‘An act of theatre…engaged’

Something I have been thinking about recently is to what extent can a cultural spectacle be classed as theatre. Let me elaborate.  I have a student, Eliza, who has chosen to write a theatre extended essay and her focus is the opening ceremonies of the Beijing and London Olympics, and how – in terms of form – they represent their respective cultures.


I then saw this image on a news website:

impression_lijiang_showThis is Impression Lijiang a cultural show demonstrating the traditions and lifestyles of the Naxi, Yi and Bai people of China’s Yunnan province. The show takes place inside Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Park at 3500m in an outdoor theatre specifically designed to showcase the mountain which is used as a backdrop. The production itself was designed by Zhang Yimou, famous Chinese film director and organizer of the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, with a cast of over 500 people, and a number of horses. Apparently, it is the highest altitude performance ever staged!


However, the show does not have a plot. So is it theatre? The rave reviews on TripAdvisor would seem to say it is. A few years ago I saw The Edinburgh Military Tattoo – is that theatre? Is it World theatre, as it draws ‘performances’ from right across globe? What about Songkran in Thailand, Onam in Kerala, India or Thaipusam in Penang, Malaysia?

Of course Peter Brook famously says in The Empty Space:

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged

I don’t know the answer, but it has got me thinking. It’s also tied up with teaching Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty and the place of ritual within that…….but that’s another post, for another day!

Just to add to the discussion I’ve tweeted an old blog post from Lyn Gardner on this debate…..great minds and all that!



‘We can solve our problems’

And thirdly, a blog post from Kevin EG Perry about villagers in Odisha state, India, who are writing and performing plays to explore problems ranging from hand-washing to local schools……

MDG India theatre.







The other side of theatre.

The play’s the thing for villages in India tackling real-life dramas

Sibaguda is a remote tribal village in southern Odisha state, in the east of India. There are just 49 households, and cows are frequently herded through the main square. The electricity supply has been disrupted by a broken transformer and the only road has fallen into disrepair. What Sibaguda does have, in common with many tribal villages, is a central meeting place where theatre is performed. Now, thanks to one particular performance, a school is being built here for the first time.

Amaresh Satapathy works for the Integrated Agency for Education, Environment and Technology (IAEET) in the nearby town of Koraput. Although his organisation works on everything from land rights to public health, Satapathy describes himself as a theatre activist. He first visited Sibaguda in 2007 as the leader of a Unicef-backed group performing street theatre to raise awareness of the importance of hand-washing.

They performed in tribal villages around the Koraput district, and locals said they had all learned important lessons from the plays. However, when they returned to the villages they found that the messages were quickly forgotten. “We asked people which part they remembered,” Satapathy says. “They talked about the entertainment, the tragedy and the comedy, but nobody remembered the message.”

Disillusioned, he began to reconsider the role that theatre could play. His group of actors from the main town moving from village to village may have brought entertainment, but they were doing little to empower villagers and were neglecting the area’s own rich tradition of folk theatre.

Satapathy decided to ask for Unicef’s support to initiate a participatory theatre programme, known as community-based theatre. “With CBT, we are doing something new with the community,” he says. “It is not just an ordinary development project.”

Rather than arriving with a paternalist message to preach, CBT invites villages to determine what their primary problem is, and then to write and perform a play that illustrates it. “The villagers are deciding what the problems are,” says Satapathy. “It is not about the problems of the NGOs. People are working for their own rights, in their own way.”

Satapathy no longer travels with a theatre group but arrives in the village with a small team who explain the concept and purpose of CBT over the course of a week. They encourage the villagers to draw on their own storytelling and theatrical traditions. “We don’t train them to act,” he says. “We ask them: ‘How do you sing, act or beat your drums?'” The team’s role is to spark the initial idea and then to help the villagers draw a powerful audience. The play can help villagers put their problems before local officials.

In Sibaguda, villagers decided their primary problem was education. Ramchandra Rana, 26, played a teacher in the performance. He says: “The children had trouble going to school. The nearest one is more than 2km from here, so we invited the block development officer and other local officials to our village to see the play. After the fifth or sixth time of asking, they came.”

Bali Dalpati, who gives his age as “more than 50”, played the father of the play’s central character, a young girl. He explains the plot they devised: “In our story, there was a family: a father, a mother and one daughter. Between the village and the next village there was a canal, and to get to school the children had to cross the canal. In the play, my daughter was going to school when a flood came and she had to be rescued. After that, we turned to the audience and the officials and asked, ‘Is this a good situation for our village?'”

Satapathy has found that inviting officials to villages has had far more success than traditional forms of petitioning local government. Of the 427 villages in IAEET’s catchment area, 50 have seen tangible results from CBT in terms of schools being built or better access to clean drinking water.

Dalpati is hugely positive about the impact. “We were so excited on the day of the performance,” he says. “The theatre has the power to change people’s minds. We always had theatre for entertainment, but now we see it as a road by which we can develop our village.” He gives a sobering account of a more typical interaction with local officials: “We used to have electricity here but the transformer broke down. When we asked the officials to fix it, they said, ‘Give us 5,000 rupees’. We said we would give them 5,000 rupees if they gave us a government receipt. They would not.”

There are drawbacks to letting the community define their development priorities. For example, the message about the importance of hand-washing is one that is unlikely to come from the villagers themselves. However, as a way of engaging and empowering communities, Satapathy believes there is much to be learned from his experience of placing power into the hands of the villagers.

“In our training process we are telling people two things,” he says. “The first thing we are saying is: you are a powerful person, you can change things. The second thing is: you are a skilled person at theatre. Community-based theatre gives people an opportunity to talk to each other and work together. It encourages the community that not only NGOs, the government or the literate, but we the people can solve our problems.”

Brooking The Trend

Secondly, an extract from Peter Brook’s new book, The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare, published in the The Guardian.

DEN INTERNATIONALE IBSEN-PRISENMore than any other ‘western’ theatre practitioner, Brook understands the connections between theatre traditions (ancient and modern) across the world – in all cultures – so I am intrigued that he has chosen to return to Shakespeare.

