The Water Station, Shōgo, Zarrilli, Norway, Refugees

Refugees and the ‘Act of Witnessing’ | Theatre

Phillip Zarrilli, Artistic Director of The Llanarth Group, reflects on his experiences of directing Ōta Shōgo’s The Water Station in Norway near the Arctic Circle, on the theatre of ‘quietude’, the act of ‘witnessing’, and the refugee crisis.


A young barefoot girl, clutching an old rag-doll appears in dim light along a pathway. She is coming from somewhere unknown, and travelling along this pathway toward… somewhere unknown. Sensing behind her, she stops unexpectedly and looks back toward the place from which she has come. Continuing to clutch her doll close to her, she turns back to the way ‘ahead’ and continues on her journey. Encountering a stream of water running from a broken water faucet into a catchment area, she stops, gazes at the water and cautiously crosses to it. She kneels beside the catchment area, gazing at the running water, and eventually drinks from the faucet. She looks up and out suddenly–something far away has captured her attention—her gaze haunted by something unknown. She senses someone behind her—along the same pathway she has travelled. She looks back…two men appear through the dim light, walking backward, one carrying a suitcase and the other a bedroll—their gazes fixed and intent on what they see in the far distance beyond…that place from which she too has travelled. As they approach she hides herself in a heap of junk behind the pathway.

This description of people on the move is not from the current news, but from the Scandinavian premiere of Japanese playwright/director Ōta Shōgo’s unique, non-verbal performance text, The Water Station at Nordland Teater in Mo I Rana, ten miles south of the Arctic Circle. I was invited to direct The Water Station here in Norway by the Artistic Director of Nordland Teater, Birgitte Strid in 2013. In 2004 she happened to be in Singapore, and experienced this earlier production of The Water Station I directed with an international cast of 18 from 11 countries at The Esplanade Theatre Studio (a TTRP production). Three years ago when we first discussed this production several years ago, we had no idea that at this specific moment in time there would be thousands of people on the move around the Mediterranean and across all of Europe, and that the potential resonance of Ōta’s performance script would be so immediate.

The Water Station, Shōgo, Zarrilli, Norway, Refugees
Scene 4: Married Couple with Carriage (Florencia Cordeu, Argentina; Bjorn Ole Odegard, Norway)

The Water Station has a very simple structure: in nine scenes a series refugees/migrants/travellers are on the move coming from a far distant place, and are continuing on the still longer journey toward some place beyond. Some are individuals traveling alone such as a Girl or the Woman with a Parasol; others are in pairs (Two Men in or Husband and Wife with Baby Carriage); or in a group (The Caravan). These travellers appear on a bridgeway. Just behind the path is a huge heap of discarded ’junk’—objects left by those on this long journey. Once they appear each individual, pair or group encounters and interacts with a constantly running stream of water flowing from a broken water faucet into a pool of water in a catchment area. Each of the travellers encounters the water in their own way. Some observe or encounter another traveler. All eventually continue their journey toward whatever lies beyond. From the audience’s perspective, where these travellers have come from and where they are going we do not know. They eventually pass out of view…heading somewhere.

The Water Station was originally created and performed in Tokyo in 1981 by Ōta Shōgo and his theatre company–Theatre of Transformation (Tenkei Gekijo). The production subsequently toured central Europe and the US in the 1980s. Ōta and his company were searching for a way to turn down the volume or “noise” in our everyday lives in order to be present to the realities of our immediate environment. In that moment of quiet the audience become ‘witnesses’ to what is before us today in the immediate present… people on the move toward somewhere else.

The Water Station, Shōgo, Zarrilli, Norway, Refugees
Scene 3: Girl (Hilde Stensland, Norway) and Woman with Parasol (Jeungsook Yoo, Korea)

Performance, ‘witnessing’, and the refugee crisis.

In London on Thursday, 17 September 2015 Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and British artist Anish Kapoor initiated an eight mile London Walk as an artistic act on behalf of the refugee crisis in Europe. Both have major exhibitions currently open in London. Speaking to The Guardian, Kapoor explained how

“This is a walk of compassion, a walk together as if we were walking to the studio…Peaceful. Quiet. Creative…It is important that artists are not outside the equation, we don’t stand on the sidelines. Artists are part of the story of a response, we cannot stand aside and let others make the response.”

This production of The Water Station has become “part of the [current] equation”–an artistic response to the age-old realities of people fleeing persecution, seeking refuge, or returning ‘home’ after conflicts.

The Water Station reflects Ōta’s childhood experience. Along with other Japanese ex-colonists in China at the end of World War II, as a six-year-old Ōta and his family had to undertake an extremely long and exhausting two month journey of repatriation from China back to Japan travelling endless miles by foot, freight train, and eventually boat. The same experience of course was happening in many locations throughout the world with movements of other people at the end of World War II. During their long trek, many people on their long road of return discarded what they could no longer carry. As one biographer explains, this formative experience for Ōta is reflected in his body of work, which often focuses on ‘the weak, disabled, and unwanted’ who inhabit his haunted landscapes.

Given the current refugee crisis, The Water Station has tremendous immediate resonance for all of us within the EU and throughout the world. The production was planned around an internationally/ethnically diverse cast of ten including Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo (Chinese Singaporean), Jeungsook Yoo (Korea), Navtej Johar (India), Florencia Cordeu (Argentina/Chile), and six actors from Norway including Leammuid Biret Ravndna from the local Sami community, as well as Bjorn Ole Odegard, Ivar Furre Aam, Rune Loding, Stein Hiller Elvestad, and Hilde Stensland. The international cast reflects on-stage the historical, world-wide nature of issue of those seeking refuge during and after conflicts. According to Ōta, The Water Station is located not in any single specific historical instance of migration due to conflict, but rather ‘anywhere and everywhere, [in] a place out of time.’ One critic described The Water Station as a ‘quiet chamber piece that speaks in the rich language of silence to the neglected part of the soul’. Writing in The Straits Times, Clarissa Oon described the 2004 Singapore production of The Water Station as ‘…a wordless…tone poem whose silent chords struck notes of exile, loss and fraying endurance…’

Viewing the current production of The Water Station today is equally an act of witnessing, and an opportunity for reflection on what one witnesses both within and beyond the theatre. The Water Station has yet to be produced or performed in the UK.

