Playwright-director FUJITA Takahiro and translator Guelan Luarca were interviewed by JFM’s director (Mr. SUZUKI Ben) about their works, artistic processes, and the latest collaborative online theater project, TAHANAN.
Published：May 17, 2021
FUJITA Takahiro 藤田 貴大 (Playwright-director)
Guelan Varela Luarca (Translator)
Tahanan is a collaborative online theater project of FUJITA Takahiro, a prominent figure in the world of Japanese contemporary theater, and twenty-four actors from all over the Philippines. The Japan Foundation, Manila (JFM) joined hands with Tanghalang Ateneo, Kasing Sining and Teatro Guindegan to launch this project which aims to explore the possibility of creating a different “shared space” where artists from Japan and the Philippines are connected and united to tell familiar but unique stories.
TAHANAN: Talk Exchange
SUZUKI Ben (hereinafter SUZUKI): Thank you very much to you all for joining us today. I am SUZUKI Ben, and I am the Director of the Japan Foundation, Manila. I will be the moderator for today’s talk and discussion.
For this project, we have collaborated with Japanese playwright and director, Mr. FUJITA Takahiro, staff of his theater company, Mum&Gypsy, and the participation of a total of 24 actors from all over the Philippines. As the title of this play “TAHANAN” implies, the project was an attempt to hold an online workshop with “home” as the theme with the 24 actors, create a brand new play written by and subsequently directed by Mr. Fujita, and present the work through video. Today’s talk will be attended by Mr. FUJITA Takahiro and to represent the Philippines as guest, Mr. Guelan Valera-Luarca who participated in this project as a translator.
Mr. Fujita joined the drama club when he was in high school, and even participated in a national competition. After that, when at university in Tokyo, he was under the tutelage of Mr. HIRATA Oriza, who directed “Manila Notes” in 2018 in the Philippines. Because of that, I have an impression that you walked the so-called “Royal Road” to theater arts. I would like to ask how you started to aspire to be in theater arts in the first place.
FUJITA Takahiro (hereinafter FUJITA): I grew up in Date City, Hokkaido, and joined the community theater company in my city when I was 10 years old. At first I had been doing theater as a child actor. Then, because the director of the community theater company, Mr. KAGEYAMA Yoshinori taught at Date Midorigaoka High School, I entered that high school and continued theater there. This theater club was at a level where we even participated in national theater competitions, where Mr. HIRATA Oriza was a judge. For university, I entered J. F. Oberlin University because Mr. HIRATA Oriza was there. But he left when I was in my second year of university.
SUZUKI: It seems that there are many community theaters in the Philippines, though I think that there are only a few in Japan. Nonetheless, I guess that you were very lucky with the very first encounter you had with theater. Today, to properly introduce Mr. Fujita to the Filipino people, I would like to focus on, and talk about two of his plays that I have seen. The first is “cocoon”.
This play depicts the battle against the US forces in Okinawa during World War II, and the tragedy of the school girls who nursed the wounded soldiers at that time. This play has become very popular and reruns were repeated in Japan. But, Mr. Fujita, as someone from a generation that doesn’t know war first hand, please share with us your thoughts or sentiments about this work.
FUJITA: “cocoon” is based on the original work of manga artist Ms. KYO Machiko. As mentioned by Mr. Suzuki, “Himeyuri Gakutotai (Himeyuri students)” nursed wounded soldiers from the ground battle in Okinawa nearing the end of World War II, which is the theme of this play. Until I began working on “cocoon”, I was creating works with themes based on my own memories. That is why I couldn’t quite start a project with such a major theme like war which I personally had not experienced. However, I was surprised finding out that “war and Okinawa of that era could be written in that style” when I read Ms. KYO Machiko’s “cocoon”. I thought that if that’s the case, I too might be able to challenge myself with a big theme such as “war,” and that’s when I started working on it.
