Speaking to Franko Figueiredo, it’s clear he is a deeply passionate man with a flair for the arts that has taken him around the world, producing and performing tales of high drama, farce, love, loss and, most importantly, tales that explore cultures that are so often overlooked in Western storytelling…
His most recent project, a double bill – Busu and The Damask Drum – is a fusion of traditional and contemporary Japanese practices, brought to life in a show that is fun, celebratory and thought-provoking.
As a co-founder of StoneCrabs Theatre (UK), Franko has been working in association with Busu Theatre (Japan) to bring this all-female cast of Japanese performers to Quay Arts, Newport, after which the show will travel, first to London Soho Theatre and then to the 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
But how did the production come about?
“It was actually Ecco Shirasaka’s idea,” says Franko. “She’s a director and producer here in Japan, and recently she got together with other actors to create her own alternative company here in Japan, called Busu Theatre, and it’s formed of young women only.
“Last year, she was in London researching theatre producing in the UK… and we started talking about Busu, her company, and how she didn’t want to direct, she wanted to perform. She wanted an outside director to come in – I had worked with her before we had studied together, so our friendship goes a long way back. So she invited me to direct this double bill, Busu and The Damask Drum. We had worked together on The Damask Drum back in 2004 and she wanted to do that show again but with a new approach. She was trying to mix the traditional and the urban together, so it was very exciting.”
Irreverent and playful, the show updates Yukio Mishima’s adaptations of Busu (a Kyogen farce) and The Damask Drum (a Noh drama), making them accessible for a modern Western audience.
Mishima, who committed ritual suicide in 1970 after the failure of his attempted military coup, was one of Japan’s most influential 20th century writers and was considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was renowned for his work to update traditional forms of theatre and make them relevant to contemporary audiences. And now Tokyo’s Busu Theatre and StoneCrabs are collaborating on a 21st-century retelling of the tales.
“I don’t know if there is anything that is new in theatre nowadays,” Franko says of the project. “But we’re trying to break the mold, we’re trying to break the form, we’re trying to create something that is international, that is bilingual, that has a language that is accessible to many people.”
As for the shows themselves, Busu (The Delicious Poison) is a comedy, in which two servants – Tarō-kaja and Jirō-kaja – are entrusted with caviar by their master, but told not to eat it, as it is poison; naturally, the temptation proves irresistible. In The Damask Drum a gardener and caretaker falls in love with a lawyer. Despite 101 love letters, the lawyer is unmoved. She cruelly sets him an impossible challenge, with the promise of her love if he succeeds – the consequences are tragic and supernatural.
On the surface, the shows may seem a strange mix. So why combine the two?
“So basically the two shows, one is a farce – comic, fast and crazy – and the second one is a traditional Japanese ghost story and an impossible love story, and both shows deal with obsession,” explains Franko. “Obsession, greed, hunger for love, hunger for food, where it takes us and where obsession takes us, the tragedy of it – one in a very funny way and one in a more dramatic, heightened, tense and haunting way.”
Franko himself first delved into theatre at school, and has been hooked ever since. Originally from Brazil, his journey is one that will no doubt inspire hundreds of others who, like him, perhaps have a calling to the arts but no idea where to begin…
“I was always drawn to the arts, first through writing, the school where I studied back in Brazil – I had some inspirational arts teachers and there I discovered poetry and, later, theatre.
“There was a military regime in Brazil at the time, -we’re talking about the 70s and 80s – and Brazil was under a dictatorship, so it wasn’t fully encouraged but I was very fortunate to be at the school where I was, and from there I used to write poetry. They used to do this poetry contest and I would perform there, so that gave me the desire for wanting to write more stories and show them to people. I didn’t think I was a great performer and when I started making theatre I didn’t have any training, it was just a desire to tell stories and to share them with people. I think it was always there in me, and now I don’t think I can live without making theatre – teaching and making theatre.”
