Theater world accepts subsidies to keep actors up to par

The New National Theater opened a training program in August for stage actors with government assistance — a significant departure from the theater world’s traditional reluctance to have ties to officialdom.

It is the first program of its kind to operate with government subsidies.

Theater actors and producers in the past have rejected public funds because of their bitter experiences cooperating with the wartime government.

But now there are increasing calls for government aid as theater promotion moves from theatrical companies to theater owners and production firms. At the same time, private-sector acting schools have suffered a decline.

Drama critics say advanced nations that boast of being world leaders in the arts are eager to nurture performers, while Japan clearly is seeing a decline in the quality of its actors.

A National Theater Law amendment resulted in construction of the New National Theater in February 1997 in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, to stage performing arts, including opera, ballet, modern dance and plays.

The New National Theater management foundation is in charge of the operation under the directive of the Japan Arts Council, an independent administrative agency.

This summer, the theater held a training course for 20 actors aged 18 to 29 from Aug. 9 to 22.

An unexpected 235 people applied for the course, which had as teachers such prominent theatrical figures as playwright Hisashi Inoue and director Tamiya Kuriyama. Most of the trainees chosen already had stage experience.

Kuriyama explained that the stage should train actors, because, “There are many outstanding plays, including new ones, but there are not many actors who can act in them.”

He noted how young actors in rehearsal have been unable to do accents. “Young Japanese can’t speak their lines properly,” he said, adding that the situation will only grow worse if nothing is done.

In other arts, more attention has been paid to training. The National Theater, known chiefly for traditional Japanese drama, has a facility for young kabuki actors, and the New National Theater has training programs for ballet and opera. But training actors for the modern stage has been pushed to the side as a “subject for study.”

In October 2003, New National Theater officials visited acting schools in South Korea, the United States and three European nations and submitted a report to the Cultural Affairs Agency.

The report said Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where Richard Attenborough studied, receives about 2.1 million yen per student each year from the government.

The RADA offers a three-year acting course, including tutoring, to about 30 students.

The paper went on to say the bulk of the budget for France’s national advanced actors school in Paris comes from government subsidies. Its students pay no tuition fees for the three years they study.

The report pointed out that European and U.S. instructors are highly qualified and give high-quality training to an elite corps of performers.

In Japan, production performances — plays planned and produced with actors assembled from a variety of different theater groups and from television — have been the main form of stage dramas since the 1980s.

In these types of productions, confusion during rehearsals is common because the cast has different acting methods.

Nobuhiro Nishikawa, a director at Bungakuza Theater Co., said, “It was stimulating at first, but I was surprised by the difference in views on theatrical performances.”

Before it folded in 1967, the theater troupe Haiyuza’s training school was considered as prestigious in the theater world as the University of Tokyo is in higher education. It had provided the film and TV industries with many talented performers.

But today, many theater companies can’t afford to spend money or time to train actors because they are struggling with poor theater attendance and management problems.

Some people in the theater world, including Nishikawa, believe better promotion of stage plays can help remedy the situation.

While some critics are against government involvement in the arts, there are those who are watching the budget talks between the Cultural Affairs Agency and the Finance Ministry, hoping it will bring the New National Theater money to continue its training course and eventually open its own school.