News in March that 38-year-old Chiaki Soma had suddenly been removed from the post of program director of Festival/Tokyo, which she had held since it started in 2009, set many theater lovers worrying about the future of the flagship drama event whose stature at home and abroad had only grown with her at the helm.
Finally, in July, the new team running F/T held a press conference led by Soma’s successor, Sachio Ichimura, who in 2000 founded the nonprofit Arts Network Japan that has organized the festival since it started. Declaring that Festival/Tokyo would no longer also be known as F/T, Ichimura, 65, vowed to set the November event on a new course.
Specifically, he said, the system where one artistic director selected the performers to be invited would be abolished. Instead, a seven-member committee would fulfil that key role — and it may also change the event’s name from Festival/Tokyo in the future, he added.
Although Soma clearly plowed quite a cutting-edge furrow for the erstwhile F/T, all had seemed to be going swimmingly in terms of audience and critical reaction. So, on my recent visit to the new commander’s office, I was curious to enquire why so much about the late F/T needed fixing when so many hadn’t thought it was broken. In response, I got more than I bargained for.
How is the new Festival/Tokyo going?
We have been working really hard to prepare for it, not only with dramatists but also with other genres of artists within and outside Japan.
Normally, a theater director orders set and lighting designers, musicians and such to help them create works in a certain way. However, we have started a new way of working by taking counsel from the outset and throughout with a diverse group including contemporary artists, choreographers and dramaturges all sitting at the same table.
This way it takes much longer to create a work, but as I said in this year’s Festival/Tokyo press release, “Today art can be thought of as being established on the premise of diversity. I would like to place at least the recognition of diversity as a common denominator for when we interact with contemporary art.”
So rather than embodying one director’s creative imagination, the new festival will be the fruit of diverse artists’ different imaginations, and that will make it richer than if it stemmed from one person’s decisions.
A theater director has to make decisions at every phase, but I think it’s impossible for just one person to handle that because the conventional way of a director’s decisions being dictated top-down to other staff doesn’t fit today’s diverse society. Hence I am searching for a new way in which everybody participates equally to achieve a more fruitful outcome.”
In introducing the new Festival/Tokyo concept, you pointed to the press release section headed “Border play.” Please explain more about that.
Nowadays, as in the general tone of society, in the arts world the authorities control more strictly what art and theater may present or not.
Actually, some past F/T programs faced that kind of problem and the staff needed to negotiate with the authorities. I think such disputes about giving priority to freedom of expression or to public welfare are fruitless and endless, so in “Border play” I outlined how to find a point at which both sides — the festival and the Tokyo government — can compromise and work together. Realistically, the festival doesn’t want to make such bureaucrats into enemies, as we need their strong support.
Don’t you think “freedom of expression” ought to be the priority in art?
In the real world, as in past precedents at the Supreme Court, the view is: “Freedom of expression cannot be granted unconditionally.”
Under Program Director Chiaki Soma, F/T grew steadily in Japan and overseas. Now you’ve said you aim to wipe away its former image and make a fresh start. Why?
Firstly, I found and fostered Soma and many of her selections were deeply influenced by me. Of course, there is a reason why I took this course — but I can’t tell you it here.
What will set Festival/Tokyo apart from the other rising regional festivals in Japan?
I don’t program to be distinct from other festivals. But a big difference from the others will be the process of making programs. As I said, we are adopting a new method in which various artists collaborate together.
In this new approach you have replaced the role of a program director with a committee. What’s the advantage of that, and how will it actually work?
There is no final decision-maker and decisions are arrived at by the group, but as there wasn’t enough time this year, I chose the program. In future I hope the committee will do that.
Please tell me about the Asia Series you are introducing in this year’s festival.
Usually, Japanese producers bring Asian theater programs here that have already played at European festivals. I want to stop that practice at Festival/Tokyo and instead feature Asian works we choose by researching theater trends in Asia ourselves.
It will take a few years to do the research for our Asia Series, but in Vol. 1 this year we will have a Dawon Arts from Korea program (whose name refers to the Korean genre dawon, which combines theater, dance, artwork and video). Next year we will feature Myanmar theater, and Malaysian in 2016.
To be honest, I would like Festival/ Tokyo to be heavily focused on Asian programs — but in reality in Japan, it’s so difficult to attract people to such events. So my compromise this year is to also include two works by drama giants — “The Valley of Astonishment” by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, and Yukio Ninagawa’s “Ravens, We shall load Bullets,” performed by seniors from Saitama Gold Theater under his direction.
What direction do you see Festival/ Tokyo taking in the future?
I want to attract other artist participants. To put it concretely, contemporary art used to be a more minor genre in Japan than theater, but the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale (in Niigata Prefecture) attracts a million visitors, and the creators include lots of young people. So we are aiming to also include such art projects to attract contemporary-art lovers. For example, we asked rising young artists to work with choreographers, dancers and theater creators.
I also aim to reach potential customers influenced by online publicity. They instantly react to SNS movements, so I want to build up that side of our strategy.
In light of London’s acclaimed Cultural Olympiad in 2012, what is your blueprint for Festival/Tokyo in six years when the Olympics are here?
Fundamentally, F/T was started to enhance Tokyo’s bid for the Olympics — so we wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Back in 2009, the Tokyo Olympic Committee and the (national government’s) Agency for Cultural Affairs appointed the nonprofit Arts Network Japan to run Festival/Tokyo, and we have run it ever since. But we don’t know whether they will want us do so in the Olympics year — or even next year.
A major premise of the Japanese bureaucratic system is “equality,” so they may hand the festival to someone else— another NPO or an entertainment corporation maybe. So how can we stick to a long-term continuous plan?
Looking ahead, we have to be realistic in a “Border play” way.
Festival/Tokyo 2014 runs Nov. 1-30, mainly at venues around Ikebukuro, but also elsewhere. For details, call 03-5961-5202 or visit www.festival-tokyo.jp.