An Untimely Memorandum of a Timely Performance

A year ago, I saw Japanese playwright and director Toshiki Okada’s Eraser Mountain at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, the last live performance I attended before the entire city went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After the show, I immediately penned a sentence as the central thesis for the review I’d promised Heichi Magazine. It reads: “With household objects, minimal postures, and monotonous languages, Toshiki Okada has transformed the theatrical space into an installation of distorted everyday life, the mundane into the uncanny, thus highlighting the banality of everyday life and how we live it.”

Looking back, that was a poorly written understatement that failed to comprehend the essence of Okada’s artistic intervention and the scope of the work. Divided into three parts, the performance was a complicated post-dramatic presentation of post-Fukushima Japanese society. John K. Gillespie’s review better seizes the details and the totality of the performance. He notes that “the stage rubble is concrete proxy for the post-earthquake/tsunami destruction, certainly, but also for the rubble left by Japan ensnared in the sticky throes of an extremely consumptive capitalism.”1John K. Gillespie, “What Next.” March 17, 2020, link.​ The theme of Fukushima has dominated, without question, Okada’s more recent works, including Current Location (2012), Ground and Floor (2013), and Time’s Journey Through a Room (2016). The rubble Gillespie mentions was part of a complex composition that “includes human stories, non-human forms, video projections, lighting and soundscapes, and a vast and impressive colony of objects,” spreading all over the stage and carefully arranged by Okada and his collaborator, sculptor Kaneuji Teppei.2Peter Eckersall, “Toshiki Okada’s Ecological Theatre,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 43, no. 1 (2021): 109.​ As a continuation of Okada’s response to both the nuclear meltdown in 2011 and the mountains effaced by the city of Rikuzentakata’s reconstruction project to raise the shoreline, Eraser Mountain aims to create a theatre where the relationships between human and nonhuman are rethought and interrogated.3“chelfitsch & Teppei Kaneuji ‘Eraser Mountain,’” chelfitsch, accessed March 13, 2021, link.​ During the performance, six actors moved the objects around, but none of their movements had any logical meanings matching their already nonsequitur narrations. The objects seemed to gain autonomy, stripping away any human controls over the space and eliminating the possibility of returning to order.

Moreover, inspired by Hirata Oriza’s contemporary colloquial theatre, Okada has insisted on a “half-transparent” state in acting, suggesting a detachment between the actors and the characters, the spoken texts and the physical movements, and the theatrical space and the fictional world. As a result, his works usually present themselves as slow, monotone, and anti-dramatic. Actors indifferently mumble everyday words about trivial details, while assuming postures unrelated to and unrepresented by the words, such as how this performance started with an actor wondering if he should fix the washing machine’s broken filter. Not a conclusion was reached after this ten-minute-long monologue, evoking a sense of “being present but empty” that was also strongly felt through the unsettled space on stage.4Peter Eckersall, “Performance, Mourning and the Long View of Nuclear Space,” The Asia-Pacific Journal Volume 13, Issue 7, no. 2 (February 16, 2015): 3.​ Instead of creating a hypnotizing humdrum, however, the discordant relationship between the texts, the movements, the objects, and space drew the audience’s attention by audaciously displaying “the confusion of language and the loss of something intrinsic to Japan,” and a sense of displacement that speaks to the post-Fukushima experience.5Ibid., 9.

This was how far I got with the unfinished review. Two months into the lockdown, I tried to pick up where I left, and I wrote a new opening paragraph. “In the year 1985, more than sixty Taiwanese artists gathered together and recorded a charity single, ‘Tomorrow Will Be Better,’ to raise money and fight against the hunger and poverty running rampant in Africa. One verse goes, ‘Take a look at this busy world/ And see if it's still spinning all alone.’ In later years, people listened to and performed this song again and again in the face of difficult and trying times, hoping to find the courage and believing that a bright future awaited ahead. That particular line seems to resonate now more than ever, as the entire world has been put on hold, the car wheels cease to spin, and the days and nights feel like they have stopped rotating.” It was a faithful reflection of my mental state after two months of isolation, and ironically, all I could remember about Eraser Mountain was the metallic, persistent, and scraping noise of spinning, which I found unbearably annoying during the performance.

That head-splitting noise was, in fact, the first thing to welcome the audience into the theatre. It felt like Okada had thrown a few sharp pieces of metal in a gigantic cement mixer and placed a microphone next to it. The sound accompanied the actors’ movements on stage, provided a consistent beat to the actors’ words, and kept the audience on the edge of their seats during the first part of the performance. The noise finally stopped at the beginning of the second part, but echoed in my head for the rest of the night. It seemed that after the noise went away, everything else became noise. The chatter of people in the lobby, the click-clack bouncing back and forth on the train tracks, the siren dashing forward and then fleeing outside my window, everyday sounds all metamorphosed into a symphony of cacophonic frequencies and wavelengths. Have we relied on the clamor of everyday life to feel more alive, the commotion that we have no control over to feel more in control, and the squeal of a world spinning to feel more stable? I realized it was the sense of displacement that had endured. My daily outfits had fallen out of use, yet they still occupied the most convenient spaces in my wardrobe. The water bottle I took to work sat on my desk and collected dust. And the masks forced themselves into the nest where my wallet and keys rested. Everything was out of place. I had to move objects around to accommodate my new daily routine, and my body needed time to settle in. The home was not a home anymore. We were all displaced, while confined in our homes. Every day, the silence in my room revealed how the infuriating shriek in Eraser Mountain was indeed a harbinger, foreshadowing what would happen next and bridging two disasters through the continuous sense of displacement they each triggered.