Ms. Kyo and I, as well as all the musicians and cast members involved in the production are from a generation that doesn’t know about war. In addition, I continue, to this day, think about how someone like us who weren’t born and raised in Okinawa wrote about an Okinawa battle-themed play. However, what I think is important is that even if you are not from Okinawa or do not know the war, it is alright to address them, and it is because it’s a period or place we do not know that we should imagine and think about those things.
I wanted to do things to see how far we could reach with theater. I think that the means of expression called theater itself is that kind of work. For example, everyone in the audience would also be touched by a very unique story at the theater, and even if they have never been there, they would imagine about that period and about that place. I think that is what theater is all about.
SUZUKI: Thank you very much. The reason why I mentioned that play is to show that there is a place like Okinawa, similar with the Filipinos, that had many victims because of the relations with war and the US military, and to introduce to the Filipinos that there are those who would write a manga, and express such things through theater like Mr. Fujita.
FUJITA: When depicting the war of Japan, it is not only against the United States. It’s also a story about the Japanese government and the military at the time, and that has a little connection to the Philippines too. There is definitely also what Japan did to the Philippines during that time, and because of that, I think that “cocoon” is not totally unrelated. Because what is written in “cocoon” isn’t only against the United States, but also what Japan has done.
SUZUKI: The other work, which I think has a theme close to the latest work, is “Home, Waiting Dining Table, A World of Falling Salt.” The story, structured to trace the memories of the three siblings who move to the city and remember their hometown, uses a very characteristic method in directing the play, which is “Refrain”, or method of repetition, and is also used in many of Mr. Fujita’s other works. With that, I would like to ask you about your thoughts and feelings about this work, and why you utilize the “Refrain” method.
FUJITA: I was in my mid-20s, so there are parts that I couldn’t remember, but since that time, I was always thinking about how to tell a story of the landscape of memories that is inside me, about my family and how to draw emotions that are in the deepest part of me, rather than to tell a grand story.
It was not only about the raw feelings of being sad to lose a family member, but also the layout of the house, what kinds of memories are there inside that house, and by careful examination within myself, I engaged in very experimental ways on how to depict them.
Also, I think that in depicting the same scene over and over again during a performance, I want to explore the “memory organ” we have, where the same scene is repeated again and again in the mind of a person who remembers someone or something.
SUZUKI: Mr. Fujita had just mentioned about the house, layout, memories, and when I was shown the script for this project, that previous work immediately came to mind, but that would be discussed later on.
There is just one more thing I would like to ask Mr. Fujita. In the context of international collaboration, this is your first time to do something in Southeast Asia. I believe that you have been collaborating for a long time with the Italian theater artists. Could you share with us your discoveries?
FUJITA: I have been working with Italians for four to five years, and I have been traveling back and forth between Japan and Italy together with Japanese actors. There are new discoveries every time, within them lies a different culture, what they eat, their point of view in the way they think is different, and I was able to reach a completely different place compared with what I create in my work with Japanese actors. It is an irreplaceable time to rediscover a new aspect of myself, and realize that I can write about such kinds of themes.
About IL MIO TEMPO (My Time), I am always thinking about how I could depict “My time” as the theme. Hotel is where this work is staged, a certain place called a “hotel” that I composed and set up based on the personal episodes of each person I interviewed. I feel a connection with that play with the work we did this time with everyone in the Philippines based on the interviews done which led to the creation of a place, a shared house.
SUZUKI: Next, I would like to ask playwright and director, Mr. Guelan Luarca. Despite his young age, Guelan is the artistic director of one of the leading theater companies in the Philippines, which is from the prestigious private university, the Ateneo de Manila University. I think that many Japanese are also watching today, so may I ask you to introduce yourself and to share with us how you came to aspire to be in theater.
