The Struggle Faced by Japan’s Performing Arts Sector during Covid-19
By Paola Marisela González
Performers and workers in the entertainment industry all around the world are facing an economic struggle after the closure of opera houses, theatres and concert halls as part as the measures to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. In Japan’s performing arts sector, most artists are freelancers who had an average income of between two and three million yen before the pandemic. Most of them are have not been working for months or have seen their earnings reduced substantially without regular performances.
What is the Current Situation in Japan’s Performing Arts Sector?
Measures regarding live events have become especially considered after several cases of Coronavirus were traced back to a theatre in Shinjuku. More than 800 audience members needed to get tested after 37 cases were found related to a play starring Japanese boy-band members that had six performances back in July. The cases included actors, staff and members of the audience. After that unfortunate situation, different solutions and approaches are being considered within Japan’s performing arts industry to continue activities safely during the pandemic.
Some directors, playwriters, musicians and performance artists have tried to find ways to keep their art alive, as well as their income, but it has been a challenging situation. The pandemic has affected not only the artists, but the technicians, ticket agencies, advertisers, and even places like restaurants and convenience shops that were located close to venues that brought them regular customers.
The Consequences of COVID on Japan’s Performing Arts Sector
Performances, usually, take more than six months of preparation with considerable expenses already designated to paying actors and crew while rehearsing, as well as securing the venue and advertising. With the cancellation of events, all the money from ticket sales was returned, resulting in major losses for entertainment and cultural businesses. Besides this, summer festivals, including fireworks displays, were also cancelled. These events were an important source of income for the areas where they take place, which annually received earnings related to the tourism that the festivals generated.
However, since the cancellation of several events on February 26th, there have been some subsidies allotted to support Japan’s performing arts sector, including 25 million yen for streaming audience-free performances online, and 1.5 million yen assigned to small theatre groups. In addition, some local initiatives have taken place. For example, in Ishikawa Prefecture, the city set aside money to support the tutelage of up to 38 maiko (trainee geisha). In Hokkaido, the local government financed a TV program that featured artists in need of work, and in Sapporo, actors received funding for streamed online performances.
Nevertheless, many artists and venues are not receiving any financial aid, so they have started to find ways to remain active as a way of continuing to stay in touch with their audiences, but also as a means to cover their economic needs. One example is the Studio Coast live house, which is one of Tokyo’s largest venues that used to welcome over 2,400 people.
During the previous months, they have started to work on shows without audiences and TV commercials. Even though those events generated some profit, it is still not enough, as about half of their income came from selling drinks and coin locker fees. Several crowdfunding projects have been launched to help live houses such as this one survive.
From July 10th, when the Japanese government eased restrictions for indoor venues, some places have re-started their activities. However, they can only host less than half of the venue’s maximum capacity, and the risk of being responsible for a Coronavirus outbreak remains, which would be even more damaging for their financial recovery.
The New Digital Stage
Hosting online events has been one way to continue cultural and artistic activities within Japan’s performing arts sector. For instance, after the annual World Theater Festival Shizuoka scheduled for Golden Week was cancelled, the organizers, the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC) organized the World Theatre Festival on the Cloud 2020.
The festival streamed up to 50 free-to-watch remote programs, including discussions with artists from Japan, France, Switzerland, Brazil and Russia; live-streams of self-isolating actors rehearsing and training, videos of backstage staff, and interviews with Japanese artists who had previously worked with SPAC. The festival also offered the possibility for fans to telephone SPAC actors for one-to-one readings of theatrical pieces. The online festival had 55,000 views in total, eleven times more than the usual amount of tickets sold.
Other groups, like the Dull-Colored Pop theatre company resumed their live performances once restrictions were lifted. However, because theatres were limited to 50% of their capacity, they also started to stream the live performances for a reduced viewing fee, hoping to make up for the loss of ticket sales. The HANCHU-YUEI theatre collective released a series of ten-to-fifteen- minute sketches on YouTube.