Mind you, at the age of 88, why shouldn’t he be reflecting on his achievements?

Peter Brook on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a cook and a concept

His 1970 RSC production of Shakespeare’s play featured circus trapezes, stilts and plate-spinning – and changed theatre history for good. In an extract from his new book, Peter Brook explains how this most seductive of Dreams came alive.

Once a computer was asked, “What is the truth?” It took a very long time before the reply came, “I will tell you a story …”

Today, this is the only way I can answer the question I’ve been asked so often: “Why don’t you write about A Midsummer Night’s Dream? You must have so much to say!”

So – I’ll tell you a story.

When I was 18 or 19, my one ambition was to make a film. By chance, I met the most eminent producer of the day, Sir Alexander Korda, a Hungarian of humble origins who had emigrated to make his fortune first in France, then in Britain, where he rose to power, was ennobled by the King and married a beautiful star, Merle Oberon, who for my father was “the perfect woman”.

I had just been on a trip to Seville during Holy Week, was thrilled by the multitude of mysterious impressions and imagined a story set in this extraordinary background.

“Sir Alexander,” I began, “I have an idea for a film – ”

He cut me off with an unforgettable phrase that contained in a few words the period in which it was uttered, the British class system and the snobbery of a newly enlisted member of the upper classes. With a light dismissal of the hand he said: “Even a cook can have an idea.”

This was virtually the end of the meeting. “Come back when you have developed your ‘idea’ enough to have a real story to offer me.”

Peter Brook's acrobatic 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It took many years to free his phrase from its period and context and to hear the deep truth it contained.

This brings me directly to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It had never occurred to me to think of directing the Dream. I had seen many charming productions with pretty scenery and enthusiastic girls pretending to be fairies. Yet, when I was invited to do the play in Stratford, I discovered to my surprise that my answer was “Yes”. Somewhere in me there was an intuition that I had ignored.

Then, the first visit to Europe of the Peking Circus revealed that in the lightness and speed of anonymous bodies performing astonishing acrobatics without exhibitionism, it was pure spirit that appeared. This was a pointer to go beyond illustration to evocation, and I began to imagine a co-production with the Chinese. A year later, in New York, it was a ballet of Jerome Robbins that opened another door. A small group of dancers around a piano brought into fresh and magical life the same Chopin nocturnes that had always been inseparable from the trappings of tutus, painted trees and moonlight. In timeless clothes, they just danced. These pointers encouraged a burning hunch that, somewhere, an unexpected form was waiting to be discovered.

I talked this over with Trevor Nunn, director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, who said for this season he had created a young company who could in no time learn anything that was needed. It seemed too good to be true, especially as the Chinese Circus acrobats started their training at the age of five.

So we began with only the conviction that if we worked long, hard and joyfully on all the aspects of the play, a form would gradually appear. We started preparing the ground to give this form a chance. Within each day we improvised the characters and the story, practised acrobatics and then passing from the body to the mind, discussed and analysed the text line by line, with no idea of where this was leading us. There was no chaos, only a firm guide, the sense of an unknown form calling us to continue.


Through freedom and joy, Alan Howard as Oberon not only found very quickly that he could master the art of spinning a plate on a pointed stick but that he could do so on a trapeze without losing any of the fine nuances of his exceptionally sensitive verse-speaking. His Puck, John Kane, did the same, while mastering walking on stilts. In another register, a very talented and tragically short-lived young actor, Glynne Edwards, discovered that all the accepted ideas of Thisbe’s lament over Pyramus’s death being a moment of pure farce were covering a true depth of feeling. This suddenly turned the usually preposterous attempts at acting of the “mechanicals” in the palace into something true and even moving. The situation was reversed and the smart and superior sniggering of the cultivated spectators well deserved the Duke’s rebuke:

For never anything can be amiss
When simpleness and duty tender it.

Then, for the first time, we used a practice that we can no longer do without. In the middle of rehearsals, we invited a group of kids into our rehearsal room; then later we asked an ad-hoc crowd in a Birmingham social club, so as to test what we were doing. Immediately, strengths and lamentable weakness were pitilessly exposed. We saw the trap of rehearsal jokes – everything that made the company fall about with laughter fell flat. It was clear that some embryonic forms could be developed and others discarded, although in the process nothing was lost. One thing can always lead to another. On French level crossings there is an apt warning: “One train can conceal another.” This can have a hopeful reading: “Behind a bad idea a good one can be waiting to appear.”

Gradually, the jigsaw began to fit, yet the very first preview was a disaster. My old friend Peter Hall took me by the arm and expressed his regret at the bad flop that was on its way. But at this point in the process a shock was needed. What to do? Peter Hall’s close collaborator John Barton said, “The problem is at the start. The way you begin doesn’t prepare us for the unexpected approach that follows. As it is now, we just can’t get into it.” Thanks to John, we found a way of starting the play literally with a bang. With an explosion of percussion from the composer Richard Peaslee, the whole cast literally burst onto the stage, climbed up the ladders and swarmed across the top level of the set with such joy and energy that they swept the audience along with them. After this, they could do no wrong. The presence of the audience in a week of previews and a high-pressured re-examination of every detail allowed at last the latent form to appear. Then, like the well-cooked meal, there was nothing to fiddle with, just to taste and enjoy. Often, after an opening, one has to go on working day after day, never satisfied, but this time we could recognise it. Miraculously it had fallen into place.


When the production had played across the world, there were many proposals to film it. I always refused because the essence of designer Sally Jacobs’s imagery was a white box. The invisible, the forest, even the darkness of night were evoked by the imagination in the nothingness that had no statement to make and needed no illustration. Unfortunately, the cinema of the day depended entirely on celluloid, and after the first screenings more and more scratches would appear. In any event, photography is essentially naturalistic and a film based only on whiteness, least of all a soiled and blotchy one, was unthinkable. Of course, a play can be filmed, but not literally. I’ve attempted this many times, and always a new form had to be found to correspond with a new medium. It can never be a literal recording of what the audience in the theatre once saw. Here I felt that nothing could reflect the zest and invention of the whole group. This truly was a live event.

