On Theatre E9, a new black box venue in Kyoto

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on November 6th 2019.

When Theatre E9 Kyoto opened its doors to the public in June 2019, the venue’s artistic director, Satoshi Ago, threw down the gauntlet with the bold claim that he would “create a theater that will last for a century.”

Between 2015 and 2017, five fringe theater venues closed in Kyoto, including Atelier Gekiken, which Ago ran from 2014 to 2017. When Gekiken first opened in 1984 under the name Artspace Mumonkan, it was part of a revival of shōgekijō (small theaters) in Japan’s former capital, but it was forced to cease operations due to a lack of funding and the venue’s sale by its elderly proprietor.

Ago sees the problem of funding as part of a long tradition in Japan.

“The performing arts have existed for the past 2,500 years and continue to be renewed,” he says. “However, in the case of Japan after the Meiji Restoration (in 1868), unlike music and fine arts, the theater has never been part of a national arts policy or educational curriculum. Instead, the theater has always been nurtured by patrons and the public.”

Undeterred by the spate of venue closures, Ago, along with other members of the E9 steering group, which includes kyogen actor Akira Shigeyama, artist Miwa Yanagi, production manager Hideya Seki and technical manager Shuji Hamamura, set out to create a new socially and financially stable venue with a core mission to serve its local community.

E9 takes its name from its location in Higashikujo (East Ninth Street) to the southeast of Kyoto Station. The former warehouse is just steps away from the Kamo River, whose wide, dry riverbed was the birthplace of kabuki. The venue comprises a 90-seat theater space, a separate studio — called Studio Seedbox — and a co-working office space. The whole operation is run under the collective name Arts Seed Kyoto.

The term “seed” is significant, since it refers to the venue’s developmental role in a community beset by under investment and struggling with the effects of an aging population. In 2017, Kyoto launched a 10-year cultural regeneration project in the Higashikujo area. E9 is a key cultural venue in this public-oriented project. The steering group thought long and hard about what the term “public” in “public theater” means today. Some venues claim to be public, but are privately owned or rely heavily on government funding, which often comes with curatorial strings attached.

On Oct. 7, an “emergency symposium” was held at E9 to debate the progress of the regeneration project, with attendees voicing concern about the lack of local consensus and consultation on local government project proposals.

Reflecting on his experience at Atelier Gekiken, Ago says that, “creating a sustainable, independent theater cannot be left to individuals. It must be a collective endeavor.”

In concrete terms, this means making access to the venue affordable, nurturing young artists, conducting outreach work and ensuring unfettered debate and artistic expression. E9 is attempting to do all this on a shoestring budget derived mainly from philanthropic donations.

Nearly half of the core funding to build the venue came from crowdsourced donations.

“Crowdfunding was crucial not only in terms of finance, but also in terms of being able to identify and establish a lasting relationship with part of our audience,” says E9’s theater manager, Yota Kageyama. The remaining money was sourced through other means, one of which was a collaboration with La Himawari, a company that specializes in shared office space.

Kageyama takes pride in the fact that E9’s co-working office space is unique in Japanese theater.

“It opens up a potential interface with businesses who would otherwise have little contact with the performing arts.”

Connected to this, in February 2020, Ago will run an art and business workshop aimed at the business community.

“The concept is that by learning how to create a theater production, business professionals can find new ways to enhance creativity in working environments and product development — and vice versa,” says Kageyama.

“Despite these innovations, even when the venue is at full capacity, E9 still runs at a loss. To offset running costs, we operate our own ticketing system and do all the publicity in-house,” he says. This is unusual for a Japanese theater, since the tendency is to outsource ticket and public relations operations to third-party companies at a high cost. By maintaining a high standard of artistic work, E9’s founders hope to offer visiting companies a decent return on ticket sales.

Since the opening of the venue with a kyogen performance by Shigeyama in June and the premiere of Ago’s play, “Palace of the Senses,” in July, the venue’s inaugural program, which runs through March 2020, is drawing in the crowds.

“So far, it’s going really well. The inaugural program has sold out,” Kageyama says.

The program runs on an open application model, with particular focus on work by local theater companies, who are allowed access to the space at a special discounted price.

E9 hope to be a beacon of hope for freedom of expression in the Japanese arts world. Maintaining a fully independent arts space is no mean feat given the social, economic and political pressures that artistic directors and producers face today. Factors such as a lack of theater education programs in Japan, venue closures due to aging ownership, “safe programming” in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and politically motivated attacks are real forces to reckon with when trying to make a mark on the nation’s arts map.

Only time will tell whether E9 will last 100 years. If it doesn’t, it certainly won’t be due to a lack of passion and hard work. The determination of all those involved in its operation is a testament to the fundamental belief in theater’s ability to forge community ties, champion free speech and nurture new generations of artists.

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