XTRAX Global Conversations: producer Yoko Ono talks to us about Outdoor Arts in Japan following the COVID-19 outbreak

In light of the current challenges facing international collaboration, XTRAX is hosting a series of online conversations to continue engaging with international colleagues, facilitate information-sharing across borders, and spark a debate about the future of our sector. We started this programme with a webinar hosted as part of the XTRAX/SIRF Online Showcase 2020 which featured contributions from speakers across Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.

Continuing our series of Global Conversations XTRAX Project Manager, Hannah Hartley spoke to Yoko Ono, Producer for After Cloudy Company and supporting producer for Roppongi Art Night, Tokyo – who Hannah met earlier this year when we visited TPAM (Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama) – about the current situation for the outdoor sector in Japan.

 

Konnichiwa, Yoko. It feels like a different world since we met in Tokyo in February! What is the current situation for outdoor performance in Japan, following the COVID-19 outbreak? Are you able to host events under the current restrictions in the country?

Currently outdoor performance is not forbidden in Japan, but the audience has to be less than 5000. If the performance uses public facilities, it also needs to get the permission of local government and follow the guidelines from authorities.

The first live street performance festival since the COVID-19 outbreak took place in Aichi prefecture on 11-12 July at Aichi Kenkonomori Koen which is a big public park sized about 51.5 hectares. This festival, the Japan Daidogei Festival (Daidogei means street performance in Japanese), was organized by an agent named Event Partner. They organized this non-profit festival mainly to support performers in a difficult financial situation to raise funds and to bring hope and enjoyment to audiences. They used their own money and collected funds through crowdfunding to support the event cost.

As the number of audiences is limited and to control the spread of the virus, entry was restricted to local audiences living in Tokai area which is Aichi and 3 other prefectures. Audiences had to show their ID and leave their contact information at an entry point at the gate of the park and were issued with a wristband. Around performance sites, there was a clear demarcation for the audience to ensure they kept an appropriate distance. The audience also had to wear masks and were forbidden from shouting – but they could still clap to show their enjoyment!

As I am living in Tokyo, I couldn’t go to this festival. But it sounded very well organized and people said that the audience seemed to really enjoy it, that they had been missing live performance. Although, I worry that the regulations might change the atmosphere of a festival. For example, normally the audience can have much more interaction with performers, during or after their shows. But even in such difficult circumstances, it was so successful that they decided to plan a second festival for November this year. This can serve as a great example which can help other festivals and events to go ahead.

 

What do you think this means for the future of artistic programming for events and festivals? How might programmes change following the COVID-19 outbreak?

Unfortunately, it will be difficult to have international performers this year. Some festivals and events are focusing on localised programming and will have much smaller programmes than usual. But on the other hand, it could be a great and new opportunity for Japanese performers to find another way to perform, and for programmers to support our local artists.

In Tokyo, COVID-19 rates of infection are increasing again. So, the situation is changing a lot day by day. Many cultural venues have reopened but they must manage within so many challenging regulations – especially the limitation on number of audiences. However, I think that changing our perspective may bring out other new ideas and ways to adapt. For that reason, I think it is important to keep sharing new ideas to enable us to continue creating something enjoyable for the audience and supporting performers.

For example, my colleague organizes an event called Circus Bazaar with a public theatre in Saitama prefecture. Fortunately, they don’t cancel this event but have found creative ways to reformat it. It will be smaller than usual and ticketed to control numbers. The children’s workshop programme is usually very popular, and this year they are working with artists to deliver creative activities in public areas of the venue which normally wouldn’t be permitted.  Although this is a small change, as all events have limitations now, it shows that as organisers and artists we must show ingenuity and flexibility. Also, an important thing is gaining the awareness, trust and support of the audience. Organizers and audience need to cooperate to make an enjoyable event.

Roppongi Art Night 2020 has been cancelled and I can’t say anything at this moment. We hope that the 2020 artistic programme will be carried over to the new date, but at this moment, it is really hard to predict.

 

We have noted that here in the UK, and more widely in Europe, outdoor arts are considered to have an important role in supporting the recovery of the cultural sector and bringing communities back together following the trauma of recent events; particularly whilst many indoor venues remain closed. Is this also the case in Japan? 