“What did they know of the future?”6Eckersall, “Toshiki Okada’s Ecological Theatre.” 108.​ One has to ask, as theatre scholar Peter Eckersall wonders in hindsight. In the middle of the performance, an actor imagined theatre as a time machine in which past, present, and future collapse onto each other. True, as Sara Jensen commentates, what distinguishes Okada’s works is “the astute way in which it captures the times.”7Sara Jansen, “‘In what time do we live?’” Etcetera, no. 146 (September 2016), link.​ In addition, what lies at the center of this horizontal plane, where time radiates boundlessly in all directions, is an event, a catastrophic singularity—in Okada’s case, the Fukushima nuclear calamity. Writing about Fukushima, activist Sabu Kohso contends that “the time has come for us to affirmatively confront the complexity of planetary becoming that has been revealed through the breaches of the endlessly expansive World by which we are existentially captured.”8Sabu Kohso, Radiation and Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2020), 10.​ Kohso sees the catastrophe not only as an eschatological end in which rebirth is underway, but also as the interminable dissemination of radionuclides that will seep into our bodies and minds and thus fundamentally shift our day-to-day life. Similar to Kohso’s view, Okada regards the Fukushima disaster not as an explosion contained in a short period of time, but rather a wormhole through which spatiality and temporality are forever twisted. Of course, Okada explores this alternative temporality intentionally and rigorously in Eraser Mountain, as in his previous works. What might have been most surprising (or perhaps not) was that his work had once again turned itself into a time machine, where radioactive particles and a deadly virus could meet. On the verge of a lockdown, the past—a previous disaster caused by the expansion of human greed and an untrustworthy government—and the future—another disaster that would throw the entire world off-balance and force society to question the credibility of ruling authorities — merged into a present of uncertainty, in which Eraser Mountain found itself right on time.

Now a year has passed. In March 2021, we bitterly welcome the tenth anniversary of Fukushima and a full year of coexistence with the pandemic. Again, I ask myself, how do I remember that oddly timely performance when I scramble through my notes as the only aid to my receding memory? How would I remember the past year of no theatre? I decided to call this piece of writing a memorandum. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, a memorandum means a note of something to be remembered, a note to help the memory.9“Memorandum, Int. and n.,” in OED Online (Oxford University Press), accessed March 10, 2021, link.​ It suggests a sense of immediacy and authenticity resulting from the event’s concurrence with the documentation. In this sense, this memorandum is long overdue and has waived any claims to reflect and record the performance accurately. However, a memorandum also implies the risk of forgetting and disappearing, a potential disconnection between an irretrievable presence and a future writing that will relentlessly assert its authority as the arbitrator of this past presence. A memorandum understood as such is a constantly deferred presence that keeps renewing itself, a Derridean specter that continues to return in the current temporality, and a piece of writing that will never be too timely and never too late. After a year of absence of live theatre, a memorandum seems to more appropriately capture our vague and distant memories of sitting next to someone else, of not fearing to breathe without a cloth covering our noses and mouths, for writing about theatre, in general, has already become a memorandum, a sticky note that we adhere to the doorway of oblivion in faint hopes of not forgetting.

On March 3, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that a limited number of theatres in New York would reopen in April with a much-reduced audience capacity. Seemingly, we are finally at the beginning of the end of a long dark tunnel. I haven’t decided on the first live performance I will see after a year’s drought of watching and sensing another body in the same room, moving, performing, and living. Nor am I sure about what theatre will become when facilities are reopened. With this untimely memorandum of a timely performance, hopefully, just hopefully, we can be reminded that theatre has offered us, and will again do so, a critical lens to review our actions and reactions to disasters. Theatre is a medium through which we put indescribable feelings into words and movements and a safe space to heal and recover from trauma, even if these efforts may still be premature.

Ruijiao Dong is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His doctoral research focuses on the history and theory of amateur theatre in contemporary China, in the context of Chinese socio-political realities and through the lens of Marxism, modernity, and national and cultural identities. His writing has appeared in TDR: The Drama Review, and several Chinese magazines and newspapers. He has obtained an MA degree in Performance Studies from New York University and an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the City University of Hong Kong.

The stage of Eraser Mountain. (Photo: chelfitsch company)

Actors on stage in Eraser Mountain. (Photo: chelfitsch company)

Published: 2021.05.06