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Interview: Dan Rothenberg Talks Zero Cost House

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Interview: Dan Rothenberg Talks <i>Zero Cost House</i>

by Paul Hansen 18 September, 2020

Despite the current pandemic, many theater companies are valiantly keeping the curtain going up (at least electronically) on new productions. Pig Iron Theatre Company is presenting Toshiki Okada’s Zero Cost House on Zoom, translated by Aya Ogawa, and adapted and directed by Dan Rothenberg.

A press release describes the work as based on a semi-autobiographical text which, “follows a writer as he reflects on his younger self in Yokohama. An outsider obsessed with Thoreau’s Walden and Bjork’s Post, what begins as nostalgia for a simpler existence becomes a looping, interior adventure into political awakening, and a demand for change in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown.”

Performances are Friday, September 18 at 8pm, Saturday, September 19 at 8pm, Sunday, September 20 at 2pm and 8pm, and Friday, September 25 at 8pm (all times EDT). Following the Saturday night performance, there will be a talkback with Toshiki Okada and Dan Rothenberg. For more information log on to

ScreenPicks' Paul Hansen posed some questions about the production to director Dan Rothenberg, who is also a co-founder and co-artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company, an organization known for its experimental aesthetic. 

Q.  What was the impetus behind the creation of Zero Cost House and what issues is the play exploring?

Dan Rothenberg: We commissioned a new work from Toshiki because we were fascinated by his writing style and his unique approach to character and to movement on stage. It was his first piece for non-Japanese speakers, I believe, and we really weren’t sure where to begin. He landed on an idea about Thoreau’s Walden -- which I thought sounded pretty boring! And I told him as much. But I was wrong. As we began working on this idea, the tsunami and Fukushima disaster, in 2011, completely transformed the Japanese political and cultural landscape. So Toshiki radically changed course-- changed what the play was about, changed what he was doing with his life and work-- and ZCH became a kind of autobiography that charts this evolution.

All of Toshiki’s plays are fundamentally about self-consciousness. About the way, when we’re speaking to someone else, we’re paying more attention to ourselves than the person we are talking to.  We spend so much energy creating a role for ourselves and reassuring other people that we are not outliers, that we are normal, that we are acceptable and virtuous humans. In Toshiki’s landscapes, the amount of energy and attention we put into this transaction- “what does the other person think of me? does the other person think I’m strange?” - is enormous. And I have to say that this seems pretty true to life to me. As I’ve worked on several of Toshiki’s plays and talking about them with groups of artists, and we start tracking our thoughts more closely, I have to confess that I think we are indeed spending a lot of time having conversations in our head, and carefully arranging the presentation of our personas.

This play in particular is about how this obsession with self-presentation gets in the way of taking a stand, in the way of any kind of activism. And it draws a link between the idealism of young people and the courage that is needed to stand up for what you believe in, in the face of habits, and social systems, and social conventions.

Q.  Do you think that the play is particularly relevant in light of the current concern about the environment?

Dan Rothenberg: The quick answer is yes but I feel like it’s a very specific way of thinking about it... Okada’s reimagined version of Thoreau says, “You may think this takes a lot of courage or conviction but it doesn’t, it just takes a little bit.” So the play itself is about an awakening that happened in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster and how many small changes Toshiki and his family needed to make as citizens (moving to a new city, changing what they ate, changing what they bought) in order to live their values. And of course, yes we need to do these things in order to deal with the coming climate catastrophe. This moment in the pandemic, too, when we see how interdependent we are, and how possible it is for the government to release resources and create money all of a sudden-- it should make us question how “difficult” it would be to make the changes we need to decarbonize our economy. It should make us think that maybe it would only take a little bit of courage and conviction. As I say this, I realize how naive and idealistic that sounds. And I think this play is a deep dive into that worry, about sounding too idealistic to be convincing.

Q. Are there any particular benefits and challenges in presenting a play on Zoom?

Dan Rothenberg: The worst challenge, I suppose, is that you’re at the mercy of everyone’s internet provider! But I think the benefit, for people like us, who are interested in playing with form, is that so many people are arriving at the “theater” with an open mind and an open heart, not expecting anything slick or perfect, but really curious about how this is going to go. 

Q.  Is there anything in general you would like to tell audiences about Zero Cost House?

Dan Rothenberg: Toshiki cites Brecht and Beckett as his biggest influences, and I think a lot about Waiting for Godot when I’m working on his stuff. How “nothing happens” but if you can lock into the very particular sense of humor, it’s moving and hilarious all at once. So my advice is to stick with the longer measures of any Okada play, and let them work on you. It may seem like nothing’s happening, but trust me, things are moving underneath the surface.

There’s a joke in the play about the word arrogance, and I really didn’t understand this joke until after the play had happened. It’s almost the secret subtitle of the play. 

Q. Would you like to share with us what your and Pig Iron Theatre's next projects are?

Dan Rothenberg: We have just started fundraising for a collaboration with filmmaker Josephine Decker, who just directed Shirley. Josephine is leading a new work of live performance about the pregnant body, which Josephine calls “violent, transcendent, messy, and hilarious.” At least, we hope it will be a work of live performance. Maybe it’ll be something else.

Photo credit: Mary McCool. L-R Dito Van Reigersberg & Alex Torra. Puppets by Maiko Matsushim