The woman who could bring Beppu back to life

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

In Japan’s performing arts scene, it’s widely believed that 32-year-old Akane Nakamura is one of the country’s most famous globally known theater producers. As executive director of the theater production company Precog and the performing arts nonprofit Drifters International — which she founded in 2006 and 2010, respectively — Nakamura’s extraordinary enthusiasm for her work is the stuff of legend.

“Day or night, we hardly ever see her taking a rest,” said one of her staff recently. “She’s always bustling about here and there, flying abroad and having meetings well into the early hours.”

For Nakamura this all started after she abandoned her high-school dream of being a professional dancer for fear she’d never be good enough, and instead took theater studies at Nihon University College of Art in her home city of Tokyo. While she was there, she started organizing club-party events with friends and working with the Yokohama arts-event nonprofit organization ST Spot.

Soon after she left university, Nakamura began to create a unique style of crossover theater-dance event with the first annual “Azumabashi Dance Crossing” in downtown Tokyo in 2004. Around that time, she also hooked up with the Yokohama-based Chelfitsch theater group founded by Toshiki Okada in 1997.

Though Okada and Chelfitsch were well known in small-theater circles for a super-relaxed, couldn’t-care-less on-stage attitude and the use of aimless-youth slang, neither the theater group nor its founder, who created all its works, had ever played to an overseas audience. That was until Nakamura whisked them off to the Kunsten Festival de Arts in Brussels in 2007. Since then, Nakamura has played a key role in establishing the company’s glowing reputation through an unbroken run of tours, which has seen the company play in around 45 cities in 22 countries in Europe, Asia and the United States.

With such achievements, you might think Nakamura is some kind of fast-talking power-dresser. However, it was a small, bright-eyed woman, wearing jeans and a casual top, who turned up to this interview to talk about her hectic life and her ambition to transform Japan’s theater scene.

How many projects are you involved in at the moment?

Umm, I don’t know exactly. Precog is managing several artists, and each has scores of projects. That’s the regular stuff. Then my nonprofit Drifters International is involved in a new art project called “Cafe 9,” which features nine young cutting-edge artists and is running through Sept. 30 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) in Yokohama. Also, I have been working with the Oita Prefectural government in Kyushu to clear the way for an event called Kunisaki Hanto Geijutsu-sai (Kunisaki Peninsula Art Festival) in Beppu, which opens in November with the support of a nonprofit called the Beppu Project.

Could you tell me more about that new festival — and also why you chose to stage it in Beppu.

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake last March I’ve been seriously thinking about moving out of Tokyo. Toshiki Okada, who is Chelfitsch’s founder, moved to Kumamoto last year and another of our artists, the choreographer Masako Yasumoto, has also moved to Kyushu, to Fukuoka. Then, in the course of my research for a new home, I happened on Beppu.

Though it used to prosper as a hot-spring resort, the recession led to many young people leaving. However, the Beppu Project is also now readying two other events. One is the second Konyoku Onsen Sekai (Mixed Bathing World) arts festival, which debuted in 2009; the other is Beppu Arts Month, many of whose roughly 100 programs — from dance routines, to theater groups and art shows — involve local people.

Beppu’s many well-patronized hot-spring baths also impressed me as places people go to socialize as much to as to bathe. That made me think theater should be the same fundamentally — not something just for theater lovers, but part of everyday life. So I decided to be involved in the festival from this year.

Are you aiming to attract visitors to Beppu from Tokyo or Osaka — Chelfitsch fans, for example?

No, it’s too far. Also, I’m fed up with theater’s ticket-sales system these days. I mean, putting a production together, then doing PR and selling tickets, then making the next performance with the profit from that one — I am bored with that routine cycle.

I’ve had a 10-year career as a producer both at home and abroad, and now I’d like to work in a more down-to-earth way in the arts scene for the next 10 years and strive for wider arts accessibility in this country.

As a first step, I will open a cafe in a shuttered shopping arcade in Beppu, and my friends may open a clothes shop next door. That way such places will begin to be revitalized. I’d like to encourage people to come to that street, and then I’d like to gradually mix arts into there, too.

How about “Cafe 9″ at KAAT? What’s your aim with that project?

In Japan, a theater company will normally present a new play for a short run and then hardly ever stage it again. In contrast, Chelfitsch’s masterpiece, “Five Days in March,” has been performed more than 100 times all over the world. That shows how you can survive in the theater world outside the conventional commercial cycle, by, for example, earning money touring overseas, then doing something else that may not fit a commercial model the rest of the time.

Right now, to help make that happen I am collaborating on “Cafe 9″ with KAAT to present nine young artists who each have a very individual way of expression, and who we hope might succeed overseas in the future. At the same time, with “Cafe 9″ I want to attract ordinary people who have never visited a theater in their lives, so some of the performances are held in the streets, and people can come to some for free.

What is the most important change you think Japanese theater should adopt?

It should have a clear artistic director at each theater. Then, instead of having bureaucrats or committees in charge, as is often the case, it will be clear where responsibility lies and who outsiders should contact with a view to forging a new constructive relationship. But in Japanese society, many people try to make responsibility obscure, which just wastes time and effort.

“Cafe 9″ runs till Sep 30 at and around the Kanagawa Arts Theatre, a 5-min. walk from Nihon Odori Station on the Minatomirai Line. For details, call the theater at (045) 633-6500 or visit www.kaat.jp. For details of Beppu Project, visit www.beppuproject.com .