Then the production was invited to Japan. Everyone was eager to go. As the costs were so high, could I agree to it being tele-recorded in performance so that it could be shown all over Japan and so contribute to their expenses? If we all agreed, they promised the recording would be destroyed in the presence of the British Consul. I discussed this with the cast, who had all been with me in refusing filming. This time it seemed impossible for us to say “No”.

A few weeks later, I received a bulky parcel from Japan. It contained a set of large discs. “This,” wrote one of the producers, “is a copy of the recording. We feel that you should have it.”

I found a player and discovered to my amazement that it looked very good. I sent a cable to Japan, telling them not to destroy the master. At once a telegram returned. “This morning, in the presence of the British Consul, as you requested, the recording and the negative have been burned.”

Only later did I realise that this was a valuable reminder to stay with my own convictions. The life of a play begins and ends in the moment of performance. This is where author, actors and directors express all they have to say. If the event has a future, this can only lie in the memories of those who were present and who retained a trace in their hearts. This is the only place for our Dream. No form nor interpretation is for ever. A form has to become fixed for a short time, then it has to go. As the world changes, there will and must be new and totally unpredictable Dreams.

Today, more than ever, I am left with a respect for the formless hunch which was our guide, and it has left me with a profound suspicion of the now much-used word “concept”. Of course, even a cook has a concept, but it becomes real during the cooking, and a meal is not made to last.

250px-BrookDreamUnfortunately, in the visual arts, “concept” now replaces all the qualities of hard-earned skills of execution and development. In their place, ideas are developed as ideas, as theoretical statements that lead to equally intellectual statements and discussions in their place. The loss is not in words but in the draining away of what only comes from direct experience, which can challenge the mind and feeling by the quality it brings.

A used carpet placed over a mass of old, used shoes won international prizes. It was considered enough to express the tragedy of emigrations, of displaced people and their long march. This made an admirable piece of political correctness, but its impact was negligible when compared with Goya, Picasso or many shockingly intense photographs. A single lightbulb going on and off won an important award because it expressed all of life and death. In fact, it only expressed the “idea” of life and death. These have been prize-winning concepts, but would not Alexander Korda rightly have said, “Come back when you have put your idea into a powerful form”?


A form exists on every visible and invisible level. Through the quality of its development, then in the way its meaning is transformed. It is an understandable difficulty for actors, directors and designers facing a play of Shakespeare not to ask, “What should we do with it?” So much has been done already and so often filmed, recorded or described that it is hard not to begin by searching for something striking and new. A young director’s future may depend on the impact he or she makes. It is hard to have to play characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without looking desperately for an idea. This is the trap opening under the feet of every director. Any scene in Shakespeare can be vulgarised almost out of recognition with the wish to have a modern concept. This easily leads to spicing the words by having a drunk say them into a mobile phone or else peppering the text with obscene expletives. This is no exaggeration. I saw the videotape of an actor trying vainly to find a new way of saying “To be or not to be”. As a last resort, one evening he set out to see whether alcohol might not be the answer. So he set up a camera, put a bottle of whisky on a table beside him, also a clock, and at planned intervals during the night recorded himself doing the soliloquy again and again as he gradually poured the contents of the bottle down his throat. The result needs no comment. Fortunately, there is another way. Always, an ever-finer form is waiting to be found through patient and sensitive trial and error. Directors are asked, “What is your concept?” The critics write about “a new concept” as though this label could cover the process. A concept is the result and comes at the end. Every form is possible if it is discovered by probing deeper and deeper into the story, into the words and into the human beings that we call the characters. If the concept is imposed in advance by a dominating mind, it closes all the doors.

We can all have an idea, but what can give the dish its substance and its taste?

No Strings Attached

If you are looking to see a performance of traditional Thai puppetry then look no further than the ‘Joe Louis’ Puppet Theatre in Bangkok  It’s a remarkable story for an art form that had virtually died out in Thailand and is testimony to the efforts of the late Sakorn Yangkhieosod (nicknamed Joe Louis) who revived the ancient art and whose legacy can be seen at the Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre in Bangkok.


The theatre officially opened in 2002, but was renamed in 2004 by HM the King’s oldest sister, HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana. The new title was ‘Nattayasala Hun Lakorn Lek (Joe Louis)’ known in English as ‘The Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre’. Although the history of the theatre itself is recent, the roots of the story behind it go back to the early 1900s.

Traditional Thai Puppets

The puppets are up to 1.5 metres tall with numerous joints that enable them to be controlled by sticks. The skilled work of the puppeteer brings the characters to life. Sakorn (Joe Louis) himself once said, ‘Hun lakhon lek puppets are charming because they can act like humans. They can nod, wave their hands, and point their fingers. They dance like we can. It is the heart of the performance that the puppeteers bring life to the puppets.’

In Thai puppetry, each puppet requires the synchronised efforts of three puppeteers all of whom appear on stage with the puppet and all of whom are accomplished Thai classical dancers in their own right.


There are three main types of traditional Thai theatrical performances:

Khon is the most sophisticated of the performances with carefully choreographed movements and elaborate costumes. Khon usually features episodes from the Indian epic Ramayana (known in Thai as Ramakian) which details the story of a battle between vice and virtue and which features Hanuman, the great monkey warrior.

Lakhon is derived from khon but is used to recount a greater range of stories performing all the other classics of Thai drama.

Likay is also derived from khon, but compared to khon and lakhon, likay is the least sophisticated of the trio. The performances are based on common dramas and the action tends to be light-hearted with romance, comedy and singing all adding to the story.

Sakorn Yangkhieosod

puppet-3Born in 1922 to parents who were both puppeteers in a travelling troupe, Sakorn Yangkhieosod was a sickly child and spent part of his childhood in the care of monks where he was renamed ‘Lhiew’ meaning ‘Willow’. The later nickname of Joe Louis came about in the late 1930’s when the legendary boxer Joe Louis became heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Lhiew, who was already used to his name being pronounced ‘Lui’ suddenly found friends calling him ‘Joe Lui’ which in turn became ‘Joe Louis’.

