Stage

Theater tale of two cities highlights Tokyo's loss

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

Built to commemorate the International Year of the Child in 1979, and opened in 1985, the marvelous National Children’s Castle (Kodomo no Shiro) arts and sports facility in Tokyo’s central Shibuya district was closed this month — along with the 1,200-seat Aoyama Theatre and the 376-seat Aoyama Round Theatre in the same large complex.

The official reason given was that the state-owned building occupying a prime slice of upmarket real estate required a ¥12-billion refurbishment the government was not prepared to fund.

All the more saddening is that, whereas supporters collected a 70,000-signature petition opposing the Children’s Castle closure plan — and are still campaigning for it to be reopened — the arts world did next to nothing to try to save those two great theaters.

In comparison, when a theater in the German city of Hamburg was slated for closure it was all so different.

Famed for its beauty, the Deutsches Schauspielhaus (German Theater) opened in 1901 after being funded by a public subscription. However, by early this century its management by the city authority was in chaos, with no one in charge of the budget or artistic policy. Then in 2010, the same authority issued that closure notice — a move that led to nationwide protests by theater lovers, directors, playwrights, actors and theater staff.

In consequence, the bureaucrats flip-flopped — deciding not only to revoke the closure, but to fund extensive renovations prior to the theater’s reopening in the autumn of 2013 with a revamped management structure headed by 49-year-old Karin Beier, who was appointed following her success resuscitating the foundering Schauspiel Köln (Theatre Cologne).

However, in an interview with this writer after her first season in charge, Beier began by saying, “This theater has always had a fatal flaw because most of its 1,200 seats — the most of any theater-only space in Germany — are too far from the stage, so it’s difficult to communicate the energy from there to the audience.

“Right now we don’t have time, but we must take steps to resolve this within the next few years.”

Meanwhile, on the artistic front Beier explained, “People in working-class Cologne react directly and express their likes and dislikes very clearly, but here in this wealthy port city they are slow to criticize and it’s hard to gauge their feelings.”

For instance, she noted, “In Cologne we’d have full houses for the (difficult to understand) works of Elfriede Jelenek, because people there don’t look to the theater for safe and easy works — whereas in conservative Hamburg they’re not used to radical pieces.”

Despite that, in the 2014/15 season Beier’s hardly been supine, having featured a new, Karin Henkel-directed version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1896 classic “John Gabriel Borkman” and an aggressive new work by Jelenik that she herself directed. In fact, both were well received, as was New Hamburg, a three-week outreach targeting immigrant districts, and a sellout staging of Anton Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” she directed in January.

All in all, Hamburg’s new theater era is off to a promising start as Beier strives to balance ingrained audience preferences with bold new initiatives.

It’s such a shame that similar possibilities in Tokyo were lost when the two Aoyama theaters closed with barely a squeak from Japan’s theater professionals or its so-called theater lovers.

For more news from Hamburg, visit schauspielhaus.de. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
Coronavirus banner