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Puppeteer pulls the strings from the sticks of Toyama, with a point to prove

by

Special To The Japan Times

Toyama Prefecture, home to the Tateyama mountain range and the Gokayama Historic Villages, is known for its seafood and stunning vistas. It is not known for traditional Japanese puppetry arts, nor is it exactly what you’d call a hub of English learning. Yet American puppeteer Jack Lee Randall has found a home in the Sea of Japan coastal town of Kurobe, reworking traditional Japanese tales into puppet theater for children while working on more sophisticated shows for adults.

Randall’s popularity in local schools has now spread, with frequent performances in the greater Tokyo area. But his choice to remain based in the countryside is deliberate.

“I want to show people that you don’t have to be in Tokyo to do something performance-based and artistic,” he says. “You can be here in the middle of nowhere. Instead of being in Tokyo and taking your art to the regional areas, you can live in an outlying area, develop your art and take it elsewhere nationwide. I’d like to prove that this model is feasible.”

Randall is proving it, one show at a time. He enjoys the slow-paced life, collaborating with traditional Japanese artists and bringing his work into local schools as a creative extension of English study. With recent shows retelling the Mongolian folk tale “Suho’s White Horse” in collaboration with Tatsuya Okabayashi, who plays a Mongolian stringed instrument called a batōkin, and an upcoming performance with biwa (Japanese lute) player Yoshiko Sakata in the planning stages, Randall is thankful for the many creative possibilities that keep coming his way.

Randall’s career in puppetry started by chance, as he had no interest in puppets, teaching English or Japan while growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. At 18 years old, without a set plan for university, Randall decided to move to Atlanta proper and gain experience for a year before deciding on future plans.

As Randall explains: “Unknown to me when I moved there, Atlanta is home to one of the most established puppet theaters in America, the Center for Puppetry Arts. My roommate coincidentally got a part-time job at the center working in maintenance, and since he received complimentary tickets, we started going to see shows. Before that, to me puppets were just fun performances for kids, but when I saw the center’s adult shows, I realized that puppetry is really art.”

Intrigued, Randall also started working at the center part time, helping out with weekend birthday parties for children and becoming more and more impressed by the performances. Eventually he met the producers there, who gave him a chance to intern at the center’s smaller stage after missing a try-out for a lead role.

Randall’s university indecision was thus resolved. Puppeteers are typically trained actors, and after interning for a year of “on-the-job training,” he decided to study acting. Randall enrolled at Appalachian State University as a theater major, moving to North Carolina. He kept in touch with the Center for Puppetry Arts, however, working there during school holidays.

In his second year at school, he heard about a special production in the works at the center: a cross-cultural collaboration with Japan, adapting three stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Kwaidan” with a well-known director from New York joining the center, Ping Chong, and a designer from Tokyo, Tsuru Ishi.

Reading Hearn for the first time, Randall was struck by the “different feel of the Japanese horror stories from American ones,” he says. “It was a global collaboration that would tour the entire U.S. I had never been out of Georgia much, and I really wanted to try it. I asked for a chance and auditioned. When I was cast in the show, I quit university and came back to Atlanta.”

The tour would put Randall on his first airplane, flying to New York for performances. Months later, when the show unexpectedly toured Japan with a reduced cast, Randall made sure he was on that flight. The tour took them to Toyama due to prior connections of the Japanese producers, who had helped run a popular music festival in the prefecture, which lies on the Sea of Japan coast in the central Chubu region.

A prominent Japanese puppeteer and graphic designer, Atsushi Yamato, also lived in the prefecture. Meeting Yamato further inspired Randall.

“It was my first time in Japan so I didn’t know any Japanese and we couldn’t communicate well, but his aura was so kind,” Randall recalls. “And he was such a talented artist. We got to see one of his puppet shows, and it was amazing what he could do with just one line of drawing.”

The experience re-wove the threads of Randall’s fate. “As I got on the plane to return to the States, I was already making my plans on how to get back to Japan,” says. One of the reasons was Randall’s hope to work under Yamato.

Randall transferred to a university in Atlanta so he could continue to work at the Center for Puppetry Arts, graduating two years later in April 2003 and, accepted into the JET Programme, moved to Japan two months later. He requested Toyama and, as he admits now with a grin, “not many people request Toyama.”

He was placed in Kurobe, and the first few years of life as an ALT (assistant language teacher) were occupied with adjusting to a new life, new language and a new country, but he soon started creating shadow puppets at home, as traditional puppets would have taken up too much space in his small apartment.

Randall shared his work with Yamato and they began collaborating. Randall’s network of puppet artists and traditional musicians slowly grew.

“For a while I kept my ALT work and was doing shadow puppets on the side, but I really wanted to focus more on puppetry arts,” Randall explains. “The ALT job is a dangerous thing for an artist, because it’s such a comfortable, easy lifestyle, and I realized I needed to make a jump and take a risk. So I applied for an artist visa, and once I got it, I just focused on trying to make a living doing shadow puppets.”

It was a big jump, considering there were few venues nearby to easily stage performances. But Randall took the business sense he had learned from the Center of Puppetry Arts.

“Their bread and butter is children’s shows,” says Randall. “Not just to perform old stories or pure entertainment, but to tie into the local curriculums, what’s important to the area schools, so the children can come to see art, but also learn something else of educational value. In reworking the model for Japan, the obvious hook was English.

“So I started with popular Japanese children’s tales like ‘O-musubi Kororin’ and made an English version, ‘Oh No! My Meatball!'” Randall continues. “Thankfully, because I live in Kurobe and had been teaching at elementary schools, a few principals gave me a chance. Then word got out. Being a foreigner and doing puppetry is rather unusual here, so I was lucky that the local press picked up on it, and then more schools would call. The goal is always to make it fun, to teach English without teaching English.”

Randall appreciates the chance