Guelan Luarca (hereinafter LUARCA): I am currently part of the faculty of the Fine Arts Department. I teach mainly subjects related to the theater arts program of the Ateneo. I got into theater when I was a kid because my father is also a theater actor. When I was young, he would bring me to his plays and that kind of introduced me to the world of theater. But it was only when I got into Ateneo de Manila University in high school that I joined a theater company, and that’s where I started engaging as an actor, and then eventually a translator of Western classics like Shakespeare and Chekhov. Eventually, that was also my first time to direct in high school, so that’s what kind of got me going into theater until college, and now I’m teaching.
SUZUKI: What was inspiring about your story is that, there may be quite a lot of theater families in the Philippines. Based on your perspective, Guelan, how is the theater of your father’s generation different from the theater of your generation, and are there some things you’d want to overcome or do things differently? Could you share with us how you feel about these things?
LUARCA: I never got to watch the plays that my father did when he was young and when he was working with great artists like Rolando Tinio, who is a National Artist (for theater) in the Philippines. But the ones that I really saw when I was a kid, they were mostly classical Western works, [with] classical training, and it’s really apparent in the way they perform.
I wouldn’t say that there’s a big difference between our mode of theater and back then because we still do train ourselves in that classical mode. But if there’s a difference that I’ve discerned, it’s probably right now, in our time, I suppose theater has become more professionalized. Theater artists have taken up courses in universities, so there’s a lot of influences from the West, and not only classical traditional West but also experimental Western practices like devising. So there are experiments that are beginning to happen right now and there’s also a theater boom very recently. There used to be a time when theater was consumed by the upper classes in society but now theater has become more popular. The middle class has become more engaged in watching plays. And of course, film has a big influence on how stories are told onstage. So there’s a lot of experiments that have been happening recently, especially by way of Virgin Labfest, which is the annual theater festival of new works. So there used to be a time when plays being staged are usually either Western classics or Western works in translation or Western musicals but now, there’s a push for more original Filipino playwriting, even plays from our Asian neighbors.
SUZUKI: In addition to writing and directing, Guelan is versatile, having translated four Shakesperean works into Tagalog. I would now like to ask about, among your many works, your 2018 directorial work, chosen as the best play of that year, Desaparesidos.
I think that young artists many times deal with political themes head-on in the Philippines, which is a little different from Japan. Like with this work, set during the time of Martial Law by President Marcos which happened in the 1980s, depicts the subsequent life of the main character who threw himself into the opposition movement. I would like to ask Guelan his thoughts about this play, and what kind of message you wanted to convey to young people, especially today, through this work.
LUARCA: The story of “Desaparesidos” comes from a novel by Lualhati Bautista. I adapted it into a play thinking that our generation and the younger generation needed reminding of that dark part of our history especially since these names (Marcos), the politicians during that time, were planning a comeback.
They want to return to power and they do so by way of historical revisionism, so perhaps it is one of the roles of theater, to make sure that we do not forget as a people. So I decided to stage that production so that what was usually information that we learn in the classrooms, names that we memorize and dates that we memorize, can become a vivid spectacle. A very visceral experience inside the theater. So the hope is when it becomes an experience, the learning is deeper and we can get to move on from that dark part of history.
SUZUKI: As I was listening to you, if I was to say the difference between Philippine artists and Japanese artists is, setting aside what’s right or wrong, is that I feel like there is a difference in their stance on how to approaching contemporary history. It either it is engaged directly or it is engaged indirectly.
Now, I would like to ask about this collaboration. First, I would like to ask Mr. Fujita. For this work, we went through a process where we divided the entire Philippines into four regions according to the geographical divisions, 6 actors from each region for a total of 24 actors who were interviewed individually for one hour each, and a script was then written based on it, and was transformed into the final work. I’d like to ask your insights on what was the aim of this work, and, the various discoveries you must have had while working on this.
FUJITA: It was a lot of fun. We interviewed 24 participants in the workshop, one person at a time for 5 days, for a total of 24 hours of interviews. Since it was my first time to speak to Filipinos, there were a lot of things that surprised me. While I imagined this place called the Philippines which I have never visited, I cooked their food, read books, and made preparations. Although we were working online, it was very interesting because I was able to imagine the lives of the people living in the Philippines during the interview, and although this was in the Philippines, I was able to set up a play based on the structures they lived in. In that sense, I think I was able to do the type of work that was not much different from the collaborations with Italy or workshops in Japan.
