Approaching Water Station

This essay is derived from Mari Boyd's book Aesthetics of Quietude.

The Water Station (Mizu no eki), which premiered in 1981, is the first of Ōta Shōgo's silent, slow-movement Station plays and best illustrates his theatre of divestiture.

Walking through a wasteland, eighteen travelers stop by at a dripping water faucet at different times and then go their separate ways, while a man living in a junk pile casually observes their actions from above. Abounding in images of fragmentation and decay, the play depicts the decline of human civilization.

In 1984 Ōta's Tenkei Theatre Company (Gekidan Tenkei Gekijō, Theatre of Transformation), won the coveted Kinokuniya Theatre Award in the group category for this and other Ōta plays. They went on to performing The Water Station over 200 times in more than twenty-four cities worldwide, including London, New York, Seoul, and Warsaw.

The translation of The Water Station used on this website is based on the 1988 script. Each page is divided into four columns: two of them are allotted to the poetic rendition of the major and minor scenes; another provides directions concerning props and cues for lights and music; and the last column indicates the relationship between the sound of water and the flow of music. As the descriptive parts are presented in free verse, the text has its idiosyncrasies of syntax, phrasing, and punctuation. The general effect is abstract, poetic and rhythmical.

Let us now look at the play in terms of divestiture. As explained in the section on Ōta's vision of theatre, his basic concern is the portrayal of the species level of human existence and the three components to his minimalistic method of achieving this are silence, stillness and open space. The premise here is of engaging physicality, for the play is an experiment in finding a new physical vocabulary that communicates rather than depending on the verbal transmission of narrative, images, and themes.

Silence in this context refers to the absence of words. The Water Station is the very first play in which Ōta eliminated language completely. Sound effects and music, however, are used and function to create atmosphere and tonal quality to the drama. As silence disallows the characters' individual stories or social contexts from surfacing, what emerges is a depersonalized and de-socialized world. It is as if we are observing the characters from afar.

In this relation, the process by which Ōta and his group devised this theatre piece should be explained. Instead of writing a complete script, Ōta decided on the content of the scenes and their sequence and then chose artistic materials appropriate for those scenes to stimulate the imagination of the actors. These source materials were selected from various genres-poetry, fiction, drama, film, and painting. Ōta scripted some dialogue specifically for a couple of scenes -the two men drinking water in scene 2 and for the family in the scene 6-but used those lines as unspoken internal monologue. The actors were forbidden to deliver out loud the dialogue or any other literary piece in performance.

In his preface to the playscript, Ōta explains the method of rehearsal he and his company used:

What was drawn out [from the source materials] became the object of examination in rehearsal. What died was removed; what lived was allowed to flourish. Through the repetition of this scrutiny, the materials themselves lost meaning and faded into oblivion. I understand the process as follows: by using "indirect delimitations" a way of realization was found, and through the rehearsals a totally different directness was born. (1990, p. 151)

Concerning the second component of stillness, the movement in The Water Station was set at the pace of walking two meters in five minutes (Ōta 1990, p. 151). The glacial speed of the Girl's entry at the beginning sets the tempo of the whole play and is followed by all the other characters. This slow tempo is briefly broken only three times: when the two men fight over the use of the tap in scene 2; when the Woman with a Parasol "wildly walks the air" in scene 3; and when the Woman breaks away from the Man in the catchment when he covers her mouth with his hand in scene 7.

The simplest way of understanding the effect of stillness is to see it as an application of performance magnitudes and pre-expressivity. In Richard Schechner's conceptualization, there are seven performance magnitudes: (1) brain event, (2) microbit, (3) bit, (4) sign, (5) scene, (6) drama, and (7) macrodrama (1988, p. 282). While stage practitioners work on any of these seven levels, spectators usually receive performances consciously at magnitudes 4, 5, and 6. What makes Ōta's work unusual is that he makes perceptible onstage magnitude 3, the bit, which refers to the smallest unit of consciously controllable and repeatable behavior. With the slowing down of tempo, both performer and spectator are constantly aware of a pre-meaning level of performance when the intentionality of movement is ambiguous.

