Here at True Colors Festival, we’re one big family of artists, creators and planners. This week we introduce Toru Aoki, Festival Producer of the True Colors Festival. His work entails keeping hundreds of people on course, steadying them towards the vision of enacting change through the arts.
By True Colors Festival Team
Name: Toru Aoki
Accolades: Festival Producer, True Colors Festival/Program Director, True Colors Team of The Nippon Foundation. Together with other festival producers, Toru has been directing the planning of the entire True Colors Festival and directly overseeing the planning and production of the True Colors Concert. He loves music, books, travels, nature and above, all time with his family.
Q: When did work begin on TCF 2020, and what was the starting point?
It began the night I attended True Colours Festival in Singapore on March 23, 2018, with the executives of the Nippon Foundation. On the ride back to the hotel, we said, “It’ll be tough to shape the 2020 festival in Tokyo but Singapore’s done such a great job.” This was the beginning of a conversation that lasted late into the night at the hotel bar about how we’d put together a festival that would not let Singapore down. Two months later, a new department called the True Colors Team was established within the Nippon Foundation and we started discussing the direction of the festival and how to build the team.
Q: Please describe your role.
In order to create a festival that reflects the overall direction proposed by TCF’s senior executive producer, Ichiro Kabasawa, and the opinions of experts from diverse communities, my role is to coordinate organizations and individuals with expertise and skills as a system that can handle everything from planning to execution. I believe it’s important to keep a clear direction for our team members and collaborators, so I may come up with ideas for individual events, or suggest the selection of artists and collaborators or even aspects of the event’s structure.
Q: What was the sequence of work? For instance, appointing the right people, preparing specifications for outsourcing to partners, pitching sessions, decision-making and appointment of partners, etc?
At the beginning of 2018, I was optimistic that sorting out the festival requirements and holding a planning competition would provide some framework for implementation and planning. However, this was perhaps the first time in the world that a festival that is accessible to everyone, features artists from different backgrounds including those with disabilities, and showcases a wide variety of performing arts genres has been presented on such a scale. Probably no one else has ever produced such a festival before. I realized later that this was an approach that could not be realized without great care, no matter who we were working with.
Rather than planning and executing whole or individual events in a predetermined flow, we took a steady path of discussing with various people we were fortunate enough to work with while at the same time molding the events as they took shape. It took about a year from the time we started discussing the concept and direction to the time we set up a secretariat, completed the content framework and presented it to the world.
Image description: A vibrant scene from the closing of the True Colours Festival – Asia held in Singapore in 2018; the birth of a vision for more True Colors Festival events to come.
Q: How were the Series events chosen and why?
The Series events were created as a way to lead up and generate excitement toward the global True Colors Concert. There are as many different backgrounds and personalities as there are people in the world. As an arts festival with the theme of “diversity”, it was challenging to decide what theme to put forward for each event, but after considering the situation and issues surrounding the discussion of diversity in Japan and around the world, we proceeded with the planning to cover the themes of disability, gender, language, nationality, and generation. We placed the greatest emphasis on the theme of disability, which tends to be overlooked, compared to race and gender, even in Europe and the US, which are leading the diversity discussion. We also found (in a survey conducted by the Nippon Foundation before the festival), that people experienced greater emotional barriers with people with disabilities than with those in the LGBTQ community and people who look foreign.
Q: When did groundwork on the TC concert begin and what were the steps?
We started in early spring 2019 with executive producer Audrey Perera and music director Sydney Tan, who worked on True Colours in Singapore, discussing the direction of the concert and the timeline for preparation. Then we embarked on the search for singers, instrumentalists, dancers, and other artists from around the world with diverse backgrounds and personalities.
We also began to search for a venue. At first, the decision was that the concert would be held right before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. But many large venues in the Tokyo area had already been booked the organizing committee as sports venues for the Olympics and Paralympics and were not available, so that was a major challenge which we managed to overcome.
Q: What was the initial concept for the concert?
The theme was, and remains, One World One Family. There are as many unique stories as there are people in the world. However, those who are considered minorities, such as those with disabilities, do not have enough opportunities to express themselves on stage. In other words, it could be said that the traditional performing arts have failed to truly express the diversity of this world. The main concept of the concert was to present the possibility of a “jumbled” world on stage with more than 100 artists from around the world collaborating in different ways.
Q: As a result of the pandemic, the True Colors Concert has been postponed twice. First, from 2020 to 2021, and then until 2022. How different were your reactions to each decision?
