Tickets are too expensive: Kyoto Experiment 2014’s attempt to change Japanese theatre pricing and venue policies

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”

Incredible as it may seem, this blog has come back to life. It is being resurrected from its long winter sleep for, initially at least, one primary reason. To pay tribute to Yusuke Hashimoto’s brave concept text for the upcoming Kyoto Experiment 2014.

Kyoto Experiment, known as “KEX”, is Japan’s second largest contemporary performing arts festival (TPAM doesn’t really count as a fully fledged festival per se) and 2014 will mark its fifth festival. Any such festival, sharing as it does certain personnel, aims and structures (i.e., it has a proper program director), will undoubtedly appear to and itself feel like it languishes somewhat in the shadow of its bigger pioneer, Festival/Tokyo. KEX, though, has forged its own path, helped by the convenient fact that several key groups and artists are based in the old capital. These have been able to gather around KEX and create buzz for a Kyoto performing arts community, a scene whose existence obviously predates the founding of any formal festival.

I too was guilty somewhat of discarding KEX when it started as just another regional bonanza of subsidy money, another pair of lazy eyes focussed on tourist yen. If we were to start a list of all the biennales, triennales, something-ales and other art events scattered around Japan’s regions, there would be no end. Every year seems to bring yet another, all moulded in the Fram Kitagawa-esque ideal of attracting Tokyoites and media attention, and perhaps — it’s a big perhaps — decelerating the rural downturn. Toga inadvertently started this off, in a manner of speaking, though its model has been replaced by far more grandiose regional bread and circus acts.

kyoto experiment festival 2014

Actually, Kyoto is in the fortunate position of not needing this at all. Commercially, culturally, academically and industrially, it is strong. And so it shouldn’t surprise that KEX matured quickly and now has the kudos to bring in the likes of She She Pop for a residency, and this year has scored some real coups, not least the Japan premieres of altered Natives’ Say Yes To Another Excess ⎯ TWERK by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, and Tina Satter’s House of Dance.

But it is the concept and the new practical strategies that I want to pay tribute to here.

“Tickets are too expensive”

I chuckled when I first read the title back in July. But then I read on. It’s a sincere and brilliant text, since Hashimoto understands the nature of subsidy very well and the problems that hamper Japanese theatre… and theatres. It is as much about the buildings themselves as the overall culture, for this is a very functional pair of new endeavours.

Let’s start, at the risk of being oblique, with the second one, as it is simplest. Hashimoto has introduced a new ticket pricing system for KEX that is based on the venues. This keep things very simple for audiences (i.e., customers) and also strikes at the heart of what a public festival should be all about.

The ticket price is not the value of the artwork; it is entry price paid for the running of the venue and the festival. In this way we want to introduce a pricing system to KYOTO EXPERIMENT with almost the same meaning as an art museum’s or cinema’s. The Executive Committee operating the festival receives a lot of financial support from many different organizations. This support is for running an international festival and also for creating new artworks. In which case, adding the travel expenses of artists coming from far away and production costs to the ticket prices is strictly speaking against the spirit of the financial subsidy we receive.

Let’s try an explanation from a different approach. Whether it’s from the government or private corporations, the subsidy paid to the arts could be said to be “public” money. The reason it is “public” is that is expected to be paid back broadly and over the long term to the whole of society. It is supporting the opportunity to introduce works of art far and wide to the world, artworks which are the property of society. “Public” money is employed for creating works of art that can also become the property of future inhabitants of society, since it is disproportionate to impose the costs only on current inhabitants.

And that is why at KYOTO EXPERIMENT we want to cut the value of theatregoing free from pricing by so-called ticket costs. We want the value of the theatre experience to be what is created internally in each member of our audience. In other words, we want the act of viewing art to bid farewell to the act of consumption.

This policy could be equally applied with success in other countries. However, Hashimoto’s other main endeavour this year is more specifically Japanese.

