Mariko Tasake is a producer at New National Theatre Tokyo, and was a driving force in the approach to National Theatre Wales with the idea of collaboration. Gary Raymond spoke to her backstage at NNTT, just after a matinee performance of The Opportunity of Efficiency, with the aid of a translator.
GR: Mariko, it was you who had the initial idea to contact John McGrath at NTW with the proposal of a collaboration. What instigated that initial move?
MT: It started as a private connection – I had the government fellowship to fly to the UK to study, and I had 200 days, which began with work with Theatre Clwyd in north Wales. I was stationed there for my internship. And in that theatre they had many outreach programmes for young practitioners. That’s one of the reasons I asked to go there.
Here at the New National Theatre Tokyo, our audience tends to be of the older generation. And we as a theatre thought we’d like to cultivate a younger audience and we wanted to learn how to do that, so that was my reason for my studies abroad. And then when I was at Clwyd I received some advice to go to Contact Theatre in Manchester to find out what it is to appeal to the younger audience. People kept saying to me from all over Britain: go to Contact, go to Contact. And Manchester was close to Clwyd. Of course, John was at Contact then, so I eventually managed to get him to say yes to an interview and I was able to go to Manchester for two weeks. I learned a great deal under John.
When I was in Manchester I discovered that the younger generation was using the theatre in a variety of small groups. For example, people from a music background, people who are from a background of rap, people who want to recite their poetry – there were genres of art that were being used in theatre that were things we hadn’t really established in Japan. So I recognised back then the sensitivity of John in his efforts to cultivate young talents – to give life, or a place, to people in order for them to deliver what they have to say. The way he provided as a producer was brilliant, I thought. I said to John back then that if there was any way we could collaborate in the future and learn from each other’s theatres we should do whatever it takes to make it happen. Shortly after I came back to the National Theatre Tokyo and John went on to become Artistic Director of NTW.
Back in Tokyo, our Artistic Director, Keiko Miyata, came up with this season called Connecting with the World, and she said she wanted to collaborate with non-Japanese theatre practitioners. But it was very difficult for us. This is the National Theatre of Japan, and we can take a show to a place, but to collaborate is a different thing. It takes time to nurture a rapport and to develop a relationship of trust with the person you will be collaborating with. We have done work before, such as sending a Japanese play to the Lincoln centre in Washington; but this is very different to that.
So it was very important that you already had that relationship with John.
Yes. John had also become the Artistic Director of a new national theatre – new like us – so that was important. So he was coming up with new projects at his end. And so we proposed as to whether he’d be interested in working with us, and he reacted immediately, and he adjusted his dates at NTW and we decided they would be the first collaboration for us. Rather than just bring a show; a proper collaboration between two national theatres. To create a show from scratch. Together.
When we first approached John we asked for the playwright to be a Welsh writer.
So that was your specification?
Yes. We didn’t have much knowledge of Welsh writers. I also know a great British researcher, and so this researcher would send us a monthly report on what is going in UK theatre. He made some very thorough studies and was informing us all about what NTW were doing and planning on doing from the first season. The whole concept of John’s philosophy and ideas, so we had a lot of knowledge about the work of NTW already. So because of that background as well, we decided that it had to be John we went with. We wanted him to direct. And it was John who suggested some up and coming young talents as playwrights, and then we got together and decided who it should be.
So how did you come to the decision of hiring Alan Harris? What was it you saw in Alan’s work that the others didn’t have?
The biggest assurance was that John was keen on having him. We went to meet the playwrights in March last year, and obviously there are many factors as we needed their availability also. John had explained the tight schedule we were working to – the series of deadlines for the writer. When we first met Alan he had three plans already, and each one of them was very interesting; although none of them ended up being The Opportunity of Efficiency. But he was very keen on trying to make it work, and to work with us. And John and Alan had a good trust and working pattern already, so we decided it had to be him.
And we read all of the plays he wrote in the past. And, of course, he used to be a journalist, and that background was really strong. He was like a craftsman, almost. That was the great appeal. And this was going to develop through conversations, so we needed someone who was open minded to that approach. And of course, the culture of Wales; Alan has that.
I’m interested in how you went from the original idea to the final play. What was the collaboration in the actual writing of the play? Did you agree on a story and allow Alan to go and then come back with a script? Or were there more levels to it than that?
When this project started to get on its feet it was post-disaster, so Keiko Miyata decided that we didn’t want it set in Japan, but it needs to be about something that gives Japanese people at least some hope for the future, so please come up with a theme that would fulfil that. We told Alan that and Alan came to Japan in June. And from discussions and meetings Alan and John came up with this idea around efficiency. From the UK when you think of Japan you think of an efficient country. The end of August was the deadline for the first draft, and it arrived soon after he had got back to the UK.
The ideas seem resonant to Japan, but the story is universal, not specific to Japan.
It’s about hierarchy. That resonates here, who is superior and inferior. There were some issues. For Mrs Grant to take lunch to her husband in work every day was difficult for us to grasp. It is unusual. That wouldn’t happen here.
I’m very interested in those basic cultural differences. The difference between Alan’s play and what had to be presented to a Japanese audience.
For the wife to bring lunch to her husband, that was there from the draft, but it was originally vocalised, it was Ken saying that Mrs Grant does that, but because we don’t have that in Japan we needed to explain it visually so it was turned into a scene. We needed to make them understand that she isn’t really just bringing lunch, but she’s checking up on him and manipulating her husband. She is the one advising him. The very last scene of Mr and Mrs Grant, in their living room, is a thread that establishes all of the other beads of the play – and we suggested that scene.
So it was a real collaborative effort to make the script work for a Japanese audience whilst retaining its Welshness. You must have learned a great deal as well as imparted many lessons working with NTW.
I think our theatre has learned so much about collaboration. To have a writer and director that are not from Japan is extremely rare, and to collaborate from step one, it has all been a learning curve. By doing this NNTT hoped that everyone would gain valuable experience, not just the institutions of the theatre, but the actors and crew. We wanted to be proud of the way we do things but also to learn more. And also find practical ways of doing things at all phases. And working NTW we had the Assembly project running alongside which is going to be a huge experience for us. We’ve never done anything like that before. That is huge.
And me personally – this is something I feel very strongly about – many Japanese go to the UK to study theatre, but after they come back the connection they have made in the UK dissolves. As long as I work in theatre I would like to take every opportunity I can to work with the people in Wales, and keep in touch with what everyone is doing, so I am glad that connection that was pre-existing has come to bear fruit, but for the future as well; that it continues and more comes out of it.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis