Zvika Serper teaches students about traditional Japanese theater and cultural fusion

Israeli theater artist Zvika Serper, described by theatre and dance professor Randy Kaplan as an “international rockstar in the area of intercultural theater,” visited Geneseo from April 10 – 11 to demonstrate and discuss his unique fusion of traditional Japanese theater and western classics.

Serper teaches acting at Tel Aviv University. He said that his interest in traditional Japanese theater was sparked by a mandatory class he begrudgingly took as an acting student. “I was amazed,” Serper said. His fascination led to a five-year study trip in Japan.

On April 10 at 1 p.m., Serper co-taught Kaplan’s Tai Chi class and made himself available to meet with students in Writers’ House. He also held a lecture called, “Crossing Artistic Frontiers: Japanese Traditional Theatre, Western Contemporary Practice, A Lecture Demonstration,” followed by a reception. He began with a physical demonstration of a traditional Kyōgen act, first in English, then in its much more powerful original Japanese.

Serper taught about the three main styles of Japanese traditional theater – Noh, Kyōgen and Kabuki – by contrasting clips from his own performances in Japan and by demonstrating certain acts.

In 1984, Serper was invited to a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which is loosely based on Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” He said he was fascinated by the way traditional Japanese performances informed a version of a western play.

Serper wanted to incorporate the aesthetic of Japanese performance in his own modern adaptations of classical theater in a way that was organic and not imposing. “I hate to see these experiments,” Serper said of the various Noh and Kabuki versions of classic plays. “It’s not right to do it.”

A clip of one of Serper’s students performing a monologue from “Salome” by Oscar Wilde demonstrated Serper’s approach to this mixture. Though the student didn’t adhere to Japanese traditions, her training was evident in her bold physicality and enrapturing voice.

According to Serper, one of the biggest differences between Japanese and western theater is that “in the west we try to hide this tension between fiction and reality,” whereas in Japan, they try to explore “the plane between two poles: what is real and what is fiction.” Serper said, “[Westerners] expose, actually, that artificial component of the theater.”

On April 11 at 2:30 p.m., Serper screened his intercultural production of the Greek play “Agamemnon.” The Japanese influences were evident in the costumes, the vigorous, hypnotic chanting and the powerful physicality. These elements didn’t feel forced and gave the actors complete dominance of the stage.

Kaplan said that she became aware of Serper’s work when she served as president for the Association for Asian Performance. “There are only so many voices here,” Kaplan said about the need to enlighten Geneseo students about other cultures. She said that she was very happy with the way the visit turned out.