LA JOLLA — Sixteen acting students sit on the floor in rows, locked in tight balls: foreheads on knees, arms clasped around shins, toes pointed up. Leg muscles are beginning to spasm involuntarily. It's almost the end of a 90-minute training session. Everyone is sweating. A Japanese shinae whistles through the air and the sword-like bamboo weapon smashes into a stack of rubber mats.
The students spring out of their tucks, balancing on their bottoms, legs extended, feet and backs inches off the floor. Mirroring the violence of the shinae blow, they recite in unison in a loud and steady crescendo a passage from Euripides' "The Trojan Women."
Obviously, this is no ordinary Euripides. It's a version adapted and transmogrified by Tadashi Suzuki, an acclaimed theatrical visionary from Japan who is a visiting instructor this month at UC San Diego. As the students snap in and out of their tucked position, repeating the passage over and over, Suzuki, a quiet man who looks years younger than 44, chuckles frequently when spotting a student who is not correctly positioned or whose face is not impassive and cool.
Dressed in a very Western sweater and slacks, Suzuki is fine-tuning a training technique that emphasizes the human body's expression of animal energy as the basis of theater. The man and his method, which have gained international celebrity, stress the importance of the actor's body over the text of a work.
His method focuses on the body, especially the feet. At UCSD, the students parade through a variety of walking figures to percussive voodoo music--slow and fast, forward and backward. In the walking exercises, the actor's body is virtually immobile from the waist up, the face a cool mask reflecting no emotion. By repeating these exercises endlessly, the actors in Suzuki's company achieve almost total control of their bodies.
In an interview after the morning's rehearsal, Suzuki, often with an impish gleam in his eye, spoke through an assistant who acted as interpreter. "The purpose of the training is to help the actors to learn to concentrate strongly. That way they can reach their expressions." Western training, he said, such as that of Stanislavski, stresses the body only from the head up. "Through this training, the emotional capabilities are enriched also." Suzuki says it takes three years for an actor to assimilate his method.
In his training in Japan with his Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT), Suzuki attempts to bridge the gap between the style of traditional Japanese Noh and Kabuki and that of modern theater.
"The traditional theater of Japan relies on human beings. It communicates energy, not just words," he said. "But no new plays are being written for Noh and Kabuki, at least none good enough to perform. In that sense, Noh and Kabuki are dead. They are interesting, in the same way a mummy in a museum is interesting--because it's dead. But modern Japanese cannot be with dead things always. Sometimes we must be with the new."
A performance of scenes from Suzuki's arrangement of "The Bacchae" will be performed Sunday by the UCSD students he is rehearsing at the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts. On April 5 and 6, SCOT will arrive from Japan to perform "The Bacchae" in Japanese at the Weiss Center in what should be one of the city's theater highlights of the year.
In contrasting America with Japan, Suzuki said: "In the United States it's very interesting how many races are living together. In Japan it is very homogenized. With the theater, I'm surprised that American theater people don't stay in one place very long, but keep moving. In Japan we make a group and continue to work together. Our leading actress has been with the company almost 20 years. Americans do not stay together very long. The Japanese stay together too long, perhaps."
The strength of American theater, he said, is the musical. He had this to say about American playwrights: "You have Tennessee Williams and Miller: 'The View From the Bridge,' 'Death of a Salesman.' They were very good and much liked . . . 30 years ago."
His favorite Western playwrights are Shakespeare, Chekhov and Beckett. Directors he admires are Mnouchkine, Peter Brook, Tadeusz Kantor of Poland and Jean-Louis Barrault of France.