The Theatre Olympics goes back to its roots for ninth iteration
Sept. 11, 2019
Since the late 1970s, people from all over the world have traveled to the village of Toga in rural Toyama Prefecture to attend Tadashi Suzuki’s renowned acting classes or to see the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) and other invited artists perform at the site’s specially crafted indoor and outdoor theater spaces.
The village has also played host to the Toga Festival, which brings practitioners together in the creation of new dramatic works. The festival is testament to Suzuki’s deep-held belief in the collaborative power of theater. For Suzuki, collaboration is not simply mixing cultural difference and creative passion: It involves training and learning a shared vocabulary of movements, expressions and ideas; and finding a common ground on which to build something entirely new. This is part of the reason why Suzuki decided to elaborate his own theater methodology and has taught it since the 1970s.
The site itself helps facilitate this pursuit of artistic truth. The combination of remote access, sprawling wilderness, and the iconic gasshō-zukuri, or A-frame thatched roof farm houses used for performance practice, brings a focus and clarity to the collaborative work that is increasingly difficult to achieve amid the mass distractions of urban life.
This same spirit of collaboration will form the backdrop of the ninth edition of the Theatre Olympics in August and September. The event is co-hosted by Japan and Russia, and Suzuki will oversee a program at the Toga Art Park, while his counterpart, Valery Fokin, will run a separate program at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Both events will showcase international works, many of which were directly or indirectly influenced by the theater culture of Toga.
But what does a performing arts festival have in common with the world’s largest sporting event? The connection is conceptual rather than literal. The word “Olympics” in the title refers to the ancient Greek origins of the sporting event. Both the Western model of theater and the Olympic Games originated in Greece, and both involved competition — demonstrating athletic prowess at Olympia and excellence in dramatic writing at the festival of Dionysus in Athens. Perhaps most importantly though, both cultural pursuits shared a fundamental relationship with their respective communities. Theater and sport are practiced in the direction of others.
The Theatre Olympics was founded in 1993 by a group of leading playwrights and directors, including Theodoros Terzopoulos (Greece), Robert Wilson (U.S.), Tony Harrison (U.K.), Yuri Lyubimov (Russia) and Tadashi Suzuki (Japan).
Members agreed to hold the festival “every few years” and present “high-level productions as well as symposiums, workshops and education programs.” They vowed to document the productions in the interests of contributing to theater history, and they saw the event as an opportunity to build an international network of theater artists, and to train and encourage new generations of artists.
In a recent interview with theater scholar Tadashi Uchino for the Japan Foundation, Suzuki explained the rationale behind the Theatre Olympics. He said there were two aspects to our launching of the Theatre Olympics. The first was a belief shared among committee members that the spread of globalization had led to a rise in the importance of economy and a decline in the “spiritual value” of theater — its artistic and intellectual relevance to society.
The second was the geo-political backdrop of the time. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world, Suzuki says, “seemed to be headed toward a more peaceful era. In fact, however, war broke out in the multi-ethnic former Yugoslavia and other places in the world were plagued with inter-ethnic struggles and territorial disputes.” Consequently, the group decided to “band together as artists and do things with a kind of love that transcends barriers of nationality.”
The first Theatre Olympics was held in Athens in 1995 at the theaters of Delphi and Epidaurus under the theme of “tragedy,” a reference to the Greek theater tradition, but also to the Balkans conflict and the genocide in Rwanda. Since then, the event has been produced in a further seven countries, each with a different theme capturing aspects of the social and political concerns of the time.
In 1999, for example, the Theatre Olympics were held in Shizuoka amid the turmoil of Japan’s post-bubble economy period and under the banner of “creating hope”; in 2001, Moscow’s theme was “Theater for the People” echoing the widening gap between rich and poor in post-Soviet Russia. Subsequent years have also featured similar global themes with positive, relationship-building messages.
This year the theme is “crossing millennia,” a return, Suzuki says “to the original spirit of the Theatre Olympics” and a chance for the core members of the event to “reconfirm their solidarity and think about what the problems are now and what the world needs now.”
The program at Toga this summer comprises 30 performances representative of 16 countries. Four of Suzuki’s works with SCOT will be shown, including a revival of his landmark adaptation of “King Lear,” reframed as an old man waiting to die in a hospital amid the collapse of his family. This revival is an international version created by American, Korean, Chinese and Russian actors in collaboration with the actors at SCOT.
Suzuki will also show “Greetings from the Edge of the Earth,” a play that looks at images of Japanese ethnicity and how this shifting identity has been shaped by key historical figures. His production of Yukio Mishima’s play “Madame de Sade (Act II)” features a strong female cast fighting over the heretic lord, the Marquis de Sade, and brings to life to some of the social shifts during Japan’s Showa Era (1926-89). Suzuki will also present “Dionysus,” another landmark production that has toured worldwide and includes a cast of Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese actors.
The Russian director and co-host of this year’s Theatre Olympics, Valery Fokin will bring to Toga “Today, 2016,” a play based on the science fiction novel by Kirill Fokin about aliens who arrive on Earth and plead with world leaders to ban weapons for the survival of humankind. The Greek director, Theodoros Terzopoulos brings to the event a politically charged rendition of Euripides’ play “The Trojan Women” with historical divisions at the fore of his adaptation and with a cast of actors from Syria, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
U.S. director and Olympics founding member, Robert Wilson, presents a rendition of John Cage’s text “No Lecture,” mixing philosophy and poetry in a lecture performance that explores the complex time structure in Cage’s compositional work. Also from the United States, director Anne Bogart brings her celebrated production “Radio Macbeth” to Toga. The actors rehearse Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in an abandoned theater at midnight and are soon surrounded by ghosts of past works stirring ambition, violence and madness.
And while these are only some of the advertised works for you to discover, a trip to Toga is an adventure in itself that will no doubt produce its own discoveries. The ninth Theatre Olympics is set to leave an indelible mark on this part of Toyama Prefecture.
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