The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
New developments in the Japan Society, a promoter of exchange between Japan and the U.S. for 100 years
Japan Society commissioned work
Basil Twist’s Dogugaeshi
(Sep 13-25, 2007)
© Richard Termine, courtesy of Tandem Otter Productions
I would like to ask next about the U.S. tours. What kinds of works you choose for the tours.
The criteria are: whether the work has the artistic value that warrants our investment of effort and resources to produce the tour: whether there are funds available to support the tour; whether the artist him/herself really wants to tour; whether American presenters would be attracted to the piece; whether the financial and scheduling conditions are feasible for touring. As for Japanese contemporary theater companies, we have so far produced tours for Rinko-gun, Seinendan, Ku Na’uka, SPAC, Kayoko Shiraishi's Hyaku Monogatari, Takeshi Kawamura's AOI/KOMACHI, and the company Yubiwa Hotel. Next year, we will produce a tour for the theater company chelfitsch. In terms of attracting other U.S. presenters to produce and organize a tour, dance is relatively easier than theater because dance does not involve language. For theater pieces, you have to discuss with artists how to place translation in the best way. That is why Japan Society has made special efforts to organize tours for theater companies; it isn’t such an easy thing for any other U.S. presenters or agents.

What kinds of venues have joined contemporary Japanese theater's tour to present them?
We have a large network we like to collaborate with: Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio, Hopkins Center in New Hampshire, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, On the Board in Seattle, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Vermont, Miami Light Project in Miami, to name a few. Also we contact universities like University of Pittsburgh and the University of Massachusetts. We have maintained database of venues that have joined our tour projects in the past – we can always draw up a list of 20 venues or so.

What do those venues and presenters find interest in Japanese contemporary theater?
Venues that have interest in presenting traditional arts are not so picky that they are willing to present any kinds of the traditional art form: noh, kabuki, or rakugo. However, presenters who take contemporary theater are more selective about content. They have different expectations for a performing arts piece that was not created in the U.S. That doesn’t mean they expect to see a slice of Japan with actors sitting formally on tatami and bowing deeply. I could tell by feeling what kind of stuff American presenters perceive as the kind of "Japan-ness" that would not be created by American artists. In that sense, I must be an American presenter though I am Japanese. The "Japan-ness" is a subtle thing, such as a unique tempo, a way to depict relationship between men and women, or portrait of young people who can't get along in society, etc. At the same time, those presenters also have an interest in contemporary issues that is common between Japan and the U.S., or internationally – they are attracted to that the issue can be even shared with people in such a different culture.

Can you tell us a little more about what Americans perceive as Japan-ness?
For instance, it could be things like the stage set is extremely elaborately designed and constructed.

Is it a kind of fetishism?
Well, you could say so. In the U.S. it is hard to find such elaborate, detailed and intricate stage set as, for instance, that of the Dumb Type Company. Also, take Rinkogun Theater Compnay's play The Attic. Americans recognized in the work Japan's recent social issue of "hikikomori," or withdraw oneself from society and to cocoon himself, as a common contemporary phenomenon of the younger generation. Also they might have found a Japanese-ness in its direction and stage set – that a dozen actors performed in the confines of such a small box. I think that they see someone like Ko Murobushi’s stoic use of the body on stage as very Japanese, very Butoh-ish.

Does Murobushi’s butoh look stoic to Americans? That would be different from the Japanese perception.
Yes, that’s how it looks in America. Take another example: Shirotama Hitsujiya’s company Yubiwa Hotel. Their theme is "girl" or "girly adult." A grown-up female can be remained a "girl" in Japan regardless of her age. On the contrary, a female child or teenager is a girl in America and a grown-up female is not a girl anymore. To Americans’ eyes, Shirotama's "girly adult" look like a strange creature with a unique existence in Japan. Having prepared all of this Japan-ness on a plate, we then have to motivate American audience to physically come to the theater to see these works – otherwise, it would not mean that we’re actually introduce them to American people. That is why we need to find right communicative words that will make Americans want to come and see the plays. It is very important role for us to set a strategy how to promote and market them.

Please explain about commissioning new works.
We have established an endowment of $1.25 million (approx. 140 mil. yen) with the help of a matching grant from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Generated income from the endowment can only be used for the performing arts program. We use part of the income, usually $40,000 to $50,000, to commission non-Japanese artists to create new work which somehow relates to Japan, such as using traditional Japanese performing arts techniques or collaborations with Japanese artists. One of such commissioning we produced was Basil Twist’s “Dogugaeshi.” We presented its world premiere at the Society's theater in 2004, and have produced its Japan tour to take place in this fall.
A unique aspect of this commissioning program is that we commission the kind of artist who is willing to do research on Japanese culture as a part of their creative process. We fully assist in the research process. For example, in the case of “Dogugaeshi,” which incorporates a stage mechanism of tradition Japanese puppet theater survived in the Awa region, Basil visited Japan twice to research on the tradition of Japanese puppet theater. We facilitate his trips by preparing an interpreter who is an American scalar of Japanese puppet theater. Then after he returned to the U.S. from the first trip, he said he wanted to collaborate with a shamisen player, so we introduced him to a shamisen artist who is a maser of traditional shamisen as well as an active musician in experimental music. Also, he said that he wanted to use traditional Japanese motifs in the set, so we got him an intern who could research the traditional motifs and find something suitable. We have also arranged an intern for him as his assistant who could help him in research on Japanese traditional patterns, symbols and drawings. After Basil, we commissioned an experimental theater-dance group called Big Dance Theater, who have been known for their incorporation of the Okinawan dance. They created a new work based on Ibuse Masuji's short novels and we presented the world premiere this past February. Subsequently the piece toured in several cities in the U.S. and returned to New York to be presented in a different venue in this September. We arranged for them to meet Ibuse’s nephew, and their residency in Okinawa to practice Okinawan dance.
Japan Society's role in this commissioning project is not only giving commissioning money and producing the premiere performance but also providing all kinds of assistance throughout the creative process, through which the artists can deepen his/her understanding of Japan and absorb necessary knowledge to create their new work. In other words, we think of the commission as a way to sow seeds of interest that will lead non-Japanese artists to a deeper interest in Japan. We can give the commission to only a small number of artists; however, we believe the impact will be enormous in a long term. Back in the days when it was hard to make a long journey to Japan, things like this were impossible. But today we can do so much and with great care as long as the artist has the passion to pursue things to fruition. Because we are now in an age when it is so easy to get information about Japan, only this type of commitment like ours can make differences to guide people towards a truly deep understanding. It is not a job that everyone can do. I believe the current and future mission of the Japan Society and my role here is to develop strategies on how to plan and realize such project to lead Americans to real understanding of Japan.
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