The young Sakorn grew up to be a talented khon dancer and lakhon and likay performer. Being brought up in an environment where puppets were common, it was probably inevitable that he would also go on to become a master puppeteer. However, the Second World War and subsequent modernization were to have an impact on the traditional theatre in Thailand. The introduction of motion pictures and then television hastened the decline in traditional art forms which were viewed as old-fashioned. With the decline in public interest, the traditional Thai puppets were placed into storage and some were even destroyed. Sakorn made a living making khon masks although he found there was little demand for them too.

In the 1980’s it seemed that the old tradition would die out with Sakorn being the last known living exponent of traditional Thai puppetry. Apparently driven by nostalgia, Sakorn decided to make one more traditional puppet. When the puppet was finished, his 9 children were fascinated and became keen to learn how to make the puppets and how to manipulate them. Gradually, more puppets were made and in 1985, Sakorn and his family gave their first performance of ‘hun lakorn lek’ (traditional Thai small puppets). More performances were held over the years at local fairs and temples and the Joe Louis troupe became known throughout Thailand. In 1996, the King of Thailand granted Sakorn the title of National Artist in recognition of his work. The prestige of this honour enabled the necessary funding to establish the original puppet theatre near Sakorn’s home in Nonthaburi, but the theatre’s small size and quiet location meant that it did not attract many visitors.


Sadly, a fire at Sakorn’s home in 1999 resulted in his house being destroyed along with all but one of his 50 puppets. It was a cruel blow for an old man who must have wondered whether it was worth carrying on with the traditional art form. With the help of family and friends and donations from the public, the Joe Louis troupe were able to re-establish themselves and in 2002 a new theatre was opened which proved to be hugely popular with local people and tourists and the Joe Louis troupe have regularly performed in front of Thai royalty.

Sakorn ‘Joe Louis’ Yangkhieosod died on May 21st 2007. His legacy is the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre now run by his family and which remains the sole guardian of traditional Thai puppetry. Take a look at the website – it is quite fascinating.

World Theatre Day 2013

Today (depending where you are reading this) is the 51st World Theatre Day and in celebration of the event I thought I would share some news of a theatre tradition that is refusing to die out – one in fact that continues to thrive. As many of Asia’s traditional theatre forms are in decline or find themselves sustained in a modified form for the tourist market, Japanese Kabuki lives on.


The curtain is about to go up at a new theatre dedicated to Japan’s centuries-old kabuki-za performing art, sited in a high-tech venue in a 29-storey Tokyo office building. The theatre in the upscale Ginza shopping district, which will open to the public at the start of next month, will let audiences use portable monitors to read subtitles to explain the sometimes difficult to understand art form.


The service will be available only in Japanese at first. But theatre managers hope to include foreign language services, starting with English, over the coming months, a spokesman told visiting journalists Monday. Another feature is the pit below the stage, which is now 16.45 metre (54 feet) deep — nearly four times what it was. The pit allows for props, actors and scenery to emerge from the bowels of the building.


Despite the high-tech fixes, the theatre retains many elements of the original interior as well as the facade, which evokes medieval Japanese castles and temples with its curved roofs and red paper lanterns. In the 400-year-old stylised performing art, all-male casts perform in extravagant costumes and mask-like facial makeup.


The new four-storey playhouse, with an 1,800-seat capacity, is the fifth version of the theatre, whose history dates back to 1889. The previous building, erected in 1951 to replace one heavily damaged in World War II, was demolished in 2010 due to worries over its ability to withstand earthquakes.The theatre is now housed in a 143-metre (470 feet) skyscraper, the tallest building in the area.

nn20130319fya-870x489Jun Hong, in The Japan Times, has written a great little question and answer article:

Ginza stage set for Kabuki-za’s fifth coming

The venerable Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo’s Ginza district reopens April 2 after three years of renovations and the addition of a 29-floor attached office tower.

A key venue for kabuki and other performances since 1889, the theater will retain its original ornate Japanese facade.

Following are questions and answers regarding the history of Kabuki-za and the reworked theater:

How significant is Kabuki-za?

Along with Shinbashi Enbujo, also in the Ginza district, and Kyoto’s Minami-za, the theater is one of the main venues for the traditional performing art, which dates back to the Edo Period in the 17th century.

Kabuki-za mainly devoted itself to staging kabuki in the early 1990s, but has put on shows by other artists, including singer Masako Mori and the late Hibari Misora.

In 2005, kabuki was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

“The kabuki stage is equipped with several gadgets, such as revolving stages and trapdoors through which the actors can appear and disappear. Another specialty of . . . the stage is the ‘hanamichi’ (footbridge) that extends into the audience (area),” UNESCO explains on its website.

When was the original Kabuki-za built?

According to Shochiku Co., which runs the theater, it first opened in 1889 under the initiative of playwright and journalist Genichiro Fukuichi.

The theater underwent renovations in 1911 but burned to the ground 10 years later because of an electrical fault.

The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake slowed its reconstruction until the redesigned venue was able to reopen for a third time in 1924. Bombing raids later destroyed the theater again in May 1945.

How have kabuki and Kabuki-za fared since the war?

Faubion Bowers, an expert on Japanese theater who spent time in Japan before the war, played an important role in preserving the art form.

He served as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s interpreter during the Allied Occupation. Bowers’ obituary in The New York Times in 1999 said that while the Allied forces “sought to ban (kabuki) as a relic of feudal society,” Bowers, known as the dean of Western knowledge of kabuki, prevented any alteration of the original content and defended the tradition.

Others, however, point out that kabuki’s preservation had more to do with members of the Allied forces quickly becoming infatuated with the art. Shochiku is also known to have fought hard to avoid having the performances censored.

What happened after the war?

It took six years, but Kabuki-za, in its third makeover, reopened in 1951 and operated until April 2010, when it closed for the latest renovations, including a modern-day high-rise.

