A spring festival in Shizuoka is keeping modern theatre vibrant and relevant outside the usual urban culture centres.
Japan’s cultural axis shifted east from Kyoto to Tokyo when the latter became the capital in 1868. Rapid postwar urbanization and the concentration of resources also emptied much of regional Japan of people, local industries and cultural identity.
One countervailing trend arose in 1976, however, when theatre director Tadashi Suzuki moved his company, Waseda Little Theatre, to the small mountain village of Toga in Toyama Prefecture. Renamed SCOT (Suzuki Company of Toga), his troupe has hosted an international theatre festival every summer since 1982.
Suzuki has been a powerhouse in Japan’s avant-garde theatre scene since the 1960s, and his political savvy has also produced new centres of the performing arts in other places around the country. He has been the artistic director of the Mito Arts Center since 1988 and was the first artistic director of the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC) from 1995-2007.
Toward the end of the bubble era of the 1980s and early 1990s, considerable public money was invested in regional infrastructure around Japan. Suzuki in particular was able to funnel funds into building a splendid complex of theatres and rehearsal spaces around the city of Shizuoka. Famed architect Arata Isozaki designed the Shizuoka Arts Theatre, which seats over four hundred. The Shizuoka Performing Arts Park, located on Nihondaira—a high plateau of tea plantations with a stunning view of Mount Fuji—features an open-air amphitheatre, a small thrust-stage theatre (also designed by Isozaki), a black box theatre, rehearsal studios and accommodations for visiting artists.
Together with the ruins of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Sunpu Castle in the centre of town, SPAC and those venues have hosted a major international festival of the performing arts over Golden Week every year since 1999. SPAC is also active in outreach, hosting school groups and staging community theatre. Besides drawing many fans from around Japan, every spring festival audience attracts plenty of area residents.
Satoshi Miyagi has been SPAC’s artistic director since 2007. Miyagi’s performances are highly kinetic and accompanied by an orchestra of percussion instruments reminiscent of Japanese festival music or Indonesian gamelan.
Miyagi has won international accolades for a spectacular kind of epic theatre, particularly at the annual world theatre festival in Avignon, for productions of Mahabharata (2014) and Greek tragedies like Antigone (2017). He premiered his version of The Epic of Gilgamesh at the Musée du Quay Branly in Paris this past March, and showcased the production over Golden Week on the grounds of Sunpu Castle during the spring theatre festival this year.
COVID-19 has naturally thrown a spanner into plans for live performance since March 2020. Like many other performing arts organizations, SPAC has responded to the pandemic by postponing, cancelling or curtailing its programming. The spring 2020 festival was held entirely “on the cloud,” and featured Lebanese-Canadian director Wajdi Mouawad, both in dialogue with Miyagi and reading excerpts from his Journal de confinement. Things opened a little in 2021, but due to restrictions on travel to Japan by foreign artists, there was virtually no international presence.
This year’s festival, however, featured companies from Bulgaria (Caligula, directed by Diana Dobreva) and South Africa (Brett Bary’s outdoor, ambulatory production of Constellations), as well as Ma Columbine, a superb one-man show by Geneva-based Columbian dance and mime artist Omar Porras. Besides Gilgamesh, Miyagi also reprised his production of Two Ladies, Jūrō Kara’s absurdist take on an episode from The Tale of Genji. Not everything went without a hitch, however: the Bulgarian company arrived but their set did not, and had to be built from scratch onsite.
Golden Week festivities in Shizuoka wrap up with a spectacular samba procession through town. Come for the theatre, stay for the samba!