Shizuoka eyes theatrical bridge over to Avignon

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Stranger things have happened, and in the near future a vibrant cultural bridge across Eurasia may be built between the city of Shizuoka in the beautiful foothills of Mount Fuji, and ancient Avignon in the artists’ mecca of Provence in the South of France.

If that bridge comes into being, its foundations will be both political and personal — and its traffic will comprise theater in all shapes, styles and languages.

That’s because the annual Avignon Festival spanning three weeks in July has, since it started in 1947, become one of the world’s blue-chip drama magnets despite being far from Paris, where almost everything of note in the French arts world takes place.

Similarly, from its launch by the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in 2000, the cumbersomely named World Theatre Festival Shizuoka Under Mount Fuji that’s held annually on weekends through June has determinedly aimed to stand apart from the capital city up the road that routinely grabs the nation’s arts action.

This year, thanks to the festival’s growing reputation, theatergoers visiting Shizuoka on any of this year’s five June weekends (many using the subsidized bus service) will be in for a real feast of international drama, with six of the 11 main programs being staged by overseas companies.

In fact, at a press conference in March to kick off this year’s proceedings, SPAC’s artistic director, 53-year-old theater director Satoshi Miyagi, recalled SPAC’s mission as set out by his predecessor, Tadashi Suzuki, in a speech at the center’s opening in Shizuoka City in 1997. Miyagi cited Suzuki saying that SPAC’s mission was to overcome the centralization of theater in Tokyo by showing that people in the prefectures would come to see quality stagings in their locality, and to forge active links with regional theater creators overseas.

Now, already, both SPAC and its international festival are beginning to reinforce those foundations with strong personal connections that bode well for a “Provence on the Pacific” kind of theatrical extravaganza in Shizuoka in the future — and, who knows, for every Japanese dramatist to one day dream of making it onto the Avignon playlist.

In particular, this year sees the third appearance of French director Olivier Py, who made his Shizuoka debut in 2008. And adding huge excitement to this in Japan’s drama community is the fact that the 46-year-old has just resigned as artistic director of the historic Theatre de l’Odeon in Paris — to take up that role at the Avignon Festival from next year.

In what is sure to be one of this year’s festival highlights, Py will present a new version of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” (showing June 9-10) that he himself translated from the original, and which had its world premiere last September at the Theatre de l’Odeon. This time, Py gives newcomer Matthieu Dessertine his big chance to play Romeo opposite one of Py’s regular choices, Celine Cheenne, as Juliet in this version that the director/translator says picks out all the Bard’s sexual puns and dirty jokes that are often overlooked, whether intentionally or not.

Besides welcoming a top-notch French dramatist, the festival this year sees the ninth visit to SPAC of Swiss-Colombian director and actor Omar Porras, who this time brings his work, “Spring Awakening” (June 30-July 1), which had an acclaimed premiere last November in Geneva.

At the March press conference, Miyagi harked back to events 12 months before — and to Porras especially.

“There was a disaster on March 11 last year,” he said, referring to the Great East Japan Earthquake, “so we had to change or cancel a few programs because some foreign artists were concerned about their safety in Japan. Overall, though, I felt a strong relationship with foreign artists, and they were great how they tried to get here to support and encourage us. It made me realize how international cultural exchange should be about such person-to-person contact, not just exchanging national flags.”

Miyagi might have been talking about Porras, whose irrepressible energy has seen him incorporate acting styles and methods from Bali, India and Japan into works he’s staged all over the world — starting, in this country, with Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 masterpiece “Blood Wedding” he presented at his 1999 festival debut with burlesque-style costumes, smoke, fireworks and actors almost dancing as they moved.

As Miyagi explained, organizers had assumed Porras would have to skip the festival because of his company members’ reluctance to come to Japan. But undeterred, Porras did turn up in Shizuoka with a few staff and the message: “I would like to prove that we are able to present a play with an actor, a chair and a candle if we must.”

Then, in just two weeks and with four of SPAC’s Japanese actors, Porras created from scratch an original and grandiose version of his and his compatriot William Ospina’s “Simon Bolivar, Fragments of A Dream,” which celebrated the life of the Latin American revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar, complete with traditional folk music. It was, as Miyagi said, an unforgettable experience for him.

This year, Porras brings to Shizuoka his version of “Spring Awakening,” drawn from German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1892 play of the same name about teenagers’ emerging sexuality that touches on abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide. Although this 2007 Tony Award-winning musical will be fresh in many people’s memories, be sure that Porras paints a quite different picture as his colorfully bewigged and eerily made-up actors run around on the red soil covering the stage and confront audiences of generally complacent grown-ups with the dreadfulness of being “mature” in this dystopic world.

“I haven’t tried to create a musical comedy,” Porras said, “But despite the serious themes it grapples with, I think it produces a glow of hope and reflection.”

In addition to these sure-fire audience-pleasers, the lineup features a masterpiece by Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen whose docu-performance (a mix of documentary and performance) “The Continuum: Beyond The Killing Fields” (June 23-24) he and his all-Cambodian cast of survivors of the Pol Pot regime’s atrocities in the 1970s have performed all over the world since its U.S. premiere in 2001. In its Japan premiere at the festival, audiences will undoubtedly feel for the four performers, including 80-year-old legendary dancer Em Theay, as they tell — with the help of traditional music, dance and shadow puppet plays — their own stories that time when 9 out of 10 of Cambodia’s artists were killed.

Of course, not to be upstaged by such luminaries from overseas, the festival’s director, Miyagi, has two of his own works on this year’s roster. First out will be “Mahabharata-Nalacharitam” (June 2, 10, 16 and 23), which sees the ancient Indian “Mahabharata” epic set in Japan’s peaceful Heian Period (794-1185), complete with splendid kimono costumes — and applause still wafting around it not only from its Tokyo premiere, in 2003, but also from a successful run in Paris three years later.

That is followed by Miyagi’s 2010 “Peer Gynt” (July 2-3) based on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s romantic 1876 poem for the stage about a man’s wandering in search of self and meaning. Here, though, Miyagi sets the story in Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912), with the country emerging from centuries of self-imposed international isolation and searching for an identity. As different as they are, though, both plays include music played on stage by the cast.

Finally, at that press conference in March, Miyagi not only launched this year’s festival — but his own new thinking on theater in the wake of the nation’s biggest postwar disaster. No longer, he said, did he believe theater should be a place to experience events completely divorced from the audience’s everyday lives — which he confessed had been his idea up to then — but it ought to be something around people in their daily lives as a shared, discussed and enjoyed part of normal life. To be specific, he said it should be people’s “second home.”

Whether Shizuoka’s international festival will become a “second home” in Asia of the Avignon spirit is, however, something only time can tell.

The World Theatre Festival Shizuoka Under Mount Fuji runs at the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center from June 2 until July 1. Tickets cost ¥1,000-¥4,000. For more information about venues and bus services from Tokyo, Hamamatsu, Mishima and Numazu, call SPAC at (054) 203-5730 or visit www.spac.or.jp.