Feature: Shaking up theatre
Feature: Shaking up theatre
Japan’s Shiki Theatre Company not only finished rebuilding two theatres during the pandemic but is now staging international productions of Frozen and Phantom of the Opera. Caroline Moss pays a virtual visit
Shiki is one of the best-known theatre companies in Japan. Since it was set up almost 70 years ago, the company has gone on to stage almost 3,000 performances to an audience of over three million in a typical year, employing more than 700 actors and staff. Shiki operates seven theatres for its exclusive use, and in recent years its programming has branched out from straight plays towards Western and Japanese musicals.
The Shiki Theatre Company was founded in 1953 on France’s Bastille Day – 14 July – by a group of university students aspiring to bring about a revolution in the theatrical world. They wished to decentralise the epicentre of culture from the Tokyo metropolitan area and make it more accessible to all of Japan by opening theatres in multiple cities. The company presents a wide variety of shows including plays, original musicals and international productions from New York City’s Broadway and London’s West End, as well as all Disney shows transferring to Japan. Each venue requires technology that is adaptable and can accommodate changes between types of shows, as well as between productions and rehearsals.
In 2017, two of the theatres, JR-East Performing Art Center’s Shiki Theatre Haru and Aki – spring and autumn, respectively – were closed due to the redevelopment of Tokyo’s Takeshiba district, with a plan to entirely rebuild and reopen in 2020 as JR-East Shiki Theatre (Haru) and JR-East Shiki Theatre (Aki). Haru had had a record-breaking run with 6,327 performances of The Lion King to an audience of 6.88 million, while Aki had staged 91 productions more than 5,670 times for 4.02 million people. During the redevelopment, both theatres were demolished and reconstructed from the ground up in exactly the same locations as before, and now form part of the Waters Takeshiba waterfront multiplex development.
Due to the impact of Covid-19, the opening night of Phantom of the Opera at the new, 1,200-seat Aki theatre was postponed from July to October 2020. Meanwhile, the slightly larger, 1,500-capacity Haru opened in January 2021 with original Shiki production, The Bridge, before it was finally able to go ahead with Disney’s Frozen in June.
Since Shiki stages so many productions, the company purchases and operates all its equipment rather than renting. Three members of the company are responsible for selecting, designing, installing and tuning the systems before handing over to the show operators. Every effort is made to keep up with the latest technology, and this often involves visits to overseas factories to select new technology, providing feedback to manufacturers on product development.
In some cases, overseas designers are responsible for everything from equipment selection to tuning, with Shiki installing the equipment based on data received. Both new theatres have been installed with Meyer Sound systems provided by local distributor Artwiz, with a planned Constellation setup for Haru postponed due to travel restrictions. Currently, Haru is running an installed L-R system consisting of 13 Meyer Sound Leopard compact line array speakers and two 900-LFC low-frequency control elements per side. Six more 900-LFCs are flown as a centre hang along with four UPQ-D2s. Down fill is provided by one Lina, front fill by six Ultra X22-XPs and orchestra side fill by two MM4XPs. Delay systems include under balcony delays of six UPJunior-XPs and seven Ultra X22-XPs, a balcony delay system of four Ultra X42s and two Ultra X22s for mezzanine delay. Foldback monitors include UPJ-1Ps, UPM-2Ps, MM4s and E6s, with MM4XPs, UPJuniors and E6s for special effects (SE). Processing for the entire system is handled by D-Mitri DAI-24, D-Mitri DAO-24, D-Mitri DCP-72, D-Mitri DGPIO, Galaxy 816, MPS-488HP and MPS-482HP units with Stagetec Nexus I/O devices, and DiGiCo’s theatre-specific SD7T Quantum at FOH. During tech rehearsals, a DiGiCo EX-007 in the centre of the auditorium was used to make adjustments remotely, but during the show it is placed next to the main console and used by a sub-operator, mainly to balance the orchestra.
The Meyer Sound Constellation system will be tuned early next year, to include UP-4slim, Ashby-5C and 8C, UP4XP and UMS-1XPSM elements running on the D-Mitri platform.
A Sennheiser EM 6000 digital radio mic receiver with SK 6212 digital mini bodypacks and MKE 1 miniature lavalier mics are used on the cast.
Over at Aki, Phantom of the Opera – set to be a long-running production – started on 24 October 2020. When rehearsals started in September, Arthur Masella, who as associate director of international productions has overseen versions of the Andrew Lloyd Webber show for three decades, worked across time zones from his home in New York together with music director Kristen Blodgette, also in New York, and UK-based choreographer, Patricia Merrin.
The show opened with an L-R Meyer Sound system consisting of four CQ-1s, four UPQ-1Ps, two UPJuniors and four UPA-2Ps, with two 500HP subs, two 900-LFC orchestral subs, six UP4XPs for front fill, six UP4slim for under balcony delay and four for mezzanine delay and a further UP4slims for orchestra and mezzanine seats. Monitoring is being provided by a combination of Meyer Sound UPJ-1P, UPJunior, UP4XP and CQ-1 speakers, with Apogee SAT-3, Bose S1-Pro and Turbosound TQ-308 models on SE, the latter for moving the voice of the phantom around. Wireless mics on this production are Sennheiser EM 3732-II and SK 5212-II systems with MKE 2 subminiature lavaliers.
The main mixer is a Yamaha CSR-10, which mainly controls the wireless microphones, with a CSR-10S for the orchestra and SE. These are controlled by a Yamaha DSP-RX-EX DSP engine on a console network. Three Yamaha RPIO 622 I/O racks are also being used. The recording and playback system is a Tascam DA-6400 with Dante input.
Both newly renovated theatres have also been provided with Clear-Com’s Encore Analog Partyline. The configuration for each location consists of a four-channel MS-704 main station and KB-702, KB-701, RS-702 or RS-701 remote stations, depending on where they are used. The full-duplex platform allows production staff on the same channel to carry out bidirectional communication, and systems can scale over standard mic cable or IP interfaces.
Japan has been one of the few places worldwide to continue producing theatre on a large scale fairly consistently throughout the pandemic, due in part to its extensive test-and-trace practices from the onset. However, it is estimated that around half of annual performances have been lost.
“Although the situation has recovered, the company is still dealing with the severe situation, such as rules for maximum audience numbers,” explains Kaname Morishita, one of three sound preparation specialists from the Shiki technical department. “We have taken all kinds of infection control measures in the auditorium and lobby of course, but also in the dressing rooms and orchestra pit. Visits to Japan by overseas creative staff for Frozen were also affected by Covid-19, with travel restrictions, headcount limits and a two-week quarantine period after entry. There were a number of challenges we had to face while exploring every possible means, including working remotely via the internet.”
Despite all the restrictions in place, both new theatres have managed to reach completion, open their doors and start staging long-planned international productions during a global pandemic. In doing so, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Shiki Theatre Company, which was built with the aspiration of bringing about a revolution in the theatrical world, has achieved its goal.