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Holding "Build a Square, Move a Square-A Half Century of Temporary Theatres in Japan-Exhibition"

Itsuki Umeyama
Research Associate of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

The exhibition project "Build a Square, Move a Square―A Half Century of Temporary Theatres in Japan―Exhibition", which started on January 11, is a display looking back at the history of temporary theatres from the 1960s to the present day. When speaking of temporary theatres, where there are tents which are easy to tour around with, there are also specially set up, large-scale outdoor stages which are built for two or three months use. Currently there are a few representative outdoor theatre groups performing, such as the Gekidan Kara-gumi and Shinjuku Ryozanpaku in the Kanto region, and Ishinha and Gekidan Hanzai Tomo-no-kai in the Kansai region. So, why do these performers choose to build their own performance space from scratch rather than use existing theatres?

360 degree panorama shot of the outer view of Gekidan Kara-gumi's red tent ©Yasushi Shikano, architect and photographer (http://homepage.mac.com/shikanoyasushi)

Small, yet large universe

From before the turn of the 20th century, itinerant performers and traveling shows have long existed in Japan. Also, there were Kabuki playhouses in the Edo period, different from those we see today. In Yukio Hattori's "Oi Naru Koya", a masterpiece on the lost playhouses from early-modern times, he starts with a reference to "Shiba Kinmozui (theatrical illustrated dictionary)" inscribed in Edo period kabuki playhouses. When writing about "Kejokoku (theatre world)", which appears in this section, Hattori says it is an overall concept which brings together the theatre, the audience, and the performance, a single universe. "There is a real feeling of the time and space being performed on the stage being commonly owned by every member in the audience――namely, there is no doubt that the joy of the relationship between the stage and the audience seats being "given the same heaven", is a special thing. That is to say, it was nothing less than the shape of a single universe called "Kejokoku"". Edo period kabuki didn't physically or conceptually separate the stage and audience seats, or the performance and the audience. Accordingly, playhouses of the time were full of a sense of spaciousness, and would have provided the audience with an experience difficult to get elsewhere. However, as time passed, the stage and audience seats were clearly separated, and the performances and theatres were institutionalized. This was the natural course to take for a people who were possessed with a desire to "watch", and the world depicted in modern theatre became more delicate than before, losing the sense of scale held by the "Kejokoku".

Theatre Centre 68/71's black tent ©Gekidan Black Tent

After taking this course, it was impossible to bring back the "heaven" linking the audience seats and stage, and questions regarding performance space were raised in the 1960s. This resulted in the appearance of the red tents of Gekidan Jokyo Gekijo and the black tents of Engeki Centre 68/71. The 1960s was also an era which saw a movement toward discovering a new foundation of expression of arts which existed in pre-modern times, such as the itinerant performer research of Shoichi Ozawa, and Tamotsu Hirosue's "Akubasho (evil place)". At the time, groups appeared who chose non-theatre places, other than tent shows, to perform in such as rooms in buildings and the second floor of coffee houses. They were the first generation of small playhouse performances, which shunned the system of permanent theatres, and created their own individual performance space. They started from the thought, "where shall we perform?", and "who shall we perform to?" when questioning how to introduce an audience to theatre. With this, the audience, and the activities of the performers who possessed a strong sense of community, developed "exercise" exceeding the performance of a simple play.

The 1980s, influenced by the first generation, saw the emergence of unusual outdoor theatre groups, and in this way, spanning over half a century, many outdoor theatre groups were born throughout Japan and various temporary theatres appeared. But, because of the characteristic of their motto to appear and disappear like a ghost, in reality there have been very few which have garnered large followings so far. It is there, where this exhibition introduces representative outdoor theatre groups which have appeared in the half century since the 1960s. We would like to describe the small, yet large "universe" they created.

State of outdoor theatre in Kansai

Stage shot of Gekidan Hanzai Tomo-no-kai Fireworks during the performance is one of the highlights ©Gekidan Hanzai Tomo-no-kai

Kansai is a region with many outdoor theatre troupes. In the 1970s, tent performance groups from Tokyo were also welcomed, and a venue which was used widely was the Tennoji Bandstand in Osaka's Municipal Tennoji Park. Other than theatre, music concerts were also held at the venue but it closed in 1980. After that, there was an increase in groups performing at the ground in front of Kyoto University West Auditorium. From the 1970s, Kyoto University West Auditorium was a place for displaying expression full of experimental soul in the form of music and art, and the groups who wished to use it formed a federation with the aim of independent management and operation. When looking at a program in the organization's newsletter from those days, you can see there were performances by Nihon Ishinha (now Ishinha), Gekidan Hanzai Tomo-no-kai, Shinjuku Ryozanpaku and Ryosuke Uryu's Hakken-no-kai. After the closure of the Tennoji Bandstand, Ogi-cho Park became the staging ground for outdoor performers in Osaka, but redevelopment plans for the site were drafted in the mid-90s and it became difficult to use. After that, permission to use public space wasn't sought from Osaka City, and, centered on Ichido Takeda, the "Kansai Federation of Outdoor Performers" was formed. As a result of talks the federation had with the city, redevelopment plans were changed, leaving an environment possible for giving performances, and on top of that, in 1999 the federation, in conjunction with Osaka City, held the "Osaka Outdoor Theatre Festival". The festival still continues to this day.

