Chiaki Soma, the program director at Festival/Tokyo (F/T), needed to figure out how to proceed with the country’s biggest theater festival following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11. She closed her office for 10 days and asked the staff to carefully consider the meaning of the festival in light of the disaster in the northeastern Tohoku region.

She then recalled her team and they decided to ditch the festival’s original mission statement — “Scrap theaters and go into town” — and replace it with a new one, “What can we say?,” in reference to the catastrophe.

As a result, the F/T that opens Sept. 16 will look different from what was originally planned. Many of the artists, such as 54-year-old Akio Miyazawa, modified their contributions. The founder of the Tokyo-based Yuenchi Sasisei Jigyodan theater company marks his debut at the festival with the piece “Total Living 1986-2011.”

“I tried to depict a parallel picture between 1986, when the Chernobyl disaster happened and Japan was riding high in its economic bubble, and the gloomier days of 2011,” Miyazawa says. “What has changed and what has not changed during that quarter of a century interests me. To represent that, the piece shows people amusing themselves by playing bingo. When they win prizes, though, they are always missing something and are incomplete. These people represent today’s Japanese, who always feel that something is missing, yet they live with a past that’s failing to fill in that missing something.”

Another director who changed course following the Tohoku disaster is 42-year-old Akira Takayama. His piece, “Referendum Project: Port B,” tackles issues of nuclear power through an interactive referendum. Takayama says he’s fired up with the idea of true democracy (or lack thereof) in Japan. However, he notes that not everyone at home shares his passion.

“When I talked about my upcoming ‘Referendum Project’ in Vienna, so many media outlets came to interview me,” Takayama says. “But even though I announced my new play — themed around a Japanese referendum on nuclear power — at the F/T press conference here in early July, (The Japan Times) is the first local media outlet to ask about it.

“I’m quite shocked about the media’s apathy and neglect of this production, so I adjusted my program to stir up real political awareness in this country. However, I didn’t want the play to end up as a one-off political-scandal piece, so I decided to take a noninflammatory and simple approach to stimulating people’s social awareness.”

Takayama is attempting to achieve this awareness by collecting 100 video interviews conducted with children in Fukushima. He asks them simple things and finishes with the question, “What is your dream?” Next, he plans to create a video-screening van to take around Tokyo, where he will ask locals to watch the videos and respond via a questionnaire centered on nuclear and political themes. Takayama then hopes, in the future, to take these responses to Fukushima and discuss them with people there.

“I want this to continue,” he says. “I really hope that lots of people — not just theater fans — will pop into our van and think about Fukushima for a while.”

Though Takayama speaks enthusiastically about the project, his tone changes when he begins discussing the contemporary art scene in Japan and the challenges it faces.

“I’ve been involved with F/T as a contributing artist — and an audience member — for the past three years, and I have gained so much from those experiences,” he says. “However, I hate to think how few audience members, critics and theater creators have been similarly inspired and changed their creative outlook because of the festival — rather than just being passive observers.”

Takayama’s pessimistic outlook is echoed by leading theater critic Tadashi Uchino, a professor at the University of Tokyo.

“Japan’s theater world is too old-guard, and it is virtually closed to experimental and difficult-to-understand programs — the kind of works that are central to the Western theater scene,” he says. “As a result, in Japan there are only two kinds of theaters: big commercial ones and unprofitable small-scale stagings.”

However, Uchino holds out some hope for the F/T mission.

“This festival has consistently offered up new types of theater that are directly related to real life and belong to neither the worlds of entertainment nor small-scale hobbies,” he says. “Most importantly, they are directly related to real life. That’s F/T’s greatest gift to prominent young dramatists.”

Concerns over Japan’s commercially manufactured theater scene resonate within F/T as well. Program director Soma remains adamant that the festival will not be dumbed-down or pander to the tastes of the mass-market.

“We will not pursue ease of understanding at F/T — that is what distinguishes us,” she says. “Most theaters pursue a profits-first policy and cast popular celebrities to cash in on their audience appeal, regardless of their acting ability. Consequently, most programs at both the commercial and public theaters end up being very similar.”

When asked what can be done to address the despondency that hangs in the air over Japan’s theater world, Soma is novel in her attempt to resolve it.

“I think the media has an important role to play,” she says. “At present, there is no tension between the production side of theaters and the critics and media. I would like to see them having a healthy, mutually challenging relationship so that dramatic works are evaluated fairly and theater culture is livened up greatly as a result.”

For the future, too, Soma said she aims to at least double the ¥330 million budget for F/T, so that the festival can be significantly scaled up as befits an annual event serving a population of at least 13 million people.

But while some participants despair at the creative state of Japan’s theater world, others are getting on with it — with gusto — even in these taxing economic times.

Among those encouraging beacons is Tomoya Takeda, a young member of the F/T production staff who is working as a link between the internationally acclaimed, Osaka-based Ishinha Theater Company and a coordinator at the Seibu department store in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district.

His efforts have brought together the major retailer and Ishinha’s play “Fukeiga” (“Landscape-Tokyo-Ikebukuro”) on the roof of Seibu’s building in Ikebukuro, and he points out that not all commercial links are necessarily grubby.

“This was a great experience for me,” he says. “To have a chance to work with people from a completely different commercial field — merchandising and businesspeople. Back during the 1980s bubble economy, Seibu was eager to engage in cultural activities, but that eagerness has dwindled since the mid-1990s and it hasn’t been involved in any cultural projects for ages.

“Now, with everything in Japan sort of stagnating, I think it’s an opportune time for theater to connect with other fields, such as business. It could be a new trigger to make that sector rethink the relevance and value of theater to itself. This is just one example of how we are widening F/T’s reach.”

Adding to these possibilities, the critic Uchino also suggests that F/T could in the future occupy a unique position on the international theater map. If F/T could construct a firm position for itself in Asia, he says, it could consequently come to prominence in the wider world.

Meanwhile, F/T debutant director Miyazawa sees the festival as a great platform for the concerns of artists in Japan.

“Just as the government needs to change its energy policy today,” he says, “the state also needs to consider the public interest in a long-term perspective and recognize the validity of the arts.”

And taking his argument beyond these borders, he continues: “How can Japan contend with other countries when we have so few natural resources? Well, the state needs to build up talented human resources, and the arts and theater are perfect for that — even though it may take a little time to bear fruit.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way — so if F/T keeps on reexamining its purpose year after year, perhaps it will keep on finding answers.

Festival/Tokyo runs from Sept. 16 until Nov. 13 at several venues in Tokyo. Ticket prices vary. For details, call (03) 5961-5202 or visit www.festival-tokyo.jp.

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