Hiroyuki Masaki[1]

Many people engaged in theatre making and management were faced with many difficult problems after the gigantic earthquake hit Japan on 11 March 2011. Should they cancel the shows? How can they help people in the most affected areas through theatre? And, eventurally, what roles theatre can play in the face of a disaster like this? Decisions, actions, and evaluations varied depending on where the theatre was located, and what factors they had to consider. This is the translation of Hiroyuki Masaki’s article published in the IATC Japan’s quarterly Theatre Arts 47(June 2011, in which he reports the immediate responses from various theatres in different areas of Japan after the 3/11 earthquake. (Editor)

A 90-minute drive from Sendai, the largest city in the north-east part of Japan called Tohoku. Yoshinobu Iwabuchi, an actor with a theatre company Yamanote Jijōsha, was at a welfare facility leading a communication workshop for a group of elderly people.

“Okay then, look surprised!” he called on the participants, when there was a big jolt and the lights went out. Electricity was cut off and the sound from the air conditioners and the lights stopped. Then a rumbling in the ground could clearly be heard approaching from the northeast.

Iwabuchi was giving workshops at various places in the region under the commission from the Ezuko Hall, a cultural hall in Sendai Minami since the end of January. The workshop presentation for a high school drama group on March 13 and all the other activities were cancelled because of the earthquake. Without any means of going back to Tokyo, he found himself stranded there. He was then asked by the Hall to carry out a workshop for three days to help ease the tension of the people who had sought refuge in the local gymnasium. As he chatted and stretched out with the evacuees, two somewhat opposing thoughts were going through his mind: theatre and art can’t do much in an emergency situation like this, but surely a new kind of theatre will begin and will become a source of life.

Differing responses immediately after the quake

On March 11, the day the earthquake struck, many theatres closed their doors. A few, however, remained open. In Tokyo’s private sector, Ryuzanji Company put on a performance at Space Waseda with 22 spectators, and Efu Wakagi’s Liliput Army at the Suzunari with six. As the Waseda venue was Sho Ryuzanji’s own studio theatre, he did not have to consult anyone else before making the decision to go ahead. Wakagi, from his experience during the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in 1995, decided that the performance should go ahead if there were even a small number in the audience. The management of the Suzunari said if any of the audience had to stay overnight, that would be fine. Indeed one spent the night at the theatre.

Some public theatres also opened its doors as scheduled. On the day of the earthquake, Bunkyo University’s Theatre Association cancelled their matinee, but put on the soiree at the Artelio Theatre of the Kawasaki Arts Center. Their decision was based on the fact that the soiree was their last performance before their graduation. And, above all, some of the members of the audience could not go home because the trains had stopped. The theatre tended to the needs of both the company and the audience who had to stay overnight.

The following day, the theatres were divided in their response. The aftershocks had not stopped. The safety checks of the facilities, fixtures, and equipment had to be done. In addition, the trains were still suspended or running at reduced services. The Yamanote Line in Tokyo did start running in the morning, but the trains were infrequent and slow. It was difficult to predict whether people could get to the theatre and also whether they would feel up to coming to see a play in the face of such an emergency. Consequently, quite a few theatres and companies decided to cancel their performances.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Arts Theatre was advised by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to remain closed until the 13th. Japan Arts Council decided to cancel all the shows under its organization at its theatres: the National Theatre, the Nationa Engei Hall, the National Noh Theatre, the National Bunraku Theatre, and the New National Theatre, Tokyo, from March 13 to 31.

Some commercial theatres called off their performances due to safety considerations in the midst of the continuing aftershocks. The Endless Shock at the Imperial Garden Theatre (Teikoku Gekijyo) starring Koichi Dohmoto — a heart-throb who enjoys a great number of followers — cancelled all its remaining performances. The performance included the use of complex stage devices, flying scenes, and stunts like falling down twenty steps, which were dangerous to start with. They let the audience in on the 13th, but made a last minute decision and send them back. All the remaining performances were cancelled.

An unexpected problem occurred with the ticketing. The ticketing system Gettii used by many theatres and companies was operated by a firm based in Aomori prefecture in Tohoku. The electricity to the region was cut off, resulting in the disabling of their server. There were other ticketing companies which suspended their ticket delivery service due to disruption to the transportation system.

Rolling blackout affects Kanagawa Arts Theatre

The Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) in Yokohama also cancelled its shows following the earthquake. It had just opened in January 2011, and was scheduled to run its opening series until the end of March. Cancelling the special performances for the opening season must have been a very tough decision to make.

