THOUGHTS /// “On the Announced Closing of ZED”
By: Steve Long – Guest Writer
My interest in ZED began at the end of CirqueCon 2006, Las Vegas! with word that Cirque du Soleil planned to stage a show at the Tokyo Disneyland Resort (TDR) that would eventually become the focus of CirqueCon 2008, Tokyo!. That was followed by my scouting out the Cirque Theater Tokyo site, the theatre space being built to house ZED and, because I’d lived, worked and performed in Japan, keeping an eye on the show’s development via the related Japanese language websites. An affinity for the show and the artists developed even though there was no more significant connection than the fact that I could identify with non-Japanese artists performing in Japan. (I lived in Japan for a total of 11 years, across 4 long-term trips. My interest in modern Japanese theater first had me watching the shows, then studying the art form and, in the last four years, performing professionally side-by-side with Japanese, in Japanese, touring schools and citizen halls throughout Japan.)
Including the CirqueCon 2008 performance I’ve seen ZED eight times in the past three years.
In following the continuing developments with ZED I’d heard of plans to bring Francois Girard back in the Summer to work on the show. (Something which thrilled me for reasons that could be another entire Fascination article.) Not long after that though came the news that ZED was closing December 31, 2011.
It’s possible that none of the cast, crew or staff had any idea that this was coming. Oriental Land Corporation (OLC) controls the front of house, including show scheduling, while Cirque du Soleil controls the performances. (For example, if Cirque du Soleil wants to give a comp ticket to someone, it’s not a matter of giving that special Guest the seat, it’s a matter of Cirque du Soleil paying OLC for the seat on the Guest’s behalf.) This separation likely kept the ZED cast, crew and staff out of the loop.
While it was a shock to me, the shock on all fronts in Japan must have been horrible.
ATTENDANCE / ADVERTISING
For some the question of why OLC chose to close the show focuses on attendance. Among the eight viewings I attended there were a number of shows with far more empty seats than I thought would exist with such a well done show.
One non-Japanese staff member did make comments to me about the nature of OLC’s advertising of ZED, seeing it as insufficient to bring in high attendance. Having lived in Japan and knowing that the Japanese approach things differently it was hard to respond to the comments as I didn’t know what OLC’s thinking was with regards advertising the myriad events at Tokyo Disneyland Resort.
The question that needs to be asked is, Why did OLC choose to stage a Cirque du Soleil show at Tokyo Disneyland Resort? Did Cirque du Soleil approach OLC as part of its plan to establish permanent resident shows outside North America (initially Dubai, Macao and Tokyo)? Or did OLC approach Cirque du Soleil based on the positive experience Disney World was having with La Nouba? The answer would determine OLC’s approach to the advertising of ZED, their tolerance level for attendance figures and ultimately their decision to end the show.
In the three years that I’ve been including ZED in my annual visits to Japan, I have noted signage, posters and video trailers in the Resort shopping area, Ikspiari. You pass through or by Ikspiari and the Disney Ambassador Hotel to get the Cirque Theater Tokyo, the home for ZED. Maihama Station, the Japan Rail station that feeds Tokyo Disneyland Resort has posters. But go beyond that into Tokyo proper and I was surprised by how little advertising I saw for the show. Tokyo trains have video advertising as well as paper and sticker type advertising on the insides of the train cars. Some were for various theatrical productions in Tokyo but as of May 2010, when I last visited Japan, I recall only a little for Tokyo Disneyland Resort and nothing for ZED.
Also curious, on the face of it, was the lack of cross-advertising with Cirque du Soliel touring shows when performing in Japan. However, when you looked closer you realize that the touring shows are sponsored by the Fuji-Sankei media group. That cross-advertising would be like Universal Studios advertising Disneyland attractions. Same planet, different universes.
Living in the U.S. I was also aware of international advertising.
It bothered me that Cirque du Soleil overview trailers on the website or at the various boutiques would include ZAIA but not ZED. One year the Cirque Club web site provided a free, large format, single page calendar with characters from nearly all the shows then performing. What was available in North America had two characters from ZAIA none from ZED. I was able to get a hold of one with a ZED character but it never made its way to the North American web site.
Cirque du Soleil’s approach has changed over time, ZED clips are appearing in the overviews and Seishi Inagaki’s Djinn character from ZED is appearing on all sorts of Cirque du Soleil goods but I would have liked that kind of exposure earlier in the process.
