Bryerly Long – since 2010 has worked with the Seinendan Theatre Company, known for its ‘contemporary colloquial’ theatre style, performing in national and international tours.
Bryerly made her film debut in Koji Fukada’s “Hospitalité”. She co-starred with an android robot in the feature film “Sayonara”, in which she displayed a ‘unique quality of restraint’ (The Telegraph) and ‘eeriness’ (The Society for Film), acting the role of a dying girl ‘to chill and poignant perfection’ (Japan Times) and ‘bonding convincingly with her inanimate co-star’ (JT).
In theatre, she has been praised for her stage presence, capacity to switch with ease between various languages and strong physical impersonation of characters (Nikkei Shinbun newspaper, November 2012) most influential contemporary film and theatre directors in Japan. she aims to draw on her language skills and international experiences growing up in Vietnam, Bosnia, France, the UK and the US, to work in film and theatre across cultures.
So as to recap our last conversation: you lived in the United States for eight years, then in Vietnam, Bosnia, France, Great Britain, finally Japan…Could you tell the whole story?
I was born in Washington D.C. I went to the German school there and that is why I learnt German when I was three years old. When I was 8 years old, my family moved to Vietnam. There was a communist regime in Vietnam and they were very protectionist so they didn’t let foreigners study in Vietnamese schools and my parents put me into the French school there. I learnt French in Vietnam. Then I left Vietnam at the age of twelve and we moved to Sarajevo. In Sarajevo I went to the Bosnian school. I was in Sarajevo for about a year and a half. My mum was doing anti-trafficking work and she started getting some threats from the mafia so she sent me and my sister to a school in France for half a year. After that for my last three years in school we moved to London. I graduated from the French lycee in London. I was seventeen when I graduated from high school and then I spent one year training in a ballet school in Geneva. I had always trained in ballet growing up and dancing. I wasn’t quite sure if ballet was a right fit for me, so in my year in ballet school I applied to Oxford in case I would like to go back to studies.
I tried to find something connected with culture? and also there were some Japanese dancers in my ballet school so I tried to learn Japanese and I started reading about Japanese theatre and dance. The only way to understand this whole world was obviously by studying Japanese. Then I went to the Merce Cunnigham Studio for a bit, because I was sick of the ballet school mentality. I really loved the Merce Cunnigham Studio and I adapted there. I said ‘Okay, I’m gonna stay in New York and become a dancer in the Merce Cunnigham Company’, but I already got in to Oxford and my parents encouraged me: ‘Why don’t you try Oxford?’ In the first year in Oxford we had an exchange to Japan, so I thought it could be a quite interesting experience, and I went to Oxford. For my whole four years in Oxford I was always tempted to leave the University and go into dance or theatre full time. But I managed to stick it out to the end and complete my dissertation on ‘Contemporary Japanese Theatre’.
You also mentioned before, that you moved to Bosnia right after the Yugoslav Wars.
It was similar later with the Fukushima disaster. The big event make people understand their raison d’être. Like in the famous line from “The Third Man”: In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So I think there is a high sense of excitement and creativity after something terrible happens sometimes. I think there was this kind of atmosphere in Sarajevo when I was there. This renewal, everybody is coming back and being friends again. That was a really exciting time when we were living there in 2000. When I went back there a few years later to do some volunteer work in a summer camp for orphans from the war, it was much tougher because a lot of my friends who had been about 13 in that post war exciting period, very exciting adolescent, but by that time they became adults and suddenly there was huge unemployment and many people were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions, hyper nationalism, etc again. People who I knew very well became nationalists. They were kind of ghosts to me these days. This moment of openness, possibility and creativity when the economy is so bad things tend to change. And I don’t know what Sarajevo is now. I would really love to go back there. I hope.
So where is your home now? Where do you find your own identity?
Hmm… I feel very much like at home in Japan in some ways, because I have been living here for 8 years.
You speak several languages – some of them pretty much like a native speaker. Leaving English besides, it is French, German, Japanese… Didn’t they mix up in your head?
