‘Our Planet’ director focuses on Japan’s locals


Special To The Japan Times

Just three years ago, in 2009, Yukio Shiba burst to stardom at age 27 with his masterful first play, “Waga Hoshi” (“Our Planet”), which premiered in Tokyo and the following year scooped Japanese contemporary theater’s prestigious Kishida Kunio Award.

“Up until then, even in my hometown Nagoya, only a few drama people had heard of me,” he said. “Of course I was so glad to receive the award, but it still hasn’t made me feel like a representative of today’s theater scene. It’s as if most of Japan’s dramatists are heading off on A-class national theater roads — but, as always, I am walking along a winding private track beside them.”

Some track it is, though. “Our Planet,” which Shiba directed, is, he admits, inspired by Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer prize-winning work “Our Town.” Nonetheless, Shiba brought an all-encompassing brilliance and stunning sense of perfection to “Our Planet” as he tackled humans’ desolate isolation amid an endless, universal cycle of birth and death.

For all that “Our Planet” was a gem of a performance by Shiba’s company Mamagoto (which means “Playing House,” as he wants to make theater for everyone, even little children) — with rap music, loop cycles and the repetition of lines and parts of scenes integral to its story lines. It was also a fresh, energetic production that had many in the audience mesmerized by its sheer beauty and the success of Shiba’s self-styled “groping for a new approach to theater that’s free of traditional methods.”

“Our Planet” will be a tough act to follow, but this summer its main creators — Shiba, music director Koshi Miura and choreographer Momoko Shiraga — have been collaborating over another musical play, “Fanfare,” set to open next month at the Tram Theatre in Setagaya, and which this time they will codirect.

A couple of weeks ago, Shiba said in an interview that he was still “groping with the text” and looking forward to making a work combining theater, music performance and dance. He also said that “Fanfare” wouldn’t just be a collaboration between its three codirectors, but that it would also be “co-made” with a cast from the theater, music and dance fields. Even more surprising, he said there will be open auditions at each of the tour venues in Mie, Kochi and Ibaraki prefectures to pull in new local talent, who will be encouraged to both perform and help tailor-make “Fanfare”for their own localities.

How did winning the Kishida Kunio Award change your life?

On the positive side, it made my name instantly known around Japan. For example, it became easier to work with regional theaters. Since I had at the time been thinking a lot about working with more dramatists from outside of Tokyo, that was great timing.

On the other hand, I got so many more job offers that it was impossible to take them all on. That meant I had to select my work, and inevitably I leaned more toward my strong, theater-making side.

As a result, it was a bit disappointing to have to pass up new opportunities — such as TV or other media work — that may have opened unknown possibilities for my future. But now all this temporary fuss around me has died down, so in the near future I hope to be able to take up all kinds of offers.

Why is it, as you said, that you have so far stuck mainly to creating plays and doing workshops — often with regional public theaters, including ones in Aichi, Gifu, Fukuoka and Fukushima prefectures?

Well, I have always had fundamental doubts about presenting all my plays in Tokyo.

When I started to live here 12 years ago, I thought I had to be here to build a theater career. That was a common belief among Japanese dramatists. But over the past several years the situation has changed, probably due to the Internet opening up the potential and uniqueness of regional theaters to a wider audience.

So I started to make plays with those theaters using local people and citizen actors. I soon realized that several of those theaters are intent on producing works of an international standard to tour within Japan and beyond. They don’t have a rich infrastructure and money like mainstream places in Tokyo, but that’s exactly why I am so interested in them — whether they are doing theater, music, dance or fine arts.

A good example of utilizing local resources is the international-level Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale in Niigata Prefecture, which has created a great bridge between visitors and locals.

Do you have any future plans regarding local theater?

I’m interested in taking an artistic director’s position at a regional theater, if I get the chance.

I don’t think I can change society or the world through my work alone, and since I know many great artists who have different ideas from me, I’d like us to cooperate together to make a more powerful impact.

If I were in the position of artistic director, I could call on those artists, have the funds to pay them, and I’d be able to start lots of creative relationships between the arts and citizens. To me that sounds so interesting. But whether I become an artistic director or not, I will continue to devote myself to achieving such things in regional areas in the future.

How do you think Japan’s theater scene could be improved?

I think the current system of selling seats should be changed soon.

Now, people buy tickets for a specific seat for a specific performance. Instead, I’d like to see a membership system that allowed theatergoers to go anytime to see a performance — perhaps with a limit of one performance per production, unless there were empty seats.

This would help theaters keep track of how their finances are faring — but they would also have to stage programs every day. At the moment, everyone scrambles for weekend tickets, but I would like to offer more alternatives.

Not only that, but I believe we should work out how we can offer free theater.

In the music scene, people don’t buy CDs any more; instead, they go to concerts. I imagine that in the near future there will be free performance places for music where people can enjoy music just like they can enjoy statues and fountains in a park. I think that free theater performances could be a positive approach to enriching an area’s creative environment and its citizens’ lives. It would also involve more people in making theater.

But for this approach to blossom, we, of course, need sincere support from the public sector.

“Fanfare” runs from Sep 28 to Oct 14 at Theatre Tram, a 3-min. walk from Sangenjaya Station on the Denentoshi or Setagaya lines. For more details, call Setagaya Public Theatre at (03) 5432-1526, or visit setagaya-pt.jp or www.mamagoto.org (Japanese only). The play then tours to Mie, Kochi and Ibaraki prefectures from Oct 20 to Nov 4.