A new collective space, a new “commons,” in the city: welcome to Theater Commons Tokyo.
Expect theater, lecture performances, workshops and dialogues, held across Minato ward!

Theater Commons Tokyo is a project to create a collective space for society that harnesses the collective wisdom of theater. By using theater – that is, by applying theatrical ideas – in the context of everyday life and the urban space, it aims to propose a model for theater(s) to come. Theater Commons Tokyo and its artists use the imagination of theater to create experiences in which diverging elements and time periods intersect, and the ordinary is defamiliarized through dialogue and discovery.
For this fourth edition, we organize a 11-day intensive that includes theatrical pieces involving various invented technologies of the old and the new, performances, workshops, and discussions.

Theater Commons Tokyo is held in venues across Minato ward as part of Minato City FY2019 Minato Cooperation Project for Cultural Program. The executive committee is composed of Arts Commons Tokyo and the following international cultural institutions based in the ward: Taiwan Cultural Center (Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan), Goethe-Institut Tokyo, Institut français du Japon, and Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.


The Politics of Listening––Overcoming Division and Discord
Chiaki Soma (Theater Commons Tokyo Director)

“Stop. Let’s talk for a second. We’ve entered the 21st century, and we’ve turned into a mob all fleeing in one direction.”

This is how Shuntaro Matsubara’s play Keep Your Front Up abruptly opens. The words are uttered by a mysterious character called the “man from the crowd” who simply walks forward on a single continuous road. There is no detour, no return. Waves of memories flood in, reflecting various crises and failures experienced by “our” state and collective, prompting the dead to be garrulous. But perhaps now is the time to say: “Stop. Let’s talk for a second.”

For some time now we have been in an era of technological development that allows anyone to easily tell their own story. With just a smartphone, a toddler can become an international YouTuber, or a civilian living amidst war can instantly share their poetry online. It is an era that encourages anyone to express themselves, which also means an era where anyone can overwhelm others’ expressions with their loudness. The situation we face now––with works judged without full context, one-sided condemnations, and even violent attacks––threatens our “expression” with attempts to diminish those who speak.

The series of events stemming from Aichi Triennale 2019 caused an unimaginable shockwave among cultural workers in Japan (my involvement as a curator notwithstanding). I will avoid describing the full and complicated account in this short text. Simply put, the incident directly brought to light the division and discord created by the varying levels of intolerance already accumulating all over society. Its repercussions spread among many angry civilians who previously did not see themselves as privy to art, as well as the Agency for Cultural Affairs, the center of Japan’s cultural policy. Discussions intensified across many media platforms and the matter even reached legal courts and the National Diet, due to the involvement of politicians. Far from running its course, the situation has destabilized the core of Japan’s arts and culture policies and damaged its international credibility, deepening a sense of crisis. Six months away from the state-led festival of the Olympics, will we further internalize this attitude of self-censorship and continue to reduce our range of expression? We stand in an extremely particular time frame, post-Aichi and pre-Olympics, unable to set off on the next direction or strategy to evade crisis. In other words, we are in a state of limbo.

Given these circumstances, what if we each said to ourselves: “Stop. Let’s talk for a second.” Theater originated as a way of listening to people’s stories. It once served as a medium to listen to the voices of the gods, heroes, the dead, defeated, or otherworldly existences held in awe. What voices do we try yet fail to listen to today? What voices do we resist tuning in? Listening to the stories of others before talking about ourselves: if we assume that now, twenty years into the twenty-first century, divisions are created by those who refuse to listen and only care to make claims, perhaps the only way for us to move forward is by first listening to others, creating pathways for those who remain in mutual incomprehension to listen to each other. If we begin from the assumption that society is made up of people that refuse to understand each other, what are the true identities hiding behind their external hostility and discord? We have entered an era in which the arts and theater can no longer unconditionally claim freedom of expression without confronting these questions.

With this year’s Theater Commons Tokyo falling post-Aichi and pre-Olympics, we inevitably decided to add some programs to the original schedule. The core aim we pursue with both programs remains simple: to listen to the stories of others. It is to listen, as individuals and collectives, to the proximate and distant voices uttered in everyday life. It is to listen with our bodies and to listen to and speak with our voices. At times others may refuse to listen to our stories. We must take this “non-listening” as an opportunity to create new pathways to bring together voices that do not hear each other. It is an old and new challenge that we must now face, using theater as our tool.

With the development of many old and new technologies, what situation do our bodies’ perception, sensation, and emotion now experience? Based on our original TCT’20 program, we present a series of works that consider tension and complicity in the relationship between humans and technology. In Meiro Koizumi’s Prometheus Bound, a full-fledged theater piece using VR technology, the audience undergoes the paradoxical experience of being torn between their bodies’ expansions and limitations. In returning artist Sankar Venkateswaran’s latest work Indian Rope Trick, the structure is exposed of a pre-modern magic trick that continues to capture the modern imagination and desires, strengthening a collective myth. Nahum, who joins us for the first time, uses hypnosis to approach the human psyche. By crossing the risky line of controlling other people’s bodies and emotions, he tries to connect the once unseen outer space to our interior spaces. Hypnosis, VR, and magic tricks are all techniques that deceive human perception to show what we cannot see. What critical perspective will these contemporary artists bring to each device?

New innovators of documentary theater Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere present the physical condition humans face today, whereby anything from shopping to committing a crime is made possible through smartphones. Using only finger movements, they show the hopeless reality of others as a tragedy. In a world where anyone can become complicit in acts of evil, they choose to not utter a single word. How will this position influence and reflect upon the world of theater moving forward? On March 7 in the post-performance Commons Forum “Arts and Virtuality,” we aspire to deepen our concern for the future of the theater, which has historically relied on physical human form, within the imminent technological context.