To describe the kind of work we did in this workshop, we first interviewed each participant one-on-one. We only had one question at that time, which was “What is the layout of the house you currently live in?” That is the only question I asked, but as I asked about the layout, they told me about their memories or an episode that happened there, such as “The house I lived in when I was a child was burned down by fire…” I think that’s why the writing became interesting. All the participants were so happy, and they were pleasant to talk to. Though it was tiring, I was able to enjoy the process. Rather than from the content of each of their stories, I felt the ambiance and life they talked about, and I was somewhat able to receive (understand) what the Philippines is all about. It is not like any other place, so it was very enjoyable. I am really very happy that I was able to encounter the Philippines. However, when I do experience a new place, no matter how much I study or talk to the people who live there, I don’t want to feel like I totally know that place. That is why, no matter how much I interview people, I could never think of myself as someone who knows that place. I think that there are things that you will only know if you live there for 50-60 years, so when I do this type of job, I keep the stance that I am an “outsider.”
SUZUKI: That’s very interesting. You mentioned about imagining the lifestyle, or feeling the ambiance, but one thing I thought that stood out was about the cooking. I was really surprised to hear that you cooked and tasted the food on the day you learned about it. I understood very well that when you come in to contact with a different culture, you must understand others by drawing out the potential capacities in you. Since we here are conducting cultural exchange, it was a great learning experience for us.
FUJITA: In making the Laing, the hardest thing was to get hold of the taro leaves.
SUZUKI: Next, Guelan. You were involved as a translator this time. What kind of discoveries did you have in participating in this project?
LUARCA: I was very excited because of many reasons. One of which is when I was contacted by the Japan Foundation, Manila to join this project, I was given a clue as to how Fujita san writes his plays with the interview process. And I really related to it because in my own practice I do something quite similar, like I go through workshops with actors and through that workshop, that’s how I create a script. So I was really excited to kind of join in a project that is somehow same in spirit with how I do things here in my own practice. And apart from that, I’m a big fan of Japanese playwriting with its austerity, it’s simplicity, but at the same time, simmering underneath that seeming silence and straightforwardness, is actually a lot of emotion. We Filipinos, we tend to write emotions. We love writing characters speaking out their feelings. So it was an exciting notion for me to kind of write because in translating it, it’s rewritten in Filipino. So the idea of writing something in Filipino but with a Japanese heart, maybe, a Japanese spirit. That combination I think is wonderful and it’s evidenced by the Zoom filming that I attended this afternoon. And the actors get to do something that they don’t usually do in Philippine theater because as I said, we are used to take emotions, but here, they are kind of tasked to keep it down and just be chill and realistic. But there’s still moments in Fujita san’s script and moments in the performance of the actors where there’s genuine poignance. I would dare say even dramatics that comes out but muted. Very simple, very Japanese tones.
FUJITA: I would like to add one thing. We were not able to go to the local site due to the pandemic, and so we conducted an online workshop, but I think that there were many things that I was able to hear because of the pandemic. Even us in Japan, with not only the theater industry, but the entire society is in a state of uncertainty, and we have anxiety as we think about ways to do art and self-expression while being in the middle of all this. But it wasn’t just a situation in Japan, and it felt like it was similar with the Filipinos, while everyone was inside their house, and how each of them were worried, and worried about what to do, and what they were all thinking came out exploding at some parts during the interview. The part where I felt the difference with Japanese, is when they blatantly exploded talking about politics and their dissatisfaction towards the government during the interview, and it was a good experience to hear that. I was also happy to know that it was close to the way I was thinking.
SUZUKI: While listening to you, and though it is often said, it’s made me realize anew, like with the way we express ourselves, the battle with similarities and differences, and because both exist, it’s interesting and a pleasure to work in international collaborations which go beyond country and culture.
