Japanese Acting Techniques

Inside the Directing Studio at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, the sound of fast-paced violin music and the rhythmic stamping of 10 pairs of feet captivate the audience. The dancers—some students in Christopher Bolton’s Japanese Film course, others in Amy Holzapfel’s Introduction to Theatre—make their way around a tight circle, their instructor watching each move and occasionally offering corrections.

“Stamping” is one of a series of exercises the students learned during a week-long residency last fall with Kameron Steele, a master in the Suzuki Method of Actor Training. The exercise lasts for three minutes before Steele warns them that the finish is coming on his count of nine. On his count, the students collapse on the ground in one movement, and remain completely still. For a moment there is no sound—not even breathing from the exhausted students—and it seems the music has ended.

But the exercise is not over, and the music returns quietly and slowly. Steele, who has spent the last 25 years studying with leading director of postwar and contemporary Japanese theater Tadashi Suzuki, instructs the students to control their breathing and to stand up on his (extremely slow) count of 10. They are wet with perspiration and their muscles shake, but their faces are neutral masks.

Steele next directs them to become “sitting statues,” and each—again to his slow count—finds a seated position and spends the next 30 minutes in it, while Steele finishes his presentation to the audience, gathered for this unusual Oakley Center Colloquium. 

“The Suzuki Method is not some exotic Asian thing that you only need to know if you’re going to do contemporary versions of Kabuki and Noh,” Steele explains. It’s instead a way for actors to get in touch with their dormant animal energy. “It’s about how to get control of your energy, your breath, your center of gravity, and how to become aware of your body in time and space.” Steele trains actors all over the world in a method from which he says every performer—from film and stage actors to Irish dancers—can benefit.

This is, in part, why his residency at Williams was so fundamentally interdisciplinary. And why the Oakley Center, which co-sponsored the residency with the Theatre Department and the Comparative Literature Program, asked Steele to give a colloquium. The center supports faculty research across the humanities and social sciences with a special emphasis on interdisciplinary work, and presentations there are typically discussions of academic papers.  Steele instead showed three versions of the Japanese play “Lady Aoi”; first a clip from a traditional Noh performance, then stills from a 1950s adaptation for the modern stage, and finally a scene from his own 2004 adaptation, allowing the audience to trace the roots and development of the Suzuki Method. Earlier in the week, he had given a lecture on the crossover between cinema and avant-garde theater in Bolton’s film class and visited several theatre courses, introducing students to the method.

Soon after Steele’s workshop with Holzapfel’s students, their professor noticed a change. They were presenting snapshots of their final projects, and “they seemed less afraid, more comfortable in their bodies than they had been,” Holzapfel says. “They got out of that censoring headspace and into the space of I’m present, I’m here, I’m giving you what I have.”

That, according to Steele, is the point: “This is about the road, it’s not about where you’re going. You know you won’t get to perfection, but it’s the attempt to get there that’s interesting.”