbance” quickly approaching, Coke says it’s during this final period of production that the show and the characters take on a “new dimension.” She describes it as a puzzle where it’s only at the very end, when the pieces finally come together, that you can stand back and see the piece as a whole, and give justice to the subject matter being presented.

“I feel that’s part of the power. Part of the role of art is to transcend conflict and suffering.”

“Disturbance” runs from July 2 to 4 at Musicasa in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. For tickets and more information, visit www.disturbancethemusical.com.