Europe rewards edgy dramatists

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Tim Etchells, artistic director of Forced Entertainment, the English company whose “The Coming Storm” was a highlight of last year’s Festival/Tokyo, told me then that they now play abroad more than at home — mainly because festival organizers pay their costs. In contrast, producers are loathe to take any financial risk on non-mainstream works, he said.

In Japan, too, several cutting-edge theater companies are staging a similar exodus — and gaining soaring overseas reputations and followings.

Among them are Chelfitsch, led by 41-year-old playwright/director Toshiki Okada, and 38-year-old Kuro Tanino’s Niwa Gekidan Penino — two pioneering cutting-edge companies I flew off to see in Berlin and Vienna in May and report on their activities off the domestic radar.

In fact both companies had started their 2014 European tours in Mannheim, southwest Germany, at the behest of German dramaturge and director Matthias Lilienthal, who was artistic director of the triennial Theater der Welt international theater festival held there in spring.

Explaining that connection, Okada said, “I attended Lilienthal’s farewell party as artistic director at the groundbreaking Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theater in Berlin two years ago, and he asked me to create a new play and stage its world premiere at Theater der Welt in 2014.”

The result is “Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich,” a sarcastic critique of Japan’s ubiquitous conbini (24-hour convenience stores) that will have been staged in Germany, Portugal, England, Italy and various South and Central American countries by autumn this year.

Founded by Okada in 1997, Chelfitsch plowed its first foreign furrow at the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels in 2007 — which he said “led to nonstop inquiries and offers from other international festivals.” Since then, the company has consistently spent at least half of every year touring worldwide — including numerous performances at HAU.

Hence it was no accident that, following its world premiere, I caught up with “SPSDVR” at HAU, where Annemie Vanackere, Lilienthal’s successor as artistic director, welcomed me. Explaining why Chelfitsch has such a special place at that theater, she said: “We love Okada as a playwright and director and because of the way he is developing. He recently said he needed to get back to ‘stories’ to say something more about the world and society, and I found that extremely interesting.”

In contrast, Vanackere said Chelfitsch had previously made a huge impression with its non-narrative, post-dramatic approach to theater. Together with its actors’ trademark sluggish ways of moving and talking, “it had seemed like a new theater grammar a la Japonaise for European people,” she said.

Talking about his shift from a “cool Japan” style of drama to more conventional narrative works, Okada said that the nation’s natural and nuclear catastrophes in March 2011 made him realize art’s essential role in society — and that it can’t just exist in some private world of its own.

Responding to this shift in Okada’s creative thinking, HAU scheduled an event titled Japan Syndrome for this spring, inviting the multimedia artist Tadasu Takamine, rising experimental dramatist Takuya Murakawa and audience-participation performance director Akira Takayama to take part, among others.

However, the honor of opening the festival went to Chelfitsch, with Okada’s first post-3/11 play, “Genzaichi” (“Current Location”) — a portrayal of ordinary people living in the face of overpowering disaster. Similarly, Japan Syndrome closed with his “SPSDVR,” which played for two nights to full houses and featured a talk in which Okada explained his aim in staging the two plays.

“The events of March 2011 were a phenomenal catastrophe for Japanese people, but they could also be an opportunity to reconstruct the country,” he said. “So in ‘Current Location’ I wanted to try to inspire the people to step forward for better future.

“As for ‘SPSDVR,’ I believe conbini represent today’s Japanese society,” he explained. “I mean, do we need shops that are always open and where everything is minutely controlled in the name of capitalist efficiency? So, while I wrote about Japanese who became more introspective in ‘Current Location,’ in ‘SPSDVR’ I tried to write about the countless millions quite unaware of the reality of these chaotic times.”

Meanwhile, Kuro Tanino is another globe-trotting Japanese artist busy overseas. After its Tokyo premiere in April 2013, his boldly original and kaleidoscopic fantasy play, “Okina Trunk no naka no Hako” (“Box in the Big Trunk”) — with its clear references to Freudian images of sexuality — made a triumphant run this year in Mannheim, where tickets were like gold dust. Then, at the Vienna Festival later in May, it caused a sensation — no doubt in part because Tanino was a working psychiatrist back in 2000 when he started writing, and his plays have consistently borne a whiff of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Vienna-based neurologist known as the founder of psychoanalysis.

Since its overseas debut at HAU in 2009, Tanino’s Niwa Gekidan Penino company has been a regular on the international drama circuit, and this year in Vienna, tickets were completely sold out for its five performances of “Box in the Big Trunk,” Tanino’s tale about the dream world of a fed-up university student. Whenever he tries to study in his room, the student falls asleep and his subconscious appears on stage, including women with the heads of sheep and pigs — and his absolute icon, his father and his gigantic penis.

As well as its enthralling content, though, the play’s presentation as a huge picture book also astonished both critics and audiences, with scenery switching as the set rotated and the protagonist slipped into a nightmarish maze.

While remarking how the play was awarded five stars by the capital’s Wiener Zeitung newspaper, Max-Philip Aschenbrenner, the festival’s program manager, also noted how it “talked openly” about paternal domination. “Here in Europe,” he said, “people pretend it has been overcome and that they are all socially equal in terms of gender, nationality and such. But of course it’s not true.

“So notwithstanding its Japanese details, I believe his work has universality,” he said. “Also, younger people loved it as a hilariously wicked play along the lines of ‘South Park’ or ‘The Simpsons,’ and its incisive sarcasm and irony helped in dealing with its dark sides, such as sexual brutality.”

Despite all this praise, in the post-performance Q&A in Vienna, Tanino remained cool, calm — and faintly amused — saying to this writer afterward as he chuckled, “Because the publicity presented me as a Japanese Freudian dramatist, there were lots of psychiatry questions. Me, though, I just wanted to show how funny people can appear when they’re trying hard to be so serious yet really they’re so blinkered.”

He did, however, go on to say, “My father, mother, brother and grandfather are all psychiatrists — so how could I be a normal person in such a crazy environment? Even Freud would be hard put to analyze my thoughts [laughs].”

Finally, although both dramatists’ Japan-centered works so clearly strike a basic human chord far beyond these shores, I asked Okada and Tanino why it was they both spent so much time working overseas.

In their own ways, each replied in the same vein, effectively saying: “Practically, it’s because of money. It takes financial support to continue creating, and happily foreign festivals offer that.”

After all, if their art isn’t compromised and audiences keep coming — and, as Tim Etchells said, domestic producers continue to be risk-averse — then why on Earth not?