Jun. 7, 2016
In Japan's ancient capital city of Kyoto, a small theater is attracting many tourists from abroad, with a non-verbal play.
Its performers tell a moving story without saying a word. The play is called "Gear," and it doesn't have a single line of dialogue.
"I saw some fantastic reviews of this play, so I wanted to try it," said one tourist from the UK.
The show has been a hit with audiences. Word of mouth has given it a long run, with 1,300 performances as of last month. That's very rare for a small theater.
The play is now one of the top tourist attractions in Kyoto. Last year, it ranked 19th among Japan's attractions on a popular travel site used by more than 300 million people every month.
Unlike historic images like shrines and temples in the old city, the theater is popular with its new approach.
"Gear" is set in a toy factory in the future. Four androids are working there. One day a doll arrives in the factory. As the androids interact with her, they start experiencing emotions, such as curiosity and joy.
Each cast member is a gear, a piece of the factory machinery, and the story develops as they connect with each other. Its cast includes world-class dancers and jugglers who combine their non-verbal talents to bring the story to life.
Keito Kohara is the executive producer of "Gear." He opened the theater 17 years ago. "Gear" has been playing for the past 4 years.
The stage itself is a gear that turns, and Kohara says he chose the play's title to emphasize the benefits of cooperation.
"There’s a limit to what one person can accomplish. But when the minds and hearts of many people fit together like gears, we’re able to do much more," he says.
With a strong story and colorful performances, the show entertains adults and children from all over the world. Language is not necessary to understand and enjoy it.
"There are also many things that words can't explain. Not using words creates ambiguity, but that can also leave things to our imagination. That's where we find depth and balance," Kohara says.
Kohara began his career in theater in his 20s, doing stage lighting. He became acclaimed for his work and went abroad to expand his skills.
Upon returning to Japan, he noticed that unlike some other countries, there weren't many places where talented mimes and jugglers could perform. He wanted to find a way to let them show their skills.
Six years ago, Kohara got several of these performers together with the goal of starting a play.
In Kohara’s play, it’s not just the performers that are gears: the audience is, too.
The pamphlet says the play's director is the audience. This means that the spectators help create the spectacle.
After every show, audience members are given a questionnaire. Their responses are used as a guide for the next performance.
Today, one person wrote that the play would have been more interesting if the doll's performance was more feminine, so Kohara decides to add ribbons to the doll.
The play became popular with foreign tourists at first. But now it's also drawing crowds of Japanese theatergoers, with some coming again and again.
"Even though the story never changes, there’s something different every time; I’m hooked," says one audience member who has seen the play 77 times.
Last November, "Gear" was performed in Moscow. A Russian director saw the show in Kyoto and came away impressed.
"Religious differences, skin color and nationality aren't that important. Rather, finding unity is what counts. I hope 'Gear' can help people begin to think more like this," Kohara says.
His hope is that the play, and its lessons, will continue to reach new audiences.
The producer sought to have it written about in guidebooks, and on websites. People have also found out about it on social-networking sites and by word of mouth.
Officials at tourism organizations in Kyoto are paying close attention to "Gear" and at its growing popularity.