Domestically OLC changed it’s approach as well, having ZED reformatted into a one-act show and changing the show times to allow people time to also get to Tokyo Disneyland or Tokyo Disney Sea. It also began a series of promotions including Park and ZED combination tickets.
Beyond traditional advertising, the ZED website has a unique posting only type bulletin board section allowing people to post their thoughts about their upcoming visit to see the show and their reactions after seeing the show. There were a number of repeat visitors who posted to this Board, one flying from Okinawa on a very regular basis (that’s like flying from Orlando to New York City). So from early on there was a strong fan base for ZED and a strong word of mouth campaign.
As noted earlier, having worked in Japan I’m aware that Japanese companies take approaches to situations that might seem odd to us in North America. Not having worked for OLC I can’t really offer a guess as to how they chose to approach the promotion of ZED. But I don’t really think it was attendance alone that resulted in their decision to end the show.
I was performing in Japan with Theater Kaze No Ko Tokyo in 1995 when Kobe, a medium-sized city south of Osaka, was hit with a devastating earthquake. My three-person group was headed by van to a town south of the area a few days later. With the expressway heavily damaged this meant that we had to travel through peripheral areas to get to the performance site so we saw some of the damage. Later I would attend benefit events and hear stories of the survivors.
The Japanese government bungled things but the region did recover in a timely manner.
In Japan you live with earthquakes and the potential for natural disaster. Tokyo was severely damaged by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 but recovered. That same spirit would likely have followed the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, even with the one-two punch of earthquake and tsunami.
Recovery from the natural disasters of March alone would be slow. There is a notion in Japan that the people must refrain from celebration out of respect for the victims and this resulted in scaling back or cancellation of Spring and Summer events. It also resulted in things like sake – rice wine companies from the affected areas putting out word along the lines of, “Remember the victims. Be respectful. But also enjoy the life you have. Buy our sake, keep our businesses going!”
This cutting back on celebration would also have an initial impact on the attendance at anything offered at Tokyo Disneyland Resort. In time though, as recovery progressed there would be less need to mourn and more impetus to return to a normal way of life.
There is a Japanese word, “gaman,” which essentially translates as, “endure.” Out of respect for the victims the people are expected to endure the loss of festivities, as those festivities would return in a timely manner. In recognition of these difficult times OLC would then endure the loss of attendance, as that attendance would presumably return in a timely manner.
However, this was not just a natural disaster. It was quickly realized that there were problems with the Fukushima 1 Nuclear complex and as time passed it became clear how serious those problems were. Slowly the failures of TEPCO, the private corporation running the complex, and of the Japanese government oversight bodies charged with certifying the safety of the complex were exposed. Early reports praised the Japanese government for applying the lessons of Kobe but soon faith in the government paled in the face of the poor response to the crises.
To feel that a timely recovery from disaster will occur requires a trust that conditions are now under or will soon be under control. Reports of radiation leaks forced people to stay indoors. Rolling blackouts in the early days occurred without all the notification and coordination promised by TEPCO and the government. A continuing severe loss of electrical generating capacity has created a culture of Setsuden – Energy Conservation that will go on for months, if not years. Even now there are questions about the safety of food.
The Fukushima Nuclear Complex mess has compounded the natural disasters, and weakened the sense of the situation coming under control, weakening the sense of a timely recovery in progress. Without that sense of a timely recovery it’s hard to envision how long an individual or a company will have to endure the present conditions, and hard to envision when attendance at Tokyo Disneyland Resort and at the performances of ZED will return to normal,.
Consider this from the OLC Press Release
“It is with regret, however, that due to the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the
business environment for this theatre greatly changed. Based on a review of the expected
results and the long-term viability of the show, it was mutually agreed that the business
environment would remain extremely difficult; therefore, it was decided to close the show.”
I believe that because of the great uncertainty about the timing of the recovery, OLC chose to retrench and focus on its core pieces; Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo Disney Sea, Ikspiari shopping area and the resort hotels. Had it just been an earthquake and tsunami alone, as devastating as those natural disasters were, we might not be looking at an ending to ZED’s run in Tokyo. But, not having worked for OLC, I’m only guessing.
ZED will continue to perform until December 31, 2011. I imagine the Cirque du Soleil is preparing to do what it can to help find the artists new places within the Cirque du Soleil universe. Japanese technical staff will likely be able to find other work in Japan. I wonder what will happen to staff members like costumers and riggers and to the office staff, it’s unlikely OLC would be able to absorb all of them into the park’s operations.
