September 8, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Theater director turns Japanese mountain village into Asia's stage

TAKASHI KONO, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- A village nestled in the mountains of Japan's Toyama Prefecture is becoming a magnet for the theatrically minded. 

     The man ramping up that magnetism is Tadashi Suzuki, a stage director who trots the global circuit. He wants to make the village of Toga -- part of the city of Nanto and his home base -- a true center for Asian theater. This summer, he organized the first Toga Asian Arts Festival, a roughly two-week affair that began with a performance of Shakespeare's "Macbeth."

     The play, directed by Huang Ying of China, was performed in the Toga Art Park. The venue was a gassho-zukuri style farmhouse -- an iconic Japanese structure with a steep, thatched gable roof -- remodeled as a theater. Chinese actor Tian Chong played the role of Macbeth; he had been taught by Suzuki at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing.  

     Huang, a teacher at the Beijing Film Academy, is known in Asia for his avant-garde style. Last year, he represented China at the Asian Theater Directors' Festival -- another event at the Toga Art Park, which is home to Suzuki's own troupe, the Suzuki Company of Toga. Huang then spent the winter in Toga devising a fresh take on the Shakespearean tragedy, one that combines the play's harshness and otherworldliness.

     "I worked out the play in February, when the village was covered with snow," Huang said. "It was good for me to be in that environment. It allowed me to focus only on theater and associate with theatrical artists from other countries."

     Huang said he took a keen interest in Suzuki's method of training actors, which emphasizes lower-body strength. "It's an effective way to improve actors' ability to control their energy," the Chinese director said.

150 participants, 18 nationalities

The Toga Asian Arts Festival attracted 150 participants from 18 countries during its run from Aug. 22 through Sept. 3. Chinese and South Koreans accounted for most of the international contingent.

     "I would like to expand the event to attract people from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, India and Russia," Suzuki said. He stressed his desire to "nurture this village as a theatrical center, a gathering place for the young, talented people who will determine the future of theater."

     This is not the first time the 75-year-old Suzuki has sought to make Toga the world's stage. Suzuki, who began working in theater overseas in his 30s, hosted an international event called the Toga Festival from 1982 to 1999. Over the years, he mingled with prominent industry figures, including Robert Wilson, a renowned experimental director.

     After working in the West, he shifted his focus to Asia and has been teaching the "Suzuki method" in China, Taiwan and South Korea. In May of this year, at the request of the Shanghai Theatre Academy, he directed Chinese actors in a production of "Cinderella." The connections he made proved helpful when he set about organizing the new festival.

     South Korea's Yohangza Theatre Company, led by Yang Jung-ung, took part in the Toga Asian Arts Festival with an interpretation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The play, staged in a converted gymnasium, blended Shakespeare's story with dokkaebi, mythical beings from Korean folklore. The production had already received favorable reviews in the U.K. and other European countries.

     "When we put on the play in Europe, I felt envious of how theatrical groups there pool their power," Yang said.

     The South Korean director sees hope for forming a closer-knit community in Asia, too. "The political situation in East Asia is difficult, yet it is encouraging that a base for interaction has been created in this village."

     The festival featured a host of other plays. The Liyuan Opera Experimental Troupe of Fujian Province staged "Daimon," a traditional drama. Suzuki oversaw three productions, including an old play called "The Trojan Women" and a new one titled "The Origin of the Song 'Karatachi Nikki.'"  

Committed to the craft

At the tail end of the arts festival, this year's Asian Theater Directors' Festival was held Sept. 1-3 with four troupes from Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan. Suzuki's philosophy appears to be of great interest to young artists across Asia; after all, he created his own brand of theater in Japan and presented it to the world.

     Other efforts to increase the village's capacity for hosting artists are underway. In summer 2013, a committee was established and tasked with turning Toga into a center for the arts. The panel is led by Tadahiro Yoshida, chairman and CEO of YKK, the zipper and fastener maker. It is working on a plan to build training and accommodation facilities.

     Suzuki sounds determined to keep forging ahead. Addressing visitors to Toga this summer, he noted his age but said: "I will work hard in Toga as long as my spirit and strength last." 

 

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