On Theater Commons Tokyo 2022 – “Unsynchronized Voices”

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on February 20 2022.

How can contemporary theater affirm its raison d’etre at a time when going to see it live is viewed by many as an “unessential” activity? Even now, our third year in the pandemic, many arts events continue to be canceled, curtailed or forced to find other means of representation.

Theater Commons Tokyo (TCT), which kicks off its sixth edition today and runs until Feb. 27 at various locations in Tokyo’s Minato Ward and also online, addresses 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 TCT artistic director. “(Its) endless waves are akin to an omnipotent choreographer with the power to instantly overwrite our behaviors and gestures.”

This choreographed “dance” Soma refers to is one conducted through systems put in place by governments worldwide to curb the spread of COVID-19, from social distancing and masking requirements, to border restrictions, vaccine passports and movement tracking. In an interview with The Japan Times, Soma explains that “the concept of ‘unsynchronized voices’ is not against government policies and protocols put in place to prevent the spread of the virus, but rather a chance to think independently of the control those measures exert on us physically and spiritually.”

TCT will present seven performance works and two forum discussions 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 theater can be.

Among the three Japanese productions in the lineup, playwright and director Satoko Ichihara will present a new version of her play, “The Question of Faeries.” Ichihara was due to showcase “Madama Butterfly,” a co-production with Theater Neumarkt in Zurich, but it was canceled due to Japan’s current border restrictions.

“The Question of Faeries” was written in response to what is often referred to as the “Sagamihara stabbings,” when a former employee at a care home for people with disabilities in Kanagawa Prefecture killed 19 residents in 2016. The word “faeries” in the play’s title refers to mechanisms of discrimination that go overlooked in Japanese society.

The play is divided into three parts, each with its own particular dramatic form. Part one, “Ugly Woman,” draws on Japan’s manzai comedy tradition in a satirical take on the theme of beauty and ugliness. The second part, “Cockroach,” is a satirical musical that touches on 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 tendency to over-sterilize our environments. The latter theme is particularly resonant in the context of the pandemic.

Actress Tomoko Sato will deliver a performance in the form of a lecture titled “Index for Obake Tokyo: Chapter 1.” It will be a continuation of “Index for Obake Tokyo: Introduction,” which was presented at TCT last year. That lecture-performance pieced together references from literature, film, art, architecture and urban planning to construct an alternative plan of Tokyo from the perspective of obake (ghosts).

Sato’s starting point was the 1965 treatise “Ghost Tokyo” by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto. In the treatise, Okamoto sketches out the concept of taikyokushugi (polarism), which advocates maintaining the contradictions in human life rather than trying to resolve or dissolve them into a harmonious form. Thus, his “ghost” Tokyo is the conflictual and competing double of its real counterpart.

Sato brings the concept into the 21st century, reimagining the city against the backdrop of the pandemic, using voice, body, video projections and an array of innovative theatrical devices to rethink the present while also challenging the conventions of the lecture-performance format.

In “The Apocalypse of Women,” Kyun-Chome, a Tokyo-based artist unit comprised of Eri Homma and Nabuchi, asks what end-of-world narratives would look like if they were told by women. Drawing on extensive interviews with women in Japan from different walks of life, these visions of the future are packaged in mysterious parcels, which can either be picked up at TCT exhibition venues or sent to participants’ homes to be sampled until the end of March. The form this show takes is purposefully secretive, but if past installation works from Kyun-Chome are anything to go by, it promises to be evocative.

The remaining three works are by overseas artists. Shibaura House in Minato Ward will host “Suspended Delirium,” an installation by Berlin-based artists Monira Al Qadiri and Raed Yassin, in collaboration with media artist So Kanno. The piece is based on dialogues Qadiri and Yassin had as a couple living together during periods of lockdown in Germany. While many of their conversations revolved around the pandemic, they were also influenced by the major 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 based on the two artists and their pet cat.

Also from Europe, the Dutch duo Suzan Boogaerdt and Bianca van der Schoot will present a lecture-performance titled “Traveling Without Moving.” The pair are known for creating works at the intersection of the 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, the past and present, and asks whether theater can be a site for healing amid the pandemic era.

“One Another” is the umbrella title for a collection of video works and a lecture by Taiwanese artist, Hsu Che-Yu. The videos include “Single Copy” (2019), “The Unusual Death of a Mallard” (2020) and “The Making of Crime Scenes” (2021). In addition to the screenings of each of these recent works, Hsu will tie them together through a new research project on the interaction between animals and humans that is viewed through the histories of modernity and colonialism, but with a form that displaces anthropocentrism.

TCT will also host a workshop by Tokyo-based Reframe Lab, a collective of psychiatrists, curators, educators, interpreters and practitioners from the performing arts interested in the intersection between performance and care. 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 participants’ own abstract or nameless worlds up to foster new modes of interrelation and understanding.

Rounding out the TCT roster are two forums. The first is on how to create “Unsynchronized Voices” in the arts and the second looks at the plurality of the world in the age of COVID-19 pandemic.

Soma notes that even though we are still in the midst of the pandemic and are therefore shortsighted as to its long term sociocultural effects, it is nonetheless crucial to engage with the here and now. “Unsynchronized Voices” is set to be a fascinating step in that direction.

Theater Commons Tokyo runs until Feb. 27 at various locations in Minato Ward, Tokyo. For more details, visit https://theatercommons.tokyo/en

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