Mapping the Limits of Theater:
Terayama Shūji's Challenge to the Boundary Between Fiction and Reality

Theatre without actors and theatre where everyone is an actor, theatre without theatre buildings and theatre where everything is a theatre building, theatre without audience members and theatre where everyone is transformed into an audience member, theatre in city streets, theatre invading private homes, postal theatre, theatre in secret chambers without exits, telephone theatre: These are the trails left by ten years of varied experiments performed by Tenjō Sajiki Theatre Laboratory:

        Throughout his career, Terayama Shūji  (1935-1983), poet, writer, photographer, playwright, director, and dramatist, made use of different media to erase the difference between the real and unreal.  His “city dramas” were sets of “plays” set up across Tokyo involving a high degree of improvisation and forced audiences and actors alike into uncomfortable and often publicly disturbing situations. Terayama was interested in new relationships between street and stage, reality and fiction, and also challenged the linearity of storytelling and text. By choreographing his actors through brief instruction and leaving the play or action open ended, he gave a nod toward the happenstance nature of urban life and all participants to shake the calm foundations upon which urban life was founded.  Working from Terayama’s interest in using the text and space of the city as a map to to create new realms of drama, our project seeks to construct an interactive map of Terayama’s plays as they shifted from one theme to another.  The works that we have selected from his vast oeuvre show a distinct engagement with the ordinary space of life in Tokyo as he sought to question and pressure the boundaries between audience and actor, stage and street.  

        Throughout his lifetime Terayama shifts across mediums and combines methodologies from different media, particularly in sending the theater to the streets seeking to transform reality into art, dissolving the borders between fiction and reality.  Terayama “wrote anti-establishment poetry in the imperial court’s genre; agitated for sexual revolution; paired velvet platform sandals with suits; put together a theater troupe out of runaways, street musicians, and transvestites; and directed films that invoke Flaming Creatures or some of Andy Warhol’s projects.  He collaborated in book publishing, theater production, and filmmaking with major countercultural artists like the photographer Moriyama Daidō and the graphic designers Yokoo Tadanori, Awazu Kiyoshi, and Uno Akira,” (Steven C. Ridgely, Japanese Counterculture, viii).  His oeuvre extends across a vast range of media, and yet rather than see him as a “clever dilettante” as Steven C. Ridgely warns, we should investigate the political perspectives that he explored throughout his work.  Though it is impossible to approach the theater, radio drama, film and agitational performances that Terayama and Tenjo Sajiki, the theatre troupe he founded, created and performed in one discussion, space or book, we look for a way to make connections between the different ideas that he conceptualized. By approaching his work as inherently connected through its adamant denial of an explicit statement of politics and to instead empower the breakdown of society and space, we seek to locate Terayama at the center of counter culture.

        Placing his work as the location of a various types of dissent, we argue in agreement with historian Steven C. Ridgely, that the “vagabond pose – never getting tied down, staying in motion, rejecting expertise and specialization, and refusing to keep a job past the time it works for you – is central to understanding Terayama Shūji and is the reason treating just one facet of his work (poetry, theater, or film) tend to miss the larger point,” (viii).  In search of a means to expand the boundaries of media and mirror Terayama’s quest to make works that challenged any such boundaries, we look for a way to combine multiple works into one viewing space by representing them as a visual narrative that moves from the theatre that Terayama sought to break from from, to the streets he sought to deconstruct, and finally back to the theatre.  At the same time, we urge the viewer to have a hesitance toward thinking of Terayama’s work in a way that homogenizes it as one cohesive body, or thinks of it solely in the terms of a harmless challenge to established boundaries.


        As Ridgely writes, “It is tempting to read this self-fictionalization and generation of false history as a border crossing or a blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality. But what Terayama was doing was more radical than that; he was demonstrating that these categories have flexible boundaries, ones we can manipulate. Recognizing that we will never get closer to reality than what we experience as reality (in phenomenological terms), and that fiction and reality as discursive constructs are in a co-determined relationship, Terayama realized that the boundary of reality could be shifted by pushing and pulling on its perceived border within the realm of fiction. It is quite likely that he was much more concerned with reality than with fiction but realized that it would be more effective to expand the reach of reality by drawing back the border of fiction than to simply push reality further in the fiction’s territory” (Ridgely 2010:XVIII).

        Keeping these suggestions in mind and situating Terayama’s anti-establishment stance in connection to the contemporary global counterculture movement, we have selected texts from his book The Labyrinth and the Dead Sea: My Theatre that elucidate his conceptions of the format of the theatre, audience, maps, and protest.  


I wanted to know: What is an audience?

I wanted to know: What is an actor?

I wanted to know: What is a theatre?

I wanted to know: What is a script?


