Minneapolis Center translates Asian theater

MINNEAPOLIS — Pacific Overtures, anyone?

When Polly Carl, producing a.d. of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, embarked on a theater exchange with Japan four years ago, she knew it would be a big job to bridge the cultural divide between the U.S. and the Land of the Rising Sun. What was surprising was the initial lack of interest in the East.

“In Japan, people don’t like us very much,” Carl says, referring to politics in both present and past. “There’s an interesting relationship with history there. The Playwrights’ Center is 35 years old, but in Japan, we’d be considered a newbie. People of our generation in Japan are still talking about World War II.”

Still, a common understanding has emerged, if not a common language. This has taken the form of a program under which translated Japanese work will be presented by Playwrights’ Center for the American stage while a Japanese org stages work by American scribes. The Center’s latest effort kicked off Nov. 5, with an English-language production of Japanese playwright Ai Nagai’s “Women in a Holy Mess.”

Carl first envisioned extending her organization’s new play development to an international level after being contacted by the Cultural Trade Network, an initiative within Minnesota’s Arts Midwest that has focused recently on Japanese-American cultural exchange. The first step for Carl was to make herself known in Tokyo.

“In Japanese culture, nothing is done until you meet face to face,” Carl says. “So three years ago, I met every single theater artist in Tokyo.”

The Playwrights’ Center’s major partner in Japan is the Tokyo Intl. Arts Festival. The annual fest presents international work, with a recent focus on Middle Eastern plays. Carl says it was an extraordinary feat to convince organizers to consider presenting work by American writers.

Last year, a breakthrough emerged in the form of a Japanese-language production at the Tokyo Arts Fest of Trista Baldwin’s “Doe,” an abstract psychosexual puzzle about a conflicted female protagonist, first staged in Minneapolis by the Workhaus Collective.

At the same time, the Playwrights’ Center has toiled to translate new works from Japanese into English. In October, the Center presented a staged reading of Yukiko Motoya’s dark absurdist work “Vengeance Can Wait.”

The Center’s annual PlayLabs Festival will provide another venue for new Japanese plays. Carl claims that most previous translations into English were done in an academic setting, while her goal is to produce fluid translations that can live as accessible works on the American stage.

“We have two translators for every project,” Carl says. “First we have a literal translation, then we bring in a playwright or dramaturg.”

In addition to “Women in a Holy Mess,” the story of two friends in search of a missing woman, a Japanese production of Sherry Kramer’s “When Something Wonderful Ends,” which preemed at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., is in the pipeline for next April.

While finding the artistic common ground between two disparate cultures will be ongoing, Carl also admits it’s been a process of personal as well as professional growth.

“Mostly it’s a sense of learning how much you don’t know about the world,” Carl says. “Especially in the theater.”

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