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Thursday, April 24, 2008
Setting the stage for theatrical advances
As Japanese theater finally embraces the Western role of artistic director, changes are afoot on the Eastern stage
Special to The Japan Times
"I am the artistic director, and my job is choosing the plays and guiding the direction to keep the vision of where the company should go."
So said Robert Allan Ackerman — a world-famous American-born director who has just started his own theater company, called The Company, in Tokyo and aims to take it to an international audience — when we spoke in late March.
What's particularly interesting about this is not just Ackerman's ambitions for his new venture but the fact that he is his company's artistic director. Though this is an indispensable position at theaters in the West, the post of artistic director is quite a new thing in the Japanese drama world. Certainly, a few theaters did take up the system in the late 1980s, but it never became widespread and to this day it is still quite a rarity.
Instead, the choice of what to put on most stages in Japan is usually the business of a theater's managers or owners, who are basically full-time commercial folk (or public servants in the case of public theaters). Either way, they are not usually artists and don't set any artistic policy, instead staying most mindful of their theater's bottom line. As a result, the key features of many theaters in Japan are the building itself and the all-round enjoyableness of the experience to be had there, as their productions fail to put a stamp on them or to differentiate them from others around the nation, instead presenting mingled, eclectic programs that might randomly follow imported musicals with translated Shakespeare plays.
This way of doing things wasn't so much of a problem when the Japanese economy was cantering along briskly, when companies and local governments were supporting theaters financially and their position was secure virtually whatever they staged. But then the bubble burst in the early '90s and most of this funding evaporated, leaving theaters in the cold glare of the market and having to depend for survival on their artistic and marketing merits. By then, too, theaters also found they had to compete for people's leisure time and money with not only cinema, TV and video but also fast-growing digital distractions such as video games.
Those were tough, uncertain times for theater in Japan, and to enhance their chances of survival, more theaters toward the end of the '90s began to create the position of artistic director to delineate and promote their unique artistic selling points.
Comparing the artistic director's position with other fields of endeavor, parallels can be found with the manager of a football club or baseball team, the president of a firm, a cabinet minister, top bureaucrat or perhaps the prime minister of Japan himself.
But — and in a country that emphasizes harmony over personal achievement, it's a not inconsiderable "but" — although we hear all the time about the importance of "leadership," how many Japanese match up to the likes of Carlos Ghosn, who turned around the fortunes of carmaker Nissan; Bobby Valentine, the baseball coach who took the lowly Chiba Lotte Mariners to glory at 2005's Pacific League for the first time in 31 years; or even football's mercurial Philippe Troussier, who led Japan's national team to the late stages of 2002's World Cup? Sure, there's Livedoor's Takafumi Horie, maybe — but that's another story or two.
Meanwhile, in my Japan Times yearend roundup of 2007, I regretfully concluded that the Japanese theater scene remained sluggish and low on energy. Many would say that it needs a strong leader to shake it up.
With such considerations in mind, I recently went over and examined the theater situation in London, where business is booming and theater prosperity and full houses are the norm. London theaters began appointing artistic directors ages ago, and several were only too happy to explain the source of the vital energy now found there on both sides of the stage. W hen I called at the Notting Hill Gate, West London, home of the The Gate theater, which was founded in 1979 as a cozy and arty venue above a local pub, artistic directors Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell were preparing for their forthcoming international collaboration dance program with Theatre Garonne from Toulouse in southwest France. Abrahami and Cracknell are in their mid-20s and occupy roles that would be reserved for veterans in Japan. They met on a theater directors' course at the National Theatre a few years ago. Finding that they shared artistic tastes — both are particularly interested in dance-theater — they decided to apply for the job at The Gate together. The theater is known for visual and physical programs, such as its experimental version of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" (titled ". . . Sisters," coming up in June) and the world premiere of "Press," a dance-theater program that happens within a confined box-size stage. Created and performed by French choreographer Pierre Rigal, "Press" opened in February.
Abrahami cheerfully said there has been no problem sharing the role of artistic director, as the duo freely exchange ideas and provoke each other to make interesting creative decisions. She also explained why the company's top people are so young.
"It's a small company and it's very understaffed, so it takes lots of energy and enthusiasm," she said. "People come to The Gate for a short time; young and energetic people give their souls and they don't sleep for three years and work at The Gate. So it has a very quick turnover and every artistic director stays for few years, makes their mark, and then goes on doing something else."
Despite this, The Gate continues to draw young talent into the British theater world in general. "We have an informal traineeship for administrators and also for assistant directors," Abrahami said. "We have these assistant directors on each project, so they can work closely with directors, and also we have an internship to the more office-based roles, so we work with those people for three months and teach them about all aspects of the job. I think these are very useful steppingstones, which will take them on to different careers in the stage world."
Then, elaborating about The Gate's direction and also the current movement in English theater, Cracknell continued, "One of the things that's really exciting about the remit at The Gate is making it an international theater. It gives you a very strong opportunity to make a connection with international artists, writers, choreographers and venues, and that can be very feeding for us, as British artists, because we learn lots about different forms, styles and approaches.
"We made a clear decision that we are not interested in replicating works happening elsewhere. So, for example, the (upscale, uptown but estimable) Barbican has extraordinary international works, but often with a bigger scale of artists, so we see ourselves as one of their steppingstones, bringing in artists who have never performed in London. It's very important that we are very clear what we can do at this scale."
Cracknell turned her attention to a particularly notable tendency of current British theater. "As you know," she continued, "Britain has a really strong textual tradition — as theater is completely based on great playwrights like Shakespeare — but lots of contemporary theater practitioners are now starting to question this and are looking to other ways of making productions. So they are working with dramaturges (content researchers) instead of writers, and with choreographers, and they are finding new mixed-theater forms."
Abrahami explained her joint role, saying: "We have complete authority to decide the whole program. However, we don't just invite ready-made programs. We decide which artists to work with, and then we invite the choreographers or creators to The Gate, we scratch the show and produce a new program for our audiences."
Cracknell also explained the pair's responsibility as artistic directors: "We, the artistic directors, evaluate the artists' talent and decide what we take up. Of course, every show has a certain amount of risk, and we have to take different calculated risks, but we assess the real germ of performers' or stage-makers' talent and then select ones we believe to be less risky for our program."