The Water Station by Ōta Shōgo
Indian director Sankar Venkateswaran's contemporary rendering of Ōta Shōgo's The Water Station is riveting and has compelled me to write again about Ōta's masterpiece (Fig. 1). I will give a brief description of Venkateswaran's program in Japan, a contextualization of the Water Station, and the significance of silence and pyschophysicality in his pursuit of an aesthetic of quietude.
Venkateswaran's Japan Program
The first part was his Theatre Roots & Wings production of the Water Station, held at the Kyoto Art Theater Shunjuza in November 2016, as part of the Kyoto Experiment: Kyoto International [End Page 199] Performing Arts Festival 2016 Autumn. The second half, held in Tokyo on 17 November, was "Sankar Venkateswaran—Short Piece & Symposium", with a workshop demo and "Snow Station" performance, organized by the University of Tokyo Graduate School Program for Leading Graduate Schools Integrated Human Sciences Program for Cultural Diversity (IHS). The symposium included Japanese speakers: professor Uchino Tadashi (University of Tokyo), actor Ando Tomoko (formerly of Ōta's Tenkei Theatre; now at Theater Company Arica), and playwright-director Nishio Kaori (Torikoen Theatre Company) (https://theatreraw.jimdo.com/, accessed 15 December 2016).
Ōta's original Water Station is the first of six non-verbal Station plays spanning 1981 to 1998. Eighteen travellers, alone or with others, avail themselves of water trickling from a broken faucet standing in a catchment basin. Besides acts of drinking and washing, the water triggers some engagement among the travellers, but no new relations are formed. Their pace is decelerated to a walk of two metres progress in five minutes.
Ōta aims to convey "living human silence", to capture the 90 percent of human life that, he believes, is conducted in silence, not the 10 percent of word-centred social exchange in text-based theatre. [End Page 200]
In making the Water Station, Ōta had in mind a specific journey—the repatriation of the Japanese colonial community from China at the end of World War II supervised by the Chinese military—a long, traumatic march from Beijing to Tianjin when he was six years old. A junk pile upstage left indicates the belongings they discarded in their travels (Fig. 2). Many critics have correctly inferred that the figures are fleeing in silent horror from some World War II disaster—an unnamed city—maybe Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Notable among recent Water Station productions is the 2015 Nordland Theatre production in Norway, referencing the then current refugee crisis in Europe. The director Phillip Zarrilli comments, "The Water Station is an artistic response to the age-old realities for peoples across the world of migration—those seeking refuge, fleeing persecution, and/or those returning 'home' after long-term conflicts" (2015). The journeying image is the common pattern, whose details depend on the viewer's own experience, knowledge, and perspective. What then does Venkateswaran connote?
His version can certainly be plotted on the developmental line of migration and a contemporary politics of quietude, where silenced or self-silenced people try to find a new home. He also states his larger artistic purpose is "to start a new journey in theatre dealing with the [End Page 201] caste system and challenge Indian society through intercultural theatre" ("Sankar Venkateswaran" 2016). He wishes to end othering and dismantle artificial barriers.
Theatres of Silence
India's linguistic diversity means there is no single national language, but two official languages and twenty-nine local languages. Venkateswaran's early life was fraught with communication difficulties. He now aspires to find an artistic expression, unconstrained by verbal communication.
For the Water Station, he selected a pan-Indian group of actors plus one Sri Lankan to suggest a microcosm, with few markers of ethnicity or status. Through his direction, the viewer is able to see, however scarce water may become, it can still escape casteization and be available for all.
To explain how Venkateswaran's quiescent aesthetic applies and develops beyond Ōta's, I will first summarize Ōta's theatre of divestiture (ragyō). His objective is to nurture a "perspective of death",a hypothetical viewpoint outside human life so that we see humans, not as individuals or social beings, but as a species travelling from birth to death. To create this defamiliarizing perspective, he formulated the aesthetic of divestiture (Boyd 2006: x).
The underlying principle of divestiture is "passivity". Instead of trying to actively transmit meaning to the audience, passivity compels the viewer to participate imaginatively in the pursuit of signification and pleasure. His minimalistic method comprises silence, deceleration, and elemental environment (p. 3).
