‘On 28 September 2015 director Phillip Zarilli published a feature in Exeunt on the links between his performance of Ota Shogo’s “Slow Theatre” play currently touring Norway and the European refugee crisis. It is with great pleasure I reproduce this here, with thanks to Exeunt magazine: www.exeuntmagazine.com
Ota Shogo’s The Water Station: Living Human Silence. By Phillip Zarrilli
Three years ago when Birgitte Strid, Artistic Director at Nordland Teater, invited me to direct the first major production of The Water Station with an international cast since the 2004 production I directed in Singapore, we had no idea that at this specific moment in time there would be thousands of people on the move around the perimeter of the Mediterranean and across Europe.
The Water Station has a very simple structure: in nine scenes a series of refugees/migrants/travellers are on the move coming from a far distant place, and are continuing on the still longer journey toward some place beyond. Some are individuals traveling alone such as The Girl, or Woman with a Parasol; others are in pairs Two Men, or Husband and Wife with Baby Carriage; or in a group: The Caravan. They appear along a pathway. Just behind the pathway is a huge heap of discarded ’junk’—objects left by those on this long journey. Once they appear along the pathway, each individual, pair or group encounters and interacts with a constantly running stream of water flowing from a broken water faucet into a pool of water in a catchment area. Each of the travellers encounters the water in their own way. Some observe or encounter another traveler. All eventually continue their journey toward whatever lies beyond. From the audience’s perspective, where these travellers have come from and where they are going we do not know. They eventually pass out of view…heading somewhere.
First created and performed in Tokyo in 1981 by Ōta Shōgo and his theatre company–Theatre of Transformation (Tenkei Gekijo), the production subsequently toured central Europe and the US in the mid-1980s. Ōta and his company were searching for a way to stage “living human silence”—how to turn down the volume or “noise” in our everyday lives in order to be present to the realities of our immediate environment. In that moment of quiet the audience become ‘witnesses’ to what is before us today in the immediate present…people on the move toward somewhere else.
In London on Thursday, 17 September 2015 Chinese artist Ai WeiWei and British artist Anish Kapoor initiated an eight mile London Walk as an artistic act on behalf of the refugee crisis in Europe. Both have major exhibitions currently open in London. Speaking to The Guardian, Kapoor explained how “This is a walk of compassion, a walk together as if we were walking to the studio…Peaceful. Quiet. Creative…It is important that artists are not outside the equation, we don’t stand on the sidelines. Artists are part of the story of a response, we cannot stand aside and let others make the response.”
Nordland Teatre’s production of The Water Station is inevitably “part of the [current] equation”. 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. The Water Station reflects Ōta’s childhood experience. Along with other Japanese ex-colonists in China at the end of World War II, as a six-year-old Ōta and his family had to undertake an extremely long and exhausting two month journey of repatriation from China back to Japan. Along with the other Japanese being repatriated, he and his family walked almost endlessly for miles and miles, living in tents, and occasionally travelling by freight train as well by boat. The same experience of course was happening in many locations throughout the world with movements of other people at the end of World War II. In China, the Japanese had been permitted to take what belongings they were able to carry; however, during their long trek, many people on their long road of return discarded what they could no longer carry. As one biographer notes,
‘The themes, scenography and style of [Ōta’s] theatre can be related to these childhood memories. His intense concern with the ontology of human existence can be traced back to the need for sheer survival in his early childhood. A sense of the hardship of living and of the proximity of death characterizes his plays. Wide, bare landscapes through which characters travel, carrying their scanty belongings, provide the setting of all…of his Station plays written between 1981 and 1998 …The weak, disabled, and unwanted are featured in many of his plays.’
With its slowed down everyday movement, this non-verbal performance lasts 100 minutes and creates a completely different experience for an audience from narratively driven, text-based theatre. In his theatre aesthetic, Ōta developed a process of ‘divestiture’–discarding or paring away of anything unnecessary including spoken language so that actors and audience alike are taken out of their everyday world in order to focus on the irreducible elements of our shared human existence—what Ōta calls “the ‘unparaphrasable realm of experience”. The script for The Water Station is a sparse 20 page document—a simple record of the basic staging and images Ōta and his company devised from a diverse set of source materials. Although this is a non-verbal performance, as Ōta explains, “there are words here…you simply can’t hear them.”
Given the current refugee crisis, The Water Station has tremendous immediate resonance for all of us within the EU and throughout the world. This production has been planned around an internationally/ethnically diverse cast of ten including Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo (Chinese Singaporean), Jeungsook Yoo (Korea), Navtej Johar (India), Florencia Cordeu (Argentina/Chile), and six actors from Norway including Leammuid Biret Ravndna from the local Sami community, as well as Bjorn Ole Odegard, Ivar Furre Aam, Rune Loding, Stein Hiller Elvestad, and Hilde Stensland. The international cast reflects on-stage the historical, world-wide nature of issue of those seeking refuge during and after conflicts whether either of the two world wars, the horrific period of post World War II Indian partition, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Rwandan genocide, or the current Syrian conflict. Each has produced its own massive ‘refugee crisis’.
But according to Ōta, The Water Station is located not in any single one of the above specific historical instances of migration due to conflicts, but rather “anywhere and everywhere, [in] a place out of time.” One critic described The Water Station as a “quiet chamber piece that speaks in the rich language of silence to the neglected part of the soul”. Writing in The Straits Times, Clarissa Oon described the 2004 Singapore production of The Water Station I directed with an international cast from eleven different countries as
“…a wordless…tone poem whose silent chords struck notes of exile, loss and fraying endurance…[T]he water station [is] an oasis of sorts for thirsty sojourners…[E]ach sequence…told its own story through stillness and the most distilled of movement…[E]ach performer shed his name, cultural marker, and actorly ego. Voices silenced, their bodies were subsumed into the chamber piece, which in turn became an exercise in quietude…the emotions felt frighteningly raw.”
After the premiere run at Nordland Teatre in Mo I Rana, ten miles south of the Arctic Circle, the production tours the district of Nordland with performances in far-flung locations above and just below the Arctic Circle–Sandnessjoen, Mosjoen, Bodo, Svolvaer, Sortland, Stokmarkness, Narvik, Hamaroy, and Bronnoysund.
If we look back far enough, all of us will discover migration in our family histories. I am an Italian-American who migrated to Wales sixteen years ago. My paternal grandfather migrated to the US from southern Italy at the end of the nineteenth century seeking religious freedom. My paternal grandmother’s family migrated to the US from Oxfordshire several centuries ago. Viewing the current production of The Water Station today is equally an act of witnessing, and an opportunity for reflection on what one witnesses both within and beyond the theatre. The roads of Ota Shogo’s play lead through contemporary Europe, to far-flung locations around the world, to traverse our own stories.
Read more about Phillip Zarrilli’s work on his website here