Various locations for a restaging of ZED in North America have been suggested. However, ZED was staged at a time when Cirque du Soleil was having theater spaces built to the needs of a show. Looking at the last three stage shows; IRIS, Zarakana and Banana Shpeel, these shows were adapted to an existing stage space with only one meant to be permanently resident (most of the year). Cirque du Soleil’s focus for stage shows seems to be shifting.
But also consider this; ZED is a product of a particular time, place and artistic perspective. It was created with a Japanese audience in mind and it evolved and matured in reaction to that primarily Japanese audience. There is a different artistic sensibility in Japan, based on that country’s different history in the fine and performing arts. Even if you could move ZED whole to this side of the Pacific Ocean on January 1, 2012 it would quickly become a different show, as the reaction of North American audiences would create shifts in the show’s ongoing evolution. In contrast to other recent Cirque du Soleil stage shows like Wintuk and Zarkana, the pacing of ZED strikes me as not being as fast and the music not as tinged with rock-n-roll as North American audiences have come to expect. For me there is an energetic calm, an enveloping warmth to the ZED stage, and I have to go all the way back to ‘O’ to find something similar in the current Cirque du Soleil stage repertory.
A DVD of the show has been requested by Japanese and non-Japanese fans alike and I am of a mixed mind about this.
My first ever Cirque du Soleil show was Saltimbanco during its tour of Tokyo in 1994. I later purchased the video in hopes of reviving fond memories of the two performances that I saw. But the show had evolved since the taping and what I saw on video was not what I remember seeing in real life. This disconnect made watching the video almost painful. Memory can be a tricky thing.
Having seen ZED eight times I’ve seen it when all the stars have been aligned and pure magic has occurred on stage. I’ve seen it when a star or two has been out of place but the show has still been wonderful. So, I don’t think I’d have the same intense reaction to a ZED DVD. But there’s been a two-act version and a one-act. Reda Guerinik, the original ZED has moved on and Douglas Meira now plays the namesake character. So which version of ZED should be memorialized in DVD form?
Let’s face it you can go 3D with triple surround sound and a DVD is only going to be a moving snapshot of a real life experience, a pale imitation of what it means to be seated there in the theater watching the show unfold before you and enfold you in its magic. But moving snapshots do have a value. There is the question of whether Cirque du Soleil would see any value in such a project. Recall, they spent all that money to create a $20 a ticket, limited showing only, movie theater broadcast of Delirium and never followed up with a DVD.
Keith Johnson interviewed Daniel Lamarre, and one question was about a potential Delirium DVD. Keith quotes the response in this way, “The problem is that we are creating and producing so many shows at such a rapid pace that we don’t want to have too many DVD’s in a market where DVD’s are getting tougher and tougher to sell. The DVD market is decreasing at a very rapid pace, so it’s a business decision to not bring out too many DVD’s. And if I’m bringing [out a] DVD, I want the DVD [to be] of an actual [current] show, to help promote the show.”
Doesn’t sound good for a ZED DVD but OLC fits into the equation here, as well as the Japanese fan base for ZED, all those people who posted comments to the ZED website or sent their comments directly to the theater offices.
In May of 2010 they closed the main Kabuki theater in Tokyo. It was slated for demolition to be followed by the construction of a new theater as part of a larger multi-story building. For one year prior to that closing they staged a number of “Sayonara Performances.” These were taped and have been released on DVD.
I can’t say for certain what OLC’s thinking is on this but my time on both sides of the fourth wall in Japan, both as audience member and as performer, have led me to believe that Japanese artists and their production companies take a special interest in and have a great appreciation for their fans. OLC could want to produce a limited edition DVD to sell as a way of thanking the fans of ZED for their 3+ years of support.
It’s hard to say what will happen long term at this point.
In the short term, I will be seeing ZED twice more in August. I’ve seen ZED more times than I have ever seen any other Cirque du Soleil show. ZED is one of the few Cirque du Soleil shows that I’ve personally felt is worth more than a couple of viewings. Seeing ZED at least twice was on my list of things to do every year when I visit Japan. Like many Japanese fans posting to the ZED website, I find that it is truly sad to realize hat these next viewings will be my last.
But I look forward to enjoying them just the same.
“THOUGHTS ON THE ANNOUNCED CLOSING OF ZED”
BY: STEVE LONG, GUEST WRITER