No, not at all. It is mostly because I grew up so internationally, I think. When I was little kid my mum was doing field-work in Thailand. I think I was exposed to foreign languages when I was very little.. I learnt German and English when I was in the United States and then I moved to Vietnam when I was eight; that’s why I learnt French and Vietnamese. French and Vietnamese are such different languages and also different from German and English as well. Obviously German has a complicated grammar. People who speak German tend to learn a lot of grammar. There was also French. The education system in France has changed a lot but when I was there it was focused on really hammering grammar into people’s heads. I think I always kind of enjoyed grammar and I definitely used grammar to learn languages even as a kid.
Grammar of a language surely exists, however do you also think there is a grammar of the theatre you perform?
Hmm… That is a really interesting idea. I never thought about it that way. Definitely, that’s really fascinating concept that you suggest. Sentences are structures, right, and when you think about the differences between, let’s say Japanese theatre and maybe more traditional western theatre then it’s a lot about how the narrative structure is completely different. So you can say that it is a different grammar. I agree.
Tadashi Suzuki would call it ‘grammar on the feet.’ Imagine a situation in a European theatre play when there is a telephone on a table and the actor moves towards it. Why do you think he’s moving there?
To pick up the phone, right?
Exactly. That is common European way of thinking. Quite contrary to what we observe in Japanese theatre where the movement might mean something completely different. Jerzy Grotowski used specific terms to describe this phenomena – ‘walking’ (for a particular purpose) and ‘walkness’ (stress on the walking method itself not its reason). As a person who also took part in the Seinendan spectacles, do you feel any big difference between European and Japanese mentality as for grammar of the theatre?
Definitely. I am coming from a dance background. I actually was not a big fan of a theatre. When I watched plays in Oxford, often the emotions were too big and direct. You know, actors are people who like to express their emotions sometimes in a kind of theatrical overreacting. And when I discovered (Hirata) Oriza’s theatre because it is a much more, I would say, naturalist expression of emotion, it is much more based on the way we actually express our emotions in everyday life, rather than just focusing on a dramatic action. It is more about giving the whole picture. It is also very musical, the way the direction happens, the structure, the biggest difference I would say is the way actors work with directors, for example Oriza, he just gives people timing, e.g. Can you make between that word and that word half a second shorter’ or ‘0.3 second longer. That is much more like music and I felt very comfortable with that coming from a dance background. It was very precise, too, very mathematical in some way, in other words very grammatical. The timing makes an incredible difference in how the emotions come across and the other thing is that he talks about it often when the actors become too stiff then he will tell them take a sip of tea at this point or notice the person walking into the room.
So he wouldn’t yell at them or be particularly strict?
No, he would give them a task to divert their attention to something else because acting has suddenly become much more natural when they stop focusing on that one thing. So it is about diverting the attention and also being able to be more precise about the timing. He doesn’t yell on people but the only time I saw him coming close to being mad was where he was kind of scary when people couldn’t get the timing and he kept saying: ‘one more time!’. And this could go on like about half an hour and everyone became terrified. Because if you repeat something so many times, sometimes after a while, people round the person who makes this mistake start to change the timing too and he would say why did you change the timing.
I noticed you have a particular way of acting – a bit aloof from the world, listless, sometimes even glum. Is it a concept of acting that you gained at Seinendan or is it based on the methods that you acquired while living in Europe?
I definitely tend to be drawn to and often get cast in roles of people who are kind of dreamy or intellectual or a little bit like being in another space. Each actor has their own character. Each person has their own character. Actors and their personality fit each other: like for example were you compare me with Emma Stone – I’d say she is much more down-to-earth and girl-next-door. I guess it comes from my own character, maybe I am a slightly aloof and impractical person.
Could you say about yourself that you are you a dreamer that lives inside a dream?
Definitely. I love poetry and I love dreaming and imagining things like from texts. I really engage in texts, I have a dreamy imagination, a little bit abstract. That is why I think I got this slightly aloof character. The other thing is because I came to Japan right after university and I didn’t have much experience in acting because I was always doing dance. My first experience in acting was with a robot in “Sayonara”. I think this whole experience with working with the robot and having just moved to Japan made me feel the loneliness of the character because I felt loneliness myself. I was also directed to be almost robotic. Because they pre-recorded the whole play and I had to fit the timing of the robot and the concept was to make it unclear for the audience which is a robot and which is a person. I think for “Sayonara” I wanted to draw on that for the character and affect it very much like I had been living with the robot, growing up so she became almost robotic herself because people’s characters are influenced by who we spend the most amount of time with.