In Kanagawa prefecture, some venues re-started street performances from end of July and early August. The producer for these events said that the audience was unexpectedly large, and performers were having to find new ways to control the audience so that they did not get too close to one another. I think this popularity shows that audiences are waiting and ready to join cultural events again, and that these performances can play a special role in bringing joy to people who have suffered from the self-restraint and lack of social connection during these times.

At the same time, most indoor venues such as theatres, movie theatres and concert halls have re-opened recently in Japan so the circumstances are a bit different here. As there are published guidelines from the authorities on how to manage indoor performance, it seems that it is easier in some ways than planning outdoor events. Event organisers working outdoors have to consider their own guidelines under the circumstances of COVID-19 and risk assess their activities so are understandably concerned about making sure that they are delivering this effectively. To minimise these concerns, one street performance festival in Tokyo in October is preparing to go ahead but will actually start to use an indoor theatre for the first time as a venue, as well as hosting a new online programme.

However, in Kanagawa prefecture and especially Yokohama City there is a long-established history of street performance with performances happening since 1986 and so the authorities and organising committees have a good working relationship and are more supportive of the re-starting of street performance.

It sounds like there is a need for outdoor events organisers to find ways to build up the trust and support of the authorities, so they feel better able to deliver events. Despite such challenges for live events, what new opportunities do you think might be present for artists and producers that maybe didn’t exist before? For example, you have mentioned online programmes.

As in other countries, in Japan we also have opportunities to present outdoor performance through the internet. There are now some national and local government grants available for online performance. However, of course, the real pleasure of outdoor performances is watching it outdoors and live. So, it requires considerable ingenuity to deliver something high quality online. Most performers never focused on online performance until now, but I know some performers are now creating very interesting online work supported by grants and I think this presents some exciting new opportunities which we should continue to explore.

 

What do you imagine international collaboration in 2021 and beyond in our sector will look like? What form do you think that will take for your own events and the sector in Japan?

I really hope we can get the COVID-19 outbreak under control and re-start our collaborations with other countries in early 2021. We are now learning how to live with this virus and control how it spreads, until a vaccine or therapeutic medicine will be made available. I may be optimistic but I think it is possible. But on the other hand, some events are already not planning to have international exchange next year. I think the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics in 2021 will be the key for all events in Japan. If it is cancelled again, so many other events will be cancelled. The effect on the wider sector will be immeasurable.

 

Can you share one final thought on how outdoor arts as a sector can remain connected across geographical, cultural and bureaucratic borders despite the fact we are existing in a very uncertain landscape?

This is not a ground-breaking suggestion, but I would be really interested in the possibilities for international festivals in different countries to collaborate on an online/virtual festival somehow, I think this could be a great opportunity.

This is certainly a very exciting idea! Arigatou Gozaimasu Yoko, for sharing your insights with us. Let’s keep connected.

 

About Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono is based in Tokyo, Japan and is Producer for After Cloudy Company (ACC)

Since 1984 ACC has produced a variety of physical performing arts such as circus, clowning, pantomime and street performance, working with artists from all over the world as well as Japanese performers. ACC is a creative production company with a global focus for new performance whilst also remaining true to its traditional Japanese cultural roots and a core aim for the company is to develop the physical performance field in Japan.

Since 1984, ACC has produced Dimitri (Switzerland), Mimikrichi (Ukraine), Aringa e Verdurini (Italy), Nola Rae (UK), Les Cousins (France), BP ZOOM (France), Circus Cirkor (Sweden), Feria Musica (Belgium), Defracto (France), Phare Ponleu Selpak (Cambodia) and many others.

ACC is also an experienced coordinator of circus events and has produced events around the globe, always with the aim to cultivate exchange between audience and performer as well as between the performers themselves. ACC seeks to introduce and coordinate various talented Japanese performers to overseas festivals and events.

Yoko also works as a supporting producer for the annual Roppongi Art Night, an annual festival of arts staged in the district of Roppongi, Tokyo. A diverse range of design, music, video and performance pieces are staged around the Roppongi neighbourhood for one night each year bringing art and street together and enhancing the image of Roppongi as a cultural hub. Roppongi Art Night aims to continue developing its reputation as the capital’s premier art festival.

To connect with Yoko you can email her at yoko-o@accircus.com

Image: Dundu © Roppongi Art Night 2018

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Contact

To find out more about XTRAX Global Conversations contact Hannah Hartley at hannah@xtrax.org.uk 

You can connect with Yoko Ono at yoko-o@accircus.com