One of a kind

As the only full-time dramaturge in Japan, Kaku Nagashima is truly breaking new ground

by Nobuko Tanaka

Theater programs the world over list the writer, director, cast members, designers, lighting specialists and such in their credits. Lately in Japan, though, a new role has begun to appear in among those credits — that of “dramaturge.”

Check your dictionary, however, and it will likely tell you this word describes “a specialist in theatrical production” — which could be said of many others, too. But dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find that this recent addition to those credits has venerable roots — back in Ancient Greece, no less, where dramatourgia was the word for “play workers.”

So it was with expectations both ancient and modern that I recently went to meet 40-year-old Tokyo-born Kaku Nagashima, who had already told me that he was the first person to work as a dramaturge in Japan when he embarked on that career about five years ago. However, he said that in Germany’s vibrant and booming theater scene there are now many dramaturges involved at all stages of the drama process.

Intrigued to learn more, I caught up with him at the Sugamo offices of Festival/Tokyo in Toshima Ward, and we launched into our interview. How did you get into theater, and what led to you to become a dramaturge? I was late in coming to theater because I was so disappointed when I went to see a play by my friend’s group at university that it turned me off.

But then, as I had some computer skills and studied Samuel Beckett in my French literature course at Rikkyo University in Tokyo (because the Irish playwright lived a long time in Paris and often wrote in French), I got a contract at Setagaya Public Theatre (SEPT) in 1997 as a subtitle operator for his play “Happy Days,” directed, to celebrate SEPT’s opening that year, by the great English dramatist, Sir Peter Brook. That was how I started.

However, while I was working there and seeing the rehearsals and stagings every day, I started to think there was something wrong — not so much with the Japanese translation, but with the way it was reflected on the stage.

Play texts translated into Japanese necessarily involve the translator’s judgment regarding both the script and acting instructions. This inevitably imposes many restrictions on a director due to the translator’s understanding — certainly compared with programs created from an original foreign text.

So I started to consider whether drama translators should primarily have the playwright or the production side in mind. And that led me to think about the creation of a suitable “stage script,” as distinct from the translation, and how a translated script could guarantee Japanese directors and actors the same level of creative freedom as those working in the source language. That became my main question.

How did you start to put your ideas into practice? Well, after that I was introduced to the internationally known actress Rieko Suzuki. In 1999 she had just launched a small project titled “Beckett’s Live,” and I started to work as a translator with her and the director Hatsumi Abe. They were entirely happy for me to be involved in the whole creation process, so I’d be in the rehearsal room all the time once I’d handed my translation to Abe.

Fortunately, Abe didn’t force her interpretation on the actors, and she’d wait as long as possible through rehearsals to bring out the cast’s full potential. Consequently, the final production would not be just the interpretation of a director, or a translator — and actually it could be a quite unexpected, new outcome.

So I started to examine how to provide directors and actors with more options drawn from research surrounding original texts. I also re-examined the role of drama translation, and came to the conclusion there is a “translator’s license” allowing a right of wider interpretation — or, to put it in extreme terms, a right of misreading. If we don’t implement such rights for today’s audiences, and always accept existing translations, theater would just be boring.

So, what is your present definition of a “dramaturge”? Well, the modern system started in Germany, but probably even professional dramaturges there couldn’t precisely define what they do. That’s because the job ranges widely over literary research and creative input to everything from choice of programs to stage presentation.

What is the current situation of dramaturgy in Japan? I feel the job is in great demand, but actually this is a period of transition so the possibilities are unknown.

However, I regard a good dramaturge as being a fair, objective adviser for a director. Usually, directors are lonely, especially in the Japanese theater world as many directors also write the plays they are staging, so there is typically a top-down decision-making system with the director at the pinnacle. That way, the director can easily become a dictator and the others — the actors and staff — just wait for their instructions without thinking for themselves. It’s a vicious cycle, as the director’s duties become harder because they have to decide everything.

Meanwhile, a so-called producing-style staging has become a main plank of today’s Japanese theater — one in which a producer gathers actors and staff for each play. Normally, they try to appoint busy and famous actors for the main roles, but because they are popular — and so help sell tickets — they usually don’t have much time for rehearsal and directors have to move everything along very fast on their own authority. That leaves the actors as puppets of the director, while the performances become assembly-line and quality goes down. Also, due to producers appointing celebrities to try to overcome this, tickets prices rise — and that’s the other vicious cycle today.

In such circumstances, how can a dramaturge benefit theater productions? I want to be a good adviser for a director, who it’s important to remember is the decision-maker in the end. So, I mainly provide as many options as possible to help them make the best decisions. If a director works by themself, there is a limit to any one person, and I try to extend that limit and give lots of choices to select from.

Sometimes I am deeply involve from the beginning, from the proposal stage; and sometimes I edit their texts. One time, I discussed with a director for ages how to present Shakespeare in today’s Japan.

What did you discuss about Shakespeare? I don’t like absolutely authentic Japanese Shakespeare stagings in which actors say the flowery lines in silvery voices. However, such lines are definitely a rich part of Shakespeare, and the question is how to present them without it seeming contrived and pompous. Once, while we were talking, the director Shigeki Nakano said that Japanese rappers are doing it naturally these days. So, we researched about rappers to get a hint for a Shakespeare production. Of course, we didn’t do a rap-style Shakespeare, but that discussion gave us wider creation ideas.

What is a dramaturge’s main skill? In general, they need a good knowledge of drama history and good powers of observation — but the most important skill is to be able to watch the rehearsals without offering any advice, I think. Of course, they have to watch the rehearsal very carefully, but it’s important to be patient and offer their thoughts to the right people at the right time afterward.

If the dramaturge made a statement in the rehearsal room in front of everybody, the actor being addressed would just say they understood and then carry on the same. So, the dramaturge should never be a direct part of the creation team, but an informed ally of the team. What do you think about Japanese translations of modern plays? Fundamentally, I think theater should not be a straightforward visualization of a playwright’s world — especially if it is a modern, translated one. When a Japanese theater company wants to do a modern American play, it might be better to edit and change the original texts, or it could be more effective if it were made more suitable for Japanese audiences.

So, I would like to ask playwrights to let theater companies change original lines and let drama translators adjust the lines. I am very interested in seeing a play metamorphosed into a completely different outcome to suit places and times and situations. What gives you most satisfaction as a dramaturge? If the performance finishes as the fruit of multiple brains collaborating together; if it’s not an artwork from just one person’s artistic intention, then I would be happy with the result. I try to help the ideas of multiple talents work smoothly and effectively together. That’s the work of a dramaturge.

The next production in which Nagashima is involved is “Gikyoku wo Motte Machi e Deyou” (“Step Out in Town with a Play”), an open-air production on March 20 and 21. For more details, visit tkmy.net/ndxgd/ Kaku Nagashima’s homepage is at mmps.jp/ Nobuko Tanaka’s theater blog (in Japanese) is at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com