Guelan-san, do you have any question for Fujita-san?
LUARCA: Perhaps I’d like to ask some more about Fujita san’s other experiments with the process. Maybe more about how he interviews actors to create a script because, as I’ve said, it’s also an undertaking that I do in my processes.
FUJITA: What I keep in mind in my interview-based work is that I do not use that person’s episode as is as a documentary. Instead of telling their own story like it is their own story, I try to extract an episode which can be my “fiction”, filter them, and then organize a story. In other words, I take the episodes I hear from each of them as a theme or materials for what I’m making, and then ultimately create one fictional work. If I don’t do that, I think that it’s disrespectful to the other person, it’s an exploitation of their episode, it’s like I’m just amused by their interesting episodes, which is why I am very careful with those aspects.
These are people who aren’t supposed to be living together, but in this story, the setting is that they are living together, and that makes this fiction.
What I thought would be very difficult would be the number of languages. Easy to say it’s just translation, but it is quite difficult, isn’t it? I understood that English or Filipino would be good if the purpose was just to communicate, but when I collaborate with actors, and when I get them to choose words that are most familiar to them, then there would be many options. Which is why I thought that there would be many things we need to consider when collaborating in the Philippines. What I would like to ask Guelan here is how in the world did you do the translation.
LUARCA: Like for example, I remembered when the translation process was about to start. When I first read the script, my initial questions were for the Visayas and Mindanao parts of the script. Should we translate it into Filipino or should we translate it into Bisaya or whatever language the actors spoke? But it was explained that due to practical reasons we had to choose either English or Filipino, and we settled with Filipino. But the thing with conversational Filipino is, that when we talk about conversational Filipino, rather than literary or dramatic Filipino, you are really talking about what you call “Taglish” which is this oddball combination of English and Tagalog. And I think that’s also true with the other languages. Because the thing about Philippines, it’s not only dialects but actually different languages. There’s also Bisaya mixed with English, etc. So I do acknowledge Fujita san’s problem. On the other hand it can be a fun problem because it would mean working with many translators at once, which I actually really encourage. The notion that your play becomes archipelagic, it’s an archipelago rather than just monocultural. So maybe that can be the stage 2 or stage 3 of Mr. Fujita’s script.
FUJITA: I thought that it’s extraordinary. It’s not enough to just say that I made this with actors in the Philippines. What kind of actors are they in the Philippines, and what language did we use? But I thought that the complexity was very interesting.
Well, it’s actually the same in Japan, right? If a foreigner comes to Kyoto and begins to speak in Japanese, that Japanese will probably have a mix of the Kansai dialect. However, I’m pretty sure that the situation in the Philippines would be in a totally different dimension. I’d like to continue to take into consideration those things because I am not thinking that my involvement with the Philippines will end with this, but rather, I think it will lead to different kinds of projects in the future.
SUZUKI: Lastly, Mr. Fujita, could you please give a message to the audience?
FUJITA: I had never done any creative work with Southeast Asia before, that is why I think that it is through this project with the Philippines that, as a result, I was able to make my first introduction to meeting all of you. I had invested more time than I initially expected, and it became a more elaborate work, so I would hope that you would enjoy it.
SUZUKI: Thank you very much. I think that we just had a very interesting conversation. Lastly, going back to the title “Tahanan,” we sometimes hear the term “intimate sphere” nowadays. With the pandemic, when individuals are more likely to be divided, that term may become even more relevant to us. How do we rebuild a space where relationships were made to be opened towards others even though we may not be related by blood? With this work, we attempted that idea on a virtual space this time, where I think that it will show both the difficulties and the possibilities. Mr. Fujita, Guelan, thank you very much for today.
You can watch all four videos of TAHANAN through the following channels:
mum&gypsy’s official website: http://mum-gypsy.com/wp-mum/archives/news/tahananJFM’s official
JFM’s official website: https://jfmo.org.ph/events-and-courses/tahanan/