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E2343e – Recording “Lost Performances”: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Activities of Enpaku

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Current Awareness-E No.406

14 January, 2021

Recording “Lost Performances”: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Activities of Enpaku


The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University (familiarly known as Enpaku) is a research institute and museum on the culture of theatre and motion pictures. Since April 2020, Enpaku has been conducting investigations and collecting materials on performances that had to be cancelled or postponed in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 7, Enpaku also began hosting an online exhibition. While diverse efforts are being made across Japan to archive the unprecedented pandemic (see E2282, E2283, E2321), our attempt aimed to historicize the “present” from the perspective of theatre and to accumulate plays that could not be performed in 2020, not as “memories” of those involved, but as public “records” to be passed down to the next generations.

If a play is not actually performed, then the work is not expressed at that moment. The cancellation and postponement of performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic deprived these performances of their very existence. People’s thoughts, not only those of playwrights, directors, actors, and staff, but also those of many audience members, as well as the time spent, should not be wiped out as though they did not exist. Instead of leaving this historical vacuum unfilled, we wanted to archive the situation in which nothing was performed.

How do we “preserve” theatre, which, by definition, do not remain in a tangible form? This is the fundamental proposition that the museum has faced since its opening. While all sorts of things become elements that make up theatre, under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, flyers and posters become the proof that the play existed (or should have existed). Stronger meanings are given to these materials.

Among plays that were influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic were those cancelled right before the flyers were distributed, as well as those cancelled before the flyers were printed and thus only data exist. We also heard that many flyers were initially planned to be discarded right away. We thought that collecting and preserving flyers and other materials, which had no place to go and would disappear if left alone, is a way to keep “lost performances” to records and memories. Based on an investigation that began in April, the museum began collecting materials from mid-June.

In doing so, we asked each organization to provide variety of materials on plays, not just flyers and posters, but also programs, scripts, notices about cancellation or postponement of performances, videos, and photos. As materials were gradually gathered, we decided to host an online exhibition using images of flyers and other materials. Emphasizing the responsiveness to the times as well as the significance to host an exhibition in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we launched the online exhibition “Lost in Pandemic―Theatre Adrift, Expression’s New Horizons” on October 7, six months after the first governmental declaration of state of emergency was issued.

Initially, 63 flyers were made public. As of January 5, 2021, 150 flyers are exhibited (the total number of materials including flyers reach over 620). While many materials were provided particularly by small theatre companies and organizations in urban areas, regional theatre companies also provided materials. Theatre companies for children and youth as well as puppet theatres companies, which may not be as known as those for adults, also provided materials. We included comments from people engaged in performances and aimed to archive memories with the “words” of people who faced the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is no exaggeration to say that this project would not have been possible without support and cooperation of organizations that provided materials. We were able to obtain permissions for release of flyers currently exhibited online, including copyrights for flyer designs, illustrations, and photos, as well as portrait rights for actors, if any. Permissions were all taken care of by respective organizations as they provided materials. We cannot thank enough people who made all the efforts despite the difficult situations they were in.

According to our survey, over 800 performances (not the number of stages but counted by the number of titles) has been cancelled or postponed since late February 2020. However, we have not been able to approach all of them to ask for provision of resources, and our inquiry has not reached many performances. Our investigation on cancellation and postponement of performances as well as resource collection have continued. The online exhibition is also being updated.

How does Enpaku intend to make use of accumulated resources on performances?

First, we will disclose and disseminate them through exhibitions. Taking the online exhibition as one momentum, we plan to host, as our 2021 spring exhibition, a physical exhibition under the theme of performing arts covered by the COVID-19 pandemic. There, we see the need to cover not only “lost performances,” but also plays that were performed amid the pandemic – “performances that were not lost” – as well as the emergence of new expressions that were attempted precisely because of the recent situation.

Second, we will develop a system for storing and viewing of materials. Following our routine procedure, flyers and programs will be numbered as theatrical performance materials and be registered in the museum’s comprehensive theatre information database “Digital Archive Collection” for viewing among users. Other physical materials would normally be assigned to responsible sections by material types such as scripts and videos for organization and registration. However, materials collected this time are scheduled to be stored as a single collection on COVID-19. It is an urgent task to establish an environment where materials can be easily accessed. This is not only for audience who could not visit theatres and people engaged in performances, but also for research purposes.

Since the end of 2020, the number of infected people has continued to increase day by day. The number of newly infected people in the Tokyo Prefecture reached 1,337 by the New Year’s Eve. Now into the new year, at the time of writing this article, the second declaration of the state of emergency for the Tokyo metropolitan area is imminent. How long will this situation persist? Will there be more “lost performances”? Because we live in the times of unforeseeable future, our museum must collect records of performances confronting the COVID-19 pandemic and pass them onto the next generation.

Written by Goto Ryuki
The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University
Translated by Okada Aya

*Notes are not being translated and remain in Japanese language.

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