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Waseda Small Theater Drama-kan as a base for new theater culture!

Professor Minako Okamuro
Director, Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

The Drama-kan is making a comeback! In the 1990s, the Drama-kan (the official name was the Waseda Cultural Arts Theater Plaza Drama-kan) was loved by people involved in theater at Waseda University. However, the building was closed in 2012 due to the lack of earthquake resistance and demolished the same year. Now, it has been rebuilt as the Waseda Small Theater Drama-kan. Even more exciting is that the facility is no longer treated as classrooms; instead, it is officially a theater which can give a performance. The possession of a theater by a university has a great significance.

As is well known, the Waseda Small Theater originally stood on the site of the Drama-kan. The Waseda Small Theater was established in 1966 by Tadashi Suzuki and Minoru Betsuyaku, both of whom belonged to the Waseda University theatrical troupe Jiyu Butai (literally, “Free Stage”). At that time, the theater was based on the 2nd floor of the coffee shop Mon Cheri, located in the shopping district along Sodai Minamimon Dori. The opening performance for the theater was The Little Match Girl, written by Betsuyaku. In recognition of this work and A Scene With A Red Bird, Betsuyaku won the 13th “New Theatre” Kishida Kunio Drama Award. In 1977, Suzuki and other members moved their theatrical base to Toga Village (currently Nanto City) in Higashitonami District, Toyama Prefecture, opening the Toga Theater and changing their name from Waseda Small Theater to SCOT. Their base was one of center bases for underground theaters in Japan. SCOT produced masterpieces such as the series On the Dramatic Passions, which became legendary due to strangely fascinating performances of Kayoko Shiraishi. After Suzuki and his contemporaries left the group, Sumio Morijiri decided to own the Waseda Small Theater. It was renamed Waseda Drama-kan and continued to produce countless performances. In 1997, Waseda University purchased the coffee shop building where the Waseda Small Theater was originally based. The name was changed to the Waseda Cultural Arts Theater Plaza Drama-kan, a site which was soon beloved by students as a space for theater performances. There had been a deep connection with Waseda student theater since when the Waseda Drama-kan was owned by Sumio Morijiri. During the 35-year period until the Drama-kan was closed, it invigorated theater culture at Waseda and was used by many theatrical troupes including Zazous Theater, Sessya Munieru, TOKYO ORANGE, potudo-ru, Asagaya Spiders, Engeki Club, Gekidan Shin, Kurumeru Theater, Teatro 50’, many of which are still active today. I think that Masato Sakai, Daisuke Miura, Keishi Nagatsuka, and other thespians who are currently active in theater, television and film performed on the stage. However, since the Drama-kan was not an official theater, it was unable to charge admission fees. In many cases, performances were supported by donations.

The newly constructed Waseda Small Theater Drama-kan is a true theater, not merely a university facility. Despite having a rich theater culture and producing countless theater professionals, this is the first time that Waseda University will have a true theater. This brings us to the question—how will this theater be used?

Photograph provided by the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT)

Although it has only been three years since the former Drama-kan was closed, conditions surrounding student theater have changed greatly. Of course, theater is still alive at Waseda University. Every year, students enrolled in my seminar are involved in performances either as actors or staff. However, upon going to see a performance, the venue is often a free space located outside or in the basement of the Student Union Building. None of these venues are registered as a theater. This is despite the healthy functioning of an atelier which is operated by the Sodai Gekiken (Waseda Theater Research Association) behind Okuma Auditorium. Since there was no official theater on campus and renting an outside theater costs too much money, the use of free space was unavoidable. However, there is a fundamental difference between such free spaces and true theaters.

