The Diversity of Seeing and Being Seen / Hiroyuki Shimizu [Contribution Text for Niwa Gekidan Penino]
Photo by Shinsuke Sugino
My apologies for telling an old story, but I want to take a look back at my impressions when I first
started going to the theater.
At that time in the early 1970s, the underground theater movement in Japan was at its peak, using spaces not originally intended to be theater venues such as underground rooms or temporarily erected tents. This theater, which we watched from seats packed in so tight you couldn’t budge an inch, was physically painful, but nonetheless incredibly stimulating for all the senses. I felt excited by the way a European horseshoe-shaped theater (the Italian style of theater venue) created a dense viewing space, amplifying the energy seen by the walls of people across multiple levels. On the other hand, an architecture student like myself came to sense the limitations of modern theaters that had been built according to restrictions placed on them by architectural regulations, meaning one was unable to create a dense viewing space filled with the energy of people. In particular, I felt something desolate in spaces based on an assumption that everything should be seen and heard equally well from all the seats, where everyone viewed the stage from the same direction without seeing the faces of their fellow audience members to the left or right—a space, in short, without any flexibility.
I then went back to former types of performing arts, setting about gathering old picture scrolls in order to search for the places where things were performed and how people watched them. I realised that there was a more diverse relationship of seeing and being seen. Especially for rituals at Shinto shrines, the opposing sight lines of gods and humans faced each other in the opposite direction to the performers onstage, while the position of the audience (of invitees and so on) was off to the side, straight along the god-human axis and without obstructing the ritual, and, moreover, the most logical position for getting closer to the performers. In the Edo period (1603–1868), Manzai comedy was performed at teahouses in the city, with audiences sitting on benches arranged in a kind of sideways “n” shape— an arrangement that was constant and always allowed people to see the other audience members. In Bunraku (Ningyo Joruri), the puppet theater we can still watch today, the use of onstage chanters, musicians, and puppeteers, and so on were alienation effects thought to amplify the audience’s diverse ways of viewing. In old Kabuki theaters, there were seats called rakandai placed behind the stage and facing the main audience seating, along with yoshino seats right above them, and though these seats had disadvantages in terms of viewing the stage, to certain connoisseurs they probably offered a wonderful place for showing off their status.
There is a term called “scenography.” Generally meaning something close to stage design, it also connotes something beyond designing the set in order to explain what is happening onstage, but rather that things develop in a relationship with (a theater) space and that this in and of itself is scenography. From this diversity of seeing and being seen, how about we try once again to examine this involvement in the incidents (that is, theater) that takes place through the diverse gazes of performers and audiences, to look again at the spaces that stir their imaginations?
An architect and theater consultant, Hiroyuki Shimizu is the artistic director of Okazaki Shiminkaikan. He was born in Aichi Prefecture in 1952 and graduated with a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Tokyo. He is an honorary professor at Nagoya University. In addition to publishing about theater facility design, his previous work includes Yuda Bunka Sozokan (1993) and the foundational concept and design for Saitama Arts Theater (1994).