Things that might surprise you about theatre in Japan…
Generally mute(r). Americans in particular might find the applause tame and there is certainly no cheering. (However, at kabuki it is an entirely different matter.) Of course standing ovations are often viewed in squinting embarrassment in London.
Except for commercial or large-scale productions there are none. Usually just a photocopied piece of paper. Owning a glossy brochure is certainly not a collectible idea here. Playbill has of course made a whole industry out of theatre programmes. And usually even off-West End and pub theatre productions manage a kind of programme, though for the most part they are greatly over-priced memorabilia junk. The F/T printed a large booklet that covered the whole Festival; a useful and sturdy item that you would want to keep. Scripts are often for sale and Gekidan Sample were selling theirs recently at a very reasonable 500 yen (they were home-printed affairs, simple but adequate, dojinshi-style).
You will be given a large stack of leaflets advertizing productions coming to the same theatre at a later stage or totally different companies performing at totally different theatres. Although a good way to hear about fringe productions in a country suffering from a lack of arts media, it can at times be a strain to look through it all and one always wonders at the wasted paper at every performance.
Most fringe theatres do not have one. Buying tickets for shows is usually done online via the theatre website or through an agent (and you then usually pay at a convenience store). It is rare to purchase tickets from the theatre itself (except for mainstream theatres of course) but often you can do it directly with the theatre company.
A lot of people will be disappointed by the absence of a bar (you’re lucky if you get a foyer). So theatregoers miss out on the opportunity to get ripped off buying overpriced snacks and beverages (West End theatres now regularly charge five pounds for a glass of wine).
Many productions – especially fringe ones – do not have intervals. One reason for this is that rent on theatres for one day is often defined as a five-hour slot. With preparation and clearing up the company can’t afford (literally) to give patrons time to pop to the toilet. Likewise starting times are often at seven o’clock, quite early by London standards. Also, Tokyo being Tokyo, people are commuting in from far away and so don’t want to be up too late.
Fringe theatres especially get booked up months or even years in advance. Due to this system and of course to audience numbers, runs are always short. However, even the fringe in London or other places has at least a few weeks – because they hope to build an audience; they don’t expect one straightaway. There is media in place to support and promote them; they hope to get their attention and thus get their message out to newspaper, magazine and website readers. The Japanese system currently cannot change partly because of audience numbers, and then precisely because of those schedule restrictions it will never be able to build and reach a larger audience even if the word got out (if there was media to do that). Theatre becomes an exclusive subculture for fans of a certain gekidan.