The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
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Presenter Interview
Connecting the theater people of Asia   The Japan Foundation international collaboration program
Indonesia: Bengkel Teater Rendra
Selamatan Anak Cucu Sulaiman

(Jan. 1990 at Laforet Museum Akasaka)
Selamatan Anak Cucu Sulaiman
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This is a work by the Indonesian poet, playwright and director, Rendra (1935—). To escape the persecution of anti-government intellectuals in the closing years of the Sukkarno regime, Rendra lived in the United States from 1964 to ’67, and soon after returning to Indonesia he established the Bengkel Theater in the city of Jogjakarta in central Java. This work was the first one performed by the new company. His plays, which took as its themes the threats and deceit of the collective during the period of modernization and criticism of inhibition of the individual and the increasing dependency of society on technology but presented them not righteous proclamation but in a style that dismissed with comprehensive storytelling and dialogue in favor of serenity and abundant use of the non-verbal vocalization and the strong physical expression of the Java poetry and song traditions created a sensation among the people and immediately propelled Rendra into a position of leadership in the period. As a result of these activities, Rendra was imprisoned in 1978, and after his release he was forbidden to engage in any public activities until 1985. This performance in Japan was only the second overseas performance of Rendra’s work after his return to public life in 1986, following one in the US.

Philippines: Tanghalang Pilipino
El Filibusterismo

(Sep. 1995 at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon)
El Filibusterismo
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This is a large-scale musical based on José Rizal’s El Filibusterismo (Subversion) , a play that depicts events on the eve of the Philippines’ independence from Spanish rule. It was produced in 1991 by the Philippine Cultural Center affiliated theater company, Tanghalan Pilipino. With its weighty subject and moving music by one of the Philippines’ foremost composers, Rayan Cayabyab, the outstanding vocal power and artistry of the cast of performers, the production was a huge success as a Tagalog musical. Performances in Japan in October 1993 deeply moved Japanese audiences as well. In response to calls for an encore, a production of the prequel to El Filibusterismo (Subversion), titled Noli Me Tanjere (Touch Me Not), was created under the international collaborations program of the Japan Foundation. Performances of this production of Noli Me Tanjere and El Filibusterismo (Subversion) were performed in Japan in September of 1995 as a diptych in consecutive afternoon and evening performances that were once again greeted with high acclaim.
In 1995, when the ASEAN Culture Center was reorganized as the “Asia Center” were there any changes in the operating policies?
Since it became the Asia Center, the area that we now dealt with was all of Asia, not just the ASEAN region. Other than that, the basic focus on the contemporary hasn’t changed. At the same time, a new department was established to be in charge of exchange programs involving intellectuals in various fields, and regardless of whether it was in the arts or in intellectual exchange, the sense of direction became clearer: the aim was to stimulate exchange within the region, which is something that we knew we could contribute to not only with programs directly involving Japanese artists and intellectuals but also ones in which Japan merely served as an intermediary to bring about exchanges.

It would seem that there is quite a leap from the idea of inviting foreign productions to Japan as they are and the idea of organizing international collaborative productions.
In my mind there is quite a natural connection between the two. When inviting a contemporary theater production, it is important to get a good understanding of what the play is about, and to do that I spend a good amount of time talking to the director; and of course I also have to think about it myself. And then from the understanding I get, I have to plan how to best introduce it to the Japanese audience. There is a feeling that I am working together with the director to bring new expression to the presentation based on what I have come to understand about the play. In this process, an invited work is in fact the same, in a sense, as creating a new production. That is why there was a natural transition to the international collaboration project for producing new works. The large-scale Philippine musical, El Filibusterismo (Subversion), is a good example. This was a reproduction in musical form of the famous novel by Jose Rizsar depicting the eve of the Philippine Revolution and it brought a very big response when it was performed in Japan in 1993 as El Filibusterismo (Subversion). After that, we asked its director, Nonon Badillia, to do a production of Noli Me Tanjere (Touch Me Not) to create a diptych with El Filibusterismo, which was then brought to Japan for performances in 1995. In fact, Noli Me Tanjere tells a story that happens before the story of El Filibusterismo, so it was actually a process of going backwards in terms of the creative process, but the scriptwriter and composer worked with great passion on the production and made it a success. Even if El Filibusterismo is an exceptional case, I believe that it shows how working diligently on the production of an invited work can naturally connect to creating new works collaboratively.
I also believe that our international collaboration project is a very effective method for introducing works. Even if you had a program where you introduced a work from a different country each year, the number of countries you could actually introduce works from would not be large. However, in our two-stage collaborative project titled Memories of a Legend involving five South Asian countries during in a period from 2003 into 2004 for example, we were able to present one short existing work from each of the five countries in the first stage and then in the second stage the following year we did collaborative productions of a new work. If we had been working individually with the five countries, it probably would have taken five years, and we might not have gotten around to working with some of the smaller countries such as Nepal or Sri Lanka in the first place.

