Kitamura shows Japanese women how to be ‘Top Girls’

by Nobuko Tanaka

“The play was written nearly 30 years ago, but I feel the situation for women has hardly changed at all. In fact, it hasn’t fundamentally changed for 100 years, even though Japanese women got the vote around 65 years ago,” said theater producer Akiko Kitamura when asked why she chose to stage the well-known British feminist play “Top Girls” in Tokyo.

“Top Girls” was written by Caryl Churchill, 72, a British dramatist well known for her feminist themes and exploration of gender politics. As one of Churchill’s signature plays, it has been performed countless times worldwide since it premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1982. Though it has already been staged twice in Japan as major commercial productions (in 1983 and 1992), it still has much to offer the modern Japanese audience, says Kitamura, one of the few female leading theater producers in Japan.

Born in Kyoto, Kitamura, 63, grew up influenced by kabuki and ballet. She became an actress before meeting the dramatist Hideki Noda in the mid ’80s, after which she chose to take a backstage role with his company. In 1989, she started her own actors’ management and theater production company, called SIS Company, through which she has since become a major force in Japan’s entertainment world. On top of her career, Kitamura, a single mother, managed to provide for and bring up her daughter. It is no surprise then that “Top Girls” resonates so well with her.

The play opens with its career-woman heroine, Marlene (Shinobu Terajima), who, having just been promoted, has a celebratory dinner with five famous women from history. The guests include Japan’s 13th-century Lady Nijo, the legendary ninth-century Pope Joan and the intrepid 19th-century English traveler and writer Isabella Bird. Together, the women talk openly and passionately about the challenges they had to face in overcoming being stereotyped and in kicking off the shackles of patriarchal societies.

After this imaginative opening, the play switches to a lively contemporary drama focused on the contrasting lives of Marlene and her older, housewife sister, Joyce (Rei Asami), who is bringing up Marlene’s sensitive young daughter Angie (Eri Watanabe) as her own.

I heard that you have wanted to bring “Top Girls” back to Japan for a long time. Yes, it’s been high up on my list, for which I normally have 60 to 70 candidates in mind. From a practical business point of view, though, it doesn’t matter how strongly I want to produce a particular work on that list, I won’t give it the go-ahead unless all the conditions are right. That includes finding the right actors, staff and venue.

With “Top Girls,” there’s no way you can do it justice without a balance of seven truly top-class actresses and a fine director such as Yumi Suzuki. The fact that it hasn’t been done here by a mainstream theater for 18 years shows how difficult it is to stage it profitably and well. But I’ve wanted to do this play for ages because I think Caryl Churchill’s writing style is so wild and unrestrained, and she put all her ideas about women into the play without trying to force it into a neatly unified work.

As the producer, do you adopt a hands-off approach to realizing a work on stage? No. Once rehearsals start, I normally go to as many of them as possible. Most producers here leave all the decisions to the director, and many don’t even visit the rehearsal studio. But sometimes my understanding of a play is different from the director’s, and in those cases I don’t hesitate to ask him or her questions. I also take the view that, since I start SIS’s projects, it’s only natural for me to join in the process of creating them.

Do you think there’s a way to help Japan’s contemporary theater become more popular? I think each theater company should run performances continuously and constantly. It doesn’t matter whether they are small or large scale, or what kind of plays they stage — it’s important to run performances continuously, and not just one-off special events. That way, if someone feels like going to the theater, there would always be quality options available, and theatergoing would thrive.

SIS Company, for example, presents five programs every year. People trust our productions, and because we basically have a brand name, they buy our tickets. I think SIS and other companies must aim for a strong relationship with its audience, just like kabuki has built the trust of its regulars.

You said in an interview that you don’t want to rely on government subsidies. Do you not believe in public money being put into theater for the benefit of citizens? I don’t want the government involved in my activities. Traditional theater, such noh and kyogen, get government support, but I believe contemporary theater should financially stand on its own feet. As far as I am concerned, that should be a fundamental part of the theater business.

I think the fact that we support ourselves at SIS — where 16 of the 18 staff are women — is a real mark of women’s independence. In fact, even when I occasionally try an experimental production (by my standards) and I expect it to lose money, I will have already factored in the potential deficit — so my business has never gone into the red.

When it comes to subsidies, though, how can they be correctly or fairly distributed among theater projects, or any other arts projects? It’s impossible. There’s no accounting for people’s artistic taste. So, I’d rather not be involved in any such thing.

What are your future plans for SIS? Many dramatists have ambitions to present their plays in foreign countries and to make them appeal to foreign audiences. I actually experienced a tour of Britain when I worked with Hideki Noda in the mid ’80s. But really, I have profound doubts about performing original Japanese plays with foreign subtitles. I think the huge brick wall of language is still too high.

I’d rather concentrate on the domestic market and putting on performances all over Japan.

One day, too, I’d like to produce plays in which elderly actors comprise most of the cast. The presence of such venerable characters on stage, with all their experience, would create a very special atmosphere on the stage.

“Top Girls” runs from April 1 till 24 at the Theatre Cocoon, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. For more details, call SIS Company at (03) 5423-5906 or visit www.siscompany.com.