Japan may be floundering politically and economically, but amid all the uncertainties it is a joy to report the sparkling rebirth of a major international theater event in Tokyo.

Tokyo International Festival (TIF) may be dead — but watch out Avignon, Edinburgh and Adelaide as Festival/Tokyo rises triumphantly from the ashes with its sights set on earning a place in the big league of arts events the world over.

Since its launch in 1988, TIF — which was held in 14 of the years until 2008 — unfortunately combined unending financial difficulties and a nail-biting struggle for sponsorship with a growing artistic reputation (and respected audience following), especially for its signature introduction of many foreign, cutting-edge drama groups, notably from the Middle East.

Now, though, the outlook suddenly looks much brighter for this country with next week’s launch of Festival/Tokyo as a monthlong feast of domestic and international drama that organizers hope to rapidly establish as a fixture on the global arts calendar.

At the hub of this stirring initiative is the festival’s newly appointed director, 33-year-old Chiaki Soma, formerly TIF’s program director, who recently took time at the event’s main office in Toshima Ward’s Nishi-Sugamo district to talk about the fabulous transformation now occurring before our eyes.

A literature graduate of Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, who then majored for an MA in arts management and cultural politics at Lyon Lumiere University in France before joining TIF as an artistic producer and program director in 2002, Soma explained: “When we were running TIF we had financial problems permanently, every year, but for Festival/Tokyo we have succeeded in receiving huge support from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (through its Tokyo Cultural Creation Project), and also from Toshima City Hall and some foundations in Toshima Ward, as well as from the Japan Foundation.”

In fact, with the new festival’s total budget of ¥300 million (compared with Avignon’s ¥1.5 billion), Soma felt confident enough to declare that, “consequently, we are now able to spend several times as much as TIF’s former budget, so the new Festival/Tokyo now has a much greater chance to run a stable and also a provocative international theater festival.

“It was a big boost when Tokyo Metropolitan Government decided to cooperate with us, even though they have only committed their support for the next three years, with their funding after that dependent on our performance. However, I am confident they will feel able to extend that support.”

Soma said delightedly that the audiences would be the chief beneficiaries of the festival’s newfound solvency, as Festival/Tokyo is now able to harness a far wider range of Internet, PR and publicity resources allied to reduced pricing for students, pairs and multiple bookings down from the typical ¥3,000-¥4,000 seat charge.

“If I compare this with other international theater festivals such as Edinburgh and Avignon, Tokyo is also a famous enough place to attract foreign visitors without this festival. So, I particularly wanted to make Festival/Tokyo an event at which dramatists from within Japan and from outside could mix and network and communicate creatively in a melting pot that also involves the audiences.

“I feel Japanese theater is still too closed off from the wider European or international theater world, so I would like to make it more open through this festival.”

To help realize this interchange, Festival/Tokyo will run a special cafe called Oyaji Cafe in the West Gate Park in Ikebukuro. To staff it, they invited oyaji (middle-aged men) from the public to become the waiters, and had them join a workshop under the leading contemporary dancer Kim Ito to teach them how to walk and serve elegantly. Soma believes this unique initiative will help to extend the accessibility of theater to that demographic of normally hectic, isolated male office workers.

Meanwhile, as another outreach and communication initiative, the new Festival/Tokyo will start a Theater/University program. In this, several theater programs created by drama students all over Japan will be brought together under the festival’s umbrella and provide an opportunity for all those involved to see each other’s work and discuss together Japan’s current drama education system (which is so far behind the West).

“From now on, I would like to focus more on the theater creating/producing role of the Festival/Tokyo committee,” Soma said. “We won’t just be staging completed theater works, but we also want to get involved in the creating process and dispatch some ‘new real’ theater from this Nishi-Sugamo office.”

As exciting as her visions are — with this first Festival/Tokyo featuring 19 performances from Japan and abroad and also “street theater” in which the “audience” actually takes to the streets — Soma talked through her colorful plan with a calm and suave tone to her voice . . . but her eyes sparkled with her unbounded enthusiasm for the challenge ahead.

Festival/Tokyo runs Feb. 26 till Mar. 29 at several venues around the Ikebukuro area in Toshima Ward. For more details, call (03) 5468-8113 or visit www.festival-tokyo.jp

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