I wish I could show you some comedies I’ve acted in, too. I think in comedies I tend to play a very different style and I kind of made a conscious decision after doing the film “Sayonara” because I felt I was risking to get typecast as a sad, kind of poetic, aloof, dying girl, you know, the girl who acts like a robot. That is why I actually joined Yoshimoto, which specializes in comedy, very much more grounded. The use of voice is radically opposed to that in Hirata Oriza ’s plays. Your voice has to carry to a thousand seats theatre. And it has to be something that everybody in the audience will laugh at. Sometimes it is overacted but I kind of enjoyed the challenge, like really breaking the image of Sayonara doing a completely different style of acting, facing the audience, getting the audience to laugh every time. Because I’ve always been a huge fan of comedians, like Charlie Chaplin.
Speaking of comedies and comedians – you starred in Koji Fukada’s satire “Hospitalité”.
The comedians know when they get it right or wrong. It’s not so vague. If you get it right people laugh and I think it is a difficult thing consistently to make people laugh. Comedians tend to be creative people and they put themselves completely at the service of the audience and it is something that I respect a lot. Actually there is a play of Oriza, in which I acted, “Seoul shimin” that explores the relationship between Japan and Korea during the period leading up to the Second World War. There is a whole series of five plays taking place in 1909, 1919, 1929, 1939, and I acted in the one set in 1939. I was a Hitler youth who comes to Asia to educate the Japanese about the Hitlerjugend. It is a very dark theme but it is a kind of comic relief character in the play in a way. For that role, I watched a lot of Charlie Chaplin as a dictator and I was really inspired by that. And it was so funny. I was using a very loud voice. I think I acted completed differently from “Sayonara”. I even got some reviews in Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun for that role. Oriza has given me some comedy roles too.
Luk Perceval used to say that Theatre is like drawing in sand. Not only that the director’s vision completely fades away without the video recording, but same theatre play might be perceived differently depending on the venue. Oriza says something completely different – that the play preserves its previously settled shape regardless of the circumstances.
Some directors change the direction a lot according to the space. Oriza doesn’t. I sometimes wish he did it a bit more…
So it is really mathematical, to the point it becomes a bit artificial, literally robotic doesn’t it?
Definitely like in all of his plays, he directs it, he wants the actors to get the timing he wants and then he wants them to perform it exactly the same way, everywhere, for the whole run of the play. He doesn’t change the direction throughout the run.
Is it any particular advice from Oriza about acting that engraved in your memory, like a motto for instance?
The thing is that Oriza is someone who is very practical. It was really interesting watching him directing French people, because French actors always ask questions why should they act like that. Then he keeps saying: Just try it. Just do it. I think that was the biggest lesson that I learnt from acting in Japan and particularly Oriza is like ‘just go with what the director throws at you and try it out the time that he throws it to you’ and often even if it doesn’t make sense emotionally it starts to make sense. I don’t think that everything in life makes sense anyway. I’ve noticed that a lot of Japanese actors have this attitude. Maybe American actors and European actors are very method focused and they need to have a reason why they do something.
That’s another difference between Japanese and European theatre of grammar. In Europe, I think, theatre theory is being over-rationalized. Everything needs a reason or philosophical grounds in order to be justified. In Japan, on the contrary, some things just happen and nobody needs any special reason for their occurrence.
Exactly. I’ve realized that both in film and theatre – that the whole thing is the work of a director, and actors are puzzles in this whole piece. I think it is obviously important for the actors to have their own reason and at the end it is also important how the whole thing works together and that’s what an individual actor cannot know. And it was so interesting like in “Sayonara” for instance, Arai-san didn’t see the sense of doing a particular thing, so he asked Fukada about it. Then Fukada simply answered: I want you to do it like this. Arai went with it, since it was the director’s vision. I think that’s a really humble attitude and I think that a big strength of Japanese actors is the ability to trust the vision of the director and go with that rather than questioning and doing their way, because then everything works together like the whole choreography. The actor’s individual reason doesn’t see the whole often. Because I lived so many multiple lives in some way, living in different cultures, living with different languages, I think people – even characters in films – can be equally complex.
