There’s collaboration in the air in Japan’s contemporary theater world; collaboration between foreign directors and Japanese actors, directors and producers.

In one of this spring’s highlights, at the Setagaya Public Theater, audiences will be able to see “The Elephant Vanishes” — the result of a dream-team tie-up between Japanese actors and the English director, actor and founder of London’s Theatre de Complicite, Simon McBurney. Following that, also at SEPT, there will be an all-male “Hamlet,” courtesy of the eminent English dramatist and former artistic director of the West End’s Almeida Theatre, Jonathan Kent, and a leading exponent of Japanese traditional theater, Mansai Nomura (SEPT’s artistic director). Meanwhile, across the city at downtown Sumida Ward’s Theater Project Tokyo, founder-producer Hitoshi Kadoi is continuing tpt’s pioneering work with foreign dramatists, this time collaborating on “Die Zeit und das Zimmer (Time and the Room)” with German director Thomas Niehaus.

Collaboration is blossoming, but its roots go back to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when shingeki (new theater), strongly influenced by western cultures, was born and grafted on to traditional theatrical forms such as kabuki and noh. Thereafter, right through to the mid-1950s’ shingeki boom, though many foreign plays were presented in Japan by Japanese dramatists groping for appropriate ways to translate and present such material, few outsiders were ever involved.

Since then, however, more and more foreign theater companies have gradually been invited to Japan to stage their own plays with own their casts. During the bubble-economy 1980s this trend really gathered steam — and theatrical events also first took a truly collaborative turn with directors such as tpt’s artistic director, Englishman David Leveaux, being invited to Japan to work with Japanese actors on both homegrown and foreign plays.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Japanese pioneers such as Shuji Terayama and his Tenjosajiki company, Waseda Shogekijo’s Tadashi Suzuki and the now world-famous director Yukio Ninagawa, began to take their own stage creations abroad, initially and mainly to festivals in Europe. By the 1990s, a stream of younger theater practitioners were following in their footsteps.

With this, especially, the West began to waken up to Japanese contemporary theater, and so it was that in 1993, the pioneering tpt was founded at the Benisan Pit as a collaboration project between Kadoi, born in 1946, and Leveaux, who is 11 years his junior. Since then, tpt has consciously developed a new style of Japanese theater and fostered a new relationship between it and world theater.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Kadoi said that for as long as he could remember, he has lived in a theatrical world. However, it wasn’t until after more than 20 years working mainly on kabuki for the major stage and screen production company Shochiku — including two years based in New York — that he and Leveaux founded tpt in its disused dye-works home, the Pit.

After a long search “for a theater space with height” while he was still at Shochiku, Kadoi said, he and Leveaux “finally found it here in this old dye-works which has been reborn as a great big theater space in its former boiler house, together with 10 rehearsal rooms that both tpt and other companies can use.

“So, when we got this brilliant theatrical space I was convinced that we could create stage works which would be the same level as other top-quality productions elsewhere in the world. We believed we could dispatch something new from here to the world.

“However, our approach has not been a conventional one of, for example, simply importing western drama or inviting a foreign director over for a short-lived, one-off production. In tpt’s case, everything starts from here from the beginning.”

Kadoi acknowledged that collaboration work between people from different backgrounds involves a kind of creative conflict. “As there are big differences, so there is a real meaning, value and positive effect from working together.

“However, these cross-cultural chemical reactions are not instant, casual explosions, but more like leisurely, swirling reactions that of course take a certain time to create. So we try to plan projects in the long term, and one of our main strategies is the workshop. This way we can increase the chance of meeting new acting, production and other talent, while through our Friends system we can listen day by day to the voice of the audiences, who we believe are probably half a step ahead of us on the production side.

“For example, after the incredible response to our free production of [Martin Sherman’s] ‘Bent,’ with young actors from our workshop working with Robert Allan Ackerman this January, he is now going to present [Tony Kushner’s] ‘Angels in America.’ In the near future, we may also make our first venture overseas, and we are also planning a new style of kabuki stage.”

Right now, though, tpt’s next international offering is “Die Zeit und das Zimmer,” directed by 37-year-old Thomas Niehaus.

Speaking on the last day of a short stay in Japan to meet the cast and staff, Niehaus explained that the play’s author, Botho Strauss, is regarded as representative of ’70s and ’80s West Germany just as Heiner Muller is of the former East — and together they are seen as the greatest contemporary German playwrights. The play was first staged in the epoch-making year 1989 at the Shaubuhne Theater in West Berlin, directed by Luc Bondy, and it has since been performed in 1991 in Paris by Patrice Chereau and in 1993 by Ingmar Bergman in Stockholm. The performances next month will be the first in Japan.

This ground-breaking collaboration is a perfect example of tpt’s open-door policy, since Niehaus has previously worked only in Germany, Austria and Italy. “After meeting Mr. Kadoi [during a short visit to Japan last year] and chatting about German plays and literature, he suggested I do a workshop on Botho Strauss. I said OK straight away,” the director explained. “At tpt, they’d already had the idea to do a contemporary German drama in Japan, and they were looking for someone who could direct it. I think I am the first German director to work with tpt, and this is the first contemporary German play for them.”

