Supporting senior actors at Tokyo’s Saitama Theatre

Hajime Matsuno, section chief of Saitama Theatre drama department, on the importance of staying lively.

‘As soon as people retire, they end up having to live a lifestyle that is totally different to what came before. Joining the theatre provides an alternative space to thrive outside of their homes, and it’s also a great way of staying active.’

Saitama Theatre was founded by Yukio Ninagawa, who had a passion to search for a new form of theatre based on the personal histories of older people. Although the company lost its director when Ninagawa passed away in May 2016, Saitama Arts Theatre remains determined to continue his legacy.

As soon as people retire, they end up having to live a lifestyle that is totally different to what came before. Joining the theatre provides an alternative space to thrive outside of their homes, and it’s also a great way of staying active.

For instance, in order to participate in rehearsals, actors need to communicate with others. The theatre

Saitama Theatre

Saitama Theatre

encourages you to memorise lines and placements, to speak loudly, and to move your body: it activates the whole body and brain. In our experience, the joy of moving bodies, and the joy of being looked at on stage, positively affects the health and wellness of older people.

From an artistic point of view, we are interested in establishing a new form of theatre by those who have lived varied lives as ordinary citizens. Our repertoire is based on the personal histories of people of age. We want to create a stir in existing theatre.

The company has 39 members at the moment: that is 39 people with long and very different lives. It is so wonderful – and very often surprising – to see how richly expressive on stage they are as a group. No other theatre group can bring about such strength, such persuasive power. Of course, working with 39 people senior in age means 39 different life problems. Some members become ill, some may have aged family members who need care, others may suffer financial difficulties. Nevertheless, no one gives up being a member of the company.

We have to be aware that keeping the company homogenous may limit artistic possibilities. Therefore, when necessary, we introduce different elements into the group. We invite younger playwrights and directors to the company, so new forms of theatrical direction may be borne out of conflicts between different generations. We also invite young actors to perform with us.

Older people sometimes cook for the younger actors, many of whom are fledgling artists in financial straits. It is very interesting to witness the generations communicate with each other through theatre practice. It is all the more poignant as traditional family and local community ties loosen.

In Japan, the artistry of matured actors is highly valued, especially so in traditional forms of performing arts such as Noh, Kyogen, and Kabuki. It is often the case that young Kabuki actors who play a role for the first time seek guidance from older actors. We may lose our smooth flowing movements with age, but what we gain instead is a privileged access to alternative acting resources; and the deep feelings we have experienced through life. There is no end to acting.

 

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