Staffing decisions at the NNTT cause a stir in theater world

by Nobuko Tanaka

The Japanese theater world is currently in crisis over the question of to whom public theaters belong, since the decision by the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) to appoint new artistic directors for each of its three divisions. The disquiet has been caused by revelations following a June 30 announcement by NNTT that was signed off by its president, former culture ministry official Atsuko Toyama, that appoints as replacement artistic directors from 2010 Tadaaki Otaka (opera), David Bintley (dance) and Keiko Miyata (theater).

The appointment of British-based Bintley to replace Asami Maki, the current artistic director of dance, is less controversial, considering Maki has already been in the job for nine years. More questionable are the circumstances of the other two artistic directors’ appointments.

The Asahi Shimbun reported on July 9 that Tadaaki Otaka, the new artistic director of opera, who is slated to succeed Hiroshi Wakasugi, first learned of his appointment when he read about it in a newspaper. Otaka himself had never officially accepted the job.

More perplexing is the replacement of Hitoshi Uyama, the current artistic director of theater, who was appointed only last autumn. Uyama’s productions of “Yakiniku Dragon” and “A Japanese Named Otto” (which he also directed), were both well received by critics and the public.

“According to Ai Nagai, an NNTT director who attended the selection meeting, the meeting was first told by an NNTT official that Uyama didn’t want to continue in his post,” Yoji Sakate, president of the Japan Playwrights Association (JPA), recently explained to The Japan Times. “However, as some directors were anxious for him to stay, Nagai sought confirmation (that Uyama didn’t want to continue) from NNTT officials present at the meeting. She only received an ambiguous answer.”

Though some NNTT directors at the selection meeting apparently tried to have it adjourned, it was eventually decided to leave the decision to NNTT President Toyama.

According to theater Web sites and blogs, at a news conference on July 28, Uyama insisted he’d never been asked whether or not he wanted to continue as the NNTT’s artistic director. He also suggested that a smooth and peaceful exit — with a public statement saying he had wanted to leave after all — would be likely to encourage the NNTT to help him in his work as a director afterward.

Speaking to The Japan Times on the phone, JPA’s Sakate protested, saying: “I am not afraid to say quite clearly that this situation is wrong — and I would like to win back our public theater from bureaucrats and hand it back to artists.”

Sakate is far from being alone in expressing such views. Three national theatrical associations and 14 leading figures in the Japanese theater world — including Sakate and Nagai, Hisashi Inoue and Yukio Ninagawa — have sent a letter of protest to the NNTT demanding clear reasons for its decisions concerning the selections of artistic directors.