Shizuoka stage festival aims to engage its audiences the old-fashioned way

by Nobuko Tanaka

Contributing Writer

This hasn’t been a great year for social media. Internet addiction has been a hot topic, as have privacy issues, and there has even been a movement to #DeleteFacebook.

Last month, Satoshi Miyagi, artistic director of the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center, which runs World Theatre Festival Shizuoka, joined that chorus of critics.

“Since SNS (social networking services) are often just used as a one-way monologue, I worry that our world needs to pay more attention to listening to other people’s voices,” he said at a press conference to announce the lineup of his annual festival.

While noting that SNS can be effective in the promotion and dissemination of news, Miyagi, 59, posited that theater could act as a counterbalance to social media’s passive entertainment qualities.

“People involved with theater are eager to share their voices and hear back from live audiences in the moment,” he said. “So in the festival lineup this time, there are many artists who encourage audiences to become actively engaged.”

The roster features six programs from overseas, with two from France (“Dream and Derangement” and “Richard III — Loyalty binds me”) and one each from Germany (“An Enemy of the People”), Australia (“Jack Charles V The Crown”), Mexico (“The only thing a great actress needs, is a great work and the will to succeed”) and Norway (“Simulacrum”).

Two of Miyagi’s own works round out the performance side of the festival, which runs April 28 to May 6. They are a new production of “Hogiuta” (“Ode to Joy”), playwright So Kitamura’s comedic take on life in the aftermath of nuclear war from 1979, and a reprisal of “Mahabharata — Nalacharitam,” the director’s own piece based on an episode from the ancient Sanskrit epic, “The Mahabharata.” The latter delighted festivalgoers in Avignon, France, in 2014 (and in Shizuoka later that year) with its classical Heian Period (794-1185) aesthetic and beautiful live drumming.

The World Theatre Festival Shizuoka has been operating under different names since its inception as the Spring Arts Festival Shizuoka in 2000. It’s also growing; in addition to being staged at SPAC’s three indoor theaters in and around the city, and its outdoor space in the nearby hills, “The only thing a great actress needs, is a great work and the will to succeed” will be presented at a new venue in a former city-center restaurant.

Along with its varied Strange Seed program of free 30-minute performances in the city’s streets and its central Sumpujo Park, open-air talks, a festival bar and stalls of all sorts, the whole event looks sure to bring a real glow to the Golden Week holidays.

As a quintessential example of Miyagi’s 2018 theme of “listening to others’ voices,” it would be hard to top the masterful re-creation of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” by Thomas Ostermeier, the artistic director of Berlin’s cutting-edge Schaubuhne theater since 2000.

Although it is making its Japan debut at the festival after being staged in more than 30 cities worldwide since premiering at Avignon Festival in 2012, the work’s relevance only seems to grow.

In the Norwegian playwright’s 1882 original, the hero, Dr. Stockmann, runs tests that show dangerous levels of contamination in the hot-spring water of his small town whose economy depends on its famed public baths. When he reveals his findings, though, the citizens turn against him and he becomes a pariah.

Ostermeier tells The Japan Times via phone that he read Ibsen’s play as an examination of morality in the face of a high economic cost — and about the way economic power can dominate politics.

Explaining that he created his version in the wake of 2008’s economic crash and Occupy movement, he says: “The political conflict of the play was interesting for me because so-called democracy doesn’t work in our economy-first societies anymore. So now we don’t know where our political system is leading us.”

Ostermeier doesn’t just confine this work to the stage, though, because in his final scene the actors lead the audience to debate the hero’s decision to go public about the contamination after the town refuses to spend money to eliminate it. Then, finally, the issue is decided there and then by a show of hands.

“It’s interesting to see how audiences in different places react differently, and how they regard the political system where they are living,” Ostermeier says. “I think the world is full of manipulation and propaganda and people are not involved enough in the way they should be.”

Meanwhile, The Japan Times also caught up with Argentinian contemporary dancer and choreographer Daniel Proietto, who is currently a guest artist at the Norwegian National Ballet and was rehearsing his role in “Simulacrum,” the duet he will perform at the Shizuoka festival with renowned 78-year-old Japanese flamenco dancer Shoji Kojima.

Speaking at Kojima’s studio in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, Proietto — who could almost be his partner’s grandson — explained that “Simulacrum” was created for them by Norwegian choreographer Alan Lucien Oyen. Since its premiere at Oslo Opera House in 2016, he says they have taken the show to the United States and France — but performing its fusion of flamenco, contemporary and female-style kabuki dance here will be especially exciting, as it actually delves into Kojima’s family roots.

Although he studied kabuki and noh at a dance school in Argentina, Proietto says it wasn’t until “a fateful trip here in 2012” that he came across nihon buyō, a traditional Japanese genre of dance and pantomime, and was extended the privilege of being taken on as an apprentice by one of its leading exponents, Fujima Kanjuro VIII.

“Nihon buyō changed my way of acting and dancing, but primarily my choreography,” he says. “Its value is quite amazing and it’s entirely different from styles such as Western ballet, which rate an artists’ individuality over and above the history of a piece. In nihon buyō, the tradition is paramount and the style has hardly ever changed.

“However, we are making a special version for Shizuoka with me doing the narration in Japanese,” he adds with a laugh, while insisting he’s practicing hard so he can reach out effectively to the audience.

Besides those two non-Japanese programs, the four others from overseas include “Jack Charles V The Crown,” an autobiographical one-man performance with musical accompaniment by its eponymous indigenous Australian creator.

Then, in what the 94-year-old French dramatist Claude Regy says is his “final work,” the master director will perform in “Dream and Derangement,” based on the short and tragic life of the great Austrian expressionist poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914).

Director, playwright and actor Jean Lambert-wild performs the titular role in “Richard III — Loyalty binds me,” and rising director Damian Cervantes spearheads the empowering “The only thing a great actress needs, is a great work and the will to succeed.”

In fact, when speaking about that Mexican production, Miyagi took the opportunity to once again laud the kind of two-way communication theater provides.

“This piece has been performed in more than 200 places all over the world, as it only needs a small space,” he said. “So I hope many artists will realize they can engage with people anywhere even with just two actors if their idea is really good.”

World Theatre Festival Shizuoka 2018 runs from April 28 to May 6. For information about venues, tickets (¥1,000-¥4,100, plus concessions) and free bus services between venues and other attractions, call 054-202-3399 or visit www.spac.or.jp.