Last night, at Theater X (Cai) in Ryogoku, Tokyo, we finished a short season of plays I’d written, and eight of us — Japanese cast and staff, with myself as director — leave tonight on an adventure to present stagings in Sydney and Adelaide. I call this tour an adventure because doing the two plays, “The Reporters” and “Tomoko’s Story,” in Japanese in Australia is an untried, if not downright foolhardy, undertaking.

Though I am working with superb actors, the experience has brought to mind some of the ways in which the process of creating theater in Japan is different from that in the West — different, and yet, in essence, the same. A comparison may cast interesting light on Japanese modes of social expression.

Let’s start with the way in which actors build their characters in a play. The key to this process lies in the word “motivation.” Actors must discover the motivation that drives their characters to behave as they do. If this is not found from within the actors themselves, the acting will be facile and false.

There are various means of discovering motivation. Alfred Hitchcock certainly came up with one. Actors would go to him to ask about their character. “It’s in the script,” he’d say.

“But what’s my motivation?” they’d ask.

“Your salary,” came the reply.

That’s fine if you’re working for a big film studio. But if salary were the motivation for theater, you’d have a lot of empty stages around the world.

There have been two towering figures in 20th-century theater who gave actors valuable clues into this process: Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1935) and German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). A comparison of their methods can give insight into how the general Japanese approach differs from the Western. However, actors of course use all sorts of methods, and this is only a very general outline of a highly complex process.

Personal discovery of truth

In brief, Stanislavsky asked his actors to find “truth within themselves”; to get under the skin of the character they are playing and become them. Actors search their memory and extract emotions from their own past experiences. Any action not based on personal discovery of truth, according to Stanislavsky, will appear affected and deceitful on stage.

Brecht’s approach was more analytical and objective. To his mind, an actor can study a character and delve into it without “pretending” to be that character. A character might well do something entirely out of character, as humans often do. This is fine for Brecht, who relishes contradictions on stage and incorporates them into his characters.

An example of how this could work in real life might be if you found yourself in a room with your grandmother, with whom you had always had a rather stormy relationship. Someone comes into the room and says, “Go on, give your granny a hug.” You, though, don’t feel like doing that at all. You say to yourself, “How can I give her a hug when she has been so mean to me all of these years?”

Meanwhile, there’s old granny in the corner looking the forlorn sourpuss that she is. You might say, “What’s my motivation?” But you can’t find anything in your memory or experience that would really permit you to go over there and hug her. “When I find the truth of this gesture [the embrace], I will do it,” would therefore be your Stanislavsky response.

A Brechtian approach would be different. You would just go and do it; you would cross the room and hug miserable old granny. Granny would, hopefully, respond; and while hugging her, emotions of pity or love would well up inside you. In other words, the gesture comes first; truth follows.

The thing about these two methods is that the result should be the same: a moment of touching emotion on stage. In the end, the skill of the actor is what pulls the moment off; and most actors employ both methods, in addition to drawing on the teachings of many other theatrical practitioners in the past and present.

Now, back to Japan.

All actors, wherever they are, will draw on personal experience. You need to delve into your own past in order to produce laughter and tears, violence and tenderness.

But I have found over the years working with such marvelous actors as Kyoko Kishida, Isao Hashizume and Akira Emoto, that Japanese actors are more willing at an early stage in the rehearsal process to create a full character and see how it plays out, even if a basis of truth has not been formed. In other words, their approach is more Brecht than Stanislavsky. The gesture can come first. You hug your granny because she’s your granny, and someone has asked you to do it. You don’t need to love her. Love can be found after its gesture has been made.

The Japanese actor, having made the gesture, then searches for its truth. An empty gesture will appear as just that on stage if it is not backed up by real emotion.

Something inside them

Western actors, at least those who basically follow a Stanislavsky system or its American hybrid of Method Acting, will work themselves into this “granny hug.” Toward the end of the rehearsal period, they might say, “I think I’ve found a way to do it.” This means that something inside them, some memory they’ve drawn on, has given them the insight that motivates the gesture of the hug.

The above is a simplification of a complex process. But I think it tells us something about Japanese society.

This is a nation that highly values formality and propriety. Gestures of civility form an integral part of the social contract. People say set things at set times in set situations; and this keeps things running, at least outwardly, very smoothly. This yields two results.

First, it makes ordinary life comfortable and secure, if everyone knows and follows the rules. (That’s one of the reasons why many Japanese people are terrified of having a lot of foreigners here: they fear that the rules will be disregarded.) You don’t have to wonder how to act in a certain circumstance. Your instilled sense of propriety guides you. There is no need to bare your inner feelings. If you did, it might cause unnecessary discord; and discord is something to be avoided in public situations.

Second, non-Japanese people who either do not understand, or disrespect, this public face of Japaneseness tend to view Japanese people who act in this way as hypocritical. “How can you act like that,” they say, “when you really and truly don’t believe it?”

This only perplexes the Japanese.

“Why should I reveal my inner feelings when it’s not called for?” they answer. “Social situations require certain gestures. Everyone here knows that. No one is forcing anyone to reveal themselves. Just act in a civil manner in most situations and society benefits.”

It is this that largely accounts for the lack of public aggression and the surface harmony in Japan.

If you are not Japanese but choose to live here, your acceptance of this “code of gestures,” and your Brechtian ability to act it out are probably the keys to your finding this country a comfortable and happy place in which to live.

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