Hanjo: A Director’s Diary, Part Three

Nov 22, 2017


(If you haven’t read Part 1 go read it here. Part 2 is here.)

When SITI launched our new production paradigm Work/Space we decided that we would begin by focusing on three productions, one by each of the three co-artistic directors. The idea of Work/Space was to allow us to work on projects that we were interested in but didn’t have commissions for. So I proposed that Hanjo be one of those projects.

In the first formal Work/Space sessions, we started by simply reading the play. There was a lot of conversation about what order the three actors would perform each role in. This was a dramaturgical issue because if Akiko is speaking in Japanese, we have to assume that the bulk of the audience in the US is not going to understand her text. So we had to figure out what the best order was to reveal the play.

Being the people we are, we quickly got on our feet and began to play with staging. The bulk of the acting company was in the room and although it’s a three-hander and I still wasn’t sure who the English speaking actors were going to be, we all began playing with the idea of how to create staging that would be shared. I wanted input from as many members of the company as possible, so although we started with the first scene, which is a monologue by Jitsuko, we split up into groups and proposed stagings to each other. At one point Will Bond came in with a surreal costume for Jitsuko that was hilarious but actually an interesting evocation of Noh.

By the end of our first couple of weeks of work, we were able to present to a work-in-progress showing, a version of the first scene that we repeated several times with various actors in the roles, and Christian playing what is now the opening theme of the piece. Again, I was heartened by the audience’s interest and enthusiasm.

I very much want to have many different people perform this play. An important aspect of how we wanted to approach the acting in the play is that it NOT be attached to individual actors, but we needed to choose a cast to create and premiere it. I asked Stephen Webber and G.M. Gianino to keep working on it with us, and we began pushing deeper and deeper into the play.

We were all teaching in the SITI Conservatory, but we were looking for ways to integrate Work/Space into the Conservatory. So all through 2016 and 2017 we would be in classes in the morning and then go into studios a couple times a week to spend our afternoons working on Hanjo.

We often didn’t have all three actors, but because each actor would play all the roles, we could always work on things. We began by going through the text with a fine-tooth comb. Despite the fact that my name is on the translation, I owe a huge debt to G.M. and Stephen, whose instincts about the language are so sharp and practical. Their input was invaluable in getting the text into a form that both reflected the Japanese well and actually sounds like English.

At the same time, Akiko was also helping me understand the Japanese more deeply. Although I speak it fluently, I don’t read Japanese very well, and there are times when I get tripped up by homonyms. There is an important moment in the text when Mishima uses a rather obscure Chinese Kanji character to convey the idea of “fate” or “destiny.” It is pronounced in such a way that I thought the word was “happiness” or “fulfillment.”

It was critical that the translation not just be clear, but that it reflect the flavor of Mishima’s writing, which is a little bit unusual. So there were many times when we had to confirm that although a given phrase sounds odd, it is a similar odd to the oddness of the Japanese. It was also important that the Japanese and English matched up, not just in meaning but that there was as much connection as possible in terms of rhythm and cadence.

As we began to construct the staging we were faced with the unique problem of staging a play where each choice being made by the actor is not just a choice they are making for themselves but also for their two colleagues. This process was relatively straightforward when we were dealing with basic rough staging or “blocking” as it is sometimes called, but as we got into the more subtle issues of performance, each of the actors had distinct points of view on any given moment. Usually there is a huge range of this work that, when working with actors with as much artistic integrity as G.M., Stephen and Akiko, I would leave to their individual discretion. In fact there are many moments where I found myself liking all three “versions” of something because when each actor performed it, it made perfect sense. However, what we were looking for was a “form” for the performance that could be shared. We wanted to have agreement about as much of the actual acting as we could, so that what would vary would be something so deep as to be ineffably subtle.

It is a tenet of the Suzuki training that only by having performers do the same thing do we begin to perceive their true individuality. This is a lot easier when the form of what you’re doing is something pre-determined and set. We found that it is MUCH more difficult to do this when you are creating it, and when it has to be acting that we could all genuinely stand behind and live in. For the Noh actor, fulfilling the form and also breathing life into it is a tall order that they spend their lives perfecting, but at least they are not having to invent it at the same time. It is inherited. But we are trying to create, of whole cloth, a form that serves the play itself and also relates in some way to the forms of Noh which have been forged and refined in the crucible of time, for centuries.

