“Hotel Grand Asia,” the debut production resulting from an ambitious pan-Asian collaboration called Lohan Journey, opened at the Setagaya Public Theatre (SEPT) in Sangenjaya on March 8 is the fruit of over two years of intensive preparation since the project was launched by SEPT’s director Kentaro Matsui.

Named after a high rank of Buddhist, Lohan, this theatrical journey began at SEPT’s Carrot Tower base in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward in February 2003. At that time, 15 leading Asian dramatists from Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand — plus one American experienced in Asian drama collaborations — met to initiate a drama network for young Asian artists that they hoped would bear fruit for years to come.

With the luxury of public funding that SEPT provides, this brave initiative has finally been realized after five long workshops in Bali, the Philippines and Japan, followed by intensive rehearsals.

What has emerged from this voyage into the artistic unknown is a play comprised of four stories that are interweaved through 40 sketches, many set to music with singing and dancing and staged mainly in English, with summarized subtitles in Japanese, Thai and Tagalog.

The stories’ chief recurring themes are the region’s issues of identity, immigration, terrorism and the effects of the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Through its clever and colorful staging and choice of topics familiar to all — with touches of humor and self-parody — what we arrive at is high-quality, intelligent entertainment that introduces audiences to wonderful vignettes, such as the story of a gay Filipino prostitute hard at work in Tokyo; an incidental conversation on a Manila street corner; an office worker who lost everything when Japan’s bubble burst; four itinerant sailors and a karayuki (a prewar Japanese prostitute) working in its conquered territories.

The result is a fabulous tapestry of life and perceptions shared by millions along Asia’s eastern flanks as the 21st century dawns.

As the pressure built up last week prior to the opening night, I first attended a rehearsal and then sat down with directors Herbert Go (associated director of the Tanghalang Filipino theater company) and Josh Fox (artistic director of the international, New York-based WOW theater company) to talk to them about their journey. Go recalled how he embarked on this epic project.

“When I went to have an interview with Matsui and SEPT for this project three years ago,” Go recalled. “I did not actually know what it was all about — we just smiled at each other and the interview finished. Then later I heard that SEPT wanted to invite me to join this collaborative project, and it was only then that I found out it would take three years! Wow! Hmmm . . . then I answered ‘OK,’ though I did not know whether I could finish it or not. Anyway, I said I would try and see. Since then I have missed my own works’ opening nights three times because of coming to Japan.”

What attracted you so much to this project, even though it was such a hard schedule for you?

It was hard, but also interesting to be tackling issues and group politics. All of the directors are from very different cultural backgrounds with different working methods but most of their ideas were excellent. Sometimes that meant a lot of politics to get someone’s ideas taken up by the other members.

So, from this experience do you think, in a wider sense, that it is realistic to think of there being a unified Asian Union like the European Union in the future?

Asia is so diverse, it may take more than 100 years to do this.

What did you hope to get out of this collaboration?

Maybe we wanted some headaches. (Laughs). I believe that it is always important to learn about other cultures, and the best way to learn is by working with them. I sometimes feel now that I was trapped in a elevator with the other 15 artists, and I have learned a lot of patience. Otherwise there would have been a lot of fights.

On the other hand, I do not agree that the theater has to be always democratic. Sometimes somebody has to make a decision anyway. And theater is about aesthetics and you do not vote on aesthetics.

When I saw your rehearsal today, I was struck by the many comic touches.

Oh, we were serious — why were you laughing at us. (Laughs). That’s a joke! People say that comedy is a tragedy that happens to other people and tragedy is comedy that happens to yourself. One of the issues in the play is Asian identity.

What do you think about this?

If you try to define Asian identity, you would go crazy. It’s impossible to define it. For example, you are an Asian, but also you are an individual. The play addresses some issues about identity, but we did not define Asian identity, we just raise the issue. I do not like plays that are always defining, and I do not want to show a new “Asian theater” style. I just want to share this great story with the audiences and also to communicate with and move them.

