Lack of funds fail to stop Tokyo’s young theater brigade

by Nobuko Tanaka

As a promising playwright, director and actor, 31-year-old Junichi Hirota highlights a cruel fact running through Japan’s theater world — namely that once technicians such as lighting engineers, sound people and set-builders are paid from box-office profits, there’s often little or nothing left for the likes of Hirota and other such talent in the business.

Most stage actors outside the big- theater league can’t live on what they earn from acting, and most young dramatists have to pursue other jobs to survive.

For Hirota, all this was not his initial life plan, when, at the University of Tokyo, he originally wanted to specialize in international politics. Midway through his course, however, he joined a theater group; and then, in 2001, he founded the Hyottoko Rambu (Jest Dance) company, dropped out of one of the country’s top learning institutions and began to devote all his energy to theater — regardless of the financial sacrifice.

Hyottoko Rambu will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, and as a warmup they are presenting two programs daily for 10 days from next week at the Kichijoji Theater in Tokyo. One is a restaging of the company’s 2006 “Mizu (Water),” a tragic love story based on French author Boris Vian’s 1947 novel “Froth on the Daydream,” the other is a new play by Hirota, titled “Buriki no Machi de Kanojo wa Umi wo Mitsukeraretaka” (“Whether She Could Find the Sea in a Tinplate Town”).

I met Hirota at a community center in Setagaya, where he had been working on rehearsals for almost 10 hours. Despite the long day, he was lively and enthusiastic as he talked about his own challenges and those facing the theater system in Japan.

Since 2001 your company had been presenting two, three or four plays every year, but in 2008 you decided to relaunch Hyottoko Rambu. Why was that?

Well, until then we’d mainly been a group of close friends — mostly university friends — and many members joined and left the company, depending on their circumstances. That flexibility was good because it kept a healthy tension and rivalry within the company. But then some of our actors became more popular and were asked to make guest appearances with other companies, which was great, but it also made it difficult to get everyone together for rehearsals. That situation worsened when some actors started to prioritize other companies.

Meanwhile, Hyottoko Rambu itself was gaining a good reputation, so I thought it was time to redefine it and make the core members’ position clear so they could be sure of regular work. For example, we’ve already started to plan our schedules for next year and the year after, as well as book venues.

Artistically, too, I also wanted the company actors to be positively involved in other creative areas of theater, and to express their opinions more. I used to do everything — I’d write the play, direct it, act in it and make suggestions to other actors. But I realized that working that way is ultimately limiting and it was better to listen to and share ideas. Now I respect the actors’ autonomy and wait for their self-judgments.

How do you get ideas to write new plays?

“Mizu” originated from Boris Vian’s 1947 novel. I love his work, especially his writing style, which blurs the line between realism and imaginative exaggeration. For example, he wrote “The man was starving and he slavered a lot, there was a puddle of water in front of him.” He doesn’t over-describe things, yet his imaginative words perfectly fit theater. Using Vian’s novel as my source, I tried to search for a new theatrical language that goes beyond ordinary conversational text.

I wrote “Mizu” four years ago, but this time we will also stage some English-subtitled performances for people who don’t fully understand Japanese. I’d like to open the door to foreigners here, but also I’d like the company to perform abroad in the future.

I also always try to write new plays in different ways and to make them up-to-date. “Buriki no Machi de Kanojo wa Umi wo Mitsukeraretaka” is set in the present and has a very skeptical view — one where nothing is perfectly completed and is full of questions.

What do you think needs to be done to improve today’s Japanese theater?

Right now, most companies are performing at small-size theaters, and most of them have financial problems. We can’t make enough from ticket sales from such small venues to pay proper salaries. To stage plays we need to pay technical staff, many of whom are able to make a living from theater work only. In contrast, most actors, writers and directors are unable to live on theater work alone. Young actors usually have day jobs and then work on theater activities afterward.

I would like to find a way to create a better infrastructure and business model for theater companies. At present, it’s getting harder and harder to keep a company together for a long time. Consequently, actors move from one production to another and the productions end up looking similar — and, usually, they remain average instead of being outstanding. This also means only a few independent companies have their own unique style. I want to be able to produce plays that only a company working together in the long-term can perform, ones that excel because of continuity — not just one-off potluck productions.

If you were to appear at a government budget-screening meeting, how would you explain the value of theater in today’s digitech world?

One of the key things about theater is that it fosters and provides audiences with high-quality communication skills. Communication today leans more toward media such as e-mail, blogs, tweets, etc.

Theater, on the other hand, can show us a more primitive form of communication. Through theater, people can understand messages via another person’s body movements and facial expressions — from the physical distance between people, from their small gestures and from their tone of voice. People can also sense emotion from a silent person — if that person has the skill to communicate it. Digital media doesn’t involve such basic communication skills. Live theater is important because it offers an experience that is lost in today’s digital world: People can be made to realize just how essential the physical human body is for communication.

Hyottoko Rambu is offering JT readers two pairs of tickets to a performance of “Mizu” (with English subtitles), on Thursday, July 1, at 7:30 p.m. To apply, please send an e-mail with your name, address and telephone number (or e-mail address) to Hyottoko Rambu / JT Tickets Present at info-hyottoko@yahoo.co.jp Applications must arrive before June 25 and only the winners will be contacted by Hyottoko Rambu.
“Mizu” and “Buriki no machi de Kanojo wa Umi wo Mitsukeraretaka” run from June 25 till July 4 at the Kichijoji Theater, a 5-minute walk from JR Kichijoji Station. The two programs run every day. For more details, call Hyottoko Rambu at (090) 2936-2116, or visit hyottoko.sub.jp