The History of Kyoto Experiment

Yusuke Hashimoto
Program Director, Kyoto Experiment

The following text is an excerpt from “A Festival That Is Both Structure and Movement,” published in the Kyoto Experiment 2011 Operations Report (March 2012). It has been edited and expanded.


Background to the Experiment

Kyoto Experiment launched in autumn 2010 but now I would like to look back on that history, including some aspects of it that have not been made public before.

First, something happened that led us to crown the festival with the word “experiment.” It was late in the autumn of 2005.

At the time, I was planning the Contemporary Theater Program for Kyoto Art Center. This had started in 2004 and, having successfully completed the second year, we were then searching around for ways to develop it further. For advice, I went to Shogo Ohta, who was one of the judges for the Kyoto Art Center Performing Arts Award, a competition for directors that we were running as part of the program. He suggested the following. “How about making it into a theater festival? An ‘experimental’ one.” Experimental… I couldn’t take in that word so suddenly, but he continued. “If you say something is ‘experimental’ in Japan, it now means something with a specific genre or that’s quite limited—at times it even has a scornful nuance. But if we take a look more widely at the world in the field of the arts, to say something is ‘experimental,’ there is a certain understanding of it as something indicating a somewhat broader artistic tendency or stance than a fixed genre, and there are even festivals that use the word in their names.” While I can’t vouch fully for the accuracy, I think this was the rough gist.

Whether or not I got what he meant at the time is hard to say, but certainly I regarded “experimental theater” then as something troublesome or tiresome, so it was striking to hear Ohta remark that the label did not always have such a negative nuance when viewed more broadly in the world. That being said, this exchange was relegated to some corner in my memory until we started the concrete preparations for the festival in summer 2009.


Another Background: The State of the Performing Arts in Kyoto

Before continuing with the story, let’s go back even further to the Contemporary Theater Program, which was the origin of this. The organizer, Kyoto Art Center, opened in the year 2000 and when I visited the production studio in the center in my then capacity as a theater company production coordinator, I was gripped by a strange feeling.

In short, it was a feeling somewhat like surprise at the “comfy” facilities and that someone could have set up such an environment. Until a year prior I had been sneaking into university classrooms at night to do rehearsals and, amid gradually worsening strictures, I was wandering from university to university. But here was Kyoto Art Center, where one could potentially occupy a single room for up to three months if one passed the screening and hold rehearsals while keeping the stage design in place.

Needless to say, it is a fact that the facility came about on the wishes of Kyoto City, who set it up, but I also think that this style of management could not have been realized without people who are involved in artistic activities. I slowly came to see that this was the influence of the meeting of people working in the stage arts in Kyoto—what is today the incorporated nonprofit Kyoto Performing Arts Organization. This first organized network for people in the performing arts in Kyoto started in 1996, centering on such figures as the playwrights and directors Toshiro Suzue, Masataka Matsuda, and Hideo Tsuchida, and the producer Jun Sugiyama.

Around 1997, when I came to Kyoto and began working in theater in, the scene in the city was really picking up steam with the aforementioned Suzue and Matsuda winning the Kishida Kunio Drama Award, and the triumph of the play Cape Moon, produced at Kyoto Arts Festival, at the Yomiuri Theater Awards, while the group Dumb Type was making waves on the world stage. I was a member of the audience at the time but I could nonetheless somehow sense that there was a movement. (Of course, a scene was also developing in Osaka based around private theater spaces.) On the other hand, they also built up an intellectual camaraderie while organizing themselves into such a kind of association, forming opinions as members of the performing arts industry, and producing outward-looking actions as well as magazines such as Leaf, which published scripts.

However, at the time I didn’t realize that an arts-based “movement” and that association’s social “action” were closely related. That is, I couldn’t even envision that an arts-based movement could modify as a social action. As such, I couldn’t understand that Kyoto Art Center came about based on an extremely rare balance between the efforts of my seniors in the theater world and understanding from the government figures involved. This was the cause of my sense of the “comfy” facilities as something abnormal.

And then I came to realize two things. One was that if we merely abide by what our predecessors have built up, we would simply squander it. The second was that the arts center is simultaneously a place and a project base. As such, it became a question of searching for more creative means of operating. In this way, I resolved to work directly on delivering proposals for activating Kyoto Art Center more fully as a place for creativity, and, with Shigeki Marui, who was then working at the center, we started the Contemporary Theater Program project.