The latest remake was delayed a month by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, but shows will start again on April 2.

What will the new Kabuki-za look like?

Kabuki-za will inherit the Wafu-Momoyama style and its signature extravagant facade.

But Shochiku said it will adjust to present-day needs as well, including barrier-free access and more lavatories. It will also provide direct access to subway stations.

The theater will consist of three floors and have 1,808 seats. It was built to high quake-resistance standards and can serve as a temporary shelter during emergencies in the capital.

In its first month of its grand reopening, three works from classical kabuki repertory will be presented, including “Kanjincho,” a story set in the 12th century about warriors of the Minamoto clan trying to get past a roadblock and escape north.

How does the high-rise fit in?

The 29-floor Kabuki-za Tower is a typical office building but will have galleries for displaying items from the theater and providing historical data to visitors.

“We believe that organizing a great kabuki play is the most important aspect of our job,” Shochiku President Junichi Sakomoto said last year. “But it is also an extremely important mission for us to expand the fan base of kabuki and classic art,” he added.

Who designed the new Kabuki-za?

Architect Kengo Kuma was charged with designing the new venue and said he would ensure it remains distinct from other theaters.

“It would be boring if Kabuki-za ended up the same as every other concert hall,” he told The Japan Times in an interview in September 2010.

One unique characteristic will be the relatively small space between seats, Kuma said, explaining that the sense of a packed house is essential for Kabuki-za. Kuma, whose works include Tokyo’s Suntory Museum of Art and the Nezu Museum, has also designed jewelry.

What will the theater’s latest reopening mean to the industry?

Kabuki was hit hard when two of its biggest stars passed away in a short span recently.

Iconic actor Ichikawa Danjuro died of pneumonia in February and Nakamura Kanzaburo, another celebrity, passed away due to respiratory failure in December. Danjuro was scheduled to perform over the first months of the reopening.

The next generation of kabuki actors, including Danjuro’s son, Ichikawa Ebizo, will have a tough time filling the shoes of their predecessors when they take the stage later this year.

Another Japanese english language newspaper THE ASAHI SHIMBUN has produced a photo set of the interior of the new theatre which you can see here. A parade and ceremony was held yesterday to commemorate the opening which was reported in the same newspaper, entitled Drum beats signal start of new Kabukiza history and you can read it here and watch it here – quite amazing.

About 120 people, including 63 Kabuki actors, walked along a 400-meter stretch as spectators crowded the sidewalks of Chuo-dori. It marked the first-ever parade of Kabuki actors in the Ginza, whose history of hosting the Kabukiza dates back to 1889.

Spectators called out the stage names of their favorite actors as they walked in the middle of the street. Jostling crowds were seen looking down from building windows facing the street and waving at the Kabuki stars.

The Kabuki actors in the “Ginza Hanamichi” commemorative parade included Nakamura Tokizo, Nakamura Fukusuke, Ichikawa Somegoro, Onoe Kikunosuke, Ichikawa Ebizo, Nakamura Kankuro and Nakamura Shichinosuke.

To finish, I came across this fantastic site about all the Kabuki theatres in Japan that has loads of information and history about the form (and how to book tickets should you find yourself there) – Kabuki Web

Hungry Hanuman

I have a number of students who have just begun their EE in Theatre Arts. One of them, Lois, wanted to write one that looked at Asian theatre styles. In the course of our discussions we alighted on the idea of how the same ancient stories and myths form the narratives of theatre from right across the continent, but are told in a variety of styles. As always, prompted by my students, this got me thinking about the value of these stories in a modern context.

Then I came across this article, a book review, in the Times of India about how artists are trying to make these ancient tales reflect and have meaning for the modern society in which they are now performed.


I reproduce it here for you in full.

New avatars of Ramayana reflect modern times

The Indian epic Ramayana is moving beyond convention to more profound retellings to reflect new realities.

Ruminate on this: Kumbhkaran, the giant sibling of the demon king Ravana in the epic had to grapple with excess sleep all his life. Sleep got into the way of his contribution to the battle between Lord Ram and Ravan, leading to his death.

Lakshman, the sibling of Lord Ram, battled sleeplessness – or rather the guilt attached to the act.

“My sleep, what does it mean.. That I sleep for 14 years or I get 14 years of sleep in one night? Is sleep the only way to find out,” muses an agonised Lakshman as he fends off sleep. Kumbhakaran, on the other hand, is bothered about his sleep cycle that he monitors on his wrist watch.

Lakshman and Kumbhakaran debate and spar over the implications of “this sleep” in a contemporary anecdotal re-telling of a slice from Ramayana in “Nidravatwam” – a 50-minute solo performance by playwright and director Nimmy Raphel.

Puducherry-based Raphel, who was in the capital recently for the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the annual theatre festival of the National School of Drama, used a combination of traditional Indian Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi, traditional martial dances and contemporary body dance to narrate her interpretation of Ramayana – a transposition of the ideas associated with sleep into the realm of contemporary absurd projected against the realities of fickle sleep cycles.

Lakshman becomes a symbol of modern-day sleep abuser- caught in the throes of time, multi-tasking and deadlines.


Sleep also becomes a device of self-introspection to search for deeper truths about existence.

Kumbhakaran is the sloth who struggles with his psyche to keep the killing inertia away, but succumbs to sleeping over.

Both are connected by boons that dramatically alter their cycles of sleep and wakefulness. While Lakshman bequeaths his 14-year sleep to his wife, Kumbhakarn is allowed six-hours sleep.

The act has conflicting redemption for both – while it kills Ravana’s brother, who begs Lakshman to take away some of his sleep, for the latter, the lack of it brings uncertainty.

Raphael, who has studied dance at Kalamandalam in Kerala, describes her act as a “dialogue between Kumbhakaran and Lakshma on the battlefield”.

The monkey god Hanuman had taken pride in the fact that he had a better version of Ramayana than Valmiki and had even asked the seer to take it, says playwright-dancer and director Suresh Kaliyath.


