Shizuoka theater festival courts the avant-garde

Director Claude Regy oversees Japan cast in a classic re-staging

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Claude Regy says the team at the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC) threw him the “best birthday party ever” when he arrived in Japan just days after the actual May 1 occasion.

The 90-year-old French director is hoping for an even better birthday gift, though, as he is here to re-create — with Japanese actors — his triumphant 1985 staging of “Interior” by the Belgian Nobel-laureate playwright Maurice Maeterlinck.

Shizuoka is a great place to do that. Regy’s “Interior” will be a part of this year’s SPAC festival — World Theater Festival in Shizuoka Under Mt. Fuji — which has been growing in scope and reputation and runs on weekends through the entire month of June. While the title is lengthy, it’s not a misnomer. The festival takes place at SPAC’s Shizuoka Arts Theater as well as several open-air venues including the Udo Theater, set amid tea fields in the Nihondaira hills; in the precincts of a shrine in the nearby city of Fujinomiya; and on the water at a marine park in the city of Shimizu.

This year’s lineup features eight main programs from seven countries, including Japanese collaborations with South Korea Germany, Rwanda and more. At the event’s spin-off Fujinokuni Open Air Festival, visitors to the marine park will also be treated to performances including water puppets from Vietnam.

The Japan Times caught up with Regy last week after a rehearsal at SPAC’s beautiful all-wood Daendo theater. When asked about “Interior,” he expresses it as being “invisible, silent and quiescent.” He adds that the piece, “depicts an indefinite boundary between life and death — one that relates to the world of Japan’s traditional noh theater.”

Actually, the play tells the story of a man who finds the body of a girl in the countryside. With others, he then sets off for her house, but struggles with his duty to break the news to her happy family.

The man behind World Theater Festival, SPAC artistic director Satoshi Miyagi, explains that this kind of avant-garde work is exactly what he envisions for the festival.

“SPAC is the only full-time public theater in Shizuoka,” he says. “There are many (theaters) crowded into the Tokyo area, which means they each try to have their own niche, we must feature a comprehensive menu.

“So, when I’m programing for the rest of the year it’s as if I’m making a drama schoolbook for children: I select at least one Shakespeare play, a few foreign works, and mix up the classic and contemporary as I or others also create original plays for our resident SPAC actors. So through the year, I’m hoping to appeal to people who may have never set foot in a theater before, as well as existing drama fans.”

Miyagi, 54, says this all changes in June.

“For the festival I intentionally introduce very avant-garde, experimental theaters. I don’t shy away from some quite disturbing and challenging programs — from either Japan or overseas — that may not be to everyone’s taste.”

Among this year’s contingent will be the European hit, “The Spanish Fly.” Performed by the Berlin-based Volksbuhne company, with hot-ticket director Herbert Fritsh at the helm of this reworking of Franz Arnold and Ernst Bach’s 1913 “Die (s)panishce Fliege.” Expect edgy slapstick and outbursts of laughter if this is on your bill of festival fare.

Another cutting-edge reworking comes from Miyagi himself, who will present his new play, “The Golden Coach,” based on the 1952 film of the same name by French director Jean Renoir. Instead of sticking to the film’s setting in Peru, however, Miyagi shifts his work to Japan’s middle ages, where he depicts the original’s pathos of an actress in a traveling theater through the artistry of his long-term collaborator, Micari, as his leading lady.

The World Theater Festival doesn’t draw wholly from an avant-garde palate, it’s also an international one. Miyagi says that by organizing collaborations and inviting artists from abroad, he is trying to grow an international network for his theater. He cites the fact that SPAC has built its own studio and lodge to house guests coming from far-away places.

Regy is SPAC’s most notable guest at the moment. He has been lauded for his achievements as a freelance director since 1952, working with people such as Marguerite Duras, Harold Pinter, Peter Handke and Jon Fosse. Since 1981, he has also taught drama at France’s National Academy of Dramatic Arts, helping to shape his country’s leading present and future talents.

His experience as an educator has thus proved invaluable in working for the first time with a Japanese cast, many of them from SPAC’s own team.

Recalling his first encounters with the cast, Regy says he felt they weren’t used to having so much freedom and that they were “obsessed” with knowing what they should do.

“So I have tried to give them the idea of inventing — improvising and creating freely for themselves,” he continues. “In acting, generally, I believe in the fruits of coincidence and things emerging unconsciously — and also the virtue of doing nothing.

“I want them to not force anything, because actors should be great poets and creators. If humans weren’t afraid of entirely opening up to their instincts and trying to get to unknown territory, they’d be so beautiful. We need such inventors and poets, and actors are people who cultivate unknown fields.”

Though the play’s roots are far from here, its themes of life’s transience and the inevitability of death should strike a chord with audiences in Japan, especially following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Regarding this event, the director replies, “What is our responsibility as human beings — and what is the responsibility of science? We’ve seen the menace of nuclear power in Hiroshima, yet we easily forget past mistakes.

“Anything created must die and vanish someday. It’s important to recognize that we are living in such a fragile world and we actually don’t have any certainty. I don’t think there is a fixed reality in the world; it’s more illusional.

“So I think people who are normally in a rush will need patience to see ‘Interior,’ as I love to make a play with silence and slow movement that presents a blurred border between the visible and invisible worlds. I try to depict the world beyond our visible world.”

In 1985, a French director noted how Regy’s production of “Interior” started with a 20-minute silence that: “drove the audiences mad. Then the sound of the first voice was like a crack of thunder. It was such an uplifting moment.”

I ask if audiences here might expect more of the same.

“This time, it will certainly be different,” Regy replies. “A part of drama creation is entrusted to the audiences. That’s the same with books; because if you read the same book again in five years’ time, your imagination will take different messages from it and produce something new in your mind. To realize this in theater, actors need to work actively with their material to be poets and creators — and I hope audiences will be poets and creators as well and freely use their own imaginations, too. Great plays normally free the imagination of both actors and audiences.”

Miyagi concludes by saying that, in his view, “The world is full of futility and there aren’t actually very many people who really contribute beneficially — and theater and actors are at the zenith of that futility. Actually, if they became extinct tomorrow, nobody would really miss them (laughs). Yet theater has always existed throughout history and has never died out. So I think enjoying such futility is the biggest fruit theater has to offer.”

The World Theater Festival in Shizuoka Under Mt. Fuji takes place on weekends throughout June. Starting times vary. Tickets are ¥1,000-¥4,000. For more information on venues and bus services from Tokyo, Hamamatsu, Mishima and Numazu, call the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center at (054) 203-5730 or visit www.spac.or.jp.