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Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei

Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei

Interweaving Performance Cultures

Fellow 2008/09, 2009/10, 2011/12, 2018/19

Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei is Professor Emerita of Theatre at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a Fellow of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. She was honored by the Association of Asian Performance as a Founder of the Field. An authority on postwar Japanese and cross-cultural performance, she is also an award-winning playwright, director, and translator.  Books include Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan (Hawaii, 2005) and the co-written Theatre Histories: An Introduction (Routledge, third ed. 2016). Her sixteen original plays include Medea: A Noh Cycle Based on the Greek Myth, Ghostlight: The Haunting and The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds, co-created with director Zvika Serper. She has presented over 150 papers and keynotes worldwide and has published over 100 articles, essays and reviews. She is Editor of the Association for Asian Performance Newsletter and Associate Editor of Asian Theatre Journal.

Research Project

The Opposite of Human: Japanese Theatre and Its Doubles. Freaks, Fags, Foreigners, Females and Fakes in Japanese Theatre History

Using Japanese social/psychological theories, I explore how historical/social traumas and creative “outsiders” intersected in the development of new Japanese performance genres.   Over the centuries, diverse genres including noh/kyogen, kabuki/bunraku, shimpa/shingeki/Takarazuka, angura/butoh, and contemporary robot/digital performance developed in response to wars, natural and manmade disasters, westernization/modernization and other political/social upheavals. In each case, aspects of pre-existing Japanese and/or non-indigenous performance were interwoven in the creation of the new genre. In addition, a surprising number of key creators or performers were the “opposite” of the generally accepted Japanese self (the “human”) as envisioned in terms of national, ethnic, gender and/or biological criteria, ie, typically male and Japanese. These “opposites” included foreigners, females, non-normative sexual identities, deities, followers of non-native religions, and constructed beings such as puppets, digital persona and robots. 

To understand why new performance genres developed at such traumatic moments, and why non-indigenous performance genres and non-normative practitioners were crucial in creating them, I turn to socio/psychological studies identifying modes of reversibility in Japanese thought. Concepts such as ura/omote (inside or behind/mask or face), uchi/soto (inside or home/outside), and kage (shadow or reflection) support the importance of the feared yet adored outsider in Japanese social/psychological life and aesthetics. While such theories are typically applied only to Japan, I hope to suggest ways that scholars might employ them to understand other performance cultures undergoing similar aspects of interweaving. 

Recommended Publications

  • Marra, Michele. Modern Japanese Aesthetics: A Reader. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.
  • Salz, Jonah. Ed. A History of Japanese Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Sorgenfrei, Carol Fisher. Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.
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