In June this year, Paul Peers and myself traveled to Finland to participate in a residency called Saari, funded by the Kone Foundation. This fully funded residency not only paid for the flight to Finland and accommodation, but gave us a living allowance and an enormous fully equipped rehearsal room to use exclusively for 2 weeks. Located just outside the town of Mynamaki, North of Helsinki, Saari is a beautiful property situated in the middle of endless farmlands in the Finnish countryside. This tranquil retreat was the perfect setting to allow us to spend a concentrated period of time developing our next piece, Ianfu.
Ianfu has been a project stewing in the back of my mind for many years. In 2008, I had the great fortune to train with the Suzuki Company of Toga in the remote Japanese Alps. For two weeks, in yet another remote and tranquil setting, I undertook intense training in the Suzuki Method of Actor training with 14 other artists from all over the world. Here I met the extraordinary Yuko Takeda, a Japanese actress who had studied in the US and recently moved back to Japan. After the training in Toga, Yuko played host to me in Osaka and Kyoto, told me of her life in Japan and taught me a lot about the history of her country. And after seven weeks we began to dream up a cross-cultural project that would examine the relationship between Japan and Australia. The most potent event that has shaped both countries’ development was of course, the Second World War.
My Grandfather was in Darwin when the city was bombed by the Japanese in WWII. I remember, when I was young, my Grandmother never had a nice thing to say about the Japanese and looking at the events that occurred in Darwin through her eyes I couldn’t really blame her. But, on the other hand, the suffering that was inflicted upon Japanese civilians after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t seem just either. Lately I have become fascinated by looking at the same event through the eyes of different people who come from different backgrounds and have experienced different circumstances. This seems to be the crux of all human conflict. So I decided to look at the same element or event of WWII through the eyes of two characters on different sides of the conflict, to examine how their experiences overlap and differ.
As a female artist I am interested in looking at the female experience through history and wanted to find an aspect of WWII that directly affected women. Almost all of the movies made, or plays that are written about the war, focus on the male experience, especially the perspective of the soldier. One topic that was of particular interest to me was the practice employed by the Japanese military, of using women as sex slaves for the soldiers involved in the conflict. This practice was instituted to boost the morale of the soldiers and prevent civilian rapes perpetrated by members of the combatant. I knew that the military ‘employed’ Japanese women for this purpose, but what I didn’t realize was that there was a widespread practice of recruiting and enforcing women into prostitution from countries such as Korea and Indonesia and women who became prisoners of war from other countries including Holland and Australia. This is still a contentious subject in Japan, with the Japanese government reluctant to apologize for this policy. After many years of research the idea for Ianfu was born.
Our aim with this project is to research the experiences of Japanese and Australian ‘comfort women’ to tell their stories from opposite sides of the war. Through these shared experiences we want to investigate how humanity sinks to the lowest common denominator in times of war and hopefully encourage a cultural understanding and awareness, which transcends our existing perspectives. Ianfu will incorporate both contemporary and traditional styles of physical performance. We will draw on elements of the traditional Japanese performance styles of Noh, Kabuki and Kenbu sword dance as well as the contemporary practice of Viewpoints, which is derived from modern dance. Through experimentation with these forms we aim to create a bold physical language, which will coexist onstage with both the English and Japanese languages. This bilingual theatrical experience will ultimately tell the story of exploitation, loss and hope through a shared theatrical language and historical experience to promote mutual cultural awareness.
The plight of these comfort women is a story that remains hidden among the other atrocities committed during the Second World War. In fact stories of how war has affected the lives of women seem to take a backseat to those of the men who fought and died in battle. Rape and sexual slavery is still a largely unreported atrocity carried out during times of war and one of our goals is to bring this issue into the spotlight. By shining a light on this shocking practice we hope to raise awareness of the suffering imposed upon women in times of conflict.
Ianfu was put on the backburner for many years as Yuko and I don’t live in the same country and thought it would be impossible to come together to work, until Yuko moved to Finland and we came across the Saari residency. This amazing opportunity offered us the perfect conditions to spend a concentrated period of time working on this artistic project without distraction. Situated in a remote location, in one of the most peaceful countries in the world, Saari offered us the time, space and a nurturing environment where artists can experiment and develop ideas. Far from the influence of everyday life, the tranquil surrounds at the residence was invigorating and inspired creativity and allowed us the freedom to focus solely on artistic practice. Under the tutelage of our director Paul Peers, Yuko and I undertook daily Suzuki and Kenbu training in the mornings and the afternoons were spent researching, writing and experimenting with staging ideas. We came away from the two-week period having completed three drafts of our script and a scrapbook full of ideas for staging, music and set design. Our hope is that we will be able to return to Saari next year to get the entire show on it’s feet with a premier in Finland in the Fall of 2016. As an artist who undertakes many international collaborations, it is a comfort to know that there are residencies like Saari that allow artists the time and resources to come together solely to create. I urge anyone out there reading this to check it out!