In the foyers of theaters in Tokyo’s new “happening” hub of Ikebukuro — where the provocative Festival/Tokyo (F/T) drama event is running through November — odd exchanges can often be overheard.
“Have you ever been to Shinagawa?” seemed a strange question, for instance, as Shinagawa is a mere 30 minutes away on the Yamanote Line rail loop that encircles central Tokyo. Another odd query was: “How many areas did you evacuate to last week?” — Evacuate? From where? For what reason?
Perusal of the F/T program, and a few questions of my own, soon solved the mystery. It turned out that one of the events on F/T’s self-avowed “disrobing theater” schedule was the cause of all this: an up-to-the-minute participation production titled “The Complete Manual of Evacuation — Tokyo.”
“Drama creators are usually only concerned about presenting their finished works on a stage, and so the performances become the key to those works’ evaluation,” the director/organizer of “Evaluation,” Akira Takayama said. He went on to explain that “theatron,” the Ancient Greek root of the English word “theater,” actually referred to an auditorium; a place from where people watched spectacles.
“As a result,” the 41-year-old continued, “theater should take more account of the audiences, and here I intended to create theater to which the audience would not only be witnesses, but drama creators and critics as well at the same time.”
Now something of a specialist in audience-participation theater, Takayama has previously organized “Sunshine 63,” an acclaimed walking tour of Ikebukuro during last year’s F/T; 2007’s “Tokyo/Olympic” bus tour around the city; and “Red Shoes Chronicle,” a walking tour of Yokohama that he staged — with trademark surprising stopovers — in March this year.
This time, for “Evacuation,” he was again getting his audiences out and about, though as individuals this time, via “evacuation areas” he organized close to 28 of the Yamanote Line’s 29 stations — only Tamachi’s, unfortunately, didn’t work out.
To participate, all it takes is a visit to the event’s website at hinan- manual.com to select a station. Then on-screen instructions lead to signs leading, in treasure-hunt style, to the actual “evacuation area.”
So, for example, participants may be told to leave a station by a certain exit, turn left and walk past six trees before looking around for an “Evacuation” sign — possibly against a wall, on a small shop’s counter or in an open hallway. Instructions on the sign at this “transfer point” then give directions to the “evacuation area” — maybe a mosque, possibly a palm reader, or who knows what else . . .
Takayama said he got his idea for this “Yamanote Line theater” after returning from overseas trips and always being surprised at the line’s reliable timekeeping. “A train makes one circuit in an hour, so the line has become like an accurate clock of Tokyo for me,” he said.
“However, in recent years, this clock has often been stopped or delayed due to someone jumping in front of a train to stop his or her heart-clock beating,” Takayama reflected. “Probably, they just couldn’t keep up with Tokyo’s pace.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “I often meet people who flourish in their community outside of Tokyo time — including the homeless, foreign Asian residents and other minorities. They showed me other spaces and different time phases of Tokyo life — so, I named such spaces “evacuation areas in Tokyo.”
Though audience members must agree not to reveal names or locations of “evacuation sites,” when they take part “evacuees” may find themselves in unfamiliar districts meeting people they’d rarely if ever come across otherwise. And in this theater staged by Takayama, “evacuee” can effectively direct the performance and often even determine its duration.
So, to put its creator’s “Evacuation” efforts to the test, I visited the website and found it was set up to help me make a choice of station by asking me to answer a few simple questions. Or, I found, I could simply select whichever one I fancied. Either way, up pop simple directions or you download a map to send you on your way.
Having opted for my most unfamiliar station to evacuate to, and been given direction hints, even on the train taking me there I was already excited about setting foot in the downtown area I’d chosen. And indeed it was a different world — one where neighbors were chatting on the little local shopping street and small factories crouched beside or beneath the Yamanote Line tracks.
I easily found the “transfer point” there, where I collected final directions to my “evacuation area” — which seemed like an ordinary apartment on the top floor of a building. I gingerly pressed the bell and a young Japanese man opened the door and invited me into his “sharing flat” — this in a country where shared accommodations, other than purpose- built dormitories, are very rare.
Showing me around the apartment — comprising three spacious rooms, a large dining-kitchen and hundreds of comics and books everywhere — the man pointed out its communal living room and communal (futon) bedroom area, with a spacious kitchen in between. Looking outside revealed a panoramic view over downtown Tokyo dominated by the country’s tallest building, the 634-meter Tokyo Sky Tree broadcasting tower.
The man told me that six people were currently sharing the flat, and they regularly host events and meetings for outsiders. He said he was quite surprised that they always attracted lots of people to the events, even though they were often themed on niche subjects and were only announced via Twitter and blog postings.
We carried on chatting on that sunny afternoon and the man told me that in throwing open this place to others he wanted to make somewhere like the Kakekomi-dera (Shelter temple) refuges for abused and divorcing wives in the Edo Period (1603-1867). However, this friendly, unconventional young man said that his style of commune was still evolving.
Like the man’s commune, my interest in this theater game was evolving, too — and quickly. After that fascinating “performance,” my next “evacuation” took me to a mosque in a normal house, where Muslims — both from Japan and abroad — were chatting and studying and praying as their children all played together.
Following that, near to a different station, I was told my future by having my palm read (for a small fee); while another time Takayama lured me into something I’d never normally stop to do — and what an eye-opener it was just to take time out on a Yamanote Line platform to watch people as they waited for, got on, and got off the trains. And then there was the “evacuation” to nowhere — when I just couldn’t find the “transfer point” at all.
Though everyone I met during my “evacuations” had been welcoming, none gave me any special treatment or laid on any entertainment such as people expect when they go to a theater. Yet simply meeting a wide range of people just going about their normal lives in Tokyo somehow gave me a fresh feeling of curiosity and new inspiration about everyday life.
As Takayama put it: “I want to stimulate something in the audience’s mind with this program, but I don’t want to shock or disturb people or instigate any social movement. I hope small encounters through ‘The Complete Manual of Evacuation — Tokyo’ make each evacuee’s routine life a bit different, which may then produce changes that even the people themselves probably won’t realize.
“One of the greatest things is that this play is developing minute by minute. Actually, people are exchanging information and chatting about the reviews on the linked thread and Twitter. For example, if an audience member wants to become more involved in a community, they could continue to visit after this program. So the play could breed like bacteria in the future.”
“The Complete Manual of Evacuation — Tokyo” runs till Nov. 28. Opening times for each “evacuation area” vary. For more details, call F/T 10 at (03) 5961-5202 or visit hinan- manual.com or www.festival-tokyo.jp. Average costs are transport fees plus ¥500 to ¥1,000. Nobuko Tanaka’s theater blog (in Japanese) is at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com.