A native of Kerala, Kaliyath, who is trained in the folk performing tradition of Ottanthullal, Kuchipudi and Parichamuttukali from Kerala Kalamandalam, has scripted a linear and impressionistic version of “Hanuman Ramayana” – the tale retold from Hanuman’s point of view.

The play opens with Hanuman’s hunger and his “fetish for food”.

“It is an attempt to expose the raw power of ritual and improvisation and link modern audiences with ideas in the centuries-old epic, Ramayana, where human complexities are involved in narration,” Kaliyath said.

“Human is worshipped as a symbol of strength, perseverance and devotion – and in my play he talks about the different hungers in life. I have tried to refer to the tradition of Muslim wedding feast in the northern Kerala and link it to Valmiki’s interpretation of the tale,” Kaliyath said.

Hanuman’s needs are different. “Hanuman has the freedom to speak of his carnal requirement of food,” he added.

A project, “A Modern Presentation of Ramayana: Dance in Three Parts and Comments” by Anita Ratnam, uses a short story by N.S. Madhavan, “Domestic Violence and Neurosurgeon”, to compare it with the Ahlaya episode where she turns into stone because of a curse and is redeemed by Ram.

“We are conducting a three-year Ramayana Project through which we are trying to open the epic to performers for interpretation,” Veenapani Chawla, director of the Puducherry-based Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts Research, said.










“We have used different experiences and performance genres to interpret the Ramayana. We had invited scholars like Ashish Nandy and Romila Thapar to speak at our seminars on Ramayana – and explore the various shades of perceptions,” Chawla added.

The Ramayana Project, supported by the Ford Foundation, is trying to rescue the epic from purism by giving it new voices – by members of different cultural groups including Dalits, tribals, Christians and even Muslims, who address social issues through the tome and try to draw parallels between modern society and that of the past, according to Chawla.

“The project was inspired by L. Rajappan, a Sangeet Natak Akademi award winning leather puppeteer who spent the last five years of his life at Adishakti,” Chawla said.

Every year since 2009, Adishakti has been hosting Ramayana festivals that present interpretations of the epic in a wide range of genres – using traditional and modern idioms from literature and folklore.

images (1)

The Ramayana has been interpreted in numerous ways over the years. In southern India there are at least seven versions in Sanskrit derived from the ancient scriptures, nearly 20 versions in regional languages and at least 10 Asian avatars.

The epics have been tweaked to cater to local sensitivities in many of the versions.

Paula Richman, in her book “Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of Narrative Traditions in South Asia”, explores the different retellings of Ramayana – the story of Lord Ram, his wife Sita and Ravan – from the different communal and socio-cultural perspectives of India.

All the world really is a stage

Today I want to share an article that really is a true meeting of the East and West in theatrical terms.  A project by British theatre The Royal Court is about to see the staging of 12 new plays by Indian playwrights in London.  However it hasn’t just been a case  of commissioning new work, it has been about development, mentoring and shaping work with the young writers. In the article by April de Angelis, which I reproduce here in full, you can see what an exciting programme this really is.








Royal Court’s New Plays from India: snapshots of the subcontinent

How do you capture one of the fastest changing places on Earth – and do so on stage? Playwright April de Angelis reports on 12 new plays that should change our image of India for ever

In October 2010, Elyse Dodgson, director of the Royal Court Theatre’s international department, playwright and dramaturg Carl Miller and I arrived at the Jindal guest house in Vasind, in India’s Maharashtra state. Staying with us were 12 Indian writers whose work we’d read but had not yet met. It was an exciting, curious, daunting moment: in three months we would be expecting them to deliver 12 new plays, and in some senses that depended as much on us as them.

One of the first discussions we had centred on the Royal Court’s artistic director Dominic Cooke’s dictum that there are two questions a playwright must address before they start to write: what is a play now (a question of form)? And who are we now (subject)? These questions resonated through the workshop. In an early session, the writers were asked to list the urgent subjects facing their society that they felt were important to address. The results were wide-ranging, surprising and gave an extraordinary picture of the diverse forces at work within contemporary India: Maoism and the red corridor; migration from villages to cities; the clash of modernity and mythology; the influence of western-style celebrity, especially an obsession with youth; “honour” killings; the emotional isolation of modern living; the homogenisation of culture; political corruption; religious identity; low value of life; loss of ethnic identity. Someone mentioned the Gulabi gang (a women-only vigilante group, who wear pink saris and smash up liquor shops because they don’t want their men drinking).

We then asked the playwrights to bring in newspaper cuttings with contemporary stories: these included reports on the plight of street children; the ongoing Bhopal compensation case; female infanticide; the case in which a male student killed himself after being secretly filmed having sex with another male student; the cheap-rates offered to westerners for Indian surrogate mothers. From these the playwrights began to identify subjects they felt drawn to and to investigate ways of telling their story.

There was much amicable debate. Were we trying to impose a template of a play on them? Could we honestly say that the concept of an “objective”, for example, is incontrovertible? No, we couldn’t, but on the other hand we found it to be a useful tool. The plays being written were for Royal Court audiences as well as for audiences in Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Chennai and Delhi, as well as, hopefully, elsewhere in India. Just as we had specified a contemporary Indian play – as opposed to, say, a historic, poetic drama – we were also proposing a vocabulary of playwriting. The playwrights were industrious and wanted to get on with the business of writing. By the end of the first workshop, each had created a proposal for a play and written a first scene. We met with each of them, gave dramaturgical advice, ironed out any potential problems, and said goodbye – for now.

Three months later, 12 plays arrived. Those written in Hindi and Marathi were translated. Stage two commenced. Rage Theatre Company, the creators of the Writers’ Bloc festival, our collaborators, arranged for a group of actors to be involved in another workshop. The plays were read aloud and each writer selected a scene they knew would be in the next draft, but which had problems to be solved. These were then worked on with actors who might improvise the more unclear or unconvincing moments. We all watched and discussed the scenes in their latest incarnation. It was very exciting to see the plays “living” for the first time and many memorable moments occurred: Shernaz Patel playing the ageing Bollywood actress in Siddarth Kumar’s Spunk desperate for the male lead’s, well … spunk, and its magical properties of endowing male children only; the startling image of two Kashmiri children stealing into a morgue to retrieve the football boots from their murdered friend, a victim of state repression in Abhishek Majumdar’s The Djinn’s of Eidgah; an older man risking his reputation as he and a younger man meet and become lovers on the Delhi metro in Still and Still Moving by Neel Chaudhuri.