What words resonate in today’s Tokyo? Guided by this question, the audience reads plays out loud as a group. For our second annual reading performance, we selected plays with the help of two directors. Satoko Ichihara chose to read the dialogue of Madama Butterfly as a group reading performed in Japanese. It is an opera that for over a century has disseminated the image of the “Japanese woman.” Through this perverse approach, she inverts and laughs off the extremely asymmetrical desires of the East and West, and women and men. Daichi Nakamura selects Shuntaro Matsubara’s latest work Keep Your Front Up, and redirects the enormous power emitted by the play through the voices of a contemporary audience and toward a collective experience. Here we find a grand narrative/history of wars and earthquakes, the setbacks of democracy––haunting us like ghosts along this road that lies in the gap between past and present, this world and the next. What kind of shock and transformation will “our” minds and bodies undergo when continually infused with these words?

Alongside these performances, we would like to provide a space to consider and discuss the numerous issues that erupted after Aichi. In today’s society, where division and discord emerge dressed in theatrical trappings, what direction do we take? In response to this urgent question, we host four sessions of intensive Commons Forums totaling more than 10 hours. Under the themes of “Arts and Society,” “Arts and Public,” “Arts and Virtuality,” and “Arts and Politics,” we welcome over 20 panelists from home and abroad for panels and audience discussions. Weaving together history and future as well as theory and practice, we strive, through conversations exploring the possibility of the arts in overcoming social divisions, to manifest a micro public sphere that thinks and listens collectively.

We also provide a workshop for crisis management in social practice art projects to utilize the lessons learned from this series of events as shared knowledge for future cultural projects operations. Based on our two-and-a-half months long experience, the festival office staff and I will give our observations on emergency crisis management, solutions, and those who called into the J Art Call Center. Participants are also welcome to share their experiences and knowledge, mutually educating one another to expand the depth and breadth of our common understanding of the topics.

For another workshop, Kyun-Chome presents a ritualistic experiment to reveal our “softest places.” Through individual and collective acts, the duo delves deep into each participant’s memories or unconscious mind to facilitate a discussion on the textures and origins of their beliefs. We hope this opportunity contributes to a generative cycle of updating ourselves through listening to the stories of others.

Frankly, I remain confused. I feel nervous and quite disheartened, unsure of where to start in facing such an enormous challenge. I also fear that society has been pervaded by attempts to rapidly adapt to and accommodate this crisis. This feeling reminds me of the atmosphere nine years ago, right after the tsunami and earthquake of March 2011. At the time, I chose “What can we say?” as the theme for the arts festival I directed. After experiencing another catastrophe, it now feels more realistic to ask instead, “What can we hear?” We must stop, think, and listen to the stories of others if we are to reconstruct the meaning and conditions of the arts in today’s society; we must continue our conversations with people who may not always share our values. In this limbo timeframe of post-Aichi and pre-Olympics, we would like this year’s Theater Commons Tokyo to serve as a necessary common ground to take in this unresolved chaos for a moment. We would be grateful to have you join us and share your knowledge, curiosity, confusion, anger, and hope.

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  • Theater Commons Tokyo ’20
  • February 27th – March 8th, 2020
  • Venues: Various places in Minato ward, Tokyo
  • Organized by Theater Commons Tokyo Executive Committee
  • Taiwan Cultural Center, Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan
  • Goethe-Institut Tokyo
  • Embassy of France in Japan / Institut français du Japon
  • Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands
  • Arts Commons Tokyo
  • Co-organized by

    Minato City FY2019 Minato Cooperation Project for Cultural Program
    Keio University Art Center

  • In partnership with SHIBAURA HOUSE
  • Supported by Arts Council Tokyo, Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture
  • Theater Commons Tokyo Executive Committee
  • Chairperson | Chiaki Soma (Representative Director, Arts Commons Tokyo)
  • Vice-chairman | WANG Shu-Fang (Taiwan Cultural Center, Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan)
  • Member | Peter Anders (Director, Goethe-Institut Tokyo)
  • Samson Sylvain (Embassy of France in Japan / Attaché culturel, Institut français du Japon)
  • Bas Valckx (Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands)
  • Natsuko Odate (Board Director, Arts Commons Tokyo)
  • Auditor | Yohei Suda (Lawyer)
  • Theater Commons Tokyo Staff
  • Executive Director | Chiaki Soma (Arts Commons Tokyo)
  • Production Manager and Coordinator | Satomi Shimizu (Arts Commons Tokyo)
  • Project Coordinator | Natsuko Odate, Fumiko Toda, Sayuri Fujii (Arts Commons Tokyo), Makiko Yamazato, Maiko Kobayashi
  • Project Advisor | Kyoko Iwaki (Arts Commons Tokyo)
  • Editor | Satoko Shibahara, Mai Hashiba
  • PR Advisor | Naoko Wakabayashi
  • Translation | Lillian Canright, Hibiki Mizuno (Art Translators Collective)
  • Art Direction / Design | Kensaku Kato (LABORATORIES)
  • Web Design | Kensaku Kato, Hiroki Ito (LABORATORIES)
  • Intern | Mayu Ushiyama, Ayano Okawa, Kiyoka Kobashi, Ayumi Seki, Ushin Tei, Alena Prusakova, Ai Matsumoto
  • Accountant | Kotomi Matsushita
  • Legal Adviser | Yohei Suda (Lawyer / Arts Commons Tokyo)
  • Theater Commons Tokyo '20 Technical Staff
  • Stage Manager | Lang Craighill
  • Lighting | Megumi Yamashita (RYU.Inc)
  • Sound | Takeshi Inarimori
  • Movie | Yuki Sato (Edith Grove)
  • Documentation Video and Photography | Shun Sato