As the new reality of daily life amid a global pandemic settles in, many people are getting accustomed to somewhat isolated lifestyles as they abide by social distancing measures and work remotely.
For Japan’s theater folks, however, a community that thrives on engaging with a physical audience, adjusting to the crisis has been an urgent — even existential — quest to survive.
The Gorch Brothers, an up-and-coming troupe based in Tokyo, was one of the first theater companies to launch an initiative that takes COVID-19-related concerns into account. Theatre A/way is a project to stage contained performances on the backs of trucks, which can be driven around the country, even visiting areas where contemporary performing arts have likely never been before.
To kick off the project, the company held a showcase performance for the media on June 20. Titled “Tokimeki Labyrinth” (“Maze of Throbbing” in English), this 30-minute solo performance featured actor Keizo Nagashima in the role of a high school girl detailing her convoluted love life — which may or may not be pure fantasy — with gusto and machine-gun delivery.
Speaking on the success of the initial performance, Gorch Brothers President Tatsuya Ito says, “Our young staff discussed what, if any, kind of theater activity they could do under today’s social distancing conditions. The main thing they agreed on was to deliver live performances to audiences instead of streaming shows online. That decision led to this mobile, open-air way of performing.”
Ito says that using a truck “quite literally as a vehicle for our art” means that The Gorch Brothers can perform without putting audiences at risk in confined auditoriums, while also allowing them to travel around “like in the old days of kamishibai,” a reference to the storytellers who used picture cards to entertain children. Ito adds that when the epidemic is over, “this may even remain our way of operating.”
Meanwhile, Takeshi Eguchi, CEO of the theater production company CAT Produce, is another determined dramatist who has had to search for new ideas to continue live performances. Eguchi’s latest idea is an innovative virtual reality project.
“Since April 1, we have had to cancel 230 performances,” he says. “However, we had booked the DDD Aoyama Cross Theater till the beginning of August, so we held remote meetings to discuss how to use it in these circumstances.
“I remembered that our well-received show ‘Defiled’ has a cast of just two actors — and they always stay apart from each other. So, I thought I could do something with that.”
“Defiled,” written by American playwright Lee Kalcheim, is a tense, conversational exchange between a technology-averse librarian named Harry who rails against having to use computers, and a veteran cop called Brian. The play centers around Harry’s decision to barricade himself in the library and threaten to blow up the building with dynamite if plans to digitize his beloved card catalog system are carried out. As the crisis negotiator sent in to de-escalate the situation, Brian tries various ways to get Harry to calm down and surrender. Consequently, though the characters develop a close rapport over the phone, the actors are never physically close to each other.
After premiering in 2000, the first run of “Defiled” in Japan saw sold out performances, leading CAT Produce to rerun the production in 2004 and 2017 at different-sized theaters and with different casts, drawing more positive reviews.
This time around, in part to help out struggling colleagues, he enlisted 19 actors, many of whom had not been able to perform for months, to perform readings of the play at the DDD theater, rotating the cast members every day for a month starting from July 1.
“We are presenting a simplified version of ‘Defiled’ in two different ways: as a live theater performance and as online VR theater,” Eguchi says.
“In the DDD venue, we are taking the utmost care to do it safely, and we’re only selling 50 tickets even though the auditorium has 180 seats,” he adds, explaining that they are strictly adhering to COVID-19 guidelines issued by The Association of Public Theaters and Halls in Japan on ensuring social distancing of two meters in all circumstances to reduce the risk of spread.
In fact, he says, safety is also part of the reason for rotating the cast members, as well as for hiring three different crew and staff teams to handle the lighting, sound, front office and so on.
As for rehearsals, Eguchi says he realized they’d need a new way of doing those, too.
“Typically, everyone gathers and rehearses together for about a month, but that is impossible now,” he says. “Instead, we have to do them remotely using Zoom.”
Fortunately for him, though, in the course of his research to develop new kinds of performances through online theater, he stumbled across a specialist in VR technology.
“Previously, I had no interest in online theater, but once I was introduced to the VR system, I thought it could create something close to a live performance experience,” he says.
Now, CAT Produce has fully embraced an evolving VR theater system that allows technical staff to capture the actors’ readings with numerous VR cameras. Viewers watching online can buy a ¥3,500 ticket to access the distribution platform called Blinky to watch the play on their smartphones or tablets. Alternatively, by using a VR headset or glasses, they can watch the performance live in 3D.
“I decided to fill 50 seats with audience members because the actor’s motivation is very different when they perform in front of real people,” Eguchi explains. “It also allows some of our guests to enjoy being in a theater, while VR viewers can switch from a front-row viewpoint to a wide-angle one at will, which makes the experience quite different from passively watching something streamed online.
“After all, in a theater you would naturally follow your favorite actor’s movements. Now you can do that with this VR format.”
Predicting that viewing quality will be further improved when 5G comes along, Eguchi, who is clearly so keen for his company to adapt and survive, says he aims to stage four VR productions a year — both musicals and straight plays — even after the pandemic becomes a thing of the past.
“I hesitated to do remote work at first, but it’s actually effective and enjoyable,” he says. “I think COVID-19 may even be a real boost for the revival of stagnating Japan, because we really need to create new industries now.”
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