The writers then embarked on their second drafts, which became the basis of productions in their own cities as well as being performed in January 2012 at the Writer’s Bloc festival hosted at the Prithvi theatre in Mumbai, a non-profit making theatre founded by the famous Bollywood Kapoor family and run, like all Indian theatre, on a non-subsidised basis. This, of course, makes life as a playwright extremely hard for Indian writers. In Britain, without subsided theatres such as the Royal Court, new writing would be a pipe dream. Five of these plays were then invited for the upcoming readings at the Court this month.

Purva Naresh trained in classical Indian dance and works as a film producer. Her play OK Tata Bye Bye is a provocative articulation of some of the central schisms in contemporary India: between rural and urban, traditional and modern, western and eastern ways of living, all pivoting on the contentious ground of gender politics. “OK tata bye bye” is the logo you see inscribed on the back of brightly decorated Indian trucks, and the play takes as its subject and setting caste-based prostitution that has sprung up along the side of an Indian highway. This teasing play takes as its premise the collision of two worlds, that of a young, independent-minded sex worker, Seema, who becomes the subject of a well-meaning documentary made by Pooja, an urban educated Indian woman fresh out of film school and her white American boyfriend, Mitch, whose earnest desire to engage with the subjects of this documentary teeters on the edge of voyeurism and exoticism. Pooja is torn so many ways, is she western or Indian? With whom does her allegiance lie? With a white western man, or a rural, lower-caste Indian woman? And underlying it all, the vibrant figure of Seema – refusing to be safely contained within a defining discourse – who worries away at Pooja like a brightly coloured shadow in danger of stealing the show. It is a brilliant and provocative look at sexual politics, identity and the perils of being a modern, urban Indian woman. And with show-stopping choreographic moments.

OK Tata Bye Byeregisters another conflict, that of technological power versus community; asking who is holding the camera? This theme also resonates in Mahua, a play about the enforced loss of tribal lands to a corporate mining company, by the young film-maker Akash Mohimen. As it opens, it has a timeless feel: Birsa, a tribal leader in waiting, in the village of Bihabend in the state of Orissa, commits a minor indiscretion and as a result must marry an “old” woman (she is 30!). This seems to be the set-up for a comedy, but slowly morphs into tragedy as he and his (now) beloved wife suffer the loss of their land and then of their livelihood and identities. The final act of Birsa is both tragic and merciful, underscoring the point that such powerlessness leads to impossible choices.

Back in bustling Mumbai, British-based actress and writer Ayeesha Menon is a contemporary, comic, female Indian voice. The sparkling Pereira’s Bakery at 76 Chapel Road brings the clash of traditional and modern right to the heart of a great city with a diverse cast of characters ranging from the doleful, old-man misanthropist always at hand philosophising home truths, to the young X Factor aspirant whose insistent warblings bring tensions to breaking point.

We see the forces of old and new contending with each other, culminating in the major crisis of the play, the threat to demolish the old quarter for the sake of progress, to steamroller the charm of an ancient district to make way for the sterile constructions of capital. The play captures both the centrality of family to Indian life and the frustrations of those who feel trapped by it and wish to escape the past and tradition – but, having done that, is it ever possible to recapture what has been lost?

Leftovers is set in Pune, written by Saga Deshmukh, a lawyer. It movingly details the difficulties of a family who are left behind in a city that is powering the economic engine of India. It centres on Baba, the patriarch, and his failure to fit into the new order. It is a delicately observed play about the unheard suffering of ordinary people.

Finally, The Djinns of Eidgah by Abhishek Majumdar, is set in the ongoing conflict in Kashmir and tells the story of two children. Ashrafi, a young girl, and her brother Bilal, orphaned by the conflict and struggling to grow up, find themselves in a world defined by violence. They are befriended by a doctor who seeks to steer a path between the warring sides, but the conflict proves too toxic. This play is partly magical in its incarnation of the djinns, ancient spirits which the young girl incants. Perhaps Majumdar’s riposte to our insistence on a contemporary Royal Court play, The Djinns of Eidgah merges old and new in a fusion of traditional Indian theatre forms and contemporary themes.

It is fascinating to look back at the whole process and see the way themes and ideas from the initial stages of the workshop have threaded through to the unique and original plays that exist now. Each play provides a prism through which it is possible to have a glimpse of India today. It’s clearly a great time to be an Indian playwright.


If you are interested in finding out more, you can here as well as watching interviews with the playwrights in their own languages, Hindi and Marathi.


Post Colonialism?

My post yesterday about the casting controversy in the UK has elicited some interesting responses and became a focus for discussion for one of my TA classes this morning.

I have been digging deeper and have come across a comment piece by Anna Chen, a writer and performer who lives in the UK, entitled Memo to the RSC: east Asians can be more than just dogs and maids: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting for The Orphan of Zhao seems to hark back to an age of British imperialism.

I have reproduced an edited version here:

It’s no fun being bred out of the cultural gene pool. Watching TV, theatre or film, I’m on constant alert for a glimpse of someone who looks Chinese, for the slightest resemblance to an estimated 499,999 others like me living in the UK.

So it was with a sense of “here we go again” that we learned that the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is mounting the classic play The Orphan of Zhao in the way prize trophies usually get mounted: gutted and stuffed. This 13th-century Yuan-dynasty masterpiece may be the first Chinese play, to make it to the hallowed RSC, but the only parts given to actors of east Asian heritage are two dogs. And a maid-servant. Who dies. Tragically.

Yes, out of 17 roles in the classic known to Eurocentrics as “the Chinese Hamlet”, a grand total of three have gone to Asians. Another dog is played by a black actor, making you wonder exactly what the RSC is trying to say.