(The Labyrinth and the Dead Sea: My Theatre by Terayama Shūji, trans Carol Sorgenfrei)

“I prefer to regard the text not as something to be read word for word, but as a map.  It is said that the history of maps is actually older than that of literature.  Even in pre-history, man had to make graphic representations in order to understand where he was and how far he had to go.  If the territory depicted in the diagram can be tread upon by human feet, it belongs to history.  If it cannot be so tread upon, if it is an imaginary garden room, or the wilderness of human relationships or the warm intimacy of the human body, then it belongs to the realm of drama. "

                                                  -- Terayama Shūj, “Manifesto,” 1975

"By producing an invisible play, we produced a fictional experience different from that of the usual drama, which is simply the reproduction of conventional story form."

What is an Actor?

What is an Audience?

What is Fiction? 

What is Reality?

What is Theater?
I'm really sorry, but can I borrow your soap?  
I've got gonorrhea. 
I'm not on display. 
Stop looking at me like that.

“The ‘theatre building’ is drama’s prison... I want to begin by stating that theatre is no longer controlled by the laws of causality. Tenjō Sajiki Theatre Troupe began when we killed of Aristotle, the curtain-raiser classical theatre, and transcended the concepts of cause, effect, and motivation...In such circumstances, what exactly is theatre?  Where are we coming from and where are we going?” 

“Theatres are neither buildings nor facilities. They are ideological ‘places’ in which dramatic encounters are created.  Any place can become a theatre, and any theatre is merely part of the scenery of everyday life until a drama is created there. Without our noticing, theatre buildings were reduced to bit players in everyday reality, to merely social ‘facilities for fiction’ in which dramas were prepared.  The act of building a theatre rigidly configured the dividing line between reality and fiction...Everyday reality and the power of imaginative fiction were forced to enter a mutually inviolable nonagression pact.  I thought, ‘A theatre building can be said to have emerged only when a drama has been born.’ Nevertheless, nowadays, ‘the essence of ‘drama’ precedes the existence of ‘drama’ and we tolerate the inversion in which the theatre building precedes the drama.” 

“I have come to realize that to make drama independent of ‘theatre’ facilities, we must discard the idea of ‘theaters’ as outward manifestations of physical reality, and embrace the concept of ‘theatres’ as aspects of inner reality.  Our theme as theatre people ought to be how to organize the power of imagination in order to transform all places into theatres.”


Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts, 270

Sorgenfrei, 287. 
Sorgenfrei, 287.  

“When we interject those who ‘see’ into those who ‘are seen,’  their relationship becomes a mutual, shared experience, and the script becomes mingled with improvisation.” 

“I feel a sense of disharmony when the audience members are anonymous, when the only people permitted to have names or to perform are the actors. Fundamentally, I feel that the audience members should also have faces, that they should “introduce themselves” in order to find identification in the encounter.”

“...unless we are able to understand the ‘mathematical function of’ of cause and effect, we are doomed to be no more than policemen who are outside the play, trying to pass judgment on policemen who are inside the play,” 
(Sorgenfrei 272)
(Sorgenfrei 276)
(commenting on his 1972 play “Hitler was Better,” Carol Sorgenfrei, 271) 

On the 1971 Tokyo premiere of the city play Man-Powered Plan Solomon:

“On this occasion, audience member were sold maps rather than tickets. City street maps of the area between Shinjuku and Takanobaba were marked to indicate the locales and approximate times of planned performance events.  Audience members using their prepurchased, market maps as guides, ‘roamed the city in search of the play.’ Armed with the password ‘Paint it Black,’ the title of a Rolling Stones song, audience members could wander wide-eyed between things that ‘seemed real but were probably fictional parts of the plots” and things that ‘seemed unreal but were actually parts of unadulterated reality.' In the script I wrote: This is a city play without a form of its own, a play that establishes its shape based upon the ambiguous border between everyday nature and fiction.  Half the time, actors must move with the speed, sophisticated motor control, and decisiveness of a veteran baseball insider, while the rest of the time they must seem to disappear into the monstrous catatonia of everyday reality.  The play abandons psychological realism, aiming for the collapse of the daily reality of city streets; it is like a paranoiac controlled by fantasies of corruption; it presents the sky and demands that someone be borne up into it.” (309) 
Invisible Theater

What is Protest? 

“Tenjo Sajiki’s primary goal in creating theatre is to revolutionize real life without resorting to politics.”

 Sorgenfrei Unspeakable Acts, 264.  

Travel through the city for an entire week by catching rides with other people. Do not take any other means of transportation. 

Invite everyone you encounter on the street to your house for dinner one evening. Write down how long you must travel before three agree. 

Keep a diary of the future. Write only what will happen to you in the future. 

Keep a diary of traffic. Write only what will happen to you in traffic. 

Spend a day at Wi Spa. Ask someone to borrow their towel. 

Visit Westwood. From Westwood Blvd and Wilshire Blvd, walk northbound on Westwood. The rules are: turn right when you encounter a Trader Joes bag. Turn left when you see a man drinking coke. Continue until you arrive back at your original destination

Traverse Pico Blvd blind folded and navigate only by touch or scent. 

Mail a daily photo of yourself to your local Congressman, subject line 'Census Update'. 

Photograph the paparazzi. 

In August, solar cook. 

Instructions to remake your Reality: 
UHI Project By

Ruby Bolaria
Jia Gu
Deonte Harris
Kelly McCormick