A Kyoto-based company Chiten was in the middle of the dress rehearsal for that night’s opening at the KAAT when the earthquake struck. The biggest problem was the rolling blackout, which was announced on the night of the 12th. If the power is cut in the following week, the electricity to everything in that area including traffic lights would be cut off. This was something no one had experienced. The theatre had the difficult task of making decisions in the midst of so many uncertainties. Would its area be designated for the rolling blackout? If it is, then at what specific time of the day would it happen in the area? Could the audience safely get back home? Moreover, none of the opening performances were going to Tokyo, which meant that there would be many visitors from out of Yokohama. Even if the electricity was not cut off during the performance, the safety of the audience on their journey to and from the theatre could not be guaranteed. It would have been irresponsible for a public theatre to put on shows knowing the risks for the audience. Gathering information on the situation and keeping an eye on how other theatres were responding, the theatre put off making the decision till the last moment. The performances and lectures went ahead as scheduled on the 13th as the transport system had resumed its services, but the KAAT decided to cancel all the three shows it organized from the 14th — the day the rolling blackout was scheduled to start — until the end of the month.

The KAAT manager, Yota Kageyama, explains that the call for “voluntary restraint” was not a factor in his decision to cancel the shows. However, as his newly-built theatre is a seismic isolated building, its lobby and some other facilities remained open to the public after the quake, and this, he thinks, led to the misunderstanding that they cancelled the performances because his public theatre was made to bow to the pressure from various quarters calling for restraint in the entertainment sector in the time of crisis. At the Tokyo Metropolitan Arts Theatre, its artistic director Hideki Noda had reopened his performance, saying, “Theatres should not be turned dark”. His statement was received by many as a show of resilience among theatre people, and it was as if all the theatres in Tokyo and its surrounding areas were being put to a moral test. But in reality, each one of the theatres and producers faced a different situation. It was not a question of theatres being commendable or not because they put on their shows, but a question of whether each theatre took on the responsibility of making the judgment themselves. In that respect, the fact that most theatres acted according to their own judgment in the face of such a huge disaster proved the soundness of the Japanese theatre scene.

Pipes dropped from the organ at the ATM. © Hiroyuki Masaki
Pipes dropped from the organ at the ATM. © Hiroyuki Masaki

The theatres and public halls up north were affected even more than those in the metropolitan area. The public cultural halls in Miyako and Kamaishi in Miyagi prefecture were flooded by the tsunami. In Rikuzen Takata, only the structural framework of the hall remained. Many other halls were also made partially unusable.

Pipe Organ Collapses at Art Tower Mito

Opened in 1990, the Art Tower Mito (ATM) is one of the forerunners of regional public theatres. The multifunctional cultural complex has a small theatre, a hall for chamber music, and a modern art gallery. Located in the heart of the city of Mito, Ibaraki prefecture, the ATM also has an open space with a lawn in front of the building, making it a much loved gathering spot in the city. Artistic Director Koshiro Matsumoto recalls that on the day of the earthquake people spontaneously started assembling at the complex, turning it into an evacuation centre for nearly 200 people at one point. The number of people seeking refuge at the arts complex increased when 30 minutes after the earthquake off the coast of Miyagi prefecture, another shock measuring 7 on the Richter scale hit an area off the coast of Ibaraki prefecture. Concerned that the temperature dipped in the evening, Matsumoto conferred with the municipal office to make the second floor meeting rooms available for the evacuees. Electricity, gas, and water had stopped, so to keep the toilets flushable, the municipal office staff transported water from the fountain in front of the building in a bucket brigade fashion. Catering utensils, snacks for guests, and blankets in stock were distributed to the evacuees together with the emergency supplies that reached from the city office.

The damage to the theatre section was substantial. The pipe organ of the hall, for instance, was heavily damaged, and some of its parts fell to the ground after the quake. Immediately, they made a decision to cancel all the performances until the end of May. Although the initial plan was to reopen the theatre by June, the facility was still undergoing damage assessment by experts at the end of April and rehearsals remained suspended. Consequently, all the shows in June were canceled as well.

Damaged ceiling of the ATM rehearsal room. © Hiroyuki Masaki
Damaged ceiling of the ATM rehearsal room. © Hiroyuki Masaki

In the meantime, however, Matomo Oouchi, an actor belonging to the ATM’s resident company Acting Company Mito, held a self-produced solo readings in the café. Both the matinee and soiree were packed with double the capacity of 20, satisfying the public thirst for live art. Questions had sometimes been raised about paying the residential actors of the ACM even when there were no performances for them, but Oouchi’s proactive response made the presence of performers felt.

