Rabbit Suits & Revolutions: Dito van Reigersberg on Pig Iron’s Zero Cost House
10 Oct 2012
The 2012 FringeArts Festival featured the world premiere of the first English-language play by Japanese playwright and director Toshiki Okada. The play was made in collaboration with Pig Iron Theatre Company, a 2011 Center grantee. This summer, the members of Pig Iron traveled to Japan to meet Okada and to learn his approach to theater—a process that cast member Alex Torra describes on the Pig Iron blog as marked by “investigating, feeling, and understanding the inner workings of another artist’s world and conception.” The end result is Zero Cost House, a highly conceptual and thoughtful play that contrasts with recent Pig Iron productions such as Twelfth Night, which showcased the company’s trademark hyper-physical style.
Performance Specialist Murph Henderson asked Pig Iron member Dito van Reigersberg about working with Okada and the “heady themes” that appear in his script—from ruminations on past and present artistic influences to the specter of the 2011 tsunami and subsequent radiation disaster in Japan.
Dito, may I begin by saying that you look dashing in a kimono—and in a rabbit suit?
Why, thank you! I try to keep my image versatile. The rabbit suits for Zero Cost House are very hot. When we were first learning our lines, we sometimes had freak-outs in the suits. You’d get so hot that you’d start forgetting your lines. You’re standing in a parka and a fur hat, and it’s not as though the rabbits just hop on and offstage—they have substantial scenes. We all had our diva moments during technical rehearsals, saying, “I just can’t be in this rabbit suit anymore!”
Can you talk about how Toshiki Okada works? As you collaborated on Zero Cost House, what did he do that was new to you?
Well, there were two major things. First, he has a hyper-colloquial way of writing dialogue, not quite cinematic but almost cinéma vérité. There are interruptions. People say little things that come into their heads. Okada drops in kernels of ideas as offhand comments that will turn into major themes. For instance, the play explores whether arrogance is a good thing or a bad thing. In the very first speech, a kind of introduction or curtain speech, he has the character called Current Okada say:
In my case, I’ve been called a “spirited” playwright/director. But it’s, like, really embarrassing saying things like this about myself. I feel uneasy presenting myself as if I were brimming with confidence, although to be honest I am aware of the fact that I AM brimming with confidence as I stand here before you. But you see, in my case, I am Japanese and I think that has a lot to do with it. In Japan, humility is considered a great virtue, so that’s also a reason why I believe at my core I am a humble person, for better or for worse.
Later in the play, Alex Torra (as Current Okada) and Mary McCool (as the Manager) have a very tense scene about, among other things, whether arrogance is necessarily a good or bad thing for an artist [who is] trying to make important work. Toshiki paints his own complicated relationship with arrogance. The play raises questions of how you think about yourself as an artist and how much permission you give yourself to strike out on your own. Henry David Thoreau plays a central role in the piece and becomes a touchstone for this kind of arrogance; the characters debate about Thoreau and his seminal work, Walden. Was he a revolutionary who changed lives positively because of his arrogance, or was he just a blowhard in love with the sound of his own voice? To be vain is one kind of arrogance; to be independent of thought is another kind of arrogance.
So Okada, in the midst of his hyper-colloquial manner of speaking, has purposely hidden some very heady themes.
Secondly, Okada has different actors share the same role. I start out playing Current Okada, and then that character passes to Mary, and then to Alex. Meanwhile I become Thoreau, the character first played by Alex. All of this role-sharing makes for an odd shmearing of perspective. (I’m not sure that’s a real word, “shmearing.”) The transition might begin with you quoting someone, as your character. Then your imitation turns you into the character. I find this strategy really stimulating for the audience.
People have asked a lot about the movement, the odd gestural world in Zero Cost House. I’d say that the switching of characters plus the gestural vocabulary add up to a kind of theatrical poetry. You can’t sit there and say, “These are realistic people in a realistic play.” It’d be too naturalistic if we omitted the unsettling movement and if we stayed in one character the whole time—it wouldn’t be poetic enough—and the movement especially hints at “other layers,” other subtexts, contained in a simple scene.
Okada is smart and interested in waking people up, even if the tempo is slow. We use direct address. We look out to the audience for communication or approval or even help! It’s as if we’re saying, “This is hard to explain, but I’m going to try…”
I don’t think this play could have been made collaboratively. That’s such a no-no for me to say! But Toshiki is writing from his own life in Zero Cost House. In a way this doesn’t even feel like a Pig Iron show. The company has run the gamut; in the way we performed Twelfth Night, even Shakespeare felt like the voice of Pig Iron, and Hell Meets Henry Halfway or Shut Eye felt like they were made collaboratively, with actors functioning as writers on our feet. But Okada has a particular style, and, especially since he was crafting this play as a highly personal autobiography, we had to follow his lead. We were excited to follow his impulses. He knew and understood our strengths as performers, but he made a piece whole-cloth from his spirit.
How did going to Japan influence you and the piece?
Wow. Okada had told us about Kyohei Sakaguchi [who is depicted in Zero Cost House] when we were first workshopping at PlayMakers in North Carolina; he is a friend of Okada’s and a kind of latter-day Thoreau figure. Sakaguchi became such an important person for the play, a kind of foil to Okada, and I see in hindsight how crucial it was that we all had firsthand experience of his puzzling and exhilarating personality during our trip to Japan.
