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Thursday, June 12, 2008

The space to act out in Shizuoka


Special to The Japan Times

Shizuoka Performing Arts Center is Japan's first so-called European-style public theater. Founded by the Shizuoka prefectural government in 1997, it has its own company (also called SPAC) and an artistic director in residence when the norm is for public theater companies to share venues and for artistic directors to work under prefectural bureaucrats appointed as governors.

Shizuoka Performing Arts Center
A scene from the Israeli production "Antigone," running this month at Spring Arts Festival Shizuoka 2008

SPAC is rich in resources, with its own open-air, white-stone Udo Theater — where "Seagull-Play" (based on Chekhov's 1896 masterpiece) has just been staged by the avant-garde Enrique Diaz company from Brazil. It also boasts Daendo, a small-scale indoor theater in a hilly park area; its main venue, the high-tech, 400-seat Shizuoka Arts Theater in Shizuoka City; its own rehearsal studio; and accommodation. And these facilities are all being employed to full effect this month to put on Spring Arts Festival Shizuoka 2008.

In April 2007, 49-year-old Satoshi Miyagi put his acclaimed Ku Na'uka company on ice to become the company's second general artistic director, following on from its first general artistic director, the internationally renowned 68-year-old dramatist Tadashi Suzuki. Miyagi's mission is to attract to SPAC a wider range of audiences, both at home and worldwide To that end, as he has done throughout his career, Miyagi makes a point of greeting every audience member who comes to see a show.

The SPAC art space is beautiful. Are the workers here employees of the Shizuoka government office? No. SPAC operates on a completely different system from other public halls in Japan. Here, the artistic director makes contracts with theater staff, so all the artists and technicians are hired by the artistic director and belong directly to SPAC . . . I also have executive power over the budget, and Shizuoka's bureaucracy doesn't intervene into our operation. Basically, every three years, I revise my contract with the Shizuoka government. I have seen many "sold out" signs for theater productions at Spring Arts Festival Shizuoka 2008. Is it going as well as it seems? Spring Arts Festival Shizuoka started in 2000 with a view to being an international event, and last year's festival — which was my first — presented programs from 11 countries, including Russia, Lithuania, India and China. But, to be honest, we had difficulty attracting audiences, even though I carefully selected the shows and was confident of their artistic quality . . . From that bitter experience, I learned that ordinary people still believe they need some extra, special knowledge about plays and theater in order to attend. People feel that the theater threshold is too high, so they don't go to the theater as often as they do to the cinema, for example.

Shizuoka Performing Arts Center
Shizuoka Performing Arts Center Artistic Director Satoshi Miyagi

So, I was intent to tell people at every opportunity last year that there are hundreds of ways of enjoying theater and that anyone can enjoy it on different levels. . . . Also, our theater staff eagerly undertook public relations activities.

What did they do? Fifty-thousand Brazilians live in Shizuoka, and there is a big Brazilian community in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka. Their foreign background made it hard for them to access the Japanese arts scene. So, we organized free buses to bring them here. Also, we asked Diaz to do his theater workshop in Portuguese, especially for local Brazilians.

We have different local sales approaches depending on people's nationalities. As a result of our strategy, I feel local people will more easily come to SPAC for this year's festival, and afterward they will feel much closer to theater.

Who comes to the festival? About 60 to 70 percent are local Shizuoka people. I think this is the right ratio for this festival. In Europe, most public theaters project their own local culture and hold up their own cultural flag. We at SPAC, however, try to take original productions on to the world theater market (under Suzuki, SPAC works were staged overseas several times) and hold up our flag to other countries. So our primary mission is to create shows of sufficient quality to represent the best of contemporary Japanese drama. In that sense, we absolutely have to make productions that are not just easy to understand for everybody but also artistically high in quality. That's how to attract the audiences and get them to return to the theater next time.

Why don't you let other companies use your facilities and then make money from them? It is true we don't run SPAC performances 365 days a year. But we use our facilities full-time for our rehearsals and actors' training, etc. . . . How can a theater company present its best performance from the very first show if it only has a few days' rehearsal on the actual stage — because others have been using it — and they have had to do all their main preparation away from the real venue? To create plays fit for the world theater market, it's probably necessary to have, if I could say, a wasteful environment like SPAC for arts creation.

What is your long-term vision for SPAC? When Suzuki started SPAC in the mid-1990s, I thought this European type of theater would blossom and that drama would develop into a major arts sector. But SPAC is still the only public theater of its type in Japan today, and the overall theater situation has deteriorated, I think. So, I wanted to devote my life to the success of this fantastic system for the future of Japanese cultural policy. I think it's time to invest energy in public art rather than my own company.

"Antigone" (Israel), June 14-15; "Forging the Swords — Out of Lu Xun's 'Old Tales Retold' " (Japan), June 14; "Recreation Primitive" (Cameroon/France), June 20-22; "Nameless Hands — A Doll's House" (Japan), June 20-22; "Illusions Comiques" and "Epistle to Young Actors" (France), June 28-29. SPAC's theaters are a 15-min drive from JR Shizuoka Station. Tickets: ¥1,000-4,000; (054) 203-5730; www.spac.or.jp


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