By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff WriterThe 10-minute walk from a nearby train station is probably when you’re firing up your imagination about what awaits you at an Asia meets Asia (AMA) performance. But the actual experience always confounds your expectations.
Based in Tokyo, AMA strives to create theatrical productions “via physical expressions that go beyond words.” It has put on 13 projects, while inviting about 30 productions to its events, since its establishment in 1997. Dancers, actors, poets and others who perform on stages and streets — as well as people from other walks of life — from over 20 cities across Asia have joined its performances.
AMA participants create a collage on the stage that is more than the sum of their diverse languages, nationalities and life experiences. But what they deliver is not just about accepting differences. First and foremost, it’s about absorbing incomprehensibility.
“Misunderstanding can often bring different interpretations into works, giving performances an unintended variety. This makes each production dynamic,” said Hiroshi Ohashi, director of AMA, in a recent interview with The Japan News.
“Whereas, when it’s only Japanese people, we naturally communicate through words and believe we automatically understand each other this way. As a result, we’re prone to limiting our movements within the scope of what we can process through words,” the director said ahead of AMA’s upcoming show “Drifters.”
“It’s more important to know and accept that we don’t understand each other in the first place,” Ohashi said, stressing what he says is the essence of communication among members using different languages.
For the upcoming production “Drifters,” 12 members from nine cities — Bangalore, Delhi and Dharamsala in India; Shanghai; Busan in South Korea; Baguio in the Philippines; Hong Kong; Medan in Indonesia and Tokyo — are scheduled to tackle the issue of “refugees,” or people who have no choice but to leave their homelands.
Among the participants is Bhuchung D. Sonam, a Tibetan exile and writer based in Dharamsala.
“I am a ‘drifter,’ meaning [I roam] into the space of others,” he said in a recent e-mail exchange with The Japan News. He has been based in India since leaving Tibet as a child. “Much of what I think, write and articulate has to do with this experience.”
As a first-timer on the AMA stage, the writer is eager to learn how to perform before audiences. Unlike writing, he said, “Theater gives the audience direct experience of a story and hence the impact is immediate.”
“I want to share my story as a Tibetan exile and through this [the] basic human experience of dislocation, frustration and optimism. I hope others can understand what it means to lose one’s homeland,” Bhuchung said.
For AMA, shedding light on the experience of refugees is natural following “Lost Home,” “Return” and “Hope,” productions that featured performers from Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“We’ve been aware of the issue for a long time,” Ohashi said. “But particularly in recent years, the instability, conflicts and violence in Asia have resulted in an increasing number of refugees. I could no longer turn away from what’s going on.”
The five-day show will incorporate the recorded voices of Rohingya living in Japan.
The contents of the production, however, will take shape through a six-day intensive rehearsal in Tokyo. To help them psychologically prepare to give a strong performance, performers are required to ponder the theme as “homework” before showing up to the rehearsal. They then launch into two days of presentations in which each performer explains — in words and movements via interpreters — the ideas they prepared for the stage.
Such a camp-like rehearsal is always full of surprises and inspiration, said Akihiro Nakajima, a core performer in AMA’s productions. “They bring answers to the homework that are completely different [from mine].”
As an example, he cited a rendition by one of his Indian peers in last year’s project. “He suddenly put a trash bag over his head on the stage. I was totally taken aback,” Nakajima said admiringly. “Their approach and material is something I could never conceive of.”
“Drifters” will be Nakajima’s 17th performance with AMA. He is well aware of the challenging nature of the theme.
“Even if it’s small, I believe there must be hope. Without it, it’s too tough [to perform],” he said. “I want to look for it and find it.”
Nakajima is not alone.
“Every step has to be taken with hope and optimism that things will change for the better,” said Bhuchung. “After having survived the initial difficult years in exile, we have set up schools for our children, cultural institutions and the exile government — all of these give us strength.”
Looking to interact with audiences outside Japan as well, Ohashi and the core members of AMA have taken their show on the road to eight cities in Asia.
“During the Asian tours, we always get a direct response from the audience — even toward things that appear unfathomable to them,” said Ohashi. “They are not theatergoers. They are simply hungry for entertainment and forms of expression in their everyday life.”
Such reactions are rare in societies where there is an established notion of what the arts should be, and where an obsession with popular trends and academic opinions prevails.
“We tour these Asian cities to see if what we’re doing in Tokyo can truly penetrate these audiences,” said Ohashi.
Iraq, Afghanistan and even South America are ambitious but feasible destinations for AMA in the future, the director said.
AMA continues to leave more footsteps on the world map. “I’m thrilled just thinking about meeting with audiences,” said Ohashi.