He’s a defector from the Japanese government—an inflammatory revolutionary. Toshiki Okada is the opposite of the flashy Sakaguchi; they’re the yin and yang of each other. Okada is soft-spoken and humble and reserved. I’ve never heard him raise his voice. Sakaguchi is a loud, bold showman! Sometimes you’re inspired by him. Sometimes you think, “This guy’s a charlatan.” In the play he’s referred to as charismatic. That’s interesting: how arrogance and/or charisma give people more of a voice, and the way charisma can be dangerous or just a natural gift that makes people listen. Sakaguchi makes himself Prime Minister of the New Japan, and at one point in the play he says, “My Twitter followers are the new citizens of my new country!” That’s scary, laughable, and stirring, all at once.
All of us who went to Japan all have our own Sakaguchi imitation. He has a bizarre, surfer-dude way of talking, like he’s from California. But then he’s also quoting Goethe and Brecht. He is electric in person, just as he is in James Sugg’s portrayal.
I think one of Okada’s aims in theater is to present things that are complicated and don’t provide answers. He shows people and scenes that are exciting and loathsome and hateful and inspiring. With Sakaguchi, he gives us a necessary revolutionary but the portrait is three-dimensional, not simple.
The trip to Japan also helped us to understand the Japanese reaction to radiation after the 2011 tsunami. We met mothers and kids who have moved and left the fathers in Tokyo, in order to get away from the possibility of radiation poisoning. (For more information, take a look at Alex Torra’s blog posts.) He talks about this dinner we had in Kumamoto, which is located in western Japan, far away from Tokyo. One mom was an actress who had moved from Tokyo and now works on an organic farm. Over dinner, she said that she likes the “me” she is now better than the “me” who was the actress in Tokyo. That woke us actors up. There’s this whole theme in the play about examining your life and making radical changes, questioning all your givens.
Can you talk about ways that you think Toshiki Okada’s influence might continue to resonate for you?
Okada’s work operates on a different scale for us. We come out of a [Jacques] Lecoq tradition, where the emphasis is on the use of the full body and physicality. In Lecoq, you try to increase the size of the body, pushing the body to a mask level of performance. This is very different from Okada’s subtle and constrained work. His play is untheatrical! It’s asking the audience to look at minutiae. When we as performers are on the money, it feels like we’ve been able to slow down the audience’s heartbeat. Small things look huge! I make a small gesture, and it feels huge because of the style we’re working in.
It also feels extreme to go from performing the runaway comedy Twelfth Night—when people were saying, “I can recommend this to my grandma! Or my kids!” and the show made us feel like rock stars—to this year’s show, which is much more experimental, maybe even “difficult.” This show makes the audience work. In Lecoq technique, there’s a lot of analysis about what makes a thing good or bad, which for Lecoq is whether the audience “receives” it or not. Here, we don’t have so much control over that. It’s like opening the palm of your hand: Here is what it is.
Dan [Rothenberg] told us, “The worst thing you can do to this play as actors is try to goose it or pick up the cues.” It’s dependent on a meditative state; in a way it is boring on purpose. The play is a thoughtful journey. It asks, “If I’m going to change my life, how am I going to do that, what am I going to do, and why?” and then it gives the audience time to think on that. It’s not a commercial kind of play. It was fun to do Welcome to Yuba City, which is very Lecoq, and Twelfth Night. But there’s a different reward in doing this play. People say it’s a rich experience that continues after the performance ends, that they keep thinking about it—that the play jostled them in a particular way.
Okada moved from Tokyo, which is like our New York, to Kumamoto, which is like Tulsa! (Poor Tulsa. I don’t mean to be critical. They have a very good ballet company. Maybe Tuscaloosa? I don’t want to offend anyone.) He wanted to get away from the danger of radiation, especially as the father of two young kids, after the Fukushima accident. He really did make a big life change.
I think Americans these days feel frustrated. We have little, paltry revolutions. We recycle. We buy a different kind of car. We bicycle more. But we feel hamstrung about the possibility of meaningful change in our lives.
We asked Okada about the style of those rabbit scenes, which are written differently than the rest of the play. I said, “They’re like public service announcements.” Dan said they were like propaganda. Okada said, “Yes, it’s a little like propaganda, or a send-up of propaganda.” Those rabbit scenes have power in that you see the point he is trying to make, almost too clearly. But you ask, “Is this right? Do the rabbits find a happy ending, moving away from consumerist society?” The rabbits stand in for Okada’s family, I think, and the question lingers: Who can make significant changes to their lives, and how?
What’s next for the play?
Early on, Dan said he had the feeling the play might be in the oven for a while, so to speak. Mark Russell of Under the Radar Festival loved it but suggested that we cut the intermission—whoa! I think people need that intermission. We’re touring to Georgetown and the Ringling Festival in Sarasota and Under the Radar, so there’s time to experiment with it, and that’s exciting, too.
Different audiences spin the performance different ways. Sometimes they really listen but don’t laugh. When we had a 99-cent performance, that audience was rowdy and excited, and when I came out to give the opening monologue, they greeted me with so much energy. Sometimes I come out and the audience is quiet. Every moment of this play is in direct address with the audience, so I really do learn something new every time.
“Dan [Rothenberg] told us, ‘The worst thing you can do to this play as actors is try to goose it or pick up the cues.’ It’s dependent on a meditative state; in a way it is boring on purpose. The play is a thoughtful journey. It asks, ‘If I’m going to change my life, how am I going to do that, what am I going to do, and why?’ People say it’s a rich experience that continues after the performance ends, that they keep thinking about it—that the play jostled them in a particular way.” —Dito van Reigersberg