You mentioned about Fukushima in the beginning of our conversation. You came to Japan for the first time in 2010, so just before the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. How do you think the society has changed since then?
I think the biggest change that I observed, not so long after the earthquake, obviously the LDP came back to power. I’m not a fan of the conservative right wing, however I must admit that one thing that worked for Japan is Abenomics. I really saw a huge influx of foreigners to Japan during the past few years.
Where were you actually at that time when earthquake struck Japan on 11.03.2011?
I was at a rehearsal at Seinendan Theatre Company and it was my line. I remember my line was: It was bigger than expected. Hardly had I said that when the earthquake struck. Oriza said: Okay, maybe we should stop now. In this play there is a big table so after that we climbed underneath this table. I hadn’t really experienced any earthquakes so I asked Have you guys had many of these?. He answered: No I don’t think any of us experienced such a big one.
Since you starred in a post-apocalyptic movie “Sayonara”, do you you agree with the terms post-fukushimian art, post-fukushimian film, post-fukushimian theatre?
Actually, the play “Sayonara”, on which the later film is based, was written before the earthquake, so there were many elements in the film that weren’t in the play originally. But yes, definitely. I’ve seen a huge wave of Japanese films and plays inspired by Fukushima. I think the biggest originality in “Sayonara”, besides the robot performance, is that he decided to focus on foreigners. Within this cold period of post-11.-03 everybody was like: Ganbare Nihon! (Go on, Japan!). Actually, a lot of foreigners who had been in Tohoku were forgotten, pushed aside and it brought up this very nationalist perspective. Fukada tried to show it through “Sayonara” by shedding a new light on outsiders, how they are tread when a big calamity happens.I think there is something I didn’t see other directors addressing in their post-fukushimian works.
“Sayonara” is for me like a marriage of film and theatre. You can literally feel the theatre lives inside the movie. Could you tell a bit more about how it was working together with Koji Fukada, who is nowadays one of the most successful Japanese directors of his generation?
Fukada is a local Tokyo guy, but he has a very broad mind, a broad view of the world and he takes interest in the stories of outsiders. I haven’t seen many directors who take outsiders and underdogs within Japanese society so much into perspective . I think the reason why there is a post-fukushimian movement in art is that Japan is obviously a highly developed society, people have pretty comfortable lifestyles on the whole. After the Second World War there was this Japanese identity that was explored in angura theatre. In the bubble era there was so much money in everything. After the bubble era, there is like this kind of quiet era of everyday life. Not everybody was satisfied with that, so the artists wanted to be able to rally around something, so life has a meaning. It is kind of twisted to think like that, but 11.03 was for certain people like an excitement. I even remember some actors telling me My life got much more exciting that year. Afterwards, when people forgot Fukushima their lives went back to normal. I think a lot of these artists wanted to experience their raison d’être, they had just explored. I remember some people telling me about how they chose either to get married or divorced or change careers as a result of the calamity. For some people, I think it was like epiphany moment in Japanese society, when something bigger than usual happens. Because people are somehow cut off form that in their day by day, like Oriza explores in his theatre depicting a Japanese society of salarymen.
Could you tell a few words about your contemporary projects? How are you planning to move on, since apparently you are leaving Japan for a while?
I am going to attend a professional program in LA as a way to connect to the film world in the United States. I haven’t acted that much in English I didn’t get any formal training I just learnt on the job acting in Japan so it would be nice to get some part time training while working in the United states. I am also still developing a feature film script which I’m planning to, hopefully, if everything goes well, direct next fall in Japan. Next year I am hoping to go back to Japan for both some theatre work here and also to direct a film. Now I am brushing up the third draft that’s going to be sent to actors. I am on my third draft as a writer but it still needs a lot of work. LA from October to June. The idea is to audition for film and TV work in the US, and to take part in some independent projects.