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The cross-cultural theater connection

by Nobuko Tanaka

John Caird doesn’t see his staging of three plays in Japan this summer as making a big splash that leaves ever-decreasing ripples that then fade away.

Instead, this prominent English director with a Japanese wife and three children intends to work in Japan more frequently — if possible, splitting his time equally between the two countries.

With Caird admitting he is not sure yet how the Japanese theater world works, it is interesting to consider how he may fit into the scene here.

Long scorned as an isolated and closed society, the heavy doors blocking Japanese theater from the wider world have begun to open, with cultural exchanges flourishing as more and more theater people come and go between foreign countries and Japan.

Several prominent Japanese companies have forged direct relationships with foreign directors. Setagaya Public Theater, for example, has various long-term connections with foreign artists, including England’s Simon McBurney, Robert Lepage from Canada and the French director Antoine Caubet, while Theater Project Tokyo regularly works with American Robert Ackerman, Englishman David Levaux and German Thomas Niehaus.

Beyond these shores, meanwhile, 48-year-old playwright and director Shoji Kokami’s play “Trance” is being adapted and translated into English, to be staged by English actors under his direction at The Bush Theatre in West London, while 44-year-old dramatist Oriza Hirata (featured in these pages on April 26), currently has “Chants d’Adieu,” his collaboration work with 39-year-old French director Laurent Gutmann, running in Paris following a successful tour of France. Then there’s 51-year-old Hideki Noda’s “The Bee” — a smash hit last year in London with an English cast and Noda himself on stage, too — which will come to Japan this summer both with its original English cast and in a new Japanese version.

As cross-cultural forays like these and Caird’s become more frequent, however, the results aren’t only to be seen in box-office returns but in many other individual ways of seeing, too. Last July, for example, Noda told The Japan Times about working as a resident director in London. A lesson he learned there, he said, was the value of the “preview” system (absent in Japan) that allows a company to stage a work and then perhaps change it considerably before the official press night, when it may be reviewed for the first time.

Still, major hurdles exist for foreign directors in Japan.

“Using a foreign director costs more than a Japanese director because you need a translator, and the whole process of working with cast and crew takes longer,” the leader of one well-known Tokyo-based theater company said. “On Broadway and in the West End, they have a system of long runs for plays, so, even a play that starts in a small house, if it’s good and well-received, can be moved to a bigger house and then start to make some financial return as the run goes on. Unfortunately, there is no long-run system in Japan, so we should think about a basic infrastructure for welcoming more foreign dramatists into Japan, otherwise this cultural exchange movement will inevitably decline due to general economic degeneration, because at present every instance depends on an individual theater person’s or a company’s determination.”

With theater people here and abroad increasingly working hand in hand, how far can these international collaborations go?

Asked whether he thought the theatrical and wider world would be more borderless, Caird dismissed the suggestion with a laugh, saying: “I hope the world does not become borderless. I love the differences between the cultures. People are always saying that it looks like the world is becoming globalized and everybody will soon be talking like an American, but I see no evidence of that at all — and neither do I see how it could happen.”