Founded in 2006 by the internationally renowned theatre director Yukio Ninagawa, the Saitama Gold Theatre was born ‘out of a desire to search for new form of theatre based on the personal histories of people of age’. There were extensive auditions with a desire to find people who were not professional performers. Nigagawa was keen to explore the power of theatre with actors who did not have professional experience. Their first working lives spanned an array of professions and occupations including: railway workers, fighter pilots, wives and mothers, cosmetic advisors, electronical engineers.
At a time when in the UK the recently published Warwick report on the future of cultural value stresses the urgency of massively improving access to the arts, there is much we can learn from Ninagawa’s vision:
“When I became Artistic Director at Saitama Arts Theatre, the first thing I wanted to do was to create a place that could be enjoyed and loved by our local people. At that time, though the theatre had played host to a number of fantastic, avant-garde performances from all over the world, these were not well attended and most local residents were unaware of these works. We decided that, as a publically-supported organization, the first thing we needed to do was to entice our neighbors to come and see for themselves what was happening at the theatre”
In order to grab people’s attention and stimulate their imagination he founded the Saitama Gold Theatre.
It’s Wednesday evening at Saitama Arts Theatre and we are nearing the end of a breathtaking performance of Shakespeare’s Richard 11 by the Saitama Gold Theatre. Act V, Scene V and the deposed king, imprisoned in Pomfret castle is unnerved by the music he hears seeping through the walls of his prison cell:
how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men’s lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To cheque time broke in a disorder’d string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
Not all of us the UK party knew the play well and we don’t speak Japanese, but for three and a half hours we have been utterly transported by the vision and energy of the performance. Half of the cast were young performers at the beginning of their professional careers; half of the cast were older performers at the beginning of their professional careers. The day before we had been privileged enough to meet two of the older artists and get a glimpse into the astonishing biography of the company.
Like Richard, older performer Kiyoshi Takahashi, had heard music seeping through walls. It had drifted down the corridors of the hospital ward where he had been laying for three months, paralyzed from the waist down. He described to us the space ‘between dreaming and sleeping’, when on hearing Cavalleria Rusticana he had regained the movement in one of his toes. In that one chanced moment his rehabilitation had begun: ‘If it hadn’t of happened I would have been in heaven’, he said.
The movement in his toe was just the start. His doctor had said that because he had the will to walk he would walk. And he did because at the age of 78 he had somewhere to walk to.
He returned to the theatre, clearly very frail: ‘under any circumstances I want to come back and stand on stage with Ninagawa.
“You want to come back?” asked the director.
“Of course I want to come back. I would be the light of hope for everybody”.
And so everyday he came. The company has a rigorous schedule working for four hours a day, five days a week. Everyday he came and he tried to walk on his own. ‘But then it was boring, why just walk when you can also say some lines?’ The basic training for the company uses study sessions using texts from the plays. Kiyoshi Takahashi, walked and he recited his way back to the company. I guess he had never left. The company has been running for ten years and hardly anyone has every left.
‘Here many miracles happen’, said Hiroshi Watanabe, Director of the theatre’s production department.
There’s a line at the end of the Shakespeare’s Tempest when all of the separated wanderers find each other: ‘and all of us ourselves, where no man was his own.’ That is the miracle of Ninagawa’s work with the Saitama Gold Company. He has created this space for people to find themselves. It’s that huge possibility that age offers. In her book ‘Old Age’ Simone de Beauvoir quotes an older Parisian: ‘At last I can be myself! I am not so–and–so’s wife, not so-and-so’s employee. I am myself’.
Ritsuko Tamura made the decision to be herself. She was 66 years old and living in the north of Japan when she heard of the initial auditions for the company. ‘If you want to go why don’t you go?’ her child had said. ‘Luckily I passed’. She had to move her home hundreds of miles, leaving her husband and family. We asked the performers if they considered that they were professional actors. A small fee is paid for their work. Ritsuko reflected. ‘I don’t think we can say that we are professional actors’. There is a pause… ‘Yet’. The whole myth of ageing is crushed with the punctuation of that one small word. We are never too old to change; never too old to grow.
Maybe the professional question is irrelevant. The stage needs to be an open and accessible space where, with rigor, we can all step into other possibilities of ourselves; to listen and to understand who we are and who we could become. Not skills possessed by the deposed Richard. Back alone on stage he is unable to listen to:- ‘the concord of my state and time’.
Not being able to listen to the harmony of their lives is one mistake that the performers of the Saitama Gold Theatre are not about to make any time soon.