Audience participation is required 1

I recently enjoyed a performance called Worman directed and devised by a friend, Yelena Guzman. It started with the audience being allowed into a large space, where we sat, or seemed to think we should sit, around the edges. We were made uneasy, not just by the (deliberate) lack of guidance from the ‘staff’ (almost the exact opposite of many theatres in Japan, where you are virtually personally escorted to your seat), but by the naked girl standing in the middle of the room. This continued for over ten minutes. People filing in sporadically. People shuffling, giggling, moving positions. A lot of the latter, I suspected, was part of the performance, and designed to create tension. And just at the point where we were getting bored of not knowing what was going on, it snapped: the doors swung open and in poured a dozen people, setting to work in getting together a studio.

It was a Pirandello-esque coup de theatre. What followed, after we had been moved en masse to the chairs that were hastily erected, was a filming of auditions for Our Town. The choice of the play-within-the-play was very appropriate, since Thorton Wilder’s text is famously self-aware. But this was more: it was a performance of a filming of a rehearsal/audition/performance of another play. The layers were dizzying. It was meta-theatre to the max; the fourth wall was semi-maintained, in that communication directly with us was minimal, but any apparent established rituals were thrown away. There were no scene breaks, no points where we were allowed to relax. The camouflaged performers began to emerge: a girl falling asleep in the front row; two people behind grumpily stating they didn’t understand the piece. And finally, placards were held up for us at the end to applaud and then exit, in timing with the end of the play-within-the-play. Of course, our ‘play’ continued even outside, with the angelic girl from the start, alas now clothed, guiding us like Orpheus to the Tube station.

This got me thinking about two things in Japan: audience reaction, and performers and the fourth wall.

Something that is often noted is the subdued nature of audience applause in Japan. No cheering; no whistles; and certainly no standing ovations. Well, I’m British so it doesn’t feel so alien to me. At some smaller companies, with an audience comprised mostly of fans or even friends, the reaction is sometimes much warmer and you can feel the enthusiasm. But enthusiasm can sometimes not be replicated by clapping; I have witnessed large casts assembling for the second or third bow and the applause dying out, to be reignited, politely, when all the actors were in their right place again. Well, sometimes there aren’t even second bows. And at Love’s Whirlpool there wasn’t any curtain call at all! (But I think this was almost certainly a decision taken to reflect the nature of the piece and practicalities of getting the relatively large cast out onto a tiny, cluttered stage.)

One thing that really threw me were casts thanking the audience for coming, calling out in unison Minna-sama arigatou gozaimashita. I have witnessed this at both fringe and amateur productions, and even with large established companies. Once, I even had to make my way outside and through the cast, who were standing (out of character) and personally thanking the audience. I have experienced this at places like the Edinburgh Fringe, though this was not genuine thanks but, like Worman, the performance continuing when you thought it had finished, breaking more conventions. One must remember the nature of Japanese hospitality; the audience is still an okyakusama, a word meaning both ‘customer’ and ‘guest’.

Britain is probably somewhere in the middle here. America is no doubt (and I am guessing) rather energetic in its applause. And German theatre, so my moles inform me, insists on countless curtain calls, on bringing out the writer and director – even when people are booing.

Despite all this, Japan actually has a long tradition of formal and non-Brechtian theatre; Noh and even the crowd-pleasing Kabuki do not actually break the fourth wall. Comparatively, Western practices, before the staid eighteenth and nineteenth centuries set in, had pantomime, Mystery plays and Elizabethan drama. But on the other hand, the urakata (裏方) in Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku are never hidden: stagehands, puppeteers, musicians, narrators – they all sit visibly on the stage. Sometimes (the Kabuki kuroko [黒子] in particular, who perform all manner of technical tasks) they wear all-black (even over their faces) but this is not an attempt to hide their stage-work, but rather so as not to distract attention away from the main action. (Even the main puppeteer in Bunraku wears startling white to identify his role but his face is always utterly expressionless; only the marionette is alive.)  (This has become such an accepted convention that it has even initiated an art form in its own right, as witnessed in the popular Pepsi TV commercial that played in the UK in 2004 or the TV show Kasou Taishou.)

Worman: a Work in Progress

April 3-6, at Morishita Studio


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