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Culture and Education

Renascence: The Waseda Shogekijo Drama Hall

Itsuki Umeyama
Assistant Professor, Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University

Waseda is building a new theatre. The drama hall demolished a few years ago due to problems with earthquake resistance will be restored as the “Waseda Shogekijo Drama Hall” in the shopping area just south of campus. While there may be many colleges that have theatres, there are few universities like Waseda that have constructed a theatre or located it in the city instead of on campus. Thus, the possibilities are as yet unknown, and there must be many people breathlessly waiting to see how the university will run the theatre.

Tadashi Suzuki responding to students’ questions in the talk show

On May 8, Tadashi Suzuki, theatre director and father of the Waseda Shogekijo (Waseda Little Theatre), was invited to a talk show held before the groundbreaking ceremony. They initially planned on devoting half the time to talking with Mr. Suzuki and the other half to a question-and-answer session, but right before the show started, he requested that they devote as much time as possible to the question-and-answer session. He said he wanted to know what university students were thinking about these days. As a result, the majority of the hour-and-a-half-long show was devoted to answering questions. Many different opinions were expressed—there were students who bemoaned the theatre situation on campus and others who talked about their future dreams. Mr. Suzuki responded to each comment, repeatedly urging the students to think about theatre from a broader perspective. He wanted them to step outside the box of “Waseda theatre” and construct a platform with a global vision. This is one of the aims of the new incarnation of the drama hall.

While Mr. Suzuki now plays an international role, it is the mentality of the “Japanese people” he has explored on stage. Rather than being developed as an international standard, the Suzuki method—a physical training method now practiced in countries throughout the world—was the result of investigating indigenous “Japanese” bodily sensations. In that sense, you could say it is a form of expression that literally started at his feet, arising from personal memories and experiences. And the place where he developed this form of expression was the Waseda Shogekijo, a small space that seated less than a hundred people.

In the early sixties, when Mr. Suzuki started his theatre work, there were hardly any small theatres like the countless ones in Tokyo today that can accommodate one to two hundred people. Consequently, Mr. Suzuki rebuilt the second floor of a café into a theatre, Juro Kara held shows in crimson tents he erected on the grounds of parks and Shinto shrines, and Makoto Sato converted the basement of a glass shop into a theatre and staged performances there. Thus, the concept of theatres was significantly revamped as spaces not originally used for performances were transformed into theatrical spaces. Back then, the term “underground theatre” was used to refer to leaders of small theatres like Mr. Suzuki and their stages. This was apparently a derogatory term coined by the media to the theatre members’ chagrin, but it seems like an apt description of the unconventional energy with which they prepared their own productions and venues.

An artist’s rendering of the Waseda Shogekijo Drama Hall

I suspect the former Waseda Shogekijo managed to extend its reach beyond Waseda and create connections throughout the world because it steadily changed form, faithfully responding to the energy within individual people. From that perspective, what we must determine now, as we prepare for the restoration of the drama hall, is what kind of place those students most intimately connected to the theatre want it to be. Perhaps this was one of the things Mr. Suzuki was trying to draw out of the students on May 8. Viewed in that light, the question-and-answer session that day almost seems like an agitation. I’m sure many students were influenced by him. The issue at hand is not the decline of Waseda theatre or Japanese theatre. It is the question of what we want to do. Of course, it’s not just students but the university that must answer this question. What I’ve said may sound a bit idealistic, but ideas alone are not enough to run a theatre; detailed strategies will be needed. It sounds like organizations from both inside and outside the university will be able to use the theatre, but we need to decide not only how the theatre will be lent out but how often it will sponsor events. What will the criteria be for selecting the organizations that use the theatre? Won’t there need to be educational and promotional projects as well as public performances? Shouldn’t we establish different roles to gradually bring together all the different ideas? Should we try introducing an artistic director system? The possibilities for the new theatre set to open next year are limitless. There will be many challenges, but they will provide opportunities for “Waseda theatre” to demonstrate its potential. Let us “effectively use” the theatre people Waseda has produced (I say this at the risk of offending my seniors) and, with our current students, sketch out the form we want the theatre to take. This seems like the most attractive plan.

Itsuki Umeyama
Assistant Professor, Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University

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Professor Umeyama was born in 1981. She graduated from Tokyo Gakugei University and earned a PhD in Literature from the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. Her areas of research are 1960s theatre and open-air theatre. She helped plan the Shuji Terayama exhibition at the Theatre Museum last year. She occasionally throws herself into producing her own tent plays and is involved in some of the largest tent plays in Tokyo produced by the Suizokukan Gekijo (Aquarium Theatre Group). Her publications include Underground Theatre Theory [Angura Engeki Ron] (Sakuhinsha, Winner of the AICT Theatre Critics’ Award) and Reconsidering the Underground Theatre of the 1960s [60 Nendai Engeki Saikō] (co-author/editor; Suiseisha).