Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Image: The Necessary Stage/Karmen Wong

Ken Takiguchi: A Dramaturg’s Sanctuary

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by Leow Puay Tin

(1030 words, 7-minute read)

The Necessary Stage, in collaboration with HANCHU-YUEI, one of Tokyo’s most innovative theatre companies, brings us a work that explores the digital remains of life after death in another thought provoking work, “Sanctuary” opening 1 November 2017. Acclaimed playwright Leow Puay Tin interviews the production’s dramaturg, Ken Takiguchi about being the man in the middle.

Ken Takiguchi

Ken Takiguchi is the dramaturg for a forthcoming collaborative production between The Necessary Stage (TNS) of Singapore and Hanchu-Yuei (範宙遊泳) of Japan called Sanctuary. Each side fields a writer, a director and three actors. Takiguchi is the man in the middle. He would seem to be the ideal person for the job. He knows the two societies intimately from growing up in one and spending nearly 20 years in Malaysia and Singapore as a cultural officer with the Japan Foundation in Kuala Lumpur and research fellow with the Theatre Studies programme at the National University of Singapore. Now based in Tokyo, he moves easily between Japanese and English as a speaker and translator.

What is he doing as Sanctuary’s dramaturg and what is its theme? Takiguchi said the production was looking at “communication in the cyber era,” and that he was not working as a dramaturg in a “strict” sense. “What I am doing is more of cultural mediation because, from the very beginning, we found there were huge gaps between the two companies.” While TNS, its director Alvin Tan and playwright Haresh Sharma were experienced at intercultural collaboration, Hanchu-Yuei was a young company headed by a youthful director-writer, Suguru Yamamoto, “who is now accumulating a lot of experience of working interculturally.”

“Sanctuary” co-director and co-playwright Suguru Yamamoto. Photo credit: The Necessary Stage/Karmen Wong
“Sanctuary” co-director Alvin Tan. Photo credit: The Necessary Stage/Karmen Wong

They also differed in their theatre-making. It was interesting to hear Takiguchi’s account of what happened when the two companies came together to work on the creative content. While TNS is known for developing characters and content through devising, Hanchu-Yuei productions are based on scripts written by its director-playwright (a common practice in Japan). Takiguchi sensed that the Japanese team had had a “terrible time” in Phase One (April 2016), when they were hosted by TNS, where the actors were required to respond to emojis (which were projected) by way of exploring non-verbal textual communication. “The whole idea of devising was alien not only to Suguru but also the company members as well,” said Takiguchi. “I observed that, to Hanchu-Yuei, the script is very sacred. The actors never ever thought to alter the words. It’s a ‘sanctuary’ that only Suguru can occupy.”

The ‘emojis’ workshop didn’t give really interesting results, and so a different tack was used in Phase Two (May 2017) in Japan with the introduction of a computer-generated “fictional communication tool.” This was developed based on the subtle facial expressions that people unconsciously make in face-to-face interactions and was nicknamed ‘SPY’ for ‘Severely Penetrating You’.

“Sanctuary” cast: Yazid Jalil, Sachiro Nomoto, Mikie Tanaka

Takiguchi comes across as someone with a deep, abiding interest in people and how they communicate. He recalled that when he was a kid, it was envisioned that in the future, people would communicate via the video form. That future had arrived along with the technology but “people don’t turn on the video.” In fact, ironically, people were reading more text than ever before. “We prefer writing and reading text rather than talking to each other. For me, it’s an interesting time because people are so reliant on the text.” He is among those who does not turn on the video. He prefers using the email because “you have the liberty to decide when and how you read them” whereas “the video form requires you to physically be there.” And not only that: when speaking face-to-face, “you always respond to your counterpart’s actions and reactions and it affects what you think.”

Takiguchi acknowledged that the information being conveyed through text was “very limited” and lent itself to misunderstandings. But that’s not the whole picture. “There is a lot of room for misunderstandings [and also] room for better understandings too somehow. For me, there is more room to use your own imagination.”

Co-playwrights Haresh Sharma and Suguru Yamamoto. Photo credit: The Necessary Stage/Karmen Wong

This ability to see potential in limitations was evident when Takiguchi spoke about issues concerning Sanctuary’s script. Following Phase Two, Sharma and Yamamoto had each written a script comprising seven scenes, using the ‘same’ characters that had been developed in the workshops. But the characters turned out to be quite different. From analysing the scripts, Takiguchi found that the “direction of the speech is totally different. Suguru’s characters really speak to you of themselves and go deep into their inner selves. Haresh’s characters make a statement even if it sounds naïve and inward-bound but, at the end of the day, it is a kind of statement about society.”

What are the options for fixing the scripts? Merge them into one? No, he didn’t think it would work because “the two scripts cannot be merged very easily.” Keep them separate and perform them as Part One and Part Two? He wasn’t keen on this either. “What will happen will be a typical Hanchu-Yuei show in part one and a typical TNS show in part two. It’s not a progression.”

The Man in the Middle, at work in the TNS Black Box. Photo credit: The Necessary Stage/Karmen Wong

Well, what other options are there? Takiguchi thought they could “take a hint from how we communicate online” by keeping two scripts separate but “hyperlink” them as “parallel text”. “If treated as parallel text, the scripts may work next to each other. But I am not sure how we can do it. Maybe it can work in a very weird way. For example, I am fascinated with the idea of hyperlinking them, by jumping from one script at one particular point to the other at another particular point. Of course, the context would be totally different but somehow the scripts would be linked. There will be an intertextual relationship between them.”

To me, it sounds like Takiguchi has moved beyond just “cultural meditation” towards co-creation with the writers and directors. In tackling the issues related to this particular production, he has been addressing the larger question of the role and contributions of the dramaturg which he has found to be wanting. “Theatre-making is about collaboration. But for me, it hasn’t been as collaborative as it could be. Translators, even cultural translators, are expected to be invisible. For me, translators have to say a lot, they can contribute a lot to the creative process.”

Asked to name the highlight of dramaturging Sanctuary, Takiguchi gave a wonderfully succinct answer with context, facts and humour: “In each project, my position is different. In this project, I position myself between two companies, two generations, two personalities, and,” with a big smile, “…two egos.”


Sanctuary will be staged at the Necessary Stage Black Box from 1 – 12 November 2017. The Necessary Stage completes its 30th anniversary season with this international collaboration with Tokyo theatre company HANCHU-YUEI (範宙遊泳). Co-written by Haresh Sharma (Resident Playwright of The Necessary Stage) and Suguru Yamamoto (Playwright of HANCHU-YUEI), Sanctuary will also be co-directed by Suguru Yamamoto (Stage Director of HANCHU-YUEI) and Alvin Tan (Founder and Artistic Director of The Necessary Stage) and features an ensemble of international performers.

Guest Contributor Leow Puay Tin is a playwright and text curator who is in Japan on a 6-month-long fellowship from Japan Foundation Asia Center. Currently on leave from Sunway University in Malaysia, she is looking at site-specific performance events or location-based performances which are carried out in non-theatre spaces, while collecting materials to make a new text for performance.

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