More than Two months after the quake, the ATM finally announced the new schedule at the end of May. The theatre section’s activity included ACM ‘s continued visits to kindergartens at request until the end of June. Together with local performers the company put on street performances to attract people to the shopping streets. In September, ACM’s reopening performance Shin Bakumatsu Jyunjyoden was scheduled, and in February 2012, Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Shitaro Mori. The graduation performance of the Children’s Drama Academy originally scheduled in March was rescheduled in mid-June. It was a long and bumpy road, but slowly the theatre was getting back on track.

Iwaki Alios: a theatre as a gathering venue

Like the ATM, Iwaki Alios in Fukushima prefecture accepted evacuees, but unusually for a public theatre, it served as a long-term center to hold them. On March 11, 150 people fled to the theatre. Although the number decreased to 70 in one month, it was back at 140 when the city was hit by a strong aftershock with the epicenter right below the city. Gradually, the number decreased to around 20. While the theatre was being used to accommodate evacuees, repair work and refunding ticket fees were suspended to protect their privacy. The theatre finally closed down as an evacuation centre on May 5, and those who were still there were asked to move to other locations.

Seismic upheavals on the pavement surrounding Iwaki Alios. © Hiroyuki Masaki
Seismic upheavals on the pavement surrounding Iwaki Alios. © Hiroyuki Masaki

Apart from a few cracks on the external walls, the theatre that was built in 2008 was almost intact. However, the problem was on the inside. The suspended acoustic boards totaling several hundred tons were heavily damaged, having collided against other fixtures during the violent quake. It was unclear whether the complex stage mechanism for moving the riser and the audience seats were still functional. Inspection by its construction company verified that the building was structurally sound and the various operational checks of the devices were completed by the end of May. A detailed repair schedule was planned to start the repair work in July. Various safety measures for the expected aftershocks had to be put in place before the hall could be reopened. The annex with the small music hall had to give way to the municipal office’s help desk, as the quarter of the Municipal Administration Office which housed the department was damaged by the aftershock on April 11.

The Alios’ manager Tokio Ooishi, who has been involved ever since the planning of the hall began, says that the disaster proved the soundness of at least two points about the policy that they have pursued since the hall’s planning stage. One was their stress on the adequacy of its facilities for public use. If the hall is to be where people got together, all its public facilities should be inviting for the citizens. Ooishi explains that from the beginning they aimed to put people before art, and that is why he emphasizes, for one thing, the importance of toilets. The concept was for the hall to be used not only by the ticket holders who came to see a show, but also by visitors to the adjacent park who stop by to use the toilets. This was why so many citizens chose to come to the hall for shelter on the day of the earthquake. The hall was equipped with an emergency generator and three water tanks for drinking water, toilets, and for extinguishing fires, so even when other places in the city did not have running water, at the Alios toilets were clean and could be used as usual. Another feature of the hall which made it accessible as an evacuation centre for so many people was that the floors of the entrance and the lobbies of the large hall and the mid-sized theatre were flush.

The second had to do with the network created by the activities they were engaged in. Each year the Alios had produced a performance in which Iwaki citizens took part. Named “Shakespeare made in Iwaki,” it was directed by Hiroyuki Mamiya, who had made regular appearances in the shows created by a Tokyo-based touring company Shakespeare for Children. The actors and the participants who had met in this project contacted each other after the 3/11 earthquake to arrange temporary evacuations outside the city and organize drama reading at the Alios for the evacuees. Ooishi points out that theatre may not be able to do much immediately after a disaster, but that a strong network built after long periods of rehearing together made a difference in the face of a disaster.

The city’s emergency employment scheme enabled the Alios to hire an 18-year old high school graduate, whose acceptance to a firm was withdrawn after the quake. It resumed its outreach program “Odekake Alios” (the Alios on delivery) for highschools and are running workshops by the theatre company Mamagoto and the dance company Mezurashii Kinoko. The hall aims to reopen all its facilities by the end of 2011.

