To date, including his all-male production of “The Merchant of Venice” that’s set to run next month at Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater outside Tokyo, Yukio Ninagawa will have staged 29 of the 38 plays attributed to William Shakespeare — and his ambition to direct the entire oeuvre remains undimmed.

Besides pursuing that goal, however, the unrivaled icon of Japanese drama is no less passionate about Saitama Gold Theater — a side project for seniors with little or no acting experience that he launched seven years ago thinking it would just run for 12 months.

And despite his perpetually crushing, self-inflicted workload, this renowned human dynamo who turns 78 in October was so courteous as to grant an interview at short notice last week to tell JT readers what it’s like to work with his golden oldies based at the Saitama theater where he is artistic director.

How do you look back on your days with Saitama Gold Theater (SGT)?

At the beginning in February 2006, I never expected SGT would be like it is now. I am so positively surprised to see that once everybody (staff and members) formulates a concrete target, they are able to forge ahead toward it together with the highest of ambitions.

First, concerning the SGT actors, I see everyone coming to the lessons and rehearsals here at the Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater with twinkling eyes. In Paris they were so spirited, and they enjoyed the short stay so much and went out wandering around the city. You should never bundle people together just because they are older and assume thay’re all this way or that.

How do you rate SGT in purely theatrical terms?

I am still not sure how to rate SGT’s achievement in relation to professional theater companies.

However, it’s strange to say but SGT has consciously gone its own different route from what you might call the “proper” drama system. That’s because the members have just drawn on their private life experiences in order to create theater, and I think that challenging themselves like that has borne a unique and sensational fruit.

Most of them had no theatrical experience before, so they didn’t come armed with technique, but their rich and individual life histories made an unprecedented kind of original theater. Now I am saying to them “you don’t need to be skillful actors,” and I tell them not to try and emulate any existing actors.

However, some members started getting greedy and they said they wanted to act in Shakespeare or Chekhov plays. So I told them baldly: “Forget that idea, you are not able to do Shakespeare and Chekhov.”

Instead of doing European classics, there are lots of other plays in which they can express their roles amazingly with the abilities they have — and they can do so better than anyone else, so I don’t want to just let them do plays that other companies can do well.

To prune such unnecessary branches and create the unique SGT tree is one of my key jobs. As a result of this careful pruning, we can get unexpected outcomes — and one excellent one was the short run in Paris.

How did the critics and audiences in France react to SGT?

We got brilliant reviews there, for example: “SGT fantastically broke through the fourth dimension on stage” (Le Figaro digital — Pauline Labadie); and “If you have a hour-and-a-quarter of free time today, please rush to Maison de la Culture du Japon in Paris to see this play” (Theatre du Blog — Philippe du Vignal).

French people evaluated the performances as proper artistic works — not as shows put on by old people — and they applauded the actors’ fine work as a team and loved the tidy and beautiful slow-motion scenes.

Some people asked me how I trained them. I told them I didn’t have them do any special physical training, but the nature of Japanese people — their conscientiousness — meant they did what they needed to themselves.

Having got such a positive response in Paris has given the SGT members, and also me, a real confidence boost.

What has surprised you most about SGT?

Still they are improving. Sometimes, I’ve thought they have probably reached their upper limit, but — dear me — someday someone suddenly says all their lines so clearly, or someone else starts moving so smoothly.

And do you know, if I praise those things they’ll likely be so openly pleased they may cry.

For example, I gave one of the leading roles to (Ritsuko) Tamura this time, and she brilliantly responded to my offer. Actually, she wasn’t so good before, but she had surprisingly improved and changed. So, I think I probably haven’t found the best part of all the members yet.

Most of them have also stayed with SGT and have not dropped out. At the outset, I expected the number would drop off over time, but to my delight the members have become more energetic and healthier.

What is more difficult about directing your SGT actors than regular actors?

For example, if an SGT actor always says his or her lines in a loud voice, I wonder whether it is better if I just let them do that because it’s their individuality — or whether I should correct them in terms of theatrical realism.

How can I make a beautiful bonsai? Which branches should I cut, or which should I leave to blossom into SGT flowers and produce lots of new buds? I am still groping for the most effective way of working with them.

Over the last seven years, what has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the SGT members?

They used to take so long to understand and actually put into practice my directions. But now they’re getting a lot quicker that way — and it’s not always because of their efforts alone, because they often work together with young actors and communicate with them quietly in a rehearsal room.

(In 2008, Ninagawa founded Next Theater, whose members he selected by auditioning young applicants aged over 17. It currently has 23 members, whose average age is 26, and that company often collaborates with SGT — in fact some members appeared at the end of “Raven, we shall load Bullets.”)

Next Theater people also help SGT members by communicating with them harmoniously as they would with their grandpa or grandma. Through such kind help from people around them, the SGT oldies are now understanding things much faster than before — though they’re still as stubborn as ever and they still openly argue with each other sometimes! (Laughs)

Do you think this successful outcome has only happened because of the particular people who joined SGT — or could it happen with other groups?

I have found lots more possibilities among our members day by day, and I think it would be the same with other people.

What’s more important, I think, is that halfway intellectual, spoiled people are not suitable for being actors at this age. But if someone has had all sorts of hard knocks in life and has spent their time well, then I think they could be good SGT members.

What did you want to tell European audiences through this play?

I thought this play, in which downtrodden and disadvantaged old people who stood up and rose up against the establishment finally transform into young figures might not work; that it might be out of date in advanced countries like France. But it worked really well and they took it as a beautiful metaphorical poem and actually loved it.

Are there any different characteristics of SGT’s men and women members?

I’ve realized that the men tend to become more stoic, while the women become vulgar and lively. The women were generally never mellow, but they’ve just got more and more energy.

Now, having performed overseas for the first time, what’s the next challenge you want to set for SGT?

Well, beyond any of my expectations, we’ve just had an initial approach from a theater in Hong Kong to perform there. I am very pleased to hear that Asian theaters are interested in SGT’s activity, as that was something I particularly wanted to happen.

Also, we’ve already got some offers from Europe. So I would like to see how SGT’s members change after they’ve been to some international festivals and have had some bitter and hard experiences there.

In today’s world, it’s rare to turn the spotlight on oldies like these and they usually get regarded in the Japanese media as a social topic — as an old people’s theater challenge. But I have the impression that foreign theaters in Europe and Asia are interested in their theater work and they want to see them as representatives of a new style of theater productions.

So, I want to put SGT into competitive international markets and witness their further improvement.

What is you next plan for SGT?

Next, I would like to make a play mixing young and old people throughout. In the real world, the average size of families is shrinking, but we used to live in large, extended families together. So, in the fictional realm of theater, I would like to present audiences with a play involving large families as a sign of hope in this world.

For further information about Yukio Ninagawa’s all-male production of “The Merchant of Venice,” which runs Sept. 5-22 at Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater, call Saitama Arts Foundation at (0570) 064-939 or visit www.saf.or.jp.

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