Even if these virtual events do not provide the same level of engagement as live performances, they are allowing more people to watch plays regardless of where they are or whether they can afford a ticket. Prices for online events are significantly more economical than going to a live performance, which can be a good opportunity for the spread of Japan’s performing arts.
Besides, working online gives artists the chance to collaborate with colleagues around the world. For the audience, online performances provide them with the possibility of attending events from the safety of their homes if they are still reluctant to go back into theatres.
Creative Solutions Keeping Japan’s Performing Arts Sector Alive
Players within Japan’s performing arts sector are experimenting with new ways to continue delivering live stage presentations. The theatre group the Gorch Brothers launched 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 never been before. Using trucks, The Gorch Brothers can perform without putting audiences at risk as they would be in confined auditoriums.
Play Rehearsals via Zoom
Another example is a theatre production company called CAT Produce. Their director, Takeshi Eguchi, enlisted 19 actors, many of whom had not been performing for months, to perform readings of a play at the DDD Aoyama Cross Theater, rotating the cast members every day for a month starting from July 1st. At the theatre, they were only selling tickets for 50 of the 180 available seats in order to adhere to the Covid guidelines.
Furthermore, they hired three different crew and staff teams to handle the lighting, sound and front office. The rehearsals were via Zoom, but besides the live performances, they are offering a VR (Virtual Reality) theatre experience where viewers could buy a ¥3,500 ticket to watch the performance in 3D using a VR headset or 3D glasses. The VR experience provides the opportunity for viewers to watch the play from different perspectives and to follow their favourite actor.
Another initiative was the drive-in concerts that took place in Chiba Prefecture. The music was played on-stage, but there was also an FM radio wave that members of the audience could tune into from inside their cars. Fireworks were set off during the finale of the two-day festival, which included some 220 cars and about 550 participants. During the concert, people could go outside their cars as long as they were using masks and kept socially distanced.
Temperature checks were carried out for all the people that attended, drivers were guided to their parking spaces, and the LINE app was used to check if the restrooms were crowded. The same app was used to order food and drinks that were served by staff in roller-skates which lighted up at night to blend with the stage lights. This pandemic is testing the creativity of Japan’s performing arts industry as it experiments with new kinds of entertainment.
What’s Happening in Japan’s Performing Arts Sector as Covid Restrictions Ease?
With some of the initial restrictions lifted, venues are starting to hold performances again. The play Twelve Angry Men running from September 11th to October 4th marked the reopening of Theatre Cocoon, which belongs to the Bunkamura multicultural complex in Shibuya Ward. The theatre had been closed since February 28th, after the Covid restrictions were first introduced. The English director Lindsay Posner was supposed to rehearse in Tokyo, however, due to the travel restrictions, he conducted rehearsals through Zoom from his home with an all-Japanese cast using an interpreter. The rehearsal process was challenging, but it was possible using the cameras and digital techniques available at Theatre Cocoon.
Another case of things going somehow back to normal is the Toyooka Theater Festival, which took place this September. The festival included theatre, dance, street performances, installations and workshops. General admission tickets were not made available until August 20th to minimize the risk of disappointing buyers if the festival was cancelled. Artists and staff needed to spend two weeks in quarantine or provide proof of a negative PCR test before taking part in the festival.
Groups, such as the Japan Performing Arts Solidarity Network (JPASN), are brainstorming how theatre can exist in a socially-distanced world. Measures include the use of plastic screens between seats, ticket-collection points, shorter programs, scrapped intervals to avoid congestion within the building, filing audience members out individually as though they were disembarking a plane, and a focus on one-person plays.
However, for many people that work in Japan’s performing arts sector, the new digital and distant solutions that are now being implemented will be only temporary, as the arts will go back to the way they were once the virus is under control.
For live performances, physicality is a crucial aspect among performers and for the connection with the audience. However, new creative possibilities have risen as a consequence of the pandemic that might spearhead a new era for Japan’s performing arts.
Related: Smart Speakers Market in Japan
Also, check out the report we wrote for the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation looking at the visual arts sector in Japan.
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