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Friday, Nov. 12, 2010

Theater with a hint of human truth


Special to The Japan Times

Yumi Suzuki co-founded the Jitensha Kinqureat theater company with friends at Nihon Joshi Daigaku (Japan Women's University) in 1982, and it was not long before the Tokyo troupe gained a prominent reputation and a keen following for its true-to-life plays in colloquial language about the lives of young women.

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Drama queen: Yumi Suzuki, co-founder of the Jitensha Kinqureat theater company, discusses her latest project.

Suzuki's stagings and her open, spirited personality were soon drawing invitations for her to direct in theater genres as diverse as mainstream commercial musicals, artsy foreign dramas and plays for children. The 46-year-old, who as a child dreamed of being a professional storyteller, has also initiated several successful collaborations with other Japanese directors, presenting series of themed plays, starting in 2005 with a trilogy of works by English playwright Terence Rattigan, who was previously virtually unknown in Japan.

Now, in her upcoming production at the lively Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro, Suzuki will introduce another unfamiliar foreign playwright: Andrew Bovell, an Australian stage and screen writer, whose 2008 play "When the Rain Stops Falling" has had sellout runs in Australia, New Zealand, England, and America.

Spanning four generations of a family between 1959 and 2039, and set in London, South Australia and the desert heart of Australia's Alice Springs, this work explores the fragile and often dysfunctional relationships between people, and between humanity and the planet.

To find out how Suzuki aims to bridge the yawning contextual gulf this play presents to Japanese audiences, and more besides, The Japan Times dropped into her rehearsal studio recently for a chat.

Why did you accept the offer from Theatre Project Tokyo (TPT) to direct this unfamiliar play?

When I read the play, it made me think about when I started in theater, working in the so-called Shogekijo (small-scale theater) movement in the 1980s. Many plays then would have a multilayered structure, with people from the past appearing in the present, and then have scenes and stories beyond space-time. Because of my experience then, I felt a basic confidence to direct this play.

Also, I went to Australia a few years ago and met a lot of dramatists and visited local theaters and saw many plays. That, and traveling around a lot, I think gave me a feel for the country and how to approach this play. So I accepted the producer's offer.

This play often moves between different places and times. How have you dealt with those staging complications?

Basically, I decided not to change the set between scenes, and whether it's London or Australia, I don't particularly reference the location or even the year. Instead, I asked the actors to concentrate on bringing out the real relationships between the characters. That way, I believe this play can become a reality for audiences. During the rehearsals, I've become surer it's better not to use any clever set changes or wordy explanations and just keep them simple so audiences can focus on the acting and use their imaginations.

How would you describe this play's story?

I think I would point to the title, "When the Rain Stops Falling," which suggests something about things hopefully getting better between people, and between them and the planet compared with today. I am only interested in plays about real human beings that include their beauty and loveliness and their silliness, and I think this play has loveliness as a human fable but also brilliantly describes our stupidity.

What was the key turning point in your career?

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Rainy days: A dysfunctional family searches for unity in "When the Rain Stops Falling." © RIKA MATSUMOTO / TPT

When I was 30, the stage designer Natsue Kawaguchi gave me some advice, saying: "In your 30s, you should not be too choosy when you get job offers, because then people will only offer you certain types of work and in your 40s everyone will think that's your only strong point. If you want to keep your horizons broad, you'd be better to do a job even though it's not your cup of tea." She also said that if I had a bad feeling about someone, I shouldn't cut the relationship after working with them once, but I should work with them at least three times and then decide.

So I didn't reject any offers unless my schedules clashed, and I directed across a spectrum from musicals and foreign plays to big celebrity vehicles.

Now, after working in the industry for nearly 30 years, what do you think about the state of modern Japanese theater?

When the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, it became difficult financially for theater companies.

However, I've found when working with today's younger dramatists that they have become so good at dealing with the media and big companies. When I was staging plays in my early 20s, we got our audiences by word of mouth or by distributing flyers. Nowadays, anyone can instantly check out a new company on the Internet, and if someone says on a website that a play is great, lots of people — including producers from big companies or TV channels — will check it out

In terms of a play's content, though, young playwrights nowadays tend to draw on what closely impinges on their lives, and they would never start a play in Manchuria, for example. My generation would start from anywhere, though. (Laughs)

How do you see Japanese theater's future?

I suppose it will tend to be more along American lines of more musicals and entertainment-style theater rather than artistic programs. Of course, that is related to Japan's economic depression, with producers staging things that are easy to understand and are geared to audiences' enjoyment.

In the face of that, what do you think would be the best way to stimulate the Japanese theater world?

It sounds simple, but I think that if the New National Theater Tokyo did a good job, then the theater world in Japan as a whole would be more exciting.

Now, although many dramatists are having interesting ideas and theater groups are making great efforts and separately getting excellent results, audiences have to seek them out too much. Instead, I wish the NNTT was presenting and popularizing top-class plays every day, so people could just go along and expect to see good drama. For theater in Japan to thrive, the NNTT needs to present a wide range of programs to stimulate interest both domestically and internationally.

What kind of plays would you like to do in the future?

Personally, I always want to make plays that are groping for a hint of truth about human beings — but nothing too stylish. That's my taste.

"When the Rain Stops Falling" runs till Nov. 28 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space, a 3-min. walk from JR Ikebukuro Station. Tickets ¥6,000 (adults), ¥3,000 (students). For more details, call TPT at (03) 3635-6355 or visit www.tpt.co.jp.


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