Since its launch in 2010, Kyoto Experiment has steadily come to rival, if not even surpass, Festival/Tokyo as the nation’s leading annual showcase for cutting-edge performances.

Year on year, its vigor and cultural vibrancy have attracted growing audiences of both new and longstanding theatergoers from western Japan, as well as ever more from Tokyo and beyond.

In the process, Kyoto Experiment is helping to slowly redraw the massively Tokyo-centric theater map of Japan to one that’s now sprouting high-quality diversity across the length and breadth of the country.

Much of the credit for this must go to the festival’s Program Director Yusuke Hashimoto, who founded the event as a powered-up successor to Engeki Keikaku (Theater Project), a scheme to support young artists that he ran for six years at the Kyoto Arts Center.

As 38-year-old Hashimoto sees it, Kyoto — with its many galleries, museums and universities — was ripe for this event, since “lots of creative young people live here and many art lovers are becoming interested in performance due to this festival.”

In the beginning, though, his focus wasn’t so much on audiences as artists. “I firstly wanted to open windows in Japan’s tightly closed theater world and bring about broader interactions,” he said, pointing to the dance scene’s longstanding collaborations with musicians, video artists and other creators.

However, as the festival has grown it has opened more distant windows, too. “We have now started to work closely with some foreign artists,” Hashimoto said, citing “Suddenly Everywhere Is Black With People,” a coproduction with the Brazilian dance troupe Demolition Inc. that had its Japan premiere at Kyoto Experiment last year.

“That work,” he continued with a laugh, “featured naked, black-painted dancers wriggling around on stage — but it has since played in many countries and all round Europe, and it’s acting as an advert for our festival and putting us in direct contact with many of world theater’s hot spots. In fact now it’s as if we are an associate member of Europe’s theater-festival network.”

Success, though, hasn’t made Hashimoto think that bigger is better.

“I don’t want to make this festival like Avignon (in the South of France) or Edinburgh, which are centers of the theater world. I’d rather remain one platform among other similar-sized festivals with similar tastes. I also hope other cities in Japan, rather than just following Tokyo’s lead, will develop events with their own local values and then also connect with overseas festivals.”

Speaking of Tokyo, I asked Hashimoto what he thought about the capital’s biggest celebration of theater, Festival/Tokyo, which recently changed its artistic director and announced a policy shift away from cutting-edge works in favor of ones with more general appeal.

“I am about the same age as Chiaki Soma, F/T’s former program director, and we share similar cultural backgrounds and often talked about our programs and sometimes both staged the same artists,” he began.

“When I heard the news of her resignation, I thought that fundamentally there are values and issues that some people don’t want to be raised in the arts, and I think Soma tried to raise them,” he continued with remarkable frankness. “After all, a festival program director’s task is in part to present audiences with a range of values as they select works from the thousands submitted. But in the case of F/T, there are seemingly those who don’t want that to happen.

“However, I believe that even though many people now feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions in today’s Japan, at least through art they must be able to express freely their ideas and points of view.”

Just so — but how does that translate to Kyoto Experiment 2014?

“There are many programs this time that you could hardly categorize as ‘theater,’ but many of those would actually relate to the origin of performing arts in sports and shows, which were people’s entertainment in ancient times,” Hashimoto explained.

“And back then when people gathered to watch those events they’d of course discuss them together — and that’s the kind of open, democratic art experience I hope audiences will take away from Kyoto Experiment.”

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