The first postponement decision was made in March 2020. At that time we were forced to postpone not just the concert but all four Series events. I was heavily involved in the preparation of all of them and knew that so many people had worked hard to make them happen. I was not prepared to accept such a big shift. The original plan has been to hold the first Series event in September 2019 and then roll out different ones as the lead up to the July 2020 concert. The decision to postpone all these events was made in late March 2020, right around the halfway point. On the day we decided to cancel it, I felt an indescribable sense of despondency, as if I had suddenly given up running in the middle of a marathon. I didn’t have time to dwell on personal feelings, however, because everyone – my team members, sponsors, advisors, ambassadors – had to be informed quickly and courteously.
This time was different. I know that many of those involved had already been thinking about this possible scenario all along. This concert is too large and complex to be produced with so many uncertainties. Before we made this decision, some of the artists had already begun to express their concerns over the question of visa issuance for entry into Japan and quarantine after their arrival. The creative and operations teams had been working very hard, directly dealing with these anxieties and their own concerns. To be frank, I was relieved when our Chairman made the decision to postpone the concert until 2022. If things get better over this year, this postponement may enable us to gather an even larger audience at the concert venue, so I believe this decision was good for everyone.
Image description: Embedded clip of “Stand By Me”, a music video by True Colors Festival that was released in June 2020, at the height of the global pandemic. Featuring a performers of all abilities from 46 artists from 15 countries/areas, the video sent a message of hope, positivity and inclusivity, from the artists to the global community of people with disabilities. Many other digital TCF events were launched in the months that followed.
Q: Most important lessons learnt from the postponements.
I think it’s about not losing sight of what we are trying to achieve. I think people feel attached to a subject for the time and effort they invest in it, and it is hard to lose that. Unless you achieve what you set out to achieve, it will remain as an unfulfilled goal. After the decision to postpone, several advisors who are themselves disabled or in the LGBT community gave me words of encouragement: “The value of what we need to send out as a festival will not change even if a pandemic occurs. There must be things we can do more than ever now.” Now that the physical gathering of people has become dangerous, we must rethink our traditional means of organizing events, but the purpose remains the same. In order not to waste the efforts of all the people who have worked so hard, we need to be passionate about achieving our goals and have the flexibility and calmness to boldly review the means to achieve them.
Q: Now that work has begun on TCF 2020/2021, what new knowledge will you bring with you?
I think it’s to make the planning as simple as possible. The themes surrounding diversity are complex and sensitive, but we feel it is important to strip down the message of each event to make it simple enough to resonate with as many people as possible. There is also a lot of work to be done in terms of accessibility, so it is inevitable that operations will be complicated to a certain extent, but if we can make operations as simple as possible, it will be easier to change the schedule in response to unforeseen circumstances.
Q: What are you mentally prepared for, given that the world is still not free of COVID-19, and there is no certainty that large audiences will be returning to concert venues?
In such an uncertain situation, I think it is important to consider not only various scenarios in advance, but also a distant horizon. I don’t know if it will be six months, a year, or three years from now, but there will be a day when we can safely get together face to face, and that’s a future that is certain to come. I think it’s important to be open to the fact that even if there are things we can’t fully accomplish online, we’ll be able to do them to their fullest someday.
Q: 3 key challenges?
- Keep being flexible enough to accept and accommodate changes in the format or the timing of the event.
- Keep staff members and myself motivated to work with a lot of uncertainties and continue to react effectively to changes. This is difficult if the events are held online since we cannot meet the audience and can’t have direct feedback from them.
- Be consistent with the vision that we hope to achieve regardless of which approach/format we take. This is difficult since we tend to forget original vision while being exposed to a lot of changes to the original plan.
Q: Has this whole experience also been like a larger lesson about life?
I feel that the greater the change, the more we are tested. It was inspiring to be surrounded by people who were willing to think positively about what they can do now and take action, even if they couldn’t achieve what they had been working on in the original form. I also found the importance of having time with my family during our days at home to talk about the future and re-evaluate what is important to us. I think sometimes we need to stop and look at ourselves and the world around us.
Q: The message of True Colors Festival is “One World One Family”, what does this mean to you personally?
“One World One Family” for me was an experience that I had at the first True Colours Festival in March 2018. I was at the Singapore National Stadium to watch the show just as a member of The Nippon Foundation delegation and not as someone involved in the event. As a foreigner, I did not know most of the people at the stadium. But while watching the concert I strongly felt that there was something in the deepest place of my heart that I was experiencing with all the people who realized this stage and the audience who warmly surrounded it. My journey with True Colors Festival started then and my motivation now is to make that moment happen for many, many people across the world.