It was one thing to have the two languages bumping up against each other when we are going through the play relatively slowly, but to replicate the rhythms, pace and cadence of actual verbal exchange across a linguistic boundary is very very difficult. As we began to feel the actual musicality of the play, the work of the actors became even more of a high-wire act.

Never before as a director have I felt that what I was asking the actors to do was this difficult. As we got into it, it became clear that it was harder than we thought. I am completely convinced that this could not be done by actors other than the actors in SITI Company. Our decades of training together were not merely helpful – they were absolutely essential to this task.

In the future, it is my hope that this show will have iterations with different actors, perhaps even different languages. But no cast will ever have to shoulder the burden of what these three have done in creating these three roles. As with all art, hopefully that burden will be hidden; like Renoir’s chronic pain, it becomes invisible to the audience.

In the entire time that we have been working on Hanjo, it has never had the kind of multiple-week concentrated rehearsal period that most productions have. The closest we came to it was two periods of residency that we had with the piece at The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College in Purchase NY. The first of these was a week in April 2017 at the end of which we did the first full run-through of the play. We then worked on the play during our Summer Intensive in Saratoga Springs. This period culminated in another run-through, presented to the audience as an open rehearsal.

SITI Company member Brian Scott has for many years been an indispensable collaborator, ostensibly as a lighting designer, but often as a scenic designer as well. It was very natural that he stepped into both of those roles on Hanjo. Brian often consciously set himself in opposition to my thinking so that we pushed against each other. In this case he very purposefully ignored the aesthetics of Noh. Noh is usually lit in a very general wash and there are no real lighting changes that are part of the play. In contrast to this, Brian has created a lighting design that cuts the space apart like a diamond tipped knife. When we first started working with it in Saratoga, it was SO FAR from what I had been imagining, that I was initially taken aback. But it quickly became clear to me that after a very little adjustment this was the visual world of the production.

Earlier in the year, I had met the Japanese artist and costume designer Mariko Ohigashi who was just finishing up a degree at NYU. I was very impressed with her portfolio and asked her to come on board to design the costumes for Hanjo. It was a tricky task. Noh costumes are not clothes in the daily life sense. They are essentially fabric sculptures that are worn. They obscure the form of the actor’s body in much the way that masks obscure the features of the face. Like all of the elements of Noh, they have an artistic integrity independent of their function. In the same way that I was not interested in the actors in Hanjo wearing masks, I didn’t want the costumes to function in the same way that Noh costumes do. However, all three costumes needed to be credible for all three roles, and although I didn’t want them to look Japanese, the play is set in Japan, so they needed to look like they could exist in an imagined Tokyo of the 1950s. Both Mariko and I were very fond of the work of the designer Yamamoto Kansai, so that became a kind of starting point. Mariko quickly came up with a design that is elegant, individuated and astonishingly clear.

Speaking of clear, the first time that Mariko came to a rehearsal, she had an idea that ended up becoming a major part of the design. The story of Hanjo hinges on a very important pair of props – the fans that Hanako and Yoshio exchanged – and they function as a kind of Cinderella’s slipper in the fairy-tale version of the story. Fans are relatively commonplace in not only Noh but in Japanese life, and would not be remarkable in Japan. It was difficult, though, to figure out how the fans should be designed in our “Modern Noh” world. Not only did Mariko have a “clear” idea that we all jumped on, it ended up defining one of the most striking aspects of the production’s visual vocabulary. Because transparent fans are not something you can find, Mariko went about constructing them.

All of this came together when we returned to Purchase in October to spend a week tech-ing the show and on October 6th, we presented the world premiere of SITI Company’s Hanjo.

And now the production completes the circle and returns to the Japan Society for its New York premiere December 7, 8 and 9.

I hope to see you there!

< Part one, < Part two