One of my favorite memories so far as a CIR in Matsue was the Yakumo International Theatre Festival last November in a mountainous southern district of Matsue. It is held every three years, and over the course of four or five days, professional theater troupes from around the world gather in the village area, experience home stays, and practically backflip over language barriers as they mingle with the local audiences of all ages.
As I am already a big fan of many performaning arts, I was very, very excited to hear about this event. Of course there are regularly traveling professional performances hosted at Matsue’s regal concert hall and culture center, Plover Hall, and at the medium and large size theaters inside the Shimane Civic Center. What I really miss from my university days, however, was getting in free to a wide variety of performances of plays I had never heard of staged in intimate and small settings where the stage takes up the whole world around you. Famous performances in grand halls get you exposed to high culture that often requires some mental effort to fully engage in, but in an intimate setting with a story you’ve never had any exposure to, it engages you directly through the heart.
Therefore, I was excited to not only find out about the festival, but that one of the venues is Japan’s smallest public theater, nestled right into the mountain forest. Shiinomi Theater is a wooden building with seating for 108, designed with class and intimacy in mind. It is managed by a community theater group called Ashibue. Besides the local actors and volunteers of very professional caliber, they also collaborate with professionals from around Japan. I had the pleasure of being invited to one of their practice performances last year to provide some input on how they were tailoring it for a multinational audience, which was a major treat. The director, Tsukushi Sonoyama, left a very deep impression on me. She had an intimidating presence and gave sharp directions, as she had a clear vision and was determined to see it through. I thought she was so cool!
Therefore, even more and more to my excitement, I was overjoyed when I was asked to help with the opening ceremony for the festival. I’ve done the interpreting or English emceeing for a handful of ceremonies, and they’re always fun to some extent while following a typical formula. This, however, was–by design–no run-of-the-mill Japanese ceremony. Director Sonoyama directed it like a theater production, and I was really, really happy to receive her directions on what words to stress, where to pause, where to lead people into applause or prevent them from applause quite yet. It was no simple run-through as usual; I got to receive serious direction from a person whose directing admired. Even though I was speaking into a microphone off stage the entire time and reading from a script, I got to be a theatrical version of myself again instead of a ghost-like interpretor trying not to attract too much attention away from the speaker, or a formal English emcee guiding an audience through a process. I got to be part of an artistic vision.
The days (and long nights) leading up to the opening ceremony gave me a peak into the world of the passionate and serious volunteers who are committed to setting a consistent tone for the festival and seeing it through smoothly. I admired them all, and it built my excitement up even more. I still felt a little apprehensive, though—without a car, how hard would it be to get around all the little mountain venues? Would rural audiences be receptive to so many international theater approaches?
The opening ceremony itself went very well. I did the English emceeing with a Japanese co-host throughout most it, but in the second half he had to leave to be on stage for Ashibue’s opening performance so I did both the English and the Japanese. We only introduced ourselves at the very end of the first half before the intermission, and until that point, a handful of the people who know me at Matsue City Hall (such as the mayor and my department head) thought, “Hm, this voice sounds really familiar… what!? That was Buri-chan!?”
Although there were many, many performances I really wanted to go to, I had some other schedule conflicts that long weekend and could only afford to spend one full day there. I watched three productions: A puppet show with Japanese narration by the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company from Argentina, a multilingual and interactive dance production by CORPUS from Canada, and a play by Magnet Theatre from South Africa that did not really require knowledge of English or French to enjoy, though they blended use of both.
As for my concerns, I found access was not a problem at all, even when it rained. There were free shuttles going back and forth from Matsue Station all day, so even without a car I had no difficulty in getting to the Yakumo village area. Likewise, there were shuttles cycling all the venues sites, including the large Alba Hall and little Shiinomi Theaters, as well as the crafts fair and restuarant area, where the menu each day was inspired by the cuisine of some of the countries that the theater groups came from (prepared by a local chef who is known for doing this at monthly parties full of authentic and vegetarian food). Everywhere you went on that cold autumn day, there was a sense of warmth from the theater festival’s decorations and designs, especially its apple theme with the tag line, “Theatre is food for the heart.”
As for the audience receptions? I of course loved all the productions I watched, but I also loved seeing how it affected the other audience members. After the puppet show I saw people passionately express how moved they were by the performance, including an old man with tears in his eyes. The outdoor dance performance had everyone from kids to old people practically in stiches with laughter, and the dad they pulled out of the audience to play “Fifi” got really into it and looked like he was having a lot of fun, even if he perhaps could not believe what he was doing in front of so many people. The performance by Magnet Theatre was both comedic and movingly dramatic even if you couldn’t understand all the words, and I’m getting chills now thinking back to sitting back in Shiinomi Theater and watching it. Although the scene when they lit stage objects on fire has a lot of impact, I’m thinking more of the scene later on when the daughter realizes the truth that her mother had tried to protect her from the whole time. Ah, I want to cry!
So why do I bring this all up now, even when I don’t even have any good pictures to share?
Because although the next Yakumo International Theatre festival is going to be 2017, this September they are hosting the Little Forest Theater Festival!
There will be a variety of puppet shows, including a repeat visit from the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company, and also Ashibue’s “Gorsch the Cellist.” Unfortunately I will be out of town during the festival this year, but fortunately I will be in town for a couple later stagings of “Gorsch the Cellist.” I’m looking forward to seeing a production at Shiinomi Theater in the crisp autumn air again!