Problems with Japanese Contemporary Theatre

The writer-director system.

There are relatively few playwrights. There are, however, lots and lots of writer-directors. It is well known that dramatists are often not the best directors of their own work. Theatre breeds and cultivates when there is a generation of writers turning out challenging and interesting plays, that can then be put on at a range of different public and commercial venues, and interpreted by a range of directors, ones who are new to the writer’s work or long-time collaborators. Writers running their own companies can be ideal for certain types of writer (Howard Barker, Anthony Nielsen), but mixing management and, essentially, business (for in Japan these small companies would not get any funding from the state), can only put restrictions or new directions on a writer that would otherwise not exist in a freer system. In the same way the actor-manager theatre tradition in England produced some great figures but was ultimately suffocating.

The lack of a theatre area.

Other than Tokyo as a whole, and within perhaps Kagurazaka or Ikebukuro, there is little in the way of a theatre town in Japan, a place that could be synonymous with drama and where people would walk past obvious stagehouses en masse.

The lack of public funding and institutions.

While there would be no need to build another national theatre, having smaller publically subsidised venues (like the Royal Court, Almeida and Donmar Warehouse in London, or the nonprofit Atlantic Theatre Company and Roundabout Theatre Company in New York) specializing in producing new and exciting works of quality would create a powerhouse structure. This is self-perpetuating. The Royal Court does not aim to make profit; it is a charity. Occasionally it transfers something to the West End but its reputation is the most important thing. This attracts high-class actors and established playwrights, as well as never-produced writers. A series of large public theatre institutions creates a conservative and dull system; multiple smaller partly or fully subsidised organizations – ones both touring companies and producing houses – gives birth to diversity and development, which need security and comfort to blossom.

The short run system.

The plays run for a short time, meaning that they must totally sell out for the company to make a profit. Given that a commercial theatre costs, say, six hundred thousand yen to hire for a night, and a finge theatre is perhaps over seventy thousand yen for a night, this is a big risk. It is life or death, as you don’t have time to build publicity except before it opens. You rely on name power or the fans of the company/star, and hope it sells out before it opens. Then people can’t buy tickets anyway. Theatres are booked months and months in advance. Even if you totally sold out, as your run was so short you couldn’t make much profit anyway. And of course short runs means no time to develop over the course of performances, and certainly very little rehearsal time.

Traditional companies are just traditonal.

Unlike the Globe or the RSC in London, the traditional theatre companies and institutions in Japan, which do receive rich public funding, stick to their job description and ‘only’ produce Noh, Kabuki, Kyogen or Bunraku etc. They do not produce the range of things they could use their resources or skills to do.

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