Josh Fox: I have had experience working with Thai, Indonesian, Taiwanese and also Japanese theater companies since 1996 in Asia and with my own company in New York. Then, in 1999, I got an ACC [Asian Cultural Council] grant to come to Japan for six months, and I started to work as an actor with Yoji Sakate of the Rinkogun theater company directing “Emperor and Kiss.”

Through the success of that piece, I met people such as Hiroshi Koike from the Pappa Tarahumara company and Matusi from SEPT. When I started to work with Thai people, I interviewed each actor about their culture, then the play became about the cultural differences and also the universality of human nature. Also it was so interesting for me to see such a difference between the Western and Asian mindsets. Most of the time, I had completely different opinions from other people. Even though I have worked with some Japanese theater companies, their working practice was totally different, they had very strong opinions and they were were the leaders of those projects. But this Lohan Journey is so different, because we do not have any leaders. Matsui invited all these people and he stayed away.

You are also an outsider among this Asian group. What is your view of this as an Asian collaboration?

First of all, each individual is different, but also there are differences depending which country people come from so, for example, Thais have some of their own concepts and Japanese have some of theirs, etc. But as I have been watching, I think it’s gone very well. They work very patiently to understand and respect each other. It’s very tricky though, because many of the people acting and directing and creating this stage together are normally directors themselves and are used to being leaders. But in this project they have had to try another way. It’s a big challenge.

Could you explain the difference between East and West a bit more?

In terms of making theater, there is not so much difference. But in mentality, I think it’s very interesting that there is no subject in Japanese sentences. In Western languages, you can’t do this; you have to say “I did this; so you start from yourself and so this idea of yourself is very different. There is one element of this play about identity. The word in Japanese, Thai, Malay and Indonesian for identity is [the English] “identity.” Matsui told me there is no word for identity in Japanese. It’s a quite Western concept, so I could see this idea of identity change its meaning.

Because identity in the West is very much based on yourself, in this group, identity has had to find some “we” or “together” meaning. This is a new idea for me. In this project, it’s very clear to me that Westerners start from themselves, they state their opinions very directly and expect some conversation about that.

But here it happens a little bit differently. The Asian participants do not state their opinions directly at first, and there are some other processes at work. I am really learning to watch how this happens now. Because there is lots of silent communication, and for me this is very difficult to understand.

So, there is a challenge always to find a way to communicate, because collaboration is communication, after all. If I behave directly, it does not work; if somebody behaves indirectly to me, it does not work. So, you have to find some balance. I hope eventually we learn something.

It’s a three-year project, and we are still working on this kind of problem, so it’s a long process to understand each other. It is the most difficult thing in the world to understand another person’s mind, not only personally, but their concepts and the way they see the world. You cannot make an assumption about what another person is thinking.

Do you think theater can play a part in forming an Asian Union in the future?

First of all, the EU and the USA are just about power structures. That has nothing to do with culture, and so for many different people in Europe, and also the USA, their meeting points are money and the military. Right now though, people from different nations have to try to understand the others, and in the theater we are doing this in one way.

This project is like the UN for Asian theater. It really gives us some knowledge of what international relations is like. It’s so important to do cultural training, because you cannot see yourself, and it’s really hard to see your own culture inside of yourself. If you are a person who cares about the future of the world and stopping war, and who cares about changing the power structure of the world, this is the one great way to learn about that. You must examine yourself before you can understand all this. Theater is a metaphor and theater is a place where we can learn something we did not know existed before.

What do you want to give to the Japanese audiences in particular with this play?

I would love Japanese audiences to be in the same position as me, to look at this play from a foreigner’s point of view and realize they have to really think about other parts of the world and about themselves differently as I have come to do.

As I listened to these illuminating comments, and the energetic discussions still going on just a week before curtain-up in this Journey’s quest, I was reminded of something said to me earlier by one of its Japanese members, Takeshi Kawamura (the leader of T factory Theatre Company).

Commenting on the difficulty of creating something in a completely non-hierarchical group of 15 people, he said: “This play may be a kind of product of chaos, but I think this is one result of our quite Asian forms of decision-making in this group — nobody decided anything and we never set a goal.”

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