Stage

French triumph frees SPAC pioneer to be bolder still

It may be 10,000 km from Avignon in the South of France to Shizuoka at the foot of Mount Fuji, but performing-arts links are bringing them closer all the time, as Nobuko Tanaka discovers

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Following on Olivier Py’s comment in the accompanying story that “everybody” at last year’s Avignon Festival loved Satoshi Miyagi’s “Mahabharata — Nalacharitam,” which Py, as the festival’s director, had awarded the honor of opening the event, I rolled up to Shizuoka Performing Arts Center to find out how Miyagi, its artistic director, now views his production of that epic Sanskrit poem penned between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 — and what he has focused on since.

Arriving at its main theater in Shizuoka City — where a banner announced “Connecting Shizuoka and the world with theater” — Miyagi met me with the same friendly smile that greets audiences to any of SPAC’s indoor or outdoor venues. Then over coffee, he began to talk openly about his acclaimed staging of that monumental work.

“There’s a notice board at the festival office where anyone can pin a note offering to buy or sell tickets,” he said. “Happily it was full of requests to buy tickets for my play. And from what I heard, I think people of both sexes and all ages enjoyed it.”

Referring to his staging in the huge, horseshoe-shaped Boulbon Quarry outside Avignon, he explained, “Since Peter Brook found that setting in which to present his 1985 masterpiece, a nine-hour version of the ‘Mahabharata,’ the site has been a symbol of the festival.

“However, many people praised how I used that space for my ‘Mahabharata’ 29 years later,” Miyagi said — adding rather bashfully: “One veteran critic even said I used it better than Brook.

“But anyway, I was pleased how audiences reacted to my play, which perhaps brought out some new potential from that iconic space which has come to be used for a variety of productions.”

Now aged 55, Miyagi founded a theater company called Ku Na’uka in Tokyo in 1990 and toured with it to Greece, France, Egypt, India, Tibet, Singapore, China and elsewhere. The troupe also often performed in spaces such as parks, squares, a museum and an old house — which Miyagi said greatly helped his direction at Avignon.

As for the whole Avignon experience itself, he said, “During the festival, the cozy town is full of arts lovers from France and all over the world who go there to interact with each other about theater and everything else. So every night in the bars, ancient human communication is always happening — and that’s why it’s so special and everybody loves it.”

As for his own production, the director pointed to a dispute he’d had with festival staff, who wanted to position the stage in front of the quarry wall as it had been for Brook’s production, with audiences looking down from steep, stepped benches some way off at actors performing against the clifflike backdrop.

Instead, Miyagi insisted on them building a stage that encircled the audience within the embracing curve of the quarry walls so they were close to and slightly below it. “That way, the actors could be helped more by that backdrop, while audiences could feel in harmony with nature rather than being cowed by its massiveness — and even regular visitors loved that new experience,” the director said.

On the downside, however, Miyagi confessed he was puzzled what to do next after realizing so soon what, for many dramatists, is a lifetime’s ambition — that of staging a successful work in the Boulbon Quarry.

“Whatever comes next,” he said, “I achieved my biggest target and don’t need to worry any more about missing out on that. So, I think that from now on I can be more bold as an artist — and also as the artistic director of a public theater.

“For example, the arts are now threatened by a kind of totalitarianism in many countries, and I want to counter such a tendency through theater.”

Consciously, too, along with gearing SPAC to interact with creators both at home and abroad in line with its website’s declaration that “theater is a window to the world,” Miyagi is also fostering an overdue decentralization of Japan’s theater scene away from the capital.

Besides luring ever more metropolitan types to his annual festival in spring, the groundbreaking dramatist also encourages local people to join drama workshops at SPAC, and school students to visit its theaters as both members of the audience and as performers.

In the case of his latest work, “Gusko Budori no Denki” (“The Life of Gusko Budori”), which is based on an eponymous 1932 juvenile fantasy story by Kenji Miyazawa about an orphaned logger’s son who gives his life to save his village, SPAC is staging performances for regular audiences at weekends — and weekday ones for school students.

For Miyagi, though, such initiatives come naturally. As he said, “Even back when I was running Ku Na’uka, I was uncomfortable with the conventional theater business in Tokyo. Most companies in that closed circle rely on commercialized media and hiring popular guest actors to keep going — so they could never survive in an international market even if they weren’t as blinkered as they are to possibilities outside Japan.

“So, though Tokyo is a big enough market to sustain a domestic theater sector, it’s not ideal for creation. Consequently, I had no negative feelings about moving to Shizuoka, even though in those days people here had no concept of going to a theater in their free time. Now I am cultivating that audience.

“I am also trying to stop the way Japanese dramatists always move to Tokyo before touring abroad. In the arts, we don’t need lots of Hinomaru flag-waving like at the Olympics, and each region of the country can individually connect with the world directly — just as SPAC connected with the Avignon Festival.”

“The Life of Gusko Budori” runs till Feb. 1 at SPAC’s Shizuoka Arts Theatre, a 3-minute walk from JR Higashi Shizuoka Station. For details, call 054-203-5730 or visit www.spac.or.jp.