By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The Aratani Japan America Theatre, which has been closed since January 2011, will reopen this summer, according to the new president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.

JACCC President/CEO Gregory Willis (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Gregory Willis gave an update and asked for input during a meeting with about 20 members of the Japanese-speaking community, including artists and journalists, on March 1 at the JACCC. He was accompanied by Robert Hori, JACCC director of advancement and strategic initiatives, and Yoko Ito of Mellins Production, who worked at the theater as a backstage technician.

There will be a “soft opening” in July with a couple of events planned, and a grand opening in August or September, according to Willis.

Willis, who served in a number of executive positions at Toyota for 23 years, started the discussion by introducing himself. “This is a real thrill to be part of the team at the center, and I’m really enjoying my first six weeks here. We have a very good team … What I think I add to the equation is my business acumen together with the artistic background that a lot of our staff has.”

He said the staff is focusing on “creating a really special combination that can effectively have a great, sustainable business model and provide great culture and art products for many, many years to come.”

The closure of the 29-year-old, 880-seat theater “was really a function of … structural repairs to the suspended ceiling, upgrades to sound and lighting, as well as experiencing some financial difficulties in the tough recession that we’re emerging from,” Willis explained. “And we needed to create a good, sustainable financial model going forward that is really customer-focused. I’m drawing from my Toyota experience that the customer … is really the most important factor in any business.”

JACCC has announced that the ceiling repairs are complete and the sound and lighting upgrades are under way.

“The importance of the theater, our founding purpose, was to introduce Japanese culture to American audiences,” Willis continued. “That’s still very, very key and part of our strategic mission. We want to expand our presentation of Japanese arts and culture outside of the L.A. area, really focus on (becoming) a national portal and presenter of Japanese culture. The theater was built with the support of Japanese businesses to fulfill that function, and that’s still very true today.”

The theater, which presented kabuki from the National Theatre of Japan at its grand opening in April 1983, “has special stage properties such as kabuki sets that are not found anywhere else outside of Japan … We all think that the theater is a real treasure and we’re really fortunate to have it here in a very central location,” Willis said. “The theater will not limit its presentation to traditional works, but also needs to be used for popular entertainment, films, and contemporary productions from Japan and by the local community.”

Willis announced the formation of the Aratani Performing Arts Center “to maximize utilization and activation of JACCC’s facilities, as well as to assist in developing new productions through technical and marketing support. That gets back to helping our customer, becoming more efficient and more cost-effective. The Japan America Theatre will remain the principal venue for the JACCC, but the Performing Arts Center will oversee performances in the plaza and the newly created Garden Stage, and rehearsal spaces.”

Ito asked for ideas on how to utilize the venues, suggesting that various organizations and businesses can form tie-ups to share their skills and resources.

Kaoru “Carl” Kawata, CEO and president of UTB, stressed the importance of knowing when the theater will be available. “If you say July and … we confirm, we advertise, and then (we’re told) ‘Sorry, it can’t be opened in July, it’s going to be December,’ then we lose … That’s all everybody wants to know, when exactly it’s opening.”

UTB President/CEO Kaoru "Carl" Kawata (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

He noted that UTB has been planning to show Junichi Suzuki’s documentaries about Japanese Americans, including “MIS: Human Secret Weapon.” “Those movies are ready to go, but actually because this theater is not open, we have to find another place. And this is the exact right place for us to show these movies, but we lost the opportunity to show it.”

Citing the high costs of putting on a show and the difficulty of getting sponsorships, Kawata asked about the rent at the reopened theater. “How much basically, weekend rate or nightly? I think you should set up the prices for companies like us. With these confirmed, then we can set our plan and advertise and sell tickets.”

Willis responded, “We’re definitely going to open this theater and we’ve already booked Nisei Week in August, and we’re in discussions with a couple of other companies for the rest of August and the first part of September … If we can book something in July, I’d sure like to know about it.”

He added that JACCC is in “serious discussions” to have the Boston Opera Company appear at the grand opening right after Nisei Week.

Kazuyo Saeki, chief DJ and vice president of Team J Station, commented that the theater’s rates have been considered high compared to venues in the South Bay, such as El Camino College. Heavy traffic and high parking fees downtown may encourage people to say closer to home, she said, suggesting that JACCC find some way to bring costs down.

“We will have a new rate sheet, and we’re very sensitive to emerging artists and a part of our program is to figure out a way to co-market and get additional ticket revenue for the emerging acts so that it is profitable, so no one loses a tremendous amount of money,” Willis said. “… We have done our market research. We know what our competition is charging, and we’re going to be very competitive … That’s one of the purposes for this roundtable, to … find out how we need to work together in a collaborative way, how we can lower costs, how we can meet the needs of emerging artists, how we can meet the needs of our community.”

Hiromi Ishimaru of the Japan America Media Association, which organizes the annual Japan Film Festival, said that more attention needs to be paid to those interested in anime and manga, and that such events can be promoted online rather than through paid advertising.

“We’re very excited about expanding our film productions to anime and reach out to a broader audience, a younger audience and a diverse audience because there’s a lot of interest,” Willis responded. “… If it’s something interesting and we can reach (audiences) with our marketing, especially through the Internet, I think we’ll be very successful …

“We have reached out to a PR firm as well as a marketing firm that’s heavily focused on the Internet and social marketing. That’s a big part of our strategy going forward, to help get the word out. The old days of buying a lot of print and just spending incredible amounts of money, I think that’s over … We can access the marketplace if we’re smart, if we’re flexible and agile, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Toshiko Ohkawa, who puts on kimono shows, complained that most of the theater’s staff was not bilingual and was unable to help Japanese-speaking customers.

“Customer service in the box office is essential for our success,” Willis stressed. “How we treat our customers … from the standpoint of making sure that they have an enjoyable experience and they come back. So that’s really key to any business, any production.”

Another attendee said that having the men’s restrooms on one side of the theater and the women’s restrooms on the other side was inconvenient, particularly for seniors, and that the lack of aisles made it difficult to get to and from one’s seat.

Willis said he would try to address those concerns but did not announce any changes to the theater’s existing layout.

Trudy Nodohara of Teleport USA, who has produced many events over the past 26 years, said that due to the expense of providing transportation and accommodations for artists from Japan, new ways to attract customers must be found. She cited as an example the Nisei Week Parade, which was revamped in the early 1990s to increase attendance.

“It would probably be a very good idea to have a small advisory committee that could help us to reach the customers and reach our audiences, address the marketing … There are many good ideas here,” Willis said. “I’d like to ask you if you’d like to help us with some sort of advisory committee for the theater during this very critical time.”

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