Dialog in Common

Akira Takayama: On Menaningful Participation

Akira Takayama [AT] has a background in dramaturgy and is coordinator of the experimental theater group Port B in Tokyo.
pressEmail interview with Markuz Wernli Saitô in April, 2007.
Translated from Japanese by Yuka Saitô.


Saruta-no-Hito (2006) A member of Point B welcomes a lay performer to the experimental walk-through narrative that unfolds in a shopping arcade

How did the participation-based performance In Search of Sarutahito come into existence?
AT: First of all, I was interested in the God of Guiding named Saruta-no-Hito. Near the office of Port B at Nishi Sugamo Art Factory there is a little a street-side shrine (Koshintsuka) for Saruta-no-Hito, so I started to think weather I could establish a performance that is a walk-thru-performance leading to the shrine. Once or twice a week we would get together and walk through the Jizou-dori shopping street (shotengai) from Kougan-ji temple to Saruta-no-hito shrine. We continued this purposeless walking many, many times for more than one month.

Why did you decide to make the audience into participants and the main cast?
AT: It is usually considered that the theater play is performed on stage and in the theater. However, we can also think of it another way. The essence of the drama is how the specific audience perceives the play. It is actually the audience who creates the drama. By letting the audience participate as actors I wanted to emphasize on their own creativity.

By inviting participation, how did it change the way you worked as an artist, as a theater group?
AT: It is a big experience that helped me better acknowledge the audience not as a group but as individuals, each with a distinct face. I became able to trust in the creativity of each audience member, more than before. That's why I got assured that it is definitely more interesting to destroy the dual confrontation where the artist produces the drama and the audience consumes the play. Also, I was encouraged to proceed in my efforts of deconstructing this dependency.

What was your role as an organizer to make this project happen?
AT: We are a small group and this kind of performance is the first for us, so there were many tasks I had to take care of. This included the planning of the performance, raising funds, negotiating with the shopping street's administration and Ward office, recording the sound-scape, deciding the route and the touring places, writing texts and also drawing the blue print for the whole thing.


Saruta-no-Hito (2006) A provided MP3-player serves participants as narrator and guide to encounter local sites, history and people

How did you invite people to participate? Do you know why people participated in this performance?
AT: One part of the participants were the persons who regularly come to Port B productions and are on our mailing list. However, there were some regulars who didn't like this kind of participatory performance and we didn't get much of their interest and bookings. But the Asahi Tokyo and Daily Yomimuri newspapers picked up the story of this production and the participation increased amazingly upon publication. We realized how strong the power of media is. I don't how many, but there certainly people around who like strolling in town and like to take part in a participation-style performance.

How did you win the support of the shop/museum owners and the Shotengai for your project?
AT: The Art Network Japan is a sponsor of Nishi Sugamo Arts Factory and introduced me to a person who is working at the Toshima Ward office. Through the Toshima Ward office I met the president of Jizo-dori Shotengai. After we got a permission from him we went to shops and galleries that we wanted to collaborate with and negotiated to get their support. We visited one by one. 5


Saruta-no-Hito (2006) The interview with a member of Port B on street encounters provides opportunity for reflections and feedback loops

Was there any interaction beyond the performers and members of Port B, with shop owners, with outsiders?
AT: At first there were some shops that didn't really collaborate. However we took this challenge as a part of the creative process and went back to the shops every day and tried to connect and gradually the relationships changed. With some of the store or gallery owners we built relationships by having dinner or drinks together at times. Some relationships even helped us to come by problems with other shops of the Shotengai. It depends of course on each single person, but we generally made good relations with the participants of this production. This performance required a lot of back stage preparation and we had cases where some first participated as actors in the performance, and then as a staff member at the next time. This occurred in a good number of participants. It was a delight to have that happen to us.

What was the response of the 'amateur performers'? Did they always 'play' their role like you imagined?
AT: It was more than I imagined. If we are prepared with a certain kind of mind frame we can be receive them with a relaxed sensibility. Then the participants = performers can bring out their terrific creativity. I was astonished and impressed. They not only played their role splendidly but also invited coincidence and happenings and they made their own meaningfully rich performance.

