The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
Placing top priority on new writing and nurturing playwrights   Scotland's Traverse Theatre
Japan in Scotland Readings
Happy Lads at the Japan in Schottland Reading, Traverse Theatre in June, 2006

*7   Contemporary Japanese Drama Reading Series
As an official part of the large-scale cultural exchange event “Japan 2001” that introduced Japanese culture in the UK in 2001, a reading series of four contemporary Japanese plays was held in July and December at the Bush Theater in London. In July there were readings of the already translated works Time’s Storeroom by Ai Nagai and Fireflies by Toshiro Suzue. In December readings were given of the newly translated works The Happy Lads by Hideo Tsuchiya and Far from the River (Ano Kawa ni Toi Mado) by Koji Hasegawa.

*8   Scottish Drama Readings at Ai Hall, Itami
Since 2004, Ai Hall is engaged in an ongoing “Japan-UK Contemporary Drama Exchange Project” with the Traverse Theatre. Each year one Scottish play is chosen to be translated into Japanese and performed as a rehearsed reading by a director and actors from Japan’s Kansai region. In 2004, a reading of David Harrower’s Knives in Hens was given, followed by Gagarin Way by Gregory Burke in 2005 and Iron by Rona Munro in 2006. The playwrights are invited to Japan for these readings and give post-performance talks and symposiums. The next reading is planned for March 2007.
How do you find the right playwright for a particular foreign play?
Deciding which Scottish/British playwright will be the best match for the international playwright in a Playwrights in Partnership translation commission is always one of the most exciting parts of the whole translation process.
It depends on understanding those qualities which make the international play unique, and which are at the very essence of its being.
So when I have picked a play that we want to translate and stage, I then think about the texture and character of the language in the original (international) play before deciding which British stage-voice will best be able to get under the skin of that play and truly inhabit it. I ask myself which voice can make this play live and breathe in English – a very different language from that in which the play was originally written? Of course, to answer this question, it’s important to have a really good knowledge of the plays of Scottish/British playwrights.
A specific example about choosing a writer is shown with our latest commission, STRAWBERRIES IN JANUARY, which the Traverse produced for this year’s Edinburgh Festival. We chose the Scottish playwright Rona Munro to translate this by Québec playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière. Rona read a rough translation of STRAWBERRIES and loved the play. Then she, Evelyne and I took part, with a great Canadian dramaturg called Nadine Desrochers, in a 10-day residency in Montreal where we worked on developing Rona’s first annotated draft of the translation. We gave Rona’s draft of the text a staged play-reading at the Traverse last year, and after this Rona finessed her translation further.

You have also actively pursued exchanges with Japan?
The links with Japan that have happened in my time here began in 2001. I was very interested in contemporary playwriting that was coming from Japan, and feeling that we didn’t have a lot of access to it in Britain. There were some translations that were published and done by the Japanese Playwrights Association, which were really our only chance to connect with that work. We were seeing wonderful productions being brought over, largely of classic drama—Kabuki, different forms of traditional theater. But they were the historical forms—we weren’t getting contact with contemporary dramatists. Because we were getting contact with contemporary novelists, contemporary filmmakers, I knew there would be very good contemporary playwriting happening in Japan, and I felt very frustrated with not having a connection with it.
We started very small. In 2001, we did a rehearsed reading of Toshiro Suzue’s play Fireflies. I directed that reading. We used an existing translation that had been commissioned by the Japan Foundation, and it was a wonderful play—we found a real connection with it, and with Suzue as a writer. But because this was a starter project and we didn’t have that much funding, we weren’t able to bring him over to attend.
Then the Bush Theatre began doing a series of Japanese play readings (*7), and they asked me to do the same reading in London. It was there that I was lucky enough to meet Suzue. I felt a great amount of connection to his writing, and also felt that he was an extremely talented writer. The Traverse Theatre decided that we would like to commission a Playwrights in Partnership translation of Suzue’s play A Happy Morning Under a Tree with the aim of taking it on to production. These things take years, sadly. Translating Asian languages is actually much more difficult for Europeans.

Because of cultural differences?
It’s actually not so much those things. There are fewer people who speak the Asian languages, therefore you are limited as to your translators. We did manage to get a very good literal translation, but even a very good translator will make a lot of mistakes, because plays are very ambiguous, and you always have a choice when you translate about what a particular word could be. One of the difficult things about translating plays is that if you make slightly the wrong choice, you get taken in the wrong direction. That is why Playwrights in Partnership is perfect for working with a Japanese playwright—because it’s very important that you have the original playwright there saying “no, no, no, that’s not what that means.”
When we work with playwrights, we talk through the translation line by line, word by word. It’s about learning about the character, not about how you would translate that word. There is a lot of work. The development of the draft, getting the delicacy of the language right has taken a long time.
The good thing about the connection with Suzue was that we then began a bigger relationship through the help of the Japan Foundation, which given us connections with a lot of playwrights in Japan. In 2004, myself and Philip Howard, the Traverse Theatre’s artistic director, and two playwrights from Scotland, David Harrower and Nicola McCartney, came out to Japan and staged rehearsed readings at the Setagaya Public Theatre [in Tokyo] and the Ai Hall in Itami, Osaka. And we also did a talk session at the Kyoto Arts Center. We worked in these three different cities and met a huge number of contemporary writers, both very young and more experienced writers. And we had some wonderful conversations where we got to find out about each others work, not just individually but the kind of system of work in the different countries and the way plays were rehearsed, situations for writers in the different countries—it was an incredible visit. It was great fun. It was a huge experience, we learned so much about the detail of each others’ work. It was very stimulating and exciting for I think both sides of that dialogue.
After that we invited two Japanese playwrights, Suzue and Masataka Matsuda, to the Traverse, where we did rehearsed readings of their work in translation. Since then, once a year we have been coming out to Ai Hall for readings (*8) with a different Scottish playwright, having the work translated into Japanese. The works have been incredibly well translated and I think that’s really a key to the success of the relationship as well.
Again this year, we brought two more Japanese playwrights back to Scotland, Hideo Tsuchida and Masahiro Iwasaki. For this visit we have tried to do a slightly more in-depth residency. We also invited producers from Japan to have had them meeting different departments of the theater and ask the questions they want to ask about the way we are working, and also tell us about the way they are working. I think for me, the producers’ residency has been one of the more exciting things. The playwrights Tsuchida and Iwasaki have met with our young writers, and our young writers loved finding out about Japanese theater, because they knew so little about contemporary Japanese theater. We also performed readings and had panel discussions on contemporary playwriting in Japan. This type of residency has been a great educational experience. It is the best kind of artistic connection, one in which there is a two-way dialogue between the artists.
One more thing I want to say is that we fully intend to continue our work with Japanese playwrights. And each time we do, we have to be very clever, because the costs are greater. But, I will say that we fully intend to bring one of Suzue’s plays to full production and we will continue the rehearsed readings too, in order to work with more writers.
I find the quality of the Japanese playwrights’ work to be very high, and it is interesting because of how closely connected it is to our own feelings and experiences, and sometimes very different as well.
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