Fast forward to 2000 and, whilst living in London, the company StoneCrabs was born, founded by Franko himself and by Tereza Araujo and John Heyd. In devising their first project, they used improvisations and various theatre techniques in order to present a combination of social issues, performance and Brazilian verve.
“We set out to devise a show,” says Franko. “We were not a company then, we were just hungry to make some theatre together. It was a huge challenge for theatre makers from immigrant and ethnic minority backgrounds, like myself and Tereza, to find a place on the stage – usually if you were acting you would always get either the servant or the waiter, those kinds of minor roles, and we wanted to give ourselves a challenge…we wanted to give ourselves a voice.”
Following their piece, which was called StoneCrabs: A Story of Violence, Vitriol and Victory and was about domestic violence, the company was born. From there, they began to encourage others to embrace World Theatre, not just performing it but directing it, too, running workshops and producing shows and enthusing and inspiring theatrical practitioners young and old.
There are challenges, though, with World Theatre, particularly when it comes to marketing…but not because the audiences are unwilling. The problem lies deeper than that.
“What I feel at the moment is that it’s not the audiences that I find it challenging to encourage,” says Franko. “It’s actually programmers and artistic directors of theatres around the UK. They seem awfully scared of taking risks, and World Theatre is usually seen as a risk-taking exercise. There is a tendency, particularly now with the current economic climate and cuts, to play it safe to be sure they can keep their buildings.”
On the one hand, of course, the fear of losing a venue is an understandable one. But meet a man like Franko, and hear about his work and that of his peers, and see the pictures, hear the stories, learn about theatrical forms from other cultures…and you can’t help but wonder why World Theatre is considered a risk at all.
“I think the challenge is to be more open-minded with programming and for those controlling the gates of the stages to be more open-minded,” continues Franko. “It’s a tough one.”
So now for the big question: why bring Busu and The Damask Drum to the Isle of Wight?
Well, it turns out that there is a personal connection. Franko’s husband, Alan, lived on the Isle of Wight for a long time before he met Franko, eventually moving to London in 2009, where the pair lived together for some time before making the decision to move.
“London is a fantastic city, and I feel very welcome, I don’t feel at all segregated there,” says Franko. “And it was always a big thing for me, moving to somewhere less cosmopolitan, but two years ago I asked Alan what he thought about selling our home in London and moving to the Isle of Wight – I mean, I’m always travelling in any case, so it doesn’t really matter whether I’m in London or on the Isle of Wight or in Portsmouth because I’m always on the road or I’m at home.”
Clearly, Alan thought it was a good idea! Of course, Franko was faced with the usual questions from friends, colleagues and complete strangers; one that will no doubt be on the lips of many readers, too…
“Usually when I say we moved to the Isle of Wight people are like ‘Why? Are you retiring?’ No! I’m not retiring!” Franko laughs: “I will continue doing my work, I’ll be on and off the Island. I love the Island, I think it’s a beautiful place, and I think I can contribute to locally to the local creative arts. I’d like to seed more work on the Island…StoneCrabs will still be in London, but as I’m on the Island then of course I will pursue more work here and bring more work here myself.”
And how is Franko finding the local creative scene so far?
“I’m slowly meeting people and getting to know the local artists and I think we need to do it together – we can’t be competitive,” he says. “The theatre I make is non-competitive, it’s theatre that’s brought through mutual trust and friendship. I’d love to bring more world stories to the Island – I think that’s an important thing to do so we don’t feel so isolated.”
One thing is for sure, Busu and The Damask Drum will be a performance not to be missed – so make sure you’ve got your tickets and go along to support Franko and the team, and help to make sure that more stories such as these are told on the Island.
Exciting, visual, powerful and haunting, it’s a double bill of raw theatrical beauty you won’t want to miss…
[Photos: Mami Takahashi]
Busu and The Damask Drum are being performed at Quay Arts in Newport, in the Anthony Minghella Theatre, on Wednesday 9th August at 7:30pm. Tickets are £10, available from the Quay Arts website or by calling the box office on 01983 822490.