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Web series taps comedy, drama of eikaiwa

by Daniel Robson

Teaching English is hilarious! At least, it is now: A new Web TV show starting Thursday will attempt to show the lighter side of eikaiwa, as Japan newbie Tom Kellerman (Jonathan Sherr) finds his feet in the world of “English Teachers.”

“It’s part drama, part comedy — a dramedy,” jokes Sherr, who recently played the lead role of Tony in the movie adaptation of “Darling wa Gaikokujin (My Darling is a Foreigner).” “It was really funny the way that they’ve cut it, so I think it’s going to be pretty entertaining. The situations are quite embarrassing.”

In the show, which will be broadcast online as eight episodes lasting five to seven minutes each, the employees of fictional children’s eikaiwa Be Yes! rally to save their school from bankruptcy when a major language school opens a branch nearby.

“The school is having troubles, and it’s about the challenges they face, and whether they can overcome them,” says Sherr, who was born in California and raised in Iowa.

“The story doesn’t try to delve into the nitty-gritty of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) or the business of eikaiwa,” says director and coproducer Anthony Gilmore, who teaches English part-time at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies and has worked at language schools in Japan and South Korea. “We try to keep the story focused on the characters. It is called ‘English Teachers,’ not ‘Teaching English.’ But we took a lot of direct inspiration from the bankruptcy stories of Nova and Geos, and also smaller schools — when a well-financed school moves into the community and they lose a lot of their students.”

Gilmore, originally from Kansas City, Mo., says the cast and crew of “English Teachers” includes a mix of Americans, Brits, Australians, Canadians and Japanese, and that the majority of the non-Japanese members have some experience of teaching English, which he believes has helped them craft a show that taps the industry’s comedic vein without falling back on too many foreigner-in- Japan cliches.

“All the characters are based on real people I’ve met in the English-teaching world,” he says. “We only have six minutes (per episode), so there are definitely characters in the show that are exaggerated, but a lot of the scenes are based on things that happened to me as an English teacher.”

Sherr has never worked at an English school and has taught only a little bit privately. His background lies in improv comedy, which he took up as a hobby after moving to Japan 12 years ago to work in the busy corporate world. Japanese was his university major.

“I started doing improv comedy in the evenings, just as a way to unwind from the hectic week,” he says.

Spots at the Tokyo Comedy Store, where he still performs, led to regular narration and acting work, with Sherr’s strong Japanese giving him an edge with agencies such as foreign-talent specialist Freewave.

“Then I was given the role of Tony in ‘My Darling is a Foreigner’ last year,” he says, explaining that he was forced to push his Japanese to its limits to keep up with the heavy shooting schedule. The movie was a hit in theaters, throwing Sherr headlong into the Japanese media circus (a process he thoroughly enjoyed). He says he currently has several projects in the pipeline that are hush-hush for now. Nonetheless, he was relieved to work in his native tongue on “English Teachers.”

The series was shot in Nagoya, where Gilmore is based, with a cast and crew of “somewhere between 60 and 80 people,” according to Gilmore. The cast included members of local theater groups, such as the Nagoya Players and Maidenagoya Productions, as well as actors with agencies in Tokyo (including Sherr).

“Jonathan’s film is well known in the foreign community and people know about him,” says Gilmore. “The addition of Jonathan to the cast was a big plus.”

Gilmore’s main bread and butter is a production company he runs, Nameless Media and Productions, where he directs and produces corporate videos and documentaries. He says he first dreamed up “English Teachers” after watching the 1996 mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman” (directed by Christopher Guest, aka Nigel Tufnel of “This is Spinal Tap”) a few years ago, and originally planned to make a feature-length movie about English teachers in Japan. As the project evolved, however, he decided that an online TV show was a more realistic approach.

“We thought it would be more accessible to teachers all over the world, and other people who were interested, to go online and watch it whenever they want,” he says.

The show has already attracted a fair bit of attention — from that modern barometer of buzz, Facebook “likes,” to a healthy selection of local and national sponsors, such as sandwich chain Subway. Gilmore says that the show was not always an easy fundraising pitch, though local businesses were keen to support a production on their doorstep.

“There was a Web series called ‘Easy to Assemble’ that was sponsored by Ikea, and they shot the whole series in Ikea stores!” laughs Gilmore. “We only have one scene that takes place in a Subway.”

“English Teachers” also won the support of the Nagoya branch of the Japan Film Commission and the police department, enabling them to shoot outdoor scenes that take in the Nagoya scenery and permeate every frame with the city’s unique atmosphere. Sherr, who had previously lived in Nagoya for a year as a student, was also happy to spend two weeks in town for the shoot.

“Down in Nagoya, there’s not a lot of production going on,” says Gilmore. “So the local police and the Nagoya Film Commission, they helped us a lot. It was very easy to shoot here. There’s a shot where we get to see Midland Square and the JR (Central) Towers, and obviously Tokugawa (Art Museum)’s very Nagoya; we definitely tried to squeeze as much of that in as possible.”

The series was shot on a relatively small budget. Gilmore maximized this by hiring a highly experienced professional core crew and then topping it up with interns from his university. By all accounts, the all-hands-on-deck approach made for a fun vibe, and the team managed to shoot a 70-page script within their two-week schedule.

“It was great,” says Sherr. “It’s an independent project, so I didn’t know what to expect. But when I got there, there were veteran cameramen, lighting guys and sound guys who all knew what they were doing, and the interns worked so hard.”

Music was also a key concern. “English Teachers” features tracks by excellent local alternative band Jonny and various foreign residents of Nagoya, as well as a theme song and incidental music being recorded in Los Angeles.

“We put out messages on Facebook and by e-mail to try to get some Japan-based artists to contribute some of their songs to use throughout,” says Gilmore. “It’ll be a mix of local artists and the original music that we’re doing in L.A.”

After the first episode of “English Teachers” goes live on Sept. 18, Gilmore says a new episode will be released every two weeks for a 16-week run (which frankly seems like quite a gap, considering each segment is so short). The clips will appear on the show’s official website as well as video sites such as YouTube, with subtitles for Japanese viewers.

Both Gilmore and Sherr are optimistic that the show will generate a positive response, and hopeful that this will lead to a second series and beyond. Certainly the teaser clips on the show’s website and the production photos on its Facebook page paint an interesting picture, with an irreverent style of humor heavily influenced by shows such as “The Office.” And whether or not it finds a breakout audience in the mainstream, it’s likely that the English-teaching community in Japan and other countries will find something to make them smile.

“English teachers are very critical and opinionated,” admits Gilmore, “but I don’t think anyone will just bash it or anything like that. It is a comedy. I think there will be some teachers who look at it and think, ‘That’s not the school that I teach at,’ but I think a lot of teachers will look at each character and say, ‘Oh, I know somebody just like that.’ “

“English Teachers” can be seen online at www.englishteachersseries.com from Sept. 18. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp