Alex Torra's Japan Diary: BEPPU

19 Sep 2012 in Zero Cost House

Beppu. An unexpected delight.

After a week of traveling through Tokyo and Kumamoto, being overwhelmed by Japanese food, culture, daily behavior, and, equally, Sakaguchi, his new government, zero yen houses, and Toshiki's new found community in Kumamoto, we arrived in Beppu to begin work on our play in earnest.

After our experiences in both Tokyo and Kumamoto, it felt like we peaked. Inspired, moved, excited by everything we had seen and done, it felt right just to pack our things and leave Japan with all of our memories intact.

Beppu, however, did not disappoint.

Beppu feels like a fading resort town, famous for its onsen culture - onsen is the Japanese word for hot springs, but often refers to the baths that contain the hot water from these hot springs. Underneath this quaint resort town lies hot water that reveals itself with stacks of steam rising into the air - and these clouds of steam are everywhere, filling out the landscape of a town nestled into a mountain and overlooking the sea.

The architecture and feeling of this small city reminds me of Miami in the late ‘80s, before South Beach was South Beach, before the models and clubs and record producers populated the sidewalk cafes and filled the streets with European convertibles.

Beppu feels like a town forgotten, somehow. However, during our nine days there, Beppu began to reveal its beauty and its remarkable culture.

First and foremost, the onsens. It's a really big deal there. There are countless onsen baths throughout the city, and in fact, there is something called a Spa passport, or Spaport - if you bathe at something like 60 different onsen, you can be called a MASTER of onsens.

These baths and hot springs define this city. Their city mascot is a rascally, horned devil, with red skin, steam plumes for hair, little horns, and he is often depicted in a bath of his own. Restaurants use the natural steam that rises from the earth to cook food - whole foods like green onions and eggs and even chicken and bacon - which need no seasoning at all to be enjoyed.

But what's special about Beppu, in my opinion is an arts organization called the Beppu Project.

Started in the mid ‘00s, the Beppu Project is interested in using the arts to invigorate and enliven a city - by being enmeshed with the city. Their largest event takes place every three years, a Triennial that brings artists from all over the world to perform and display their work throughout Beppu. However, the Beppu Project has year-round programming, as well as permanent installations of artists works .These events take place in spaces that are fully integrated into the shopping areas and tourist sections of town. They have converted spaces throughout the city and named these spaces ‘Platforms'. A number of these platforms are street-level, former store-fronts, and are separated from the street simply by a wall of windows. That means that when art is being made in one of these spaces, art which includes craft-making, basket-weaving, and for us, theater rehearsals, passers-by can look directly onto the activities. People stop and watch, or just glance in on what the artists are doing. The effect is subtle and exciting -the Beppu Project strives to make art and art-making a part of the Beppu citizen's daily life.

The Beppu Project provided us with one of these Platforms, which was part of a shopping and restaurant arcade in the city's center, and it became our artistic home for our nine days there.

It's the place where Zero Cost House began to come into focus.

This process for this particular piece is strange for Pig Iron (it seems like every process we embark on is strange - from an exploration of neuroscience to a reimagining of Shakespeare), and this one is both thrilling and confounding.

The play is about the playwright, Toshiki Okada. Toshiki himself is a character in the piece, and thematically, the play tackles the complexities of his particular choice to uproot his life in Tokyo and move to a new city, for his family, for his children. The piece includes scenes inspired by his relationship with Kyohei Sakaguchi, and centers in on Thoreau's Walden as a text that has been present in Toshiki's life for many years (and which has a new relevance for him in the wake of 3/11).

Not only is it new for Pig Iron to be making an autobiography, especially with the main character in the rehearsal room with us, but it's new for us to be creating a piece that is so playwright-focused. The work of this process is about investigating, feeling, and understanding the inner workings of another artist's world and conception. So often, the ensemble creates movement and character through a series of improvisations and exercises. We generate material, which is then edited and ordered, put together to be presented as a complete world for an audience on stage. The fabric of most of our pieces is defined by the very performer/creators you see on stage. For the first time (or maybe the second, after Mr. Shakespeare), we are taking the lead from an outside artist, and Toshiki is providing all the things we would usually create on our own - the tone, structure, characters and language. Undoubtedly, we will begin to provide our own voices to the project, but this first step is about wrapping ourselves is the beautifully stark and complex world of this playwright.

For this piece in particular, this autobiography, our development time has been geared towards seeing how the things and people we encountered in Tokyo and Kumamoto get refracted through Toshiki's lens, and how he is grappling with the very issues and ideas that have so suddenly and intensely occupied his daily life. And, for those who are familiar with his work, Toshiki has his own subtle, elusive style. One might call him a contemporary Samuel Beckett. Nothing happens and yet so much does. Our rehearsal time is defined by an encounter with a complicated, new style and content that is deeply personal and real.

Our time outside of rehearsal in Beppu is magical - dinners and hangouts with the staff of the Beppu Project, the best little ramen shop you could imagine, shopping at stores that offer one-of-a-kind crafts and jewelry, and our own little bar - the Speakeasy, where volunteer fireman Futoshi mixes us some mean drinks.

Our departure from Beppu is filled with tremendous sadness. We've gotten used to our ex-pat theater existence. Without trying, we've built a small community together, and lived on a little island of creative adventure. A return home feels impossible and heavy.

We set out on the longest day of travel I could ever image. Nearly 36 hours in transition - Beppu, Tokyo, LAX, Philadelphia.

The jet-lag is insane.

Re-acclimating to Philadelphia has been strange, though comforting. It's good to have Mexican food again (thank you, El Jarocho).

The company is back in rehearsal in the U.S. and occupying the studios of Pig Iron's School for Advanced Performance Training.

We're excited to see what happens next with the show. Time will only tell. Its territory that remains exciting but elusive.

And thanks for reading. With a deep bow, arrigato gozaimas.

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