When examining the history of drama in Japan, underground theaters in the 1960s took an aversion to conventional theater which was systematic and framed by a proscenium arch. These underground theaters cultivated new performance spaces such as tents and streets. However, in the 1970s, Kohei Tsuka held performances at the Kinokuniya Hall. Moreover, the 1980s were at the zenith of small theaters, with countless venues such as Jean-Jean and Theater Tops, which don’t exist. In some respect, Kinokuniya Hall functioned as a sort of ultimate “goal.” From the 1990s and onward, young theatrical troupes aspired to perform in Shimokitazawa, an area which contained the Honda Theater, "Geki" Small Theater, Ekimae Theater and Suzunari Theater. In recent years, there are many young theatrical troupes which have become independent of the Oriza Hirata’s Komaba Agora Theater. No matter how small these troupes may have been, they have fulfilled an undisputable role in conveying drama culture as “theaters.” These troupes also contained experienced staff with an insatiable love for theater. A performance is only as great as the energy contained by the theater itself. Even today, theaters continue to cultivate and store that energy, creating a wondrous force that turns the everyday into the extraordinary. To give a familiar example, the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum where I serve as director was constructed in the image of the Fortune Playhouse from the Elizabethan Era and has an outdoor apron stage. Without exception, thespians visiting our museum all want to stand on that apron stage. Most likely, the sole reason for such interest is the rarity encountering in Asia a public theater evoking the Elizabethan Era. At the risk of being misunderstood, the stage attracts the performers.

©Madoka Nishiyama

It is understandable why students today prefer reasonable and convenient free spaces which are equipped with lighting facility and audio equipment. In truth, I see nothing wrong with giving theatrical performances in free space or multi-purpose halls. Finding more venues for drama is undoubtedly a good thing, and the idea that “drama,” “stage” and “theater” are inextricably intertwined is too rigid. However, I believe that the ideology and dynamics of a stage are the reason that true theaters continue to be popular. A stage is waiting for a performance to take shape. Furthermore, a theater possesses knowledgeable staff with a true love of theater. I hope that Waseda Small Theater Drama-kan will seek to become such a theater.

A theater also hosts an intersection of various cultures and facilitates communication among gathered people. On November 17, 2014, a symposium entitled “Creating & Cultivating Theater—For the Future of Small Theater” (operated by the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum) was held at the Waseda University Ono Memorial Auditorium as part of events to commemorate the start of construction for the Waseda Small Theater Drama-kan. During the symposium, the importance of a “neighborhood theater” was explained by Makoto Sato (Artistic Director of ZA-KOENJI Public Theatre), Akio Miyazawa (Leader of U-enchi Saisei Jigyodan), and Oriza Hirata (Leader of Seinendan). On April 23, 2015, a discussion between Oriza Hirata and Waseda University President Kaoru Kamata was held at Okuma Memorial Auditorium to celebrate the completion of construction. President Kamata discussed his vision for Waseda Small Theater Drama-kan as a base for invigorating the drama culture of Waseda and Shinjuku. We must ensure that the Waseda neighborhood becomes a center for conveying theater culture, with a leading role played by the Waseda Small Theater Drama-kan. Accordingly, we must seek the role of an open theater so that it will contribute to the invigoration of the community, as well as the growth of theater culture in Shinjuku and all of Japan. From securing rehearsal space to hiring an artistic director and expert stage staff, there are still countless issues to be addressed. However, to start, I simply want students to actively use the Drama-kan and to experience the process of giving a performance at a theater. Still, this alone is not enough; I also want to invite outstanding external theater groups to perform at the Drama-kan, thus giving students the opportunity to enjoy top-quality performances. I hope that such experiences will help in raising the level of student theater, thus infusing great energy into Waseda University drama and the theater town of Waseda.

Professor Minako Okamuro
Director, Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Minako Okamuro was born in 1958. She holds the position of Professor at the Waseda University Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences (affiliated with the Studies of Media, Body and Image, School of Culture, Media and Society). She received her PhD from the National University of Ireland (University College Dublin). She specializes in modern drama theory, with notable expertise on Samuel Beckett, and in television drama theory, with emphasis on Kankuro Kudo. Her main works include Theater of Knowledge, Knowledge of Play (2005) She has also co-written/co-edited many works including All about Beckett (1999), Borderless Beckett/ Beckett sans frontières. Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui 19 (2008), Samuel Beckett!—Criticism in the Future (2012), Rethinking 1960s Theater (2012), and Eight Ways of Looking at Samuel Beckett—Borderless Criticism (2013).