Looking at temporary theatres from a theatre construction viewpoint

Theatre construction is interesting because it reflects the ideological slant of each troupe. The red tent of Gekidan Jokyo Gekijo has remained consistent from its early days to today with its low ceiling. "Hanging construction" is a method where a pole and stakes are set up and ropes are stretched from the top of the pole and fastened to the surrounding stakes. Consequently, it is possible to set up quickly, and in order to hammer in the stakes, environments such as parks and shrines are generally chosen. The purple tents of Shinjuku Ryozanpaku and blue tents of Gekidan Kara-gumi☆ are assembled with an iron pipe frame, and because it is a type which can be placed on the ground, it is possible for them to be erected on concrete where you cannot hammer in stakes. The third generation purple tent currently being used is designed by Satoshi Otsuka, and, including time taken for transportation of materials, can be erected in three days. Outdoor theatre groups can be divided into the type which uses tents to easily travel around each region, or the type which use building materials to construct a temporary base for delivering performances. Michiza Sho Gekijo belongs to the former, while Suizokukan Gekijo is the complete opposite and uses a heavy weight type. The "enclosed" type theatre used by Gekidan Hanzai Tomo-no-kai lies in the middle. The characteristics of each group can also be seen in the theatre's interior. Some will have tiered stands, some will only spread straw mats and sheets on the ground, while others will provide a comfortable environment with sheets to keep out the cold or cushions. The true joy of temporary theatres lies in the large scale gadgetry. With the double doors, a necessity in the last scene of tent plays since the appearance of the red tent, an everyday scene becomes the surrounding landscape in the fabricated space known as the stage. Shinjuku Ryozanpaku uses heavy machinery to rouse the audience, and Suizokukan Gekijo is famous for using two tons of water to wreck the stage in each performance. Gekidan Kara-zemi☆, while being a young group, has elaborate stage equipment, and the production ability of group leader Atsushi Nakano is a sight to behold.

Suizokukan Gekijo's 2010 Performance "NOMAD A Captive of Love" The customary deluge scene ©Yu Suzuki

Suizokukan Gekijo's wandering sisters "Lily of the Valley" In front of the Theatre Museum in 2009 ©Yu Suzuki

Build a Square・Move a Square

On entering the 90s, the theatrical world transformed to the public era, accomplishing growth to the point where public theatres have taken on the role as a creative base. But, in saying this, for many public theatres today, linking the community and theatre is a major issue. Under these circumstances, by focusing on collectiveness, there are many things which could be learnt from outdoor performance groups who place importance on links with the community. For example, Suizokukan Gekijo, who put on public performances once a year at Tokyo's Komagome Daikannon (Kogenji Temple), occupies the grounds for close to three months. The performances have been taking place at Daikannon for ten years now, but the priests don't accept the performers to simply show support for the troupe. Through the Suizokukan Gekidan performances, people in the community get to know that Kogenji Temple is a place where people gather and that the temple functions as a safety spot in the event of a major natural disaster. Rather than theatre fans, there are many locals, who usually show little affinity to theatre, attending the Suizokukan Gekidan performances. There are even locals who eagerly look forward to the annual June performance as if it were a slightly early summer festival.

The beauty of the above mentioned temporary theatres is introduced at the exhibition in the form of related materials, photographs and videos. A theatre lecture is also planned during the holding of the exhibition. The museum will be closed in February due to university examinations, but the exhibition will run for about two months through March, so I hope you can make your way to the Theatre Museum. Spring will herald the start of the tent theatre season. I would like, not just long-time outdoor theatre fans, but also students who have never experienced tent theatre, to learn the beauty of outdoor theatre.

Build a Square, Move a Square-A Half Century of Temporary Theatres in Japan-Exhibition

January 11 (Tuesday) – March 27, 2011 (Sunday)
Venue: Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum Exhibition Room I
Entry free


Theatre lecture

A talk on "Conveying the Beauty of Temporary Theatres - From the Viewpoint of Theatre Construction –"

Date: January 25, 2011 (Tuesday) 18:30~20:00
Venue: Ono Memorial Auditorium, Waseda University (2nd basement floor of Building no. 27 Ono Azusa Hall: 200 capacity)
Lecturers: Kojin Nishido (theatre critic), Satoshi Otsuka (architect)
※Free of charge・no booking necessary

Itsuki Umeyama

Research Associate of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum
Born in 1981. Enrolled in the doctoral program of the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. Member of AICT, International Association of Theatre Critics. Editorial staff for the theatre magazine "Theatre Arts".