A great year for theater innovation


Japan’s drama scene has seen some change in 2010. It was as if the theater crowd grew tired of waiting for the country’s ailing economy and faltering politics to offer them anything new to work with and decided to go and find their own inspiration.

Although most mainstream commercial theaters continued with their formulaic casting of young idols or good- looking boys to draw audiences to their productions, public theaters and young dramatists started working together in search of new ways for theater to survive.

In particular, young dramatists began to actively exchange ideas between themselves and with theatergoers at the many symposiums that they organized. They not only generated a lively atmosphere at such meetings but, having invited friends of theater enthusiasts, they also attracted many new fans.

Change was in the air, too, for Tokyo’s two major public theaters. The New National Theater was still getting used to Keiko Miyata as artistic director; and Hideki Noda, who was appointed the first artistic director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro in 2008, staged a full year’s program of his own choice, having previously had to work with decisions made by the bureaucrats who preceded him.

Meanwhile, many veteran artists also came up with striking new theater ideas, including acclaimed playwright and director Oriza Hirata, 48, who left audiences at the Aichi Triennial Festival gasping in amazement at the world’s first robot play, “Mori no Oku (In the Heart of a Forest),” in which actors costarred with automatons.

As 2010, a year of transition and change closes, there are still others whose remarkable new approaches to theater should be remembered as part of what appears to be a new starting point for the industry.

First, the biggest annual theater festival in Japan, Festival / Tokyo (F/T), took “disrobing theater” as its theme, and duly offered a wide range of performances that were free from the trappings of conventional theater. They went beyond linear storytelling, rejected traditional venues and attracted new audiences.

Among several outstanding F/T programs, “Dramathology,” by 28-year-old Yujiro Sagami, and “The Complete Manual of Evacuation: Tokyo,” by F/T regular Akira Takayama, were exceptional standouts.

Sagami’s “Dramathology” — a title that combines “drama” and “anthology” — was staged with ordinary senior citizens, aged 70 and over, starring alongside a young actress. The young woman danced around the stage silently and daintily, seemingly floating, as the older people simply recounted their personal histories, one after another. Through precise direction and his use of video, still images, music, and the contrast between the young actress’ movements and the seniors’ narration, Sagami created a moving piece on life and death.

Takayama, the founder of Port B theater company, took the drama off the stage and made audience participation part of the play experience with his “The Complete Manual of Evacuation: Tokyo.” First, the audience had to visit a website to get instructions for a “treasure hunt,” which could begin from one of 28 Yamanote Line stations and continued with trips to a variety of event sites, including a palm reader’s booth and a mosque. Takayama also staged a brilliant “strolling theater,” titled “Red Shoes Chronicle,” in Yokohama in March. This gave the audience, who participated by taking the stroll, a glimpse of the city’s underbelly by visiting areas associated with illegal sex businesses and yakuza gangsters. In both these experimental programs, Takayama produced focused, one-off theater for his audiences — quite an epoch-making move.

Taking a different, yet still fresh approach to theater, is Junnosuke Tada, 33, a young dramatist at the Kirari Fujimi public theater in Fujimi City, Saitama Prefecture. Tada was appointed artistic director of Kirari Fujimi in April after two years as an artist in residence heading his Tokyo Death Rock (TDR) company. So far, in just eight months at the artistic helm, Tada has shown great flexibility in decision-making by staging his own play “Love the World 2010” with Korean actors in April, and then collaborating with French director Pascal Rambert and about 40 local residents to stage “A (micro) History of World Economics: Danced” in October.

More recently, he entered another kind of collaboration — one between his cutting-edge TDR and the Aomori City-based Watanabe Genshiro Shoten company, a locally focused troupe led by Seigo Hatasawa. Together, they staged Hatasawa’s domestic drama “Tsuki to Ushi no Mimi (Ears of Moon and Cow),” which included an 83-year-old man in the role of a patient suffering from senile dementia.

Through such a broad range of collaborations, both close and far afield, the Kirari Fujimi theater has become a beacon for other regional theaters to look to when trying to shake off the shackles of Japan’s traditionally hermetic and isolationist contemporary theater world.

The Owl Spot, the public theater in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, took another unusual approach to drama, by demonstrating the possibilities and diversity of productions.

Rather than simply play along with what has seemingly become a national obsession with playwright Anton Chekov, The Owl Spot chose to avoid staging a crowd-pleasing “Cherry Orchard” or “Three Sisters.” Instead the theater presented “Owl Spot Chekhov Festival 2010.”

Spanning the year with nine productions, the festival gave audiences a wonderful opportunity to compare and reflect on some very different approaches to the Russian master’s works. Styles ranged from traditional Japanese kyogen to contemporary dance, and included a performance faithful to the original as well as a stunning rap version of “The Seagull.”

The latter, performed by 37-year-old Shigeki Nakano to music by Yoshio Otani, was titled “Major and Minor Keys: Prospect and Close View” and was set in contemporary Japan with an androgynous young man and his teenage girlfriend as the central characters. It was, quite likely, the Japan’s first “rap-music play.”

Finally, to wrap up this year’s review, I nominate English playwright Simon Stephens’ “Harper Regan” as the best performance of 2010. This 2008 work, set in working-class London and Stockport in northwest England, depicts 40-something Harper’s midlife crisis and her attempts at family reconciliation.

Staged at the Parco Theater in Tokyo and directed by Keishi Nagatsuka, who recently spent a study year in London, the play was performed by Japanese actors. Nagatsuka and his cast showed how a marvelously simple but powerful piece can be fashioned into an unforgettable theatrical gem. Featuring a rotating cube-style stage and using silent pauses creatively, audiences were visually intrigued and given the time to fully understand the psychology of the play.

Having started this overview with progress in Japanese experimental theater, it is a bit of a shame that it was a more conventional text-based work that impressed the most. Sadly, that performance was also of a foreign work. But this year showed that there’s plenty of positive changes afoot. Perhaps next year even more Japanese playwrights’ works will feature in the “best of” review.