Did any contact in this project result in lasting relationships?
AT: It did. But relationships are not something stable or sustainable by default. If you don't care for them it disappears. So I invited them [the store owners and performers] for a closing party after the project. Or when I sent the direct mail I usually included personal notes. Individuals I wish to participate in my upcoming production I am sending the project's blue print and ask them for their opinions. These kind of relationships I believe need to be always reaffirmed and revived in order to sustain.

Is there something that remains and continues after this project?
AT: The audience that participated in the performance becomes the potential staff who supports the next performance. This kind of relationship and dynamics to proceed in a conscious and cyclic process makes a theater play not just a piece of art but makes it a movement that keeps growing. It means that the roles of audience and the creators are always exchangeable. Maybe we can say, the border between audience/consumer itself disappears. People who participate in that performance are both creators and critics. I would like to investigate more in this direction of realizing participatory performances.


Saruta-no-Hito (2006) The participant receives arrives at the Saruta-no-Hito Shrine which marks the end of the narrative circuit and receives an instant souvenir photograph that has been secretly taken before

Would you do this kind of project again? Is there something you would do differently?
AT: For March 2008 I am planning another tour type of performance, which will be a stroll around the Sunshine Sixty area in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Ippotsukoro (one way street) was a one person's performance. But in the Sunshine project a group of five persons will travel together. Putting together five people will probably foster various relationships of performers and audience within the group. The role of each person in the group would frequently change, depending on the place and situation. This could be interesting if we can observe this dynamic. Moreover, I am thinking that it would be great if each tour participant will be creating something at the last visited place in the end of the tour. The last place would be the theater as a bracket that encloses the experiences from what the participants received during this performance.

I plan to make a device for that. The theater would be the bracket for the point of departure and destination. I am wondering and reconsidering what kind of role the theater can play in town. What I would like to establish is the theater as a place of action for "encounters" ... "the workings and making" ... "dispatching a message". Sunshine Sixty used to have the highest building in Japan and was erected in 1978. It has the role of a landmark in Ikebukuro. However, not many people know that the building is standing on the land of the Sugamo prison where war criminals of WWII served their time. I would like to make this tour a time tunnel that goes 60 years back in time.

Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to do a similar project?
AT: I have just started this kind of performance work and there are many things I don't know which is why it fascinates me. So I am not competent enough to advice people. However, there are some things I always care for personally. I am a theater play performer so I am always interested in the allure and excitement of the performance itself as well as its dramaturgy. I realize these performances to continue the investigation of these two objectives and not for the people or the local area. The most important thing for me is that the performance stands for itself and is interesting as a theater play or drama. I am really strict about these criteria and make these participatory projects happen as meticulous and intense as making a standard theater play. This intensity and care for details is also what's most fun for me.

Port B
Akira Takayama wrote and directed and performed experimental plays in Japan and Germany. He also worked as assistant to stage director Wolfram Mehring and participated in many theatre and opera productions. In 2002 he established the theatre unit Port B and has been realizing participatory dramaturgic works through unique creative processes with singers, engineers and video artists to pursue possibility of contemporary theatre based and focused on Tokyo. He has also been working on a collaborative project in Germany with Hans-Thies Lehmann, the writer of Postdramatisches Theater since 2008. He is an artist-in-collaboration with the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory in Tokyo since 2006.

The characteristic features of the practical theatre works of Port B include: a) Project-oriented productions, which extend over a half or a whole year (slow process with numerous redundant efforts); b) Members from various fields other than the theatre industry, such as music, art, film, dance, literature, philosophy and architecture; c) Training of "unprofessional" lay actors (this entails that the so-called "professional actors" are also required to become "unprofessional"; d) Transgressing "border activities" which do not remain in the existing realms of theatre; e) Performances in the places outside theatres; f) Pursuit of monologue and chorus, using texts from poetry and prose; g) Deeper consideration for documentary and authentic performances; h) Study of methods for "adaptation" including "quotation" and "translation".

externalAkira Takayama profile page
externalPort B project website