Audiences are pampered in Japan. Many plays and performances do not have reserved seating, and so for these the audiences receive seiri bangō, “ordering numbers” — typically decided based on when they purchased their tickets or perhaps when they arrive to pick them up. Audiences are able to arrive a certain time in advance, collect their ticket stamped with its “number” (but it’s not the seat number!), and then have to wait until the auditorium’s doors open, usually half an hour before the performance begins. They are then allowed to enter in batches of around ten, called as per the numbers, after which they can then finally claim their seats… and wait until the performance begins. In other words, there are two “start” times. Since the foyer is usually just an empty space with the box office desk, you don’t have much to do but are expected to arrive when the venue opens so as to collect your ticket in good time and then be allowed to take a seat, with the early birds thus able to stake their place on the “best seats” (actually almost all public theatres and studio spaces in Japan have equally good sight lines).

As the performance is about to begin — i.e., its official start time — the audience is constantly badgered with countless announcements about electronic devices, the running time of the performance, what to do in an emergency, and so on… More often than not, these are repeated live on a loop by members of staff. I have rarely attended a performance that actually began at its scheduled “start time”. They invariably start some minutes “late”, though perhaps it only seems that the delay is caused by all the rigmarole. Either way, it all makes for an overly fussy and smothering atmosphere. Kind of cute in its way, it swiftly becomes tiresome, suffocating and mollycoddling the theatre experience before it has even begun! I once attended a play at a tiny studio theatre in Tokyo and was sitting meekly through the ceremony of the multiple repeated announcements. A French lady next to me turned to her companion. “It’s like being in kindergarten,” she whispered. I couldn’t help laughing with them.

Before we start waxing lyrical about the “Japanese” character and how it likes everything to be ordered and under control — we’ll leave such punditry to The New York Times et al — we should keep in mind that much of this is apparently due to venue requests and tight rules.

It is not the case that the production staff, let alone the artistic and creative team, actually want the audience to have to go through such a convoluted series of hoops before the theatrical event itself can take place. Hashimoto gets this too.

That is why he has banned the “venue opening times” for KEX 2014 performances.

Until now, almost all of the performances presented at KYOTO EXPERIMENT have not used a curtain to divide the stage and the audience seats, and the meaning of this is so that audiences will view the stage space as soon as they enter the venue. In other words, this is the same as saying that theatre itself begins from this point. Fundamentally, the time should come under the control of the director, but in fact auditorium opening times in Japan are set according to the convenience of the venue operators and various conventions. For this reason, we would like to take things back to basics again: the theatre “opens” when you see the stage space. We are returning the time between the venue opening and the start of the performance to our audiences. Please make the most of it as you please.

We would like to translate the slight trouble that will arise from this into the joy that accompanies watching theatre. No doubt things may be a bit crowded just before the performance begins. Some give and take and verbal interaction will also be necessary as you pass through the narrow doorways.

But this will be a catalyst for going back to the origins of the theatre experience – watching something with other people. Audiences will watch theatre while conscious of the breathing and presence of other members of the audience. And that moment when the auditorium goes dark, when you become “alone” and face the stage – this is the special time created by the place we call a theatre.

I can’t say whether there will still be the usual mountain of announcements and all the other ragbag of cossetting, but it’s certainly a start in the right direction.


(Disclosure of interest; I’ve been helping Kyoto Experiment this year with some of their translation.)


3 responses to “Tickets are too expensive: Kyoto Experiment 2014’s attempt to change Japanese theatre pricing and venue policies

  1. Glad you are publishing again.

    Professor Michael Earley
    Principal and Chief Executive
    Rose Bruford College of Theatre 
    and Performance
    Lamorbey Park
    Burnt Oak Lane
    Sidcup, UK   
    DA15 9DF

    Sent from my iPhone.

    Apologies for any misspellings.


  2. So great to have you again!!:)

    Good luck and welcome back!:D


  3. William thank you, this article it is very illuminating. I knew nothing of the Kyoto Festival and was jolted out of my Tokyo-centricity ! Looking forward to our ongoing collaboration….Jason Arcari


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s