East German backs Japan’s public theaters


Peter Goesnner was born in Leipzig, in the former communist East Germany, in 1962. His dream was to be a great football player, but 40 years later, the witty, easy-going German is in Tokyo directing “Sekishoku Elegy” (“Red Elegy”) by absurdist playwright Minoru Betsuyaku. Staged in 1980 for only one run, “Red Elegy” is a strange, ironic minor masterpiece about the aimless lives of former student activists — its hero passes one lazy day after another living off his girlfriend’s wages.

To find out how a soccer-mad East German comes to be directing his own company of Japanese actors in Tokyo, I caught up with him at a rehearsal studio in Meguro where our conversation in Japanese was peppered with jokes.

Why did you come to Japan?

My wife, Gesine, got a job offer to teach German at Kyushu Institute of Technology, so we came to Japan with our 3-year-old daughter in 1993. Of course I assumed there were lots of theaters in Kita Kyushu, because there are a million people there compared with only 300,000 in Leipzig, which had an opera house and several theaters of different sizes, all publicly funded. So, I planned to work at a theater for a while and then go back to Germany. However, I was shocked to find there was no theater culture in Kita Kyushu. As there was no alternative, I founded the Uzume (Goddess of Sea) theater company there in 1995 with the remaining ¥1 million I had in savings after I’d devoted myself to studying Japanese for few years.

It must have been difficult to start a company there from scratch.

Well, yes. In the first five years, we didn’t get any subsidies, so the actors and staff — all Japanese — all gave their time for almost nothing. In 2000, I won first prize in the Toga Theater Director’s Competition organized by the Japan Performing Arts Foundation, and that was the turning point. Afterward, we could get subsidies and things got easier, although it was still hand to mouth. Everyone was doing other jobs as well, which is not unusual in Japanese theater.

How are you finding it now that you have moved to Tokyo?

I’m doing several jobs here besides Uzume. I am now into my third year as founding artistic director of the new Sengawa Public Theater in Chofu City in western Tokyo, and I’m a drama lecturer at Toho Gakuen College of Music and Drama. I have also started this new theater project, Project Natter, whose first production this is.

My duty at Sengawa Theater was to get it up and running, and after a lot of preparatory work it opened last year. So in one way I am now ready to hand it on to the next person. But, on the other hand, its concept of a production committee of local volunteers choosing and organizing the programs instead of just using it as a rental hall is just getting going, so I will probably continue for few more years. That the residents are already producing half the theater’s programs themselves is quite unique in Japan.

Why is that?

Public theaters belong to each local government, and the bureaucrats that run them generally don’t understand anything about theater and are not interested. At Chofu, they built this splendidly designed theater by Tadao Ando, but afterward they didn’t have any idea of what their art mission was.

Luckily, I had a chance to work as the artistic director, so I have been able to try to make it a unique place run by interested locals instead of bureaucrats. Of course Chofu’s bureaucracy was hesitant to do anything new like that, and so I am trying to get them to understand the role of a public theater — which should work for the local people.

It will probably take 10 or 15 years to achieve that, but I believe it is worth the challenge. Maybe I’ll still be here then or maybe I won’t — I really don’t know.

Could you tell me about “Sekishoku Elegy” by your new company?

“Sekishoku Elegy” is a story about people who a few years before had been active in the radical student movement of the 1970s. One way to do it, I thought, was to make it very modern — a story about today’s apathetic youth. But I decided to do it more as it was written, about people whose movement aiming to change many of the rigid planks of Japanese society had — like them — been completely left behind by changing times.

It also connects to my own private experience as well. It’s been 20 years since East Germany disappeared. Back there I was once a party member — because I wanted to see the reality with my own eyes — and now I can see that I was a naive dreamer, because now I understand that people have to just get on and live their lives.

For example, what’s the meaning of the Red Flag today? In this play, former activists rebuke the disillusioned, doing-nothing hero, but there are other ways to change things without armed conflict, and passive resistance can also be a force for change. For instance, if you really wanted to change the Japanese theater world, maybe the best way would be to close all the theaters for three years. Then people would realize what they are missing.

In this “Sekishoku Elegy,” I would like to illustrate the social dilemma between ideals and reality. Similar dilemmas are everywhere in today’s life — for example for me teaching at Toho Gakuen. That’s because, even though the students study very hard, the current theater world doesn’t offer them a good creative or working environment. So, many of graduates can’t find a proper job.

The play includes lots of sarcastic humor, and I am now thinking how much of a comical tone I should add in my production, because I don’t want to make a nostalgic, miserable play. Let’s see.

“Sekishoku Elegy” runs till July 22 at the Suzunari Theater, a 5-minute walk from Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu or Inogashira lines. For more information, call Office Cottone at (03) 3411-4081 or visit www5d.biglobe.ne.jp/~cottone