The content of the program revolved around the three pillars of producing theater work, a competition for young directors, and theater criticism, and its central concept can be summarized as follows. The artists with whom we produced new work would take part in two years of continued involvement in the program and commit to the initiatives undertaken during that time frame. Our selection process for choosing the next generation of directing talent would be made thoroughly public. Not simply presenting the work, the program would establish opportunities for discussion for engaging with the artists’ interests or various issues related to the performing arts from multifaceted and critical perspectives. Moreover, we decided to preserve and record these parts related to discourse in a report. Imposing feedback on ourselves each time, we proceeded with the mindset of maintaining these three pillars while also remaining open to changing our approach. When it came to the task of expanding this program, we formed a planning team and received input from many others, including Masataka Matsuda as well as Toru Sakai and Naoto Moriyama from Kyoto Performing Arts Center at Kyoto University of Art and Design. (Incidentally, the latter opened in 2001, almost at the same time as Kyoto Art Center.)

Continuing our efforts in this way, the achievements gradually started to become visible. Of the works produced as part of this project, Shiro Maeda’s Isn’t Anyone Alive? won the Kishida Kunio Drama Award and Zan Yamashita’s It is written there was invited to Kunstenfestivaldesarts, the world-famous festival in Brussels. The trajectories of their subsequent activities is well known by people interested in the performing arts in Japan. Even for the parts that were harder to visualize, a network with overseas partners was steadily built up. It goes without saying that these efforts became the seeds that allowed us to work with so many superb artists from Japan and overseas in our festival today.


Towards the Next Step: Awareness of Community-based Activities

Unfortunately, in contrast to the growing interest from the people running the program as well as audiences, we were increasingly forced to decide about how we could continue our efforts economically. Since this project was planned in such a way as to prioritize holding events like symposia not expected to be profitable, as opposed to a project aimed at revitalizing somewhere, we were dependent on public support for much of the funding. However, we started to experience difficulties in obtaining public support from around 2008. One of the reasons we received for this was that it was hard to continue subsidizing the same program, given that it had already been going for four years from 2004 to 2007. We were told during the screening process that they wanted more novelty. Moreover, since the screening was by and large conducted by Tokyo-based specialists, we had to propose more easily comprehensible visions and results or it would be hard to catch their attention. I remember being told something very straight by a critic involved in the screening for a certain subsidy program. “It’s going to be really interesting this time, so please come see it,” I said. “In which case,” the critic replied, “do a performance also in Tokyo.” I felt an incredibly strong sense of unease at this.

In addition, it has become the custom in recent years to talk noisily about the importance of regions and communities, and even the arts sector has started to employ community originality as part of assessment criteria. From the situation mentioned above, I could sense the demand for some form of a “region” that people in Tokyo can see, even though they would never actually go there in spite of all their talk of regionality. And I also had doubts about this kind of atmosphere that sort of encourages regions to present themselves as “rural.” Before starting to write this, I found some materials to look back over the situation in the 1980s and 1990s. It seemed like people then, at a time when the infrastructure for public funding was not in place yet, went back home and could achieve original approaches in the ways they ran their projects, thus avoiding considerable overconcentration. I would like to touch on this further at a different juncture. Either way, it was certainly the case that this prompted me to think about the next stage in the development of the program.

The question of how to harness the resources of the region and establish it as a context is definitely not something that comes from external pressure. As such, I thought that if you are aware of the existence of that context, then you become persuasive only by proposing the context not just qualitatively but also quantitatively. For example, if one were to arrange it so that on a weekend people could go sightseeing as well as see two or three performances, then it would form a motivation for going to Kyoto. That is one of the reasons we chose the format of a festival.


Organizing the Festival

In 2009, the festival was officially confirmed and preparations began. The management body for the festival was an executive committee comprising Kyoto City, Kyoto Arts and Culture Foundation, Kyoto Art Center, and Kyoto Performing Arts Center at Kyoto University of Art and Design. This committee that forms the decision-making body not only has members from each of the participating organizations but these organizations also supply employees to take roles within the direct running of the festival. As I have explained, these organizations had by now developed connections related to contemporary theater and dance through the Contemporary Theater Program, meaning forming such an executive committee was almost a nature course of events. That being said, they were fundamentally separate organizations. Each had its own style of working and values. At committee meetings as well as on-site, discrepancy between working methods inevitably appeared, and it is a fact that there was conflict at various places. But I myself don’t view this negatively. Rather than inclining towards the styles of each organization, we searched for the format appropriate for running our festival, which, in turn, led the various parties to reassess their own activities. While this may seem somewhat minor, we could discuss and share incredibly concrete approaches to running the festival, from producing and developing publicity materials, ticket prices and ways to sell the tickets, and even venue opening times and arranging how audiences entered the venues. This all allowed us to reinterpret the performing arts not only from the perspective of the content of the theater and dance works but also from the staging. Of course, to date we have only done the festival twice and have yet to hit on the perfect approaches. We must continue searching but, at the least and without doubt, the time spent on this process has value.