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Friday, March 4, 2011

It takes innovation, imagination and perseverence to challenge contemporary theater


Special to The Japan Times

Recently, while looking through a handful of upcoming production flyers displayed in a cozy, small-scale theater, I noticed to my surprise that one name kept reappearing: Norihito Nakayashiki.

News photo
Norihiko Nakayashiki

The founder of the Kaki kuu Kyaku theater company, Nakayashiki has been working particularly hard, producing brand new plays to a notably hectic schedule. Since he formed Kaki kuu Kyaku seven years ago with a group of his favorite — meaning very physical — actors, the company has been building a reputation founded on imaginative story lines, meticulously directed dance-like physical movements and the use of kitsch, robotic speech. Nakayashiki, 26, also wrote all of the company's works.

In 2008, Kaki kuu Kyaku debuted in France and was greeted with cheering audiences. In 2010, it made a second trip to France plus a tour of Turkey. That year, it also staged a tri-national collaboration work in Tokyo involving a Japanese-Chinese-Korean cast. Titled "Wannabe," the play explored the lives of students sharing a flat in a foreign country, with the cast using "broken English."

This year, Nakayashiki has begun to move in a new direction and is collaborating with older dramatists. For his latest staging, he is directing the work of others with the prestigious playwright Kazuki Nakajima's "Giden Sharaku" ("Sharaku's Story"), a samurai-era fiction that portrays the life of the real charismatic and mysterious ukiyo-e (wood-block print) artist Sharaku. Sharaku's gender remains unknown, but for Nakajima's play, the artist is portrayed as a woman.

What initially drew you to theater? I was lucky enough to see high-quality theater productions every two months when I was growing up in Towada, Aomori Prefecture, because my mother was in a local drama circle that invited famous companies from Tokyo.

By elementary school I had already decided that I wanted to work in theater, and I was spending all my spare time writing my own reviews and comments on plays, reading books about theater and watching plays on television.

You're saying your entire life has revolved around theater? Yes; though I did, just once, nearly lose direction. When I came to Tokyo to study at Aoyama University, I worried that because there were so many high-quality theaters in the city, I couldn't possibly have enough talent to survive. But then I saw other students' plays, and I was deeply disappointed. So, I knew I had to fully devote my life to theater. I strongly believed that I had to liven up the pathetic contemporary theater world I had found, and that I needed to put everything I had into it.

When you were 18, your "Fake Macbeth" won the Best Original Play award in a national high-school theater competition, and you were personally complimented by the leading dramatist, Oriza Hirata, who was the chief judge. Yes, he praised me, saying that I had a great sense of how to produce a program. And I had also acted the role of an arrogant director in that play — ha-ha!

Ever since then, I've always given each production a concrete purpose, and Kaki kuu Kyaku as a company aims at short-term targets every year. The current goal is "to open up more channels," so we've been trying to work on a wider front with other Japanese and overseas companies, and with a variety of dramatists. I don't want the company to be a fixed-focus troupe, so I always seek out new possibilities.

How did you go about directing your upcoming "Giden Sharaku?" I have concentrated on presenting this Edo Period (1603-1867) story as vividly as possible to a contemporary audience. Sharaku was a ukiyo-e artist who did sign his or her works, but about whom we know little else about. I'm not too worried about verifying the historical background; I just want to present a timeless social drama of human nature and set in that closed world of ukiyo-e art.

Why do you think you are now getting many offers to direct other writers' plays? I pride myself on having such a high — maybe the highest — commitment to theater among contemporary dramatists of my generation. Furthermore, I entirely believe in the positive power of theater, so people who ask me to direct a play can be sure I will bring a new dimension to it.

I am not at all interested in writing novels, or scripts for movies or TV dramas — or any other media work. I am happy to spend all my time writing for theater or directing and thinking about theater business strategy — working on how can I make more people come to see my plays.

You described Japan's contemporary theater world as "pathetic." How can that be improved? First of all, theater people should be able to explain their works clearly to their audiences with their own words. And it should be clear to the rest of the general public. That's the starting point for transforming the niche theater world into a major arts forum.

I think dramatists need to reach out to audiences through events, such as post-performance talks — like we do — and not just rely on PR people to explain what it is they are doing.

Western theaters often present documentary-style, social-issue plays and even political ones. Why do you think this less evident in Japan? I don't think that should be the main role of the theater. I prefer to provide plays that ask audiences to think more about basic human knowledge and our fundamental way of thinking. Once audiences have been cultivated in those ways through theater, they can face and tackle actual political issues and social problems outside the theater. That, I believe, is a proper role for theater.

Also, school plays are great opportunities to teach children by having them experience and be a part of a fictional world. For example, good friends may have to act as enemies — and this is a way children can learn to distinguish clearly between fiction and reality. That in itself is very political.

"Giden Sharaku" runs from March 10-27 at Kichijoji Theater, 5-minute walk from JR Kichijoji Station. Norihito Nakayashiki's "Ryuketsu Circus (Bloodshed Circus)" runs on March 19 at Ryutopia Theater in Niigata, and "Paralympic Record" runs from April 7-10 at Theatre Tram in Tokyo, a 2-minute walk from Sangenjaya Station (Denen Toshi or Setagaya lines). For more details, call Gorch Brothers on 03-3466-0944, or visit www.gsharaku.com, or kaki-kuu-kyaku.com
(Japanese only).


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