Dramatic stretch to bridge one of the great divides

There's a touch of the Australian way in the Tokyo maze, writes Willhemina Wahlin.

In a city with no street names like Tokyo, it's hard to find home, let alone the nearly invisible entrance to a small theatre tucked behind a cracked glass door and a faded velvet curtain.

But Rakutendan Theatre is proof you can never judge a playhouse by its maintenance budget. The director Yoshio Wada's passion for contemporary theatre breathes life into the walls, bringing a record number of Australian plays to its stage.

"I love Australia," Wada says. "People embrace their multi-ethnic background. I think it makes the Australian people modest and gentle."

Wada will next year lead some of the best in Australian and Japanese theatre in staging the Dramatic Australia Festival, part of the Australia-Japan Year of Exchange, for the 30th anniversary of the Basic Treaty of Friendship, signed in Tokyo in June 1976. In contrast to Wada's unassuming theatre, the Dramatic Australia Festival will be held among the towering citadel of Shinjuku in Tokyo from September 12 to October 9.

The director of NIDA, Aubrey Mellor, who is on the organising committee, says Wada's role in linking Japanese and Australian contemporary theatre is pivotal.

"He's an extraordinarily generous man who is genuinely keen on forming connections between people," says Mellor. "When you go [to Japan], there's all these little things organised for you, extracurricular activities, and little meetings set up with people. Behind the scenes it's Wada that does all the work."

The two met in 1992, when Wada brought the Japanese play Woven Hell to Australia for the Adelaide Festival.

"I will personally do everything I can with this project," Mellor says. "It's a very personal thing for me, having studied Noh theatre so many years ago in Japan."

Mellor has poured his vision for Dramatic Australia into NIDA's 2006 program in Sydney, including an upcoming presentation of Yaneura by Yokji Sakate, and a joint project with Theatre X. In Tokyo, NIDA will run classes through the Australian Embassy and Dramatic Australia, also assisting the festival technically. Mellor believes that programming seasons with a wider variety of international theatre will bring people back to the theatre. By the same token, exporting Australian contemporary works is essential for the Australian theatre industry.
"Taking your work overseas can provide wonderful growth for a writer. [They] begin to see their work very differently, given that amount of respect from another culture."

Among those Wada has invited to Japan next year is director Wesley Enoch, who will present his new work, Cookie's Table. He has just returned from co-directing a Japanese adaptation of Jack Davis's The Dreamers with Wada, in October this year. The production, translated into Japanese with an entirely Japanese cast, stayed true to its original form through the intricate direction of Wada and Enoch, with one difference: the Vegemite used as a prop. The cast hated Vegemite and replaced it with chocolate sauce, says Wada.

It was, at times, surreal for Enoch to work on an Aboriginal play in Japan. "Oh, it really does my head in," he says. "There are so many elements to it, what it means for Aboriginal people, what it is saying about Aboriginal people.

"I think you can still really follow the play in a cultural sense. There were so many discussions that it instigated, like how people behave within relationships, how they touch and kiss and acknowledge each other."

Indigenous Australian theatre appeals to Wada. "It teaches me why we perform in the first place," he says. The most important things in performance are not traditional techniques but imagination and actions that respond to the spiritual hunger felt by people of the present day."

Wada often collaborates with young directors. He invited German-based Australian director Cymbeline Buhler to Japan in August to run a workshop and she will return for Dramatic Australia. She came to his attention after she won three awards at the Yakumo International Theatre Festival, including best director, for the production of Swan Laid. "I love Wada's interest in Australian theatre," Buhler says. "He is working in the crucible of where Japanese and Australian theatre meet."

Wada says the exchanges teach him a lot technically. "The reason I want to introduce young artists such as Cymbeline and Wesley to Japan and collaborate with them is that they are trying to approach the possibility of theatre arts in a very straightforward way."

For more information on the Dramatic Australia Festival go to dramaticaustralia.crane-design.com/

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 13 December 2005.

Photo: Cast members of the Japanese production of The Dreamers, written by Jack Davis. Directed by Yoshio Wada and Wesley Enoch.

Rakutendan Theatre will produce a Japanese-language version of Reg Cribb's The Last Cab to Darwin in February 2006.


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