This collaborative work will not be simply an international removal operation. “During my two-weeks’ stay, tpt staff and I have translated the play into Japanese. We had to be very sensitive about the translation, and it was more difficult than I expected. But in the process, I have learned lots about Japanese culture, and also about the way of Japanese thinking. As a result, I don’t want to direct the play for Tokyo audiences the same way it was presented in Berlin.

“Specifically, Strauss wrote this play, which is set in Berlin, in 1988, shortly before reunification. But I do not want to reproduce that time in Germany here. Instead, I want to create a contemporary play of current Tokyo.

“In this play, Strauss asks questions about ‘individuality,’ ‘common values’ and ‘community.’ Posing these questions to Tokyo audiences would be very interesting, I thought. Strauss pointed out that individuality can lead to something like solitude, solipsism, lack of common values, lack of total values and feelings of total despair — or to something like optimism with free choice over everything and total liberty. These are themes that are coming up in Japan more and more — that you can do what you want and you are not tied to any traditional values.”

Asked if he thought this was pointing to the future of theater in general, Niehaus said: “I think there will be different tracks, there will be no one main stream. So, we will have a theater which is strictly based on language, and that type, which is very important in Germany, will be hard to transport to countries with a different language. But also, there will be other streams, such as international dance theater like Pina Bausch, and there will be international coproductions like this.”

Meanwhile, across the city at the Seinendan theater company, a different kind of collaboration has recently been afoot, involving New York-based dramatist Barry Hall, whose latest work, “Whither Batavia,” ended its short run there last week.

Forty-year-old Hall’s relationship with Seinendan goes back to 1998, when he and the Japanese company’s leader, Oriza Hirata, were both invited to France along with leading contemporary dramatists from each of the countries contesting that year’s soccer World Cup Finals there. They met again in New York in 2000 and talked about working together in Tokyo. The first fruit of that collaboration was “Eclipse,” staged at the Agora Theater last spring with Motohiro Hase directing Hall’s play using Seinendan actors.

This time, Hall and Hirata have gone a step further, and before the curtain went up on “Whither Batavia,” Hall spent two months here working with Seinendan staff and actors, preparing just as he would have for a New York production.

At one of the final rehearsals in Tokyo, I found Hall checking over details carefully, with two interpreters standing by him. Explaining the attraction for him of such a project, Hall said: “Right now, in New York, I am working on starting my own theater group to work internationally, either alone or in collaboration, with other companies or countries. This is for a couple of reasons: one, the idea of taking from one culture into another and seeing how the audiences react, that is very interesting for me; also there are some elements of American theater that I am not entirely satisfied with, so I am interested in exploring possibilities in other countries.”

In this case, Hall said he had not written this new play especially for Japanese actors or audiences, explaining: “It was not written for a specific country. It’s written for ‘people,’ so my direction doesn’t change based on where I am.

“In this play, I deliberately pool from a lot of different cultures and even different periods of history, so some of the references and some of the language would be just as alien to Americans as to Japanese or Europeans. It is definitely international.

“Right now, American mainstream theater is so limited that I like bringing my work to other countries. Also I think producing and creating in other countries benefits me as a writer and director. Right now, I definitely enjoy French and Japanese theater more than American.”

With two successful collaborations now behind them, Hall and Seinendan are already planning a third project for next year, when Hall will present one of his favorite plays, Edward Albee’s “The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?”

Although Hall was at pains to point out that, unlike in Niehaus’s case, his work is conceived to have universal meaning, so allowing him to skip the process of explaining and discussing the content in detail with actors from the country where it is being performed, Hirata nonetheless stressed the importance of translation even in this kind of collaboration. At the postperformance talk, he said: “Once, shingeki made great efforts to translate non-Japanese lines literally into Japanese, and the results didn’t sound right in Japanese at all.”

Explaining his constant concern that lines sound natural in Japanese he said that he took time and care over the translation by Hiroko Matsuda. This attention to detail and the “universal appeal” of “Whither Batavia?” had the capacity audiences at the Agora Theater in Komaba-Todaimae on their feet applauding.

Language, too, is central to the thinking of Mansai Nomura as he prepares his “Hamlet” at SEPT. At an open workshop about translation of Shakespeare, Nomura said that, for example, he had examined many translations of “To be or not to be” for their rhythm and sound in Japanese. At the end, though, he said he was eager to do this production, “not as an English Shakespeare, but a made-in-Japan, original Shakespeare with an English director, Jonathan Kent.”

For his part, too, Simon McBurney commented in an interview for Theater Guide magazine about his upcoming collaboration with SEPT on Haruki Murakami’s “The Elephant Vanishes,” that “there were many things I could not understand when I spent time together with Japanese people, as they had a different cultural background. So I thought I would like to know more about these differences, because to learn something completely new is one of the greatest pleasures in my life.”

Clearly, what is happening through all these different forms of theatrical collaboration is the advancement of cultural exchange, rather than any form of superficial dramatists’ diplomacy. And the results, in practical terms, are bearing fruit on both sides.

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