BWW Interview: WEST SIDE STORY on a 360 degree Stage in Tokyo!
West Side Story successfully opened in August 2019 at the new IHI StageAround Tokyo theater, which boasts an innovative 360 degree stage. "Isn't that known as in-the-round?" you wonder. "What's with the fancy description?" It does sound like a typical arena setup, where the audience sits on all 4 sides of the stage. But, this time, it's a little different.
Imagine, in a topsy-turvy world, where the audience sits in the center, and the actors perform around them on a stage built as a circle. "But, if the audience is facing forward, how can they see the full 360 degrees of the circle?" Can you imagine, even more, that the audience seats move? So, each time a scene changes in the story, the audience travels there, instead of sitting in stationary darkness waiting for stagehands to change sets as fast as they can to some interim music?
Sitting in darkness has always been something we've just accepted; but, don't you feel like you are taken out of the story during that moment? What if, like a movie, you could be engaged the whole time? In the StageAround theaters, high-tech screens are used instead of red velvet curtains, and become part of the scenery, immersing you into the environment more than ever before! What if you could believe you were really in New York City, moving around the neighborhoods, as if you are riding the train overhead or walking along the street?
As futuristic as it sounds, this 360 stage technology actually exists today! So, who is the mastermind inventing all this new theater stuff? Who is the person creating new ways of storytelling, and rare opportunities of immersion? None other than top movie, tv, and theater producer, Robin De Levita.
Watch a Japanese audience experience their seats moving for the first time!
The first 360 stage was created in 2010 in the Netherlands by Robin and his ImagineNation team. After major success there, the technology intrigued Japanese producer Kumiko Yoshii who worked with TBS to bring StageAround to Tokyo. "Imagine Nation received interest from all over the world," Robin says, "but Kumiko and TBS were the first ones to pull it off." And that's why, right now, Japan and the Netherlands are the only countries where you can be involved in this incredible experience.
To hear from the first American cast to perform on this stage, read their interviews HERE!
In 2017, the IHI StageAround Tokyo space opened with a Japanese production of an epic Samurai drama (Seven Souls in the Skull Castle/Dokurojo no Shichinin). After a successful 15-month run, Broadway sent Director David Saint, Choreographer Julio Monge, Scenic Designer Anna Louizos, and many other huge names to re-imagine West Side Story exactly the way playwright Arthur Laurents had wanted it.
To read David's take on Arthur's vision, and Julio's re-staging of Jerome Robbins choreo, read their interviews HERE!
I had the privilege of interviewing Robin about coming to Japan, and why he felt it was important to create a new live theater experience for the world. The most inspiring thing he told me was that Arts Education deserves support and respect from the government. The impact of theater on our youth is huge! "When kids come to the theater, their phones are switched off. The lights go down. The performance is life and alive. The impact is huge."
The Japanese cast will take over West Side Story in 3 Seasons, starting from November 6th, 2019 and running through January 13th, 2020. Check the schedule and tickets here!
LARISA: How is building/doing business in Japan different from working in Europe or the US?
ROBIN: There are many differences. On a business level there is not that much difference, but the Japanese working culture is different. People are extremely polite and respectful. Everybody delivers in time and finished work. I have never seen anything like it. The only problem is the language. It is not easy to communicate via translators within the complexity of a big production.
L: Why is WSS an important show to bring to Japanese audiences?
ROBIN: First of all it is one of the best musicals ever written. It is truly a historical masterpiece of theater. The story is timeless, but in this day and age extremely relative. If you watch the show, you feel it represents big issues of today; racial tension, gun laws, fear for people that are different. This story provokes thought and discussion.
L: Do you have a message for the Japanese audiences who don't speak English?
ROBIN:Yes, bring young people to the theater. Take them out of their comfort zone. Introduce them to the power of live performance and theatrical story telling.
L: What do you hope the audience takes away from the English version, before the Japanese casts take over?
ROBIN:In the original English version, you see the show in the original language. The original text and lyrics. A cast of American actors and are carefully chosen through castings to represent the time and people that the story is about. This gives real authenticity to the piece. The advantage of the Japanese version is that the audience can hear the show in their native language, performed by the great performers of Japan.
L: In Japan, there is a reputation that your career is dwindling once you go from TV to stage. How can we fight that negative stigma?