Ōta's silence refers to verbal deprivation. Sound effects and music are provided in his theatre. When one of the five senses is deactivated, the others compensate; a similar process occurs when the mind is starved of verbal input.
Deceleration of movement combines with this wordlessness to magnify the feeling of sensory deprivation, leaving the viewer to scramble for information. Eventually, he becomes acclimatized to the rhythm-tempo and his usual awareness transforms. Dissociation from the fast pace of urban life and sociocultural concerns enables him to access an alternative outlook on the nature of existence.
In Ōta's Station plays, water, earth, wind, and space are shown to be ecological components that outlast human activity. Collectively, the human figures are overshadowed by the barren set.
Venkateswaran generally adheres to these aesthetics but prefers to call his work "theatre of mind" or "theatre of silence"—transcending verbal language is his focus. Yet deceleration was also a concern. Ando [End Page 202] demonstrated the slow walk for Venkateswaran in a noisy restaurant, whereupon everyone suddenly fell quiet and watched. He recalls that "her walk had charged and changed the space" and "her body felt like the starting point of life" ("Sankar Venkateswaran" 2016).
Ando (2016) contends the actor needs to activate her nervous system by manipulating her consciousness. She posits three psychophysical foci: inner, outer, and neutral. By adjusting the amount of attention given to these points for each micro-position or encounter, the actor can, in line with her motivation, keep her physicality lively and engaging for the audience. Venkateswaran's pace is slightly faster than Ōta's, with the figures exhibiting elasticity in their stride. This may be his way of suggesting that unlike Ōta's ratio, the living human silence Venkateswaran depicts comprises 70 percent silence and 30 percent speech.
A striking difference from the original work is in Venkateswaran's set (Fig. 2). He complicates the mis-en-scéne by employing a raised ramp that starts at upstage right. It descends across the stage and splits into two paths that hug along the half-submerged square area, where the broken faucet is. Another path downstage of the platform veers off stage left to level ground. This structure contrasts starkly with the pile of mass-produced throwaways, showing human ingenuity still in practice. It also enables the travellers to walk directly towards the audience at center stage. Such full-frontal decelerated movement can enhance presence partly by triggering anxiety in the viewer over the intentionality of the advance and tapping a primitive fear of being stalked and attacked.
The figures' outlook, while not "joyful", is not as somber as Ōta's. The death of an old woman in a basket is handled with respect, so that human death seems, after all, important. While brushing his teeth, Man with a Huge Load tosses away a shoe, which accidentally sets off some lively music from the junk; his tooth brushing cheerily falls into rhythm with this music. This interjection of lightness near the play's end is clearly a choreographic deviation from the original. These differences subtly emphasize the hope for humans with their ingenuity to connect, build, and renew a viable existence.
Towards a "Snow Station"
In the "Snow Station" Venkateswaran demonstrated the psychophysical training appropriate for his dramaturgy of silence. A graduate of the Theatre Training and Research Programme (the present ITI, Intercultural Theatre Institute), he has been steeped in founder Kuo Pao Kun's vision of intercultural exchange "producing critically and socially engaged artists who make original, contemporary theatre" (http://iti.edu.sg/, accessed 20 December 2016). [End Page 203]
Venkateswaran's full workshop is twenty hours long with eight hours of pre-performative training. Process-oriented, he gives an outline, watches what actors do with it, and selects what "works" in his eyes. Snow and a human struggle are the nuclei for this piece, which refers to a recent skirmish on the boundaries of northern India and Kashmir and expresses the constant fear of war and the need to move. This geopolitical location is almost the only place in India where snow falls. As in the Water Station, the actors must find the human dimension of their figure's existence, not just their sociocultural function, and do so without universalizing humanity in banal generalities.
Venkateswaran's theatrical aspirations are for disengagement from alterity, optimism for the future of human existence globally, and hope for an India for all Indians, through dramatic expression that transcends linguistic and other barriers. Venkateswaran noted during this project, Roots & Wings and Arica will start a new phase in their experimental intercultural exchange in spring 2017.