Nori Sawa is part of a rare breed of performance artists who still practice the art of puppetry. Born in Japan, Sawa moved to the Czech Republic to refine his skill. This led to a distinctive combination of techniques from Czech and Japanese puppet theater that Sawa utilizes in his adaptations of Eastern and Western folk tales and plays, including Macbeth and The Cherry Orchard. This Friday at the Third Floor Theater, the renowned puppeteer will perform Forest and Other Tales, based on a traditional Japanese story of a battered soldier enticed into heaven by an angel. Sawa’s earlier performances of Forest even scored him the Franz Kafka Medal in 1999. Before his return to campus (he performed at the university last year), the Chicago Maroon spoke to him about the Czech Republic, the beginnings of his passion for puppetry, and what inspired him to adapt Macbeth and The Cherry Orchard.
Chicago Maroon: When did you start to get interested in puppetry?
Nori Sawa: When I was really small in Japan, it was TV. More than 40 years ago, they had really good programs for children. But I had little interest in live actors. When I saw them, usually I’d start to imagine the actors’ backgrounds, like what the actors do after the show—would they go home and have a beer, smoke—and I couldn’t concentrate on the performance. But puppets have a really limited life. On the stage they’re just one character, they’re really alive on the stage, but after that, without the puppeteer, they’re just in storage or in a box. That fascinated me.
I mostly watched serials, like cartoons but [with] puppets. One was about a floating island, [and the] drifters on this island who lost their identities. They had to collaborate and cooperate to survive. Kind of like Lost, but with puppets, and [funnier]!
CM: What is it about puppetry that you enjoy?
NS: I like artificial things. I don’t know why. Usually I’m drawing, painting, or making puppets—something artificial. I think it’s my nature. I like something that has shadows behind it. Like, you know, puppets aren’t so pretty; sometimes they’re scary, they have a dark or ugly side. They’re not live, but they look like they’re living. I like something like that, that is sort of strange. All the Czech Republic, but especially Prague, has a lot of shadows; it’s like a labyrinth. The buildings are really old, from the medieval age. All different types of architecture are frozen in Prague, they say. So when you walk around, you’re kind of lost, but it’s fascinating to be lost. Especially at twilight, you feel lost on the inside.
CM: How did you come to live in the Czech Republic?
NS: I was a teacher in Japan, at [a] high school teaching art, theater, painting, and sculpture. In 1991 I was invited to France [for] a post-graduate workshop. The lead teacher there was Czech; his name was Josef Krofta. He’s the artistic director of a famous puppet theater in the Czech Republic, and he gave me a letter to come to Prague in 1992. I went to study at a state-performing arts academy. After one year, I started working professionally doing solo performances, sometimes directing, designing.
There’s puppetry in Japan, too, but not as much, not like the Czech Republic. In Japan, manga and comics—animation—they’re really developed, but in the Czech Republic, small theaters and puppet theaters are really supported. But they don’t have a comics industry! In the Czech Republic, it’s kind of a special situation—Poland, too— they have municipal puppet theaters in each big city. When they were invaded by various empires in the 18th, 19th centuries, they were forbidden to use the Czech language, only German. But the puppet theaters and local, small theaters, they were ignored, so they used puppetry to maintain [their] nationality.
CM: How do you decide what plays to adapt? Your production of Macbeth, for instance.
NS: When I went to Prague, one professor—he’s still one of my best friends, Peter—he said “Let’s do something.” We thought [of choosing] some international thing, not like a deep Japanese legend, because then Peter wouldn’t understand. We chose Macbeth, because once I’d done a performance in Japan. And of course Peter knows about Shakespeare. But I had used 30 actors on the stage with puppets in Japan. I couldn’t imagine doing Macbeth alone. But he said, “If you could do it, you could sell it, and if anyone asks why you did Macbeth alone, you could answer, ‘Because it was possible’ He also suggested something for inspiration: Macbeth controls his wife and family through his own power, but he’s usually [still] manipulated by his wife. And when I become Macbeth and manipulate the Lady Macbeth puppet on stage, I can also be manipulated by the puppet. So if one can express this sort of cynical relationship between man and woman, it’d be interesting for the audience. I thought that was good inspiration. It’s like a...parallel, the relationship between a puppeteer and puppet, or a lord and slave, or any sort of relationship.
[He also said] “Nori, please show your nationality in your performance, we’re not interested in your imitation of European culture,” so I thought it over and...my mother passed on when I left Japan. She was a designer of kimonos, and left [a lot of] material for me. So I used Japanese fabric and textiles for puppets and costumes.
CM: And why The Cherry Orchard?
NS: Chekhov’s scenarios are really funny, but in Japan they usually do really deep, sad adaptations. The original Cherry Orchard is really funny—it’s not tragedy, it’s comedy. And I feel that the people in The Cherry Orchard are like people in the [puppet] theater world—outdated. They still believe in their own culture, but people aren’t coming to the theater. They’re playing computer games in their room or [are] on the Internet. I imagined making The Cherry Orchard the world of the puppet theater, where the theater will be sold, but they’re still believing that they’re relevant. I wanted to perform with an ensemble of half-broken, ruined puppets on the stage—but then I had to do it solo, so I decided to make it shadow puppets. It was also like Japan at the time, two or three years ago. The Japanese economy was collapsing, but still politicians didn’t believe it, they were just hiding the truth. Nobody knew where the country was going, and it also seemed like The Cherry Orchard—people knew but they didn’t believe it. But I wanted to show that in a funny way.
CM: Your show at Chicago is about a soldier who dreams of a spirit.
NS: Yes, the lady, or white spirit—there are legends in Japan and China about dreams—having a whole life in dreams, or [being] in a dream world. Like if you’re losing consciousness, you have a dream of another life where you meet somebody. [Forest] is based on some legends.
Actually, exactly one year ago, I think it was November 6, I performed [at UChicago], just after Obama, and the whole city was kind of like a festival. But this year, not as much. So I have to make everything exciting myself! This year I programmed five or six pieces. After Forest, there are three or four smaller pieces. They’re deeper than last year, but I hope it works. Last year I did many funny pieces, but this year I put in some sad stories.
Nori Sawa will also be conducting two free puppet workshops: One on Sunday, November 8 at the Hyde Park Art Center and the other on Monday, November 9 at Midway studios. The event is hosted by the Center for East Asian Studies.