Shozo Sato returns to Krannert Center as designer, director


By Melissa Mitchell

Last week, while old friends cheered on the home team and traded memories over bonfires and beers, a more serene sort of homecoming was taking place behind the scenes at the UI's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Following a four-year absence, one of the center's most beloved adopted sons, Shozo Sato, has come home for an extended visit. And while he's here, the inimitable master of traditional Japanese arts is not idling his time away or resting on his laurels.

Sato, professor emeritus of art and design and artist-in-residence at Krannert Center from the building's opening in 1969 until his retirement in 1992, has returned this semester as director and designer of the Illinois Opera Theater presentation of Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." The show, conducted by IOT director Kurt Klippstatter, opens Nov. 14 in the center's Tryon Festival Theater and runs through Nov. 17. The upcoming presentation represents the third time Sato has staged the classic opera at Illinois; the first was in 1975, the last in 1979.

Since his arrival in Champaign-Urbana in mid-October, Sato said he has been so consumed by costume fittings and rehearsals that he's not yet had the chance to enjoy a true homecoming. "From 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., I have been in rehearsals, so I have not had the time to meet with friends," he said with regret. But, he added, it feels quite natural to pass the long days and nights in the rehearsal rooms, theaters and costume shop at Krannert Center.

"Even though it's been four years, it feels more like I've just had a one-year sabbatical," he said. "The students are different, but many of the staff here are the same."

An accomplished master of various Japanese art forms -- from classical dance to ikebana (flower-arranging) to sumi-e (black-ink painting) -- Sato is perhaps best known locally as well as worldwide for his award-winning Kabuki adaptations of Shakespearean and Western theater classics. In these productions, Sato combines original story lines with the lavish costumery and highly stylized, exaggerated movements and intonations associated with Kabuki theater, a Japanese tradition that dates to the 16th century. His Kabuki interpretations of the dramatic tales of Medea, Macbeth, Othello, Faust and Achilles have been performed by student actors and mounted by professional companies throughout the United States and beyond.

In 1993, Sato's staging of "Kabuki Medea" in Durban, South Africa, was honored with a major national award for costuming. And a 1994 production at Chicago's Wisdom Bridge Theater earned multiple Joseph Jefferson Awards. The "Jeff" awards are regional equivalents of the Tony Awards.

After Sato retired from the UI in 1992, he and his wife, Alice, moved to Mendocino, Calif. Sato said it is no small coincidence that they chose to retire to northern California, where the climate and the landscape closely resemble his native Japan. "Our house there is an extension of Japan House, here in Urbana," Sato said, referring to the transformed Victorian house on California and Lincoln avenues that has served for more than 20 years as a teaching facility. "We have a studio, tea room and garden, and I have been doing cultural programs for the local community and college there," he said.

Though his retirement home suits him well, Sato still cannot resist the urge to wander and share his missionary-like zeal for Japanese culture with the rest of the world. Last year, he was the first guest artist in a new creative theater program at Towson State University, near Baltimore. There, he produced a new play, "Iago's Plot," which won awards from the Baltimore Sun and was honored at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater.

With barely a chance to relax after the final curtain goes down on "Madame Butterfly," Sato later this month will begin casting an Illinois Repertory Theater production of "Iago's Plot." The play is scheduled to open in March at Krannert Center.

Recently, Sato traveled to Weimar, Germany, where "Iago's Plot" was performed at the invitation of a representative from the Deutsche National Theater.

The time he spent in the former East German city was "a tremendous, eye-opening experience for me," Sato said. Since the people he encountered had very little knowledge of Asian culture, "they were very thirsty for information about Oriental philosophy. While I was there, I proposed to the theater that I would like to offer workshops in tea ceremony, dance and ikebana -- free of charge. After the lecture-demonstration, people would not leave. They stayed and asked questions -- and not mundane or superficial ones ... they were very thoughtful."

Sato said his reception by the Germans was not unlike the interest shown to him by members of the UI community when he first came here in 1964. Sato said he decided to remain in Champaign-Urbana in part because he was driven "by the desires of a missionary" to share his knowledge of Japanese culture with Americans. He was convinced that the restorative powers of art and culture could be used to heal some of the wounds that still remained following World War II.

By the 1960s, Sato said, "the Japanese government was eager to obtain new information from every aspect from the West, but it had not returned well to inform the West about Japanese arts and culture." So, Sato said, he believed that "we -- the people of Japan -- had that responsibility."

Three decades after Sato took on that responsibility here at the UI, the staff of the Krannert Center this season is picking up where Sato and others left off with a new program intended to introduce audiences to a host of international cultures. The new initiative, called "International Insights," will highlight the arts and culture of a different region of the world each season. The program begins somewhat appropriately this fall with a focus on the arts of the Asian Pacific Rim.


In addition to Sato's residency, the following events are planned to coincide with the program:


For more information about International Insights events, contact the Krannert Center ticket office, 333-6280 or 800/KCPATIX.

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Comments to: Inside Illinois Editor Doris Dahl, (217) 333-2895, d-dahl2@illinois.edu

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