The pre-meaning level of this slow motion can be explained further through director-theorist Eugenio Barba's concept of pre-expressivity. The pre-expressive level deals with how the actor can become a magnetic presence apart from the construction of meaning. At this level, the actor is predominantly concerned with tensions and forms, with using energy to radiate presence, not with creating meaning.

It is a logical inference that moving in slow motion will necessarily sensitize the actor to points of tension and balance. He will be in the moment so that a dynamic energy flow will arise and he will be able to create "subliminal surprises, which the spectator does not become aware of with the conscious ‘eye' but with the ‘eye' of the senses, with the kinaesthetic sense" (Barba 1995, p. 57).

Nō master Zeami Motokiyo suggested the same principle about the tension that occurs when actors "do nothing" as, for instance, in the iguse (sitting dance) in theatre.

[W]hy this interval "when nothing happens" may seem so fascinating . . . is surely because, at the bottom, the artist never relaxes his inner tension. . . . It is this sense of inner concentration that manifests itself to the audience and makes the moment enjoyable. (1984, p. 97)

In The Water Station, Ōta's actors frequently employed such dynamic immobility. To what end? Barba claims that "playing with rhythm helps break inculturation" (1991, p. 212). By breaking the quick trot of contemporary society, Ōta wishes to become genuinely free from the shackles of culture. And the objective viewpoint that such freedom offers is what he calls the perspective of death. (See Link 1.)

Elemental Landscape

To achieve a desocialized stage picture, Ōta reduces the material world of The Water Station to basic elements-water, earth, air, or space. Ōta wants to use such elements as absolute conditions in the performance. By "absolute condition," he means that the element has to be actually present onstage and be unchanging or "monotonous" as Ōta would have it. The purpose of such a condition is to negate decorative and rhetorical intent, and to provide restriction-cum-stimulus for the actor in the absence of other theatrical or dramatic structures.

In The Water Station, water is an absolute condition because it drips continuously from the faucet downstage center. Ōta says:

[T]he faucet had to be broken, and the water flow had to be as thin as a thread. If the faucet were not broken, i.e. if the characters could control the water flow, it would become an aspect of their personality and become rhetorical. Furthermore, as water increases in quantity, it begins to gain heat, to vocalize and become turbid . . . the water had to be monotonous. (1993, p. 24)

When the characters use the water, the water does change momentarily in shape, quantity, speed of flow, and sound. It vanishes into a cup or down a throat. It splashes and sprays. But as soon as the characters move away, the water always returns to its initial trickle. It is important to remember that the slow tempo at which these actions are taken makes them seem more sensuous than purposeful. Both actor and viewer have time to be aware of the water as water, as well as the character's motive in using the water and his or her attainment of that desire.

Symbolic meaning inevitably accrues to images like water, sand, or wind, although such meaning may not be the sole purpose of the play. The Water Station landscape is permeated with aridity. The general sense that emerged from the use of such an elemental landscape was, at least in Ōta's time, that Nature outlasts and subsumes human endeavor. It reclaims the fragments of a crumbling civilization that depended on technology, and levels all back to raw materials. In the twenty-first century such an interpretation may sound optimistic, for we can no longer take Nature's sustainability for granted.

The Water Station also contains images of suspension in space. The major one is the Man-on-the-Heap-of-Junk. He spends most of his time immersed in a daily ritual of tooth-brushing, newspaper-reading, and coffee-drinking while from his perch he casually observes the wanderers pass by below. His attention fluctuates, intensifying when something conventionally "dramatic" happens, like a woman's death. His function in the play is to mirror the audience's perspective as a voyeur of "dramatic" events and to prevent facile identification with or pity for the wandering characters. He is there to remind the audience that human suffering should not be consumed for entertainment purposes.

A performance code that prioritizes silence, stillness and emptiness is admittedly difficult to come to terms with. From observations at Ōta's performances, I would say that the average viewer needs about twenty minutes to adjust to the rhythm-tempo of the two-hour Water Station. A willingness to surrender to the demands of this experimental play may be what enables viewers to successfully enter its fiction and share Ōta's existential vision.

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