Rehearsing The Water Station: embodying an aesthetics of ‘quietude’ and ‘divestiture’.

With its slowed down everyday movement, this non-verbal performance lasts 105 minutes creates a completely different experience for an audience from narratively driven, text-based theatre. In his theatre aesthetic, Ōta developed a process of ‘divestiture’–discarding or paring away of anything unnecessary including spoken language so that actors and audience alike are taken out of their everyday world in order to focus on the irreducible elements of our shared human existence—what Ōta calls “the ‘unparaphrasable realm of experience”. The script for The Water Station is a sparse 20 page document—a simple record of the basic staging and images Ōta and his company devised from a diverse set of source materials. Although this is a non-verbal performance, as Ōta explains, “there are words here…you simply can’t hear them.”

The main premises guiding both the original Japanese production as well as our new production are “acting in silence” and “acting at a very slow tempo.” In the performance, everyday actions are slowed down. Acting “in silence” and at “a slow tempo” make special requirements on the actors. In order to slow down the actors, and allow them to be more attentive to their environment, each other, and each action they perform, I have taken the actors through an initial two week workshop (in May, 2015), and extensive and on-going daily training of approximately 75 minutes prior to our rehearsals. This training heightens the actor’s sensory awareness through yoga, the Indian martial art (kalarippayattu) and the Chinese martial art (taiqiquan). All three disciplines focus on at first being attentive to the breath, and then to the breath as it ‘moves’ us and opens our awareness. This type of awareness training is essential to prepare the actors to inhabit Ōta’s aesthetic of ‘quietude’ and to divest themselves of anything unnecessary in the moment of performance. It is also essential in helping create a sense of ensemble and shared process.

The Water Station, Shōgo, Zarrilli, Norway, Refugees
Scene 6: Man (Navtej Johar, India), Husband and Wife (Rune S. Loding, Norway; Leammuid Biret Ravndna, Sami community/Norway)

Migration: past and present.

If we look back far enough, all of us will discover migration in our family histories. I am an Italian-American who migrated to Wales sixteen years ago. My paternal grandfather migrated to the US from southern Italy at the end of the nineteenth century seeking religious freedom. My paternal grandmother’s family (Allnut) migrated to the US from Oxfordshire several centuries ago. The maternal side of my family come from France and England. All Americans except the native (first world) peoples are immigrants and/or refugees. And of course where I grew up in the US, there were individuals and communities of people who came from Wales, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Ethiopia, Vietnam, etc. in various waves of migration.

You might think that being near the Arctic Circle the local community might be mono-cultural. Far from it. Of course there are the native Sami people, and then the Norwegians. But there are also many immigrants who have settled here before this current refugee crisis from numerous countries around the world–a number of whom attended our final dress rehearsal.

After the premiere run at Nordland Teatre in Mo I Rana, ten miles south of the Arctic Circle, the production tours the county of Nordland with performances in far-flung locations above and just below the Arctic Circle–Sandnessjoen, Mosjoen, Bodo, Svolvaer, Sortland, Stokmarkness, Narvik, Hamaroy, and Bronnoysund.

About Nordland Teater: This regional theatre was founded in 1978 and its new state-of-the-art facility was opened in 2005. With a permanent staff of 24, Nordland has a main stage theatre and a studio/black box theatre. It’s mission is to serve all 44 municipalities in the district by taking its performances on tour. Each season includes a diverse set of eight productions, and the annual ‘Winterlight Festival’ in February celebrating ‘light’ of the sun beginning to return.

Review of the production of Vannposten (The Water Station)

In the performance, not a word is spoken and everything happens. Shogo takes us a postapocalyptic world, situated around an outdoor water faucet where we meet many different people, mostly very vulnerable and stripped down…With wonderfully precise direction and focus on the tiniest of details Zarrilli has managed to create a truly remarkable experience…a show that surpasses almost anything I’ve ever seen…The Water Station is an incredibly sensual, beautiful, well-played and rich show. Nordland Teater should be incredibly proud of their bravery in putting on such a daring production, with such high artistic ambition. And they’ve succeeded in every way.

Reviewed by theatre critic, Armun Grimstad for the Norwegian daily newspaper, Klassekampen, on 28 September, 2015.

Phillip Zarrilli: The Llanarth Group’s most recent production, playing ‘the maids’, premiered in February 2015 and was an international collaboration with Gaitkrash (Cork, Ireland), Theatre P’yut (Seoul, Korea) and independent artists Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo and Adrian Curtin. Zarrilli directed the world premiere of Kaite O’Reilly’s the 9 fridas on invitation of the Taipei Arts Festival with Mobius Strip in association with Hong Kong Rep in September 2014. the 9 fridas tours to Hong Kong Rep in October, 2016. In February, 2016 he directs the world premiere of Kaite O’Reilly’s latest play, Cosy–an Unlimited commission in association with Wales Millennium Centre which will tour Wales, and have performances in London and Glasgow in September, 2016 as part of the Unlimited Festival.


The Water Station

Set Design: Serge von Arx

Costume Design: Nina von Arx

Photographs: på Ketil Born