Theater Commons Tokyo rethinks performing arts ‘voices’ in the COVID era
How can contemporary theater affirm its raison d’être at a time when going to see it live is considered by many to be a “non-essential” activity? Even now, in our third year of the pandemic, many arts events continue to be canceled, reduced, or forced to find other means of representation.
Theater Commons Tokyo (TCT), which launches its sixth edition today and runs until February 27 at various locations in Tokyo’s Minato district and also online, is tackling this problem head-on with a program titled “Unsynchronized Voices.” .
“The pandemic continues to forcibly synchronize the world,” writes Chiaki Soma in her note as artistic director of the TCT. “(His) endless waves are akin to an omnipotent choreographer with the power to instantly overwhelm our behaviors and gestures.”
This choreographed “dance” that Soma refers to is conducted through systems put in place by governments around the world to curb the spread of COVID-19, from social distancing and masking requirements to border restrictions, passports vaccinations and movement tracking. In an interview with the Japan Times, Soma explains that “the concept of ‘unsynchronized voices’ is not contrary to government policies and protocols put in place to prevent the spread of the virus, but rather a chance to think independently of the control that these measures exert on us physically and spiritually.
TCT will present seven performance works and two discussion forums that not only offer radically different ways of creating, presenting and experiencing theater in the context of the pandemic, but challenge the very idea of what the theater.
Among the three Japanese productions on the program, the playwright and director Satoko Ichihara will present a new version of her play, “The Question of the Fairies”. Ichihara was scheduled to present “Madama Butterfly,” a co-production with Theater Neumarkt in Zurich, but it was canceled due to Japan’s current border restrictions.
“The Question of the Fairies” was written in response to what is often referred to as the “Sagamihara stabbings”, when a former employee of a Kanagawa Prefecture disabled nursing home killed 19 residents in 2016. The word “faeries” in the title of the piece refers to mechanisms of discrimination that go unnoticed in Japanese society.
The play is divided into three parts, each with its particular dramatic form. The first part, “Ugly Woman”, is inspired by Japan manzai tradition of comedy in a satirical version on the theme of beauty and ugliness. The second part, “Cockroach”, is a satirical musical that tackles issues of class, eugenics and anthropocentrism. The final part, “Mangurt”, is staged as a pseudo-seminar in which Ichihara questions the taboo status of female anatomy in traditional male-centered narratives of sexuality and reproduction, as well as the trend to over-sterilize our environments. This last theme resonates particularly in the context of the pandemic.
Actress Tomoko Sato will deliver a performance in the form of a lecture entitled “Index for Obake Tokyo: Chapter 1”. It will be the sequel to “Index for Obake Tokyo: Introduction”, which premiered at TCT last year. This conference-performance brought together references from literature, cinema, art, architecture and urban planning to build an alternative project of Tokyo from the point of view of Obake (ghosts).
Sato’s starting point was the 1965 treatise “Ghost Tokyo” by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto. In the treatise, Okamoto outlines the concept of taikyokushugi (polarism), which advocates maintaining contradictions in human life rather than trying to resolve or dissolve them into harmonious form. Thus, his “ghost” Tokyo is the conflicting and competing double of his real counterpart.
Sato brings the concept into the 21st century, reimagining the city in the context of the pandemic, using voice, body, video projections and an array of innovative theatrical devices to rethink the present while challenging the conventions of the lecture format- performance.
In “Women’s Apocalypse,” Kyun-Chome, a Tokyo-based artist unit made up of Eri Homma and Nabuchi, asks what tales of the end of the world would sound like if told by women. Drawing on in-depth interviews with Japanese women from different walks of life, these visions of the future are packaged in mysterious packages, which can either be picked up at TCT exhibition venues or sent to participants’ homes to be enjoyed until ‘at the end of March. The form this show takes is deliberately secretive, but if Kyun-Chome’s past installation works are to be believed, it promises to be evocative.
The three remaining works are by foreign artists. Shibaura House in Minato Ward will host ‘Suspended Delirium’, an installation by Berlin artists Monira Al Qadiri and Raed Yassin, in collaboration with media artist So Kanno. The play is based on dialogues that Qadiri and Yassin had as a couple living together during periods of confinement in Germany. While many of their conversations revolved around the pandemic, they were also influenced by the large explosion that rocked Yassin’s hometown of Beirut in August 2020. The installation takes the form of three robots suspended in space with talking heads inspired by the two artists and their pet. cat.
Also European, the Dutch duo Suzan Boogaerdt and Bianca van der Schoot will present a conference-performance entitled “Traveling Without Moving”. The duo are known for creating works at the intersection of performing and visual arts, real world and virtual spaces. This new piece, which was commissioned by TCT, explores the theme of incubation, drawing on research into healing practices from East and West, past and present, and asks if theater can be a site of healing in the age of the pandemic.
“One Another” is the generic title of a collection of video works and a lecture by Taiwanese artist Hsu Che-Yu. Videos include “Single Copy” (2019), “The Unusual Death of a Mallard” (2020) and “The Making of Crime Scenes” (2021). In addition to screenings of each of these recent works, Hsu will connect them through a new research project on the interaction between animals and humans that is seen through the histories of modernity and colonialism, but with a form that displaces anthropocentrism.
TCT will also host a workshop from the Tokyo-based Reframe Lab, a collective of psychiatrists, curators, educators, performers and performing arts practitioners interested in the intersection between performance and healing. Their workshop, “Nameless Games”, takes as its starting point the spontaneous games that children play, inventing worlds with their own stories and rules. The workshop aims to open up the abstract or nameless worlds of the participants to foster new modes of interrelation and understanding.
Two forums complete the TCT list. The first looks at how to create “unsynchronized voices” in the arts and the second looks at the plurality of the world in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Soma notes that while we are still in the midst of the pandemic and therefore short-sighted about its long-term socio-cultural effects, it is nonetheless crucial to engage with the here and now. “Unsynced Voices” should be a fascinating step in that direction.
Theater Commons Tokyo runs until February 27 at various locations in Minato Ward, Tokyo. For more details, visit https://theatercommons.tokyo/en
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Chiaki Soma, Commons Tokyo Theater