Welsh approach to ‘national’ theater is efficiently different

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Always keen to break new ground, Keiko Miyata, artistic director of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT), has created a series titled “With: linking theater” as the centerpiece of this season’s program. In this, she has lined up three appetizing collaborations by asking playwrights from Wales, South Korea and Germany to create new works to be staged in Japanese at the NNTT with Japanese actors.

First off in this major series are the Welsh playwright Alan Harris and John E. McGrath, artistic director of the National Theatre Wales (NTW), whose new “The Opportunity of Efficiency” just premiered at the NNTT.

Set in a biotech lab on a local industrial estate, the play starts when a business consultant named Ken (Kosuke Toyohara) is sent there to raise its efficiency. This sends real fear though the staff for a variety of reasons, and the atmosphere steadily worsens. Then a senior member, Iffy (Yuko Miyamoto), begins taking Ken to task over the meaning of this efficiency he is so single-mindedly pursuing.

Recently, Welsh-born McGrath, 50, who grew up in the English city of Liverpool, discussed with The Japan Times the role of the NTW, which was founded in November 2009 and is administratively based in Cardiff — though it actually has no home theater. We talked, too, about recent trends in British theater — and about this new play, which combines caustic Welsh humor with searching global questions about the nature of “progress.”

What is the mission of NTW?

We started from the strengths and traditions of Welsh culture. Unlike in England, Wales hasn’t many big regional theaters, but there is a tradition of more site-specific work. There’s also an ancient Welsh cultural festival called the Eisteddfod that takes places in a different town each year. So we used those models and those strengths, and also took things about the 21st-century digital era, to set up the company and create works in different places around Wales — and now in Tokyo. We link all that up through digital networks and also do a lot of community-based projects to make sure there’s a strong sense of engagement in each place we go to.

As the NTW doesn’t have its own building, how does that affect you?

I think in Wales particularly, people don’t like it if everything becomes centralized in one place. Its culture is a lot about valuing where you are from, valuing the rural as well as the urban. So we really focus on locations and really dig into the specific cultures and histories of different places where we follow a tradition of site-specific productions. About two-thirds to three-quarters of our work isn’t in traditional theater buildings — our locations have included warehouses, fields, mountainsides, nightclubs and an aircraft hangar.

For people who don’t go to theater, theaters can be quite intimidating, so working in unusual places gives people a reason to go to them.

Does the NTW have any other special characteristics?

Well, we have a program called NTW Team, and we keep visiting places and help to train people to set up their own projects. We are also well known for our digital networks — not just the website, but an online social network on which I’m now writing a blog from Tokyo. But other people, who aren’t from the NTW, also write blogs and advertise their shows and interact with writers and others with ideas on our sites. So, though it’s created by us, it isn’t completely controlled by us. This network has really helped lots of young fringe companies to get established.

Digital ideas have also started to cross over into performance. So, for instance, last year we did “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” about the U.S. soldier who passed lots of documents to WikiLeaks. His mother is Welsh and he spent time in Wales, so we had a connection and we created a show about him, and also created an online forum so you could watch it through a “surveillance camera” and talk about it online.

Could you tell me about “The Opportunity of Efficiency,” which was written for Japan but raises universal issues?

Well, the efficiency expert isn’t just a bad guy — he actually has a good argument, which is that growth is out of control and it can’t just keep on happening and we can’t just keep on inventing new things for ever. So the play doesn’t just say efficiency is bad; it says we have to look in a really different way at how we organize things.

I think our politicians are generally not willing to look at the problem of growth. They see lack of growth as a problem, because they want their economy to be bigger than the next economy. And if the economy grows, then tax receipts will grow and deficits won’t matter as much — so the only way forward they can see is more growth. But that’s an addiction, because you’ve spent money so you have to grow more to pay it off — for ever!

I think part of the role of the arts is often asking questions that aren’t being asked by politics, and I think growth is a really difficult one.

How do you find running the NTW as a theater for local people and combining that with international collaborations?

In some ways, because I’ve worked a lot internationally, I am surprised that I’m running a “national theater” — and it presents some surprising questions.

One is that though Wales is very old culturally, it has only recently become semi-independent. So what is the way to be independent in the future? Is it having more and more small countries with national institutions? Or does there need to be a different way?

In that vein, I recently commissioned a leading playwright from Kosovo to write a play for us about nationalism. I think “nationalism” and “nation” are not stable things. Probably they never were, but we used to think they were. So, in an interesting way these days, in being a national theater you have to embrace “nation” as a question, not a statement, I think.

Unfortunately, theater culture in Japan now seems to be losing out to show-biz type productions. What’s to be done?

I think British theater had the same problem about 15 years ago.

I used to feel young people wouldn’t go to theater, and old people would go to theater, but they wanted quite safe theater.

In the last 15 years, though, there has been a complete revolution in the U.K. theater scene. Different people started to make different kinds of theater, such as site-specific and interactive works, and also people from different fields like music have started to get involved in theater — and Britain gave them funding support to move to the next stage.

I think the NNTT here has a big role to play in finding new artists working in different ways, and supporting them and introducing them into theater. And I think that can happen.

“The Opportunity of Efficiency” runs April 9~28 at the New National Theatre Tokyo, a 2-min. walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. For more details, call the NNTT at (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp/play.