Is it a piece we can put on in the affected areas? – SPAC

On the day after the earthquake, I took the west-bound shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC). The plan had been to watch the new SPAC production of the Grimm Tales and to interview the artistic director, Satoshi Miyagi, about the roles of public theatres and their resident companies. Due to lack of time, the interview was postponed and I visited the theatre again the following week and asked about what public theatres’ role should be in the face of a disaster. “Temples and churches used to have the function of reminding people of one truth: What we take for granted today, we might not have tomorrow,” said Miyagi. “They made people think about death — something which is set aside in their daily lives — and remonstrated with them on their egos. I think the task is passed on to the theatre. Theatre sends the memento mori message to people — the inevitability of death, and the preciousness of the time we are living. What we take to be ordinary is in fact the result of a series of miracles. So, like temples and churches, theatres should be outside the ordinary so that when the ordinary is lost, it can function as a place where people gather.”

Miyagi continued. “The prefectural Piccolo Company based near the city of Kobe took their performances to the affected regions after the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake. If the SPAC finds itself in the same situation, we would do the same. It will be a litmus test for our performances. Will our Grimm Tales be profound enough so that spectators in the affected areas won’t say, ‘It’s not that easy,’ or ‘It’s so shallow I can’t bear to watch this’? So, if we are faced with that kind of situation, we have to go out and have people see our performances. I believe that we have been making pieces which we can confidently show to the people in times of crisis.”

The SPAC is located in the Tokai region which has been predicted to have an 87% chance of being struck by a large-scale earthquake in the order of 8 on the Richter scale within the next 30 years. This awareness has prompted them to be proactive in organizing donation campaigns. They placed donation boxes the week following the earthquake. They also turned their March 26 “Fan Appreciation Day” into a charity event to donate the proceeds of the bazar and the stalls. Another charity performance of Grimm Tales was given on April 29, stressing on the theme of reconstruction and rebirth. The spectators were asked to pay donation instead of the usual ticket fees. The SPAC plans to invite 20 people to each of the shows it organizes from June to September. It is intent on remaining as a place where people get together.

Topics for the future – the rationale for the existence of performing arts

Three disasters struck at the same time due to the 3/11 earthquake — the shock itself, tsunami, and the radiation leakage in Fukushima prefecture. The situation at the plant is still on-going with the possibility of the effects spreading and the end not in sight. It has prompted foreign artists and companies to cancel their visit, and the estimated loss for the classical music scene alone has been estimated at 12 billion yen (Japan Association of Classical Music Presenters). More cancellations are expected, inevitably impacting the festivals which have planned its events around artists from abroad.

Another issue facing theatres in Japan is strategizing for the expected electricity shortage including the use of air conditioners over the summer months. Theatre people from both public and commercial sectors convened to discuss the issue, and a call for awareness by the entertainment industry is being planned. Specifically, many of them are now thinking of switching to LED lights in the lobby and continuing to replace the stage lights with LED lighting.

The interview also revealed the weaknesses of highly sectionalized running of theatres in responding to emergencies and disasters. Imagine a public theatre. It has its establishing body, usually the local government or the independent public agency it set up; the artistic director, usually with artistic background; and the management team which looks after the everyday running of the theatre. Moreover, in the case of a production which is not organized by the theatre itself, the independent producing body which uses the theatre will also be involved. Ideally, all the parties should take part in discussion in responding to a disaster, but the reality is the decision for closing the theatre was based largely on the establishing body. As a result, many other parties felt their views were ignored.

The rationale for the existence of art at a time of emergency is the most important question which theatre people have been faced with. Many would say that art can provide psychological care for children who have been affected, and indeed many actors, dancers, and directors have made their way to do the region to do just that. However, whether these activities are wholeheartedly accepted by the people in the most affected areas is another matter. “At the end of the day, Tokyo wasn’t really affected by the 3/11 earthquake,” says Ooishi of the Alios. “People in Fukushima know that their nuclear power plants generated electricity for Tokyo. Some Tokyoite theatre makers may like to come here to deliver the message of hope, encouragement, and solidarity out of genuine good will, but I will not be surprised if they don’t get the kind of appreciation they expected.” We must, therefore, examine where we stand in the eyes of the specific people with whom we want to share something before deciding what we can and should do for them. After all, that is the bottom line for any theatrical practice.

(Translation: Chieri and Manabu Noda)


[1] Hiroyuki Masaki is now Chief Editor of the IATC Japan’s quarterly Theatre Arts. Born 1964 in Aomori, Tohoku, he was an editorial member of the Theatre Guide (a theatre information magazine) for three years since its start. In 1995 he established the theatre website Stage Web (http://www.stageweb.com/), where he has reported long interviews with theatre makers including moving images. He is also worked with the free paper Petit-Critque. He has written extensively for several books on theatre in Japan.

Copyright © 2012 Hiroyuki Masaki
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Theatres Shaken by the 3/11 Quake in Japan