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Thursday, April 10, 2008


A home in Tokyo

Special to The Japan Times

Brooklyn-born Robert Allan Ackerman first landed in Japan in 1990 to direct "Mystery of the Rose Bouquet" by Manuel Puig at the Benisan Pit in Tokyo. Several years later, the American became an associate director of Theater Project Tokyo (TPT), which was founded in 1993 by Hitoshi Kadoi and English director David Leveaux to present international productions to Japanese audiences. After a few years, Ackerman started to do almost all his stage work here while confining his film and TV drama activities to the United States.

Now the Emmy-winning dramatist has formalized his love affair with Japan by founding The Company, a new Japanese theater company, and devoting his energy full-time to working locally. With his formation of The Company, Ackerman is moving to even greater prominence in Japan.

In preparation for The Company's latest performance, the Japanese premiere of 1965's "Balm in Gilead" by U.S. playwright Lanford Wilson, its Tokyo rehearsal studio was positively brimming with the enthusiastic energy of 30 young actors preparing for a work that still rings true in its treatment of lower-class youths.

News photo
Emmy-winning dramatist Robert Allan Ackerman

Why have you moved your working base to Japan?

The actors are wonderful and there is an openness here, so that artists can really be free if they can work outside of the system. On Broadway, I would not work with any less or any more effort than I do at the Benisan Pit studio in Tokyo, so I don't see any difference between working somewhere in the West or in Tokyo — it's the work that counts.

Many people say that Japanese theater has lost its energy.

One reason Japanese theater is less than satisfying is that many young actors are being obscured. Also, the star system here is much more offensive than anywhere else in the world. It's actually cynical, because it shows it doesn't matter what you are doing on stage as long as you just stick with famous people in the cast in order to fill seats.

In America and England, a play comes along and people fall in love with it and they want to stage it, so every effort is made to make it as good as it can be. Very often here, though, famous stars are hired and the theater producers don't care what the play is like. There isn't any passion for the play itself.

I used to feel very shy making any critical comment about Japanese theater culture, as I was an outsider. However, I don't feel like an outsider anymore as I've been here longer than I've been anywhere else, and I've not directed plays anywhere in the world in the last 20 years, only in Japan. I've also been in discussions with all the major companies here, and I feel like I am a part of Japanese theater now.

Why is theater not successful in business terms in Japan?

Commercial theaters are open-ended in America, England and Paris, for example. Plays open and run, so there is an interest in developing them and making them commercially viable to run for a long time. There is also a very strong eye to exporting good plays.

In Japan, in contrast, in commercial theaters the runs are limited as they have to do 12 plays every year. So, they are driven by the need to fill the seats for 12 plays, and it's very hard to really focus on the quality of a production when you have to worry about sometimes as many as 36 plays because they plan three years in advance in this country.

It was shocking for me when people were saying they could do something with me in 2011. I don't know whether I will even be alive in 2011 or not. The whole system needs to be shaken up in some way.

Are you going to change the system?

I hope so. I hope some theaters will cooperate with us. They have certainly expressed their interest in working with us. We are in talks with all the major theaters, and we are talking now about specific productions. I think it's an ongoing process and, hopefully, over time we will be able to make some sort of difference.

It would be great, for example, if we can do a new play by Martin Sherman that then goes on to be produced somewhere else with Western actors.

Then there is a play we are planning to do for Setagaya Public Theatre, a Japanese play that could be done outside of Japan. It's called "1945" and it will be written by playwright Go Aoki and I'll direct it.

The title gives you some idea what it's about, I suppose. It's a new play based on a very old story that many people in the world know. It is set in Tokyo in a black-market environment right after the war, and there is no reason it could not be done by Asian actors in the West. I think people would be interested in it as the play draws parallels with what's going on right now. We haven't seen a comment from Japan about what's going on in the world now, yet so many things that are happening are certainly reflected in Japanese culture. Those things don't make it to Western theaters. It's time to do that, to make plays that have something to say to the rest of the world reflecting Japanese experiences.

"Balm in Gilead' runs from April 20 at the Shinjuku Theater Moliere, a 5-minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station. For more details, call (03) 5465-1656 or visit www.thecompany-t.com

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