All director Gregory Doran came up with is that the blizzard of complaints is a case of “sour grapes”, and that the critics should “get real”; not the most eloquent response you might expect from the intellectual heavyweight described as “one of the finest Shakespeareans of his generation”. Any finer, and he might appreciate why casting Asians as dogs and a maid – the latter dying in the most tiresome Madame Butterfly tradition – might elicit consternation. Quite rightly, “blackface” was long ago laughed out of court on the grounds that it not only challenges credulity but is also both ludicrous and demeaning to all parties concerned. Yellowface, however, apparently remains acceptable and credible. Why?

Had Doran remembered the lessons learned by director Peter Brook when he cast a range of ethnicities in his well-intentioned 1980s film and stage adaptations of the Indian epic Mahabharata and was forced to face his own ideological assumptions in the ensuing row, he might have trodden more sensitively instead of crashing in like a 19th-century colonialist after our tea and silks.

Only last year in the US, La Jolla Playhouse felt compelled to hold a public debate after it was caught having cast a mere two of the roles in the Chinese story, The Nightingale, as Asian, and one of them was a bird.

Cheekily, the RSC targets Chinese audiences (and their growing disposable wealth) in their marketing – with adverts in Chinese and a poster featuring a Chinese kid who looks nothing like the actors playing the main roles in the show – so we know it can make the effort when it wants to. Playwright David Henry Hwang of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition which fought in the Nightingale battle, says: “By producing The Orphan of Zhao, the RSC seeks to exploit the public’s growing interest in China; through its casting choices, the company reveals that its commitment to Asia is self-serving, and only skin-deep.”

Once again: why? The RSC casting is something of a litmus test, indicating how a failing superpower asserts its cultural dominance when its economic base is disintegrating. It may no longer operate under cold war rules to consciously exclude representations of the upstart Chinese, or feel pressured to depict us as Fu Manchu monstrosities . But, as George Orwell pointed out, you don’t need a whipped dog when a well-trained one will do.

Such minds are hard-wired to eliminate an entire group’s cultural representation, and they don’t even realise it. Amanda Rogers of Swansea University, says: “As a national company they have a responsibility to represent all sectors of British society. There is a real paucity of east Asian representation in this country, and when we do see it, it is usually confined to minor or stereotypical roles.”

One danger is that, the more a minority is presented as a blank canvas, the easier it is to project all sorts of rubbish on to it.

It’s a shame that James Fenton, with his progressive track record, allows his adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao to be cast along colonialist lines. As a component of the establishment’s entertainment wing shaping our perceptions and feelings, the RSC continues to airbrush us out of the picture, ready to be re-inserted into the frame only when villains are required. Whipped dog, well-trained one or puppet: you have to ask the old question: cui bonio?

The La Jolla Playhouse Chen refers too (and referred to in some of the links yesterday) is based in Los Angles and suffered the same fate earlier this year when it mounted a musical called ‘The Nightingale’ set in ancient China with a cast of 12, only 2 of whom were of east Asian decent. You can read more here in the LA Times. However, La Jolla’s reaction was more immediate than the RSC and they held an open, public discussion which was generally well received for opening up the debate about cultural casting. You can watch the opening 10 minutes of the debate (and then the rest of it) here:

Fascinating. Theatre and cultural politics – never too far apart!

The Orphan of Zhao

For the last few weeks I’ve been following a really interesting debate that has been getting the theatre world chatting right across the globe. The Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK are about to stage a production of the the Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao.  The play, from the 13th century, is often referred to as the ‘Chinese Hamlet’, and the RSC production is a new translation by James Fenton.

Fenton writes here giving a wonderful background to the play.

However, controversy has arisen because out of 17 actors cast in the piece, only 3 are  of  South East Asian origin and they play two puppeteers and and a maid. The debate and back lash has been harsh and forced the RSC on the offensive about their casting policies.

The media across the world has got involved, from The Huffington Post to the LA Times to the UK Guardian.

What I find even more interesting is that the ‘blogoshere’ has joined the debate in a very vociferous and intelligent way and I wanted to share some of that too: Madam Miaow, Dangerology and Theatrical Geographies all write passionately about the debate.  The latter blog is particularly interesting and worth a read. Even Twitter and  Facebook are not immune to the uproar.

I’ll let you read through and make your own mind up, but I have to say it is the first time I have come across the term yellowing-up and it is disturbing.

Finally, I want to include an interview with the director of the show that was made before the storm hit.


Việt nhà hát

As my mind turns to flying to Vietnam tomorrow, with 50 students, on a CAS trip,  I started to think about performance in that beautiful country. Many months ago I wrote about the traditional Water Puppet theatre for which Vietnam is very famous.  I don’t imagine there is a visitor who has ever been to Hanoi who has not been to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theate to see a performance – I will be there again tomorrow night.

However, there is another theatre form that is very popular in Vietnam and that is Cai Luong, which roughly translated means renovated or reformed theatre. The Water Puppet theatre has its roots firmly in Vietnamese rice farming culture, but Cai Luong is an interesting mixture of East and West theatrical traditions, having being heavily influenced by the French during their rule in Vietnam. Essentially, Cai Luong is the convergence of southern Vietnamese folk songs, classical music, tuong (a Chinese-based classical theatre form) and modern spoken drama, all coming together to create folk opera.

There is a great little website, called, not suprisingly, Vietnam Opera, that has much more background and you can access that by clicking the image below:

Also on this site are pages about two other, more traditional, Vietnamese Opera forms, Tuong and Cheo that are more ‘Classical’ in their nature (and more serious in their themes and content). Cai Luong has a reputation for being lighter and more comic. Perhaps what is most astonishing of all is that unlike many traditional theatre forms across Asia, Cai Luong is thriving, growing in popularity and although some of this growth is driven by tourism, it has huge appeal to the Vietnamese too. There are even some instances of the traditional dress and costume being swapped for more contemporary clothing.

I leave you with a video of a full length performance of Cai Luong titled The Life of Buddah