Meaning depends on context. We know that, and yet many of us cling to the idea that every artistic expression is grounded in its own intrinsic, inviolable truth. When a work of ours—a play, an exhibition, whatever—travels to another country, we’re reminded of just how relative meaning really is.
Pig Iron Theatre Company recently had such an experience. After Co-artistic Director Dan Rothenberg directed a New York production of Enjoy, a translated script by Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada, Pig Iron commissioned Okada to write a play for their Philadelphia-based company. The challenges presented by writing and acting this play were unprecedented for both the playwright and Pig Iron. Okada came to the States. The cast visited Japan. The Japanese suffered an earthquake and a tsunami. Zero Cost House was born.
Following the world premiere of the play at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and tours to Washington, Sarasota, and New York, the cast traveled back to Japan to perform Zero Cost House for its first Japanese audience. An earlier post by Dito van Reigersberg described the themes of the play and Pig Iron’s work with Okada. Below, cast member Alex Torra talks with Center Theatre Specialist Murph Henderson about the experience of performing for Japanese audience members, some of whom tweeted praise for the show.
Loved those tweets!
Weren’t they great? In Philadelphia, Sarasota, and New York we could have thorough conversations with people about the show, but in Japan, the language barrier and the complexity of the issues made conversation hard. The tweets consist of diverse responses to the show, in the same way, I imagine, as there are diverse responses among the Japanese to the events of March 11, 2011 [the day of the earthquake and tsunami]. You can see how some people responded to the play as entertainment, and others saw it as a social or political commentary.
In Philly, a lot of folks responded to the radical, Thoreau, back-to-nature themes, and the temptation to step away from the world in order to carve out your own thinking about work and life. In Sarasota, audiences responded to the experimental quality of the show; it was unusual and they were grateful for that. New York audiences watched a show where Okada left Tokyo, Japan’s capital and center of culture and commerce, after the earthquake. That response resonated strongly with New Yorkers, who had had [their own] thoughts about what to do after 9/11 or even Hurricane Sandy.
What had Okada or others led you to expect from Japanese audiences?
Our translator told us that Japanese audiences would be conservative in their vocal responses. We spend a lot of time in this play talking directly to the audience. There were Japanese supertitles off to both sides of the stage, all the way downstage. We’re used to having direct eye contact with and connecting directly to the audience, and in Japan. . .