ROBIN:These are completely different media. I believe theater is an extremely difficult art form to do right. I am proud to work with the creative talent that works in the arts everywhere.
L: How has the 360 stage design impacted theater in Japan?
ROBIN:I hope it has shown the audience a new experience. The reactions we receive in Japan are not different from anywhere else. People love how the system provides innovative staging possibilities that can take the audience on an immersive journey.
L: How has your TV experience influenced the design of a StageAround stage? Are you hoping the audience can get a more cinematic experience when they come to the theater?
ROBIN:My experience in other media has helped me tremendously in my career in theater. The StageAround system is often credited to be a crossover between stage and cinema. It is a big tool, but just like with conventional theater it relies on what show you create with it.
L: What were the biggest challenges of getting this space set up for WSS?
ROBIN:The set is very large. Also we had very little time to build the set. Everything was built by the Japanese scenic shop Kanai Scene Shop in record time. The work is as good as it gets.
L: What safety risks are there for the actors in a 360 space?
ROBIN:The main thing is not to be hit by the moving screens. This is a constant concern. Not only do they move in front of sets, but they are moving in all directions all over the space.
L: How many stage doors/dressing rooms are there?
ROBIN:We have 1 stage door (backstage entrance) and 13 plus dressing rooms (large and small).
L: How many minutes does it take to walk the full length of the stage?
ROBIN:This is hard to tell. It depends on how you walk. It is quite a maze to get around.
L: How does the audience section turn during a performance? Is there a button to be pushed at the right time, or is the timing programmed into the system, etc?
ROBIN:Both. During the technical rehearsals we program the automation system with every movement. This we call cues. During the show these cues are executed by the system. So yes, it is pushing "Go" and the moves happen as programmed.
L: What advice do you have for tech people who want to work in other countries/other languages?
ROBIN:Learn the language. Without communicating in the country's language, it is very hard to be part of a crew.
L: Why is it important to build new theater spaces, not only for quantity, but for innovative functionality? In other words, why does the theater world need new technology?
ROBIN:I think the audience likes to have a new experience. This is not a necessity, but an opportunity for creatives.
L: In your global experience, do you think each country approaches live theater differently? If yes, what factors make it a different experience?
ROBIN:The main factor is the actual title. Different shows work in different countries for different reasons. It remains very hard to predict what show works. There are so many factors that contribute to success, luck being a big one.
L: How have you seen the theater industry change around the world during your career? Why do you think it's still changing?
ROBIN:There have not been many global blockbusters such as The Phantom or Les Miserables. Meanwhile the genre reinvents itself all the time. Hamilton is a huge hit through the combination of creative factors. These unique approaches will continue to happen in the future.
L: How much does social media help or hurt live theater?
ROBIN:This is a huge question. I believe people share their experience and therefore it is an important factor. Meanwhile as a paid marketing tool it remains hard to measure the direct effect. It certainly has. Not proven to be the golden solution for sales yet.
L: Do you feel theater has audience competition? What can the industry do to keep audiences coming back, or getting patrons involved?
ROBIN:The problem with theater is the costs. Broadway is the most expensive place in the world to create a show. As a result the ticket prices are extremely high. So the biggest competition for theatre is related to money.
L: Does the appeal of theater change by generation? How do you think the next generation will respond to live theater?
ROBIN:I hope the theater can find a younger generation of audience. This is a big challenge and I am thinking about this every day.
L: What's your favorite part of this WSS show?
ROBIN:The prologue is a legend piece of music and choreography.
L: Which has been your favorite show to work on/person to work with? Why?
ROBIN:My favorite show remains ANNE. The play is so powerful and so important. I love working on it and bringing a young audience to the theater.
L: You have an extensive resume and a family that is also involved in TV and theater; if you could have gotten into any other field, what would it have been?
ROBIN:I wanted a career in music. I was a drummer. I would love to be able to compose music.
WEST SIDE STORY is presented by TBS
and is playing at IHI StageAround Tokyo
in Tokyo, Japan through January 2020
Tickets can be purchased from the official website:
To read this article in Japanese, please CLICK HERE.
*Photo credit belongs to Larisa Amaya-Baron. All images used in this article are official promotional images provided by West Side Story, TBS, and John Gore.