Is Tokyo staging the next major theater festival?


Festival/Tokyo, which launched last year with two sets of events in spring and autumn, is in a bid to join the ranks of the world’s top-flight theater festivals — such as Edinburgh’s annual spectacular in Scotland, Avignon’s in the South of France and Adelaide’s in South Australia. The question is, how does it aim to make its own distinctive mark on today’s generation?

According to 35-year-old Chiaki Soma, program director of F/T 10, which is set to run from Oct. 30 to Nov. 28, the festival is about to “storm into a period of growth, opening up new possibilities in theater by ‘disrobing’ it.”

Building on the success of last year’s twin festivals, F/T 10 will present numerous programs, including five invited from overseas, three guest productions (two foreign and one Japanese); eight productions by young Japanese companies supported by F/T 10, several symposiums and seminars; and a “maid cafe” event, hosted by senior-citizen maids, named Cafe Rottenmeier that will be open in Ikebukuro’s West Gate Park throughout the festival.

Faced with a fast-changing cultural environment in which many people now rely on digital media for much of their entertainment, Soma decided that to attract a wide audience she needed to deconstruct many preconceptions of theater by dispelling its image as pompous or precious and focusing on its ability to reach out to the general public. Soma — a leading contemporary producer in Japan — decided that to do this “disrobing,” she needed to focus her program selection on imaginative productions that transcend mere linear storytelling.

The three chosen foreign works, all of which are premiering in Japan, are just some of the examples of such nonlinear and non-narrative storytelling: “Riesenbutzbach: A Permanent Colony” by Swiss director Christoph Marthaler, “This is how you will disappear” by France’s Gisele Vienne’s and “Versus” from Argentina’s Rodrigo Garcia.

Fifty-nine-year-old director Marthaler, currently a darling of European theater and opera, and his cocreator/designer Anna Viebrock’s “Riesenbutzbach: A Permanent Colony” arrives with great expectations, having already been selected for Festival Berlin in May. Set in Riesenbutzbach, a fictitious central European village, the residents have the creepy feeling of being watched by someone or something. Within a seemingly broken society and in a situation where security alarms go off for no apparent reason, they soon succumb to paranoia and melancholy sets in as they also bemoan how their lives once revolved around money.

Kafkaesque it may seem, but Marthaler brings his characteristic wit and sarcasm to the piece — along with music by Bach, Beethoven, Mahler and songs by the The Bee Gees (which the cast sing).

Adding to the festival’s international mix, French director, choreographer, performer and set designer Gisele Vienne, will present her latest program, “This is How You Will Disappear,” following its acclaimed world premiere at the Avignon Festival in July. Vienne, 34, is famed for her individual aesthetic that often has actors and life-size dolls sharing the stage. Here she does not disappoint, as she lures the audience into a strange, misty wood where a wholesome, Apollonian female and her drooling trainer encounter a decadent Dionysian (and some dolls). Then, as stereotypes dissolve before our eyes, along with the parameters of normality, Vienne forges a new aesthetic from discipline and chaos, beauty and violence, in a mesmerizing display enhanced by cutting-edge collaborators such as fog sculptor Fujiko Nakaya, video artist Shiro Takatani and lighting designer Patrick Riou.

On a more provocative and disturbing level, Madrid-based Argentine, Rodrigo Garcia, a theater enfant terrible, confronts audiences with “Versus’ ” focus on our never-ending need to consume. This 2008 work opens with actors discussing the best way to eat a pizza — to eat only the part that has topping on and leave the crusts to be thrown away. And if that is a bit too cerebral, it’s not long before Garcia serves up a live punk band, an actor throwing milk around and dancing crazily, an actress bound by tape and a singer passionately performing flamenco numbers.

It sounds like complete disorder. And it is. Garcia seems to revel in this chaos, and appears to be suggesting that his play is not so different from what passes for our normal daily lives.

I n her efforts to bring theater to the people, Soma believes plays need not be confined to the stage. As a special guest production, Catalan director Roger Bernat’s hugely acclaimed 2008 social-theater event, “Public Domain,” which he has presented in more than 40 cities worldwide (from Seoul to London to Mexico City), will be shown each weekend throughout the monthlong festival.

Bernat, 42, will oversee 150 audience participants at Ikebukuro’s West Gate Park in front of the Metropolitan Art Space, each of whom will be given a set of headphones. Through these the participants will be asked questions, and depending on their answers, they’ll be given instructions to move to different parts of the space. Everyone becomes a player, and soon small groups and communities begin to form in this large-scale, interactive social drama.

As Bernat explained in a recent interview, “I decided to start working with audiences, not actors, because I was interested in making theater programs with characters who were not written (fictional) — people like you. I wanted to research how communities are built — and what is a community anyway?”

He went on to say that in every country in which “Public Domain” has been staged, he has received the same response from the audience. “Normally, people feel proud at being asked about themselves and are happy to answer the questions,” he said. “Only a few have ever dropped out of the one-hour program.

“Here, we will provide the questions in both Japanese and English — so it will be great if lots of people turn up to enjoy the show.”

Last but far from least of F/T 10’s five international programs is a dance work from China titled “Memory.”

Created by renowned contemporary-style choreographer Wen Hui, a cofounder with filmmaker Wu Wenguang of Beijing’s Living Dance Studio, the work bravely tackles one of China’s numerous political taboos — the so-called Great Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao in the 1960s and ’70s.

As well as a one-hour performance of “Memory” by Wen and her codancer, Wen and Wu will also stage a mind-boggling eight-hour version incorporating Wu’s 1966 documentary titled “My Time in the Red Guards.”

These international highlights are just a part of F/T 10, which is presenting equally impressive local talent, including a public-participation program by director and artist Norimizu Ameya. Ameya’s work will be staged around the festival’s main theater, the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory in Toshima Ward, but the details are, for now, a carefully kept secret. Don’t, however, be surprised if it features some lcoal abandoned houses.

In another audience-participation production, director Akira Takayama is staging “The Complete Manual of Evacuation — Tokyo.” Last year, Takayama took guests on a walking tour for one production, and offered a 24-hour video booth featuring 10-minute interviews with Ikebukuro residents and workers in another. This time, he spreads his net citywide with a 24-hour event taking place at the 29 Yamanote Line stations. (See the Time Out pages of Nov. 21’s Japan Times for more about this production.)

F/T 10 may have some hesitant beginnings, but it has already grown enormously in scope and ambition; this year’s lineup shows its identity is developing further. Who knows how soon it may start to rival those festivals in Edinburgh, Avignon and Adelaide.

Festival/Tokyo 10 will run from Oct. 30 till Nov. 28 at several venues in Toshima Ward, Tokyo. For more details of other programs in F/T 10, call (03) 5961-5202, or visit