Do you have any specific policy guidelines for choosing your invited works?
First of all we are concerned with the strength of a work and the artistic level. Even if we may feel affinity or empathy for the message of a work, it will not become a candidate for selection unless it has the necessary artistic strength to succeed as a theater production. No matter where they are from, I am attracted to works that have an intensely strong sense of that country’s reality. For example, the first time that I saw the Ilkhom Theater’s production of Imitations of The Koran in Uzbekistan it was such a powerful experience. I will never forget that shock. I don’t want to reduce it to terms of politics or religion, but the underlying realities of their lives I was confronted with so strongly in this work was a shocking revelation for me. Also the Philippine musical El Filibusterismo was another work that won my heart in the same way.
There is tremendous responsibility in choosing just one work out of so many possibilities. Because that single work you choose will color the Japanese audience’s impression of that country’s theater. So, to make these choices I first go to the country in question and see an actual performance of the work there. In cases when that is not possible I watch a video of a performance. And I will also talk several times at length with the director of the production. And, behind every individual work I choose, there are always dozens more that helped guide me to that decision.

How about your process for choosing artists to work with for your international collaboration projects? One of the first artists you worked with on the productions Three Children and Lear was Ong Keng Sen, who today is one of the most acclaimed among the active Asian artists in theater. How did you come to work with him?
When I first met Keng Sen, he was still in his 20s, but he already had his own unique vision and he was able to talk to me about in very clear words. When people come from different backgrounds, I believe that the process of expressing in words to make our thoughts clear to each other is very important. When I saw this young director in the young country of Singapore with such a clear vision of the future and the present conditions, I thought that it could be very good to work with him, for the stimulus it could bring Japan as well. And after that we continued to actively work with young and middle rank artists in cooperative efforts, which has the potential to grow by working jointly with others.

Could you give us some examples of how you go about creating a theater production for the Japan Foundation’s international collaboration program? How was Lear created, for example?
In the case of Lear, we had first of all decided to do a production with Keng Sen. We had already invited a production of his very successful work Beautiful World to Japan, and through working with him on the short collaborative production Three Children I knew a good deal about his way of thinking. Based on that experience, we talked with him extensively about what kind of production we should undertake. He said that for the task of looking at Asia, he wanted to borrow the eyes of a woman, and he requested that he be able to work with a Japanese woman playwright. So, we suggested Rio Kishida as someone for him to work with. Also, at the time, Keng Sen had a strong attraction to the traditional, and he wanted to work with people who could take traditional Asian physical expression and movement and “reinvent” in the present (this “reinvent” was a word that he often used at the time). We held auditions in several Asian countries to choose the actors, dancers and musicians for the production. From Japan we chose the Noh actor Naohiko Umewaka and from China we chose the Peking Opera actor Jiang Qi Hu, this turned out to be a very difficult process. By the time the rest of the necessary staff and cast had been chosen, we had people from six countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. From Japan we also got Hairi Katagiri to participate. By including her, with her contemporary Japanese “small theater” movement orientation, we were hoping to have her symbolize contemporary Asia among these other artist specialized in the traditional forms of physical expression.

For Memories of a Legend you had several directors come together to do a collaborative work.
For Memories of a Legend we chose one director each from the five countries of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan and each of them were asked to recommend three actors that they wanted to work with in an attempt to create a multinational collaborative production. As I mentioned earlier, we first invited five existing short works by the directors for performances in Japan. The purpose of this was not only to give the Japanese audience an introduction to these directors’ works but also to give the directors a chance to get to know and understand each other’s working methods. After that, all five of the directors got together in India for a short workshop before going to Japan for a more extended stay, during which they created their collaborative work. I knew from the start what a stretch it was to expect five artists to create one work and I anticipated that there would be problems and perhaps criticism as well. But I wanted to see what could be done with a collaborative working method—difficult as it might be—in which not one but a number of artists would be bringing to the work equal amounts of responsibility and decision-making rights. So, I made the quite demanding request that they collaborate in this way.
Then, for our latest work this year, we had three directors from India, Iran and Uzbekistan come together for the production Performing Women, and we asked you to serve as project advisor. The production took the form of a trilogy, and each director did one work on the common theme of Greek tragedy.
This form of production perhaps contains some risk in terms of production quality compared to the usual style where all the decision-making rights are entrusted to the talents of a single director. On the other hand, having a single director direct a production with a multinational cast is quite commonplace in the world of opera. However, I believe that the real significance of international collaboration is having people of different cultures and different methodologies working together on a production on an equal standing and with equal decision-making rights. And that may not always mean having joint directorships, but this basic concept of multicultural artists working on equal standing is one that I want to continue to pursue. Of course, most important of all, however, is the substance and quality of the resulting work. Because that resulting work is the only form in which the meaning of the project can be communicated. No matter how wonderful the production process might have been, it is meaningless if the resulting work is one of inferior quality.
 
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