Mansai’s art marks Setagaya theater’s 2 decades

Photo by Shinji Hosono

A scene from “MANSAI Bolero,” which commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Setagaya Public Theatre, featuring Nomura Mansai

By Takamichi Asakawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe Setagaya Public Theatre in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month as a pioneering venue for plays and dance performances with distinctive characteristics.

To commemorate the occasion, the theater started the month with the kyogen play “Tojin Zumo.” Performers include professional kyogen actors such as Nomura Mansaku and Nomura Mansai, the artistic director of the theater, as well as people selected from the general public. A noh stage was built inside the venue for the program.

The double bill also included “MANSAI Bolero,” with Mansai dancing to Ravel’s masterpiece.

Founded by the Setagaya Ward government, the theater seats approximately 600 and has two configurations: a proscenium arch form for general use and an open form for various styles of theatrical performances. Adjacent to the theater is its sister venue, Theatre Tram, which seats about 220.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Nomura Mansai poses during an interview.

  • Photo by Shinji Hosono

    The interior of the Setagaya Public Theater

With its highly flexible space, the complex became a pioneer as a publicly funded theater that serves as a rental venue and also plans and stages its own productions.

“We’ve been working with the idea of introducing edgy creators from overseas, as well as works that are not commercially profitable and so can’t be staged by private theaters,” Mansai said of the path the theater has taken thus far and its road ahead.

When he became the artistic director in 2002, Mansai adopted the philosophy of his predecessor, Makoto Sato, the founder of the Black Tent Theatre. Sato had been the first artistic director of the Setagaya Public Theatre since it opened in 1997.

The theater has staged avant-garde butoh dance performances by Saburo Teshigawara and Dairakudakan, a company led by Akaji Maro, as well as productions by top-notch foreign directors, such as Peter Brook, Robert Lepage and Simon McBurney.

McBurney coproduced some of his new plays with the theater, such as “The Elephant Vanishes,” which is based on a collection of short novels by Haruki Murakami, and “Shun-kin,” based on Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel of the same title. Those productions were acclaimed for their innovative approaches.

Mansai has made the most of his ideas as a kyogen actor in planning new productions. In 2003, he started the Contemporary Noh Collection series, a range of modern adaptations of noh plays, and has asked the hottest directors of the time to stage some of the productions in the series, such as “Kikkai Part II” (2011) by Tomohiro Maekawa and “Hanako ni Tsuite” (2014) by Yutaka Kuramochi.

“It’s significant for me, coming from a traditional performing art, to get involved in works that are relevant to society today,” Mansai said.

The artistic director has set a goal of making these works part of the theater’s repertoire, to be its assets. Its production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” directed by Mansai in kyogen style, premiered in 2010 and subsequently staged in such overseas locations as New York and Paris.

“I want to change the way theatrical productions tend to be staged only once [in Japan],” he said. “I hope I can make this venue into a theater where you can always watch a world-class production, like publicly funded theaters in Britain.”

Mansai will mark his 15th anniversary as artistic director in August.

“I’ve received a lot of support from residents in Setagaya Ward, who said they wanted to see something they had never seen before,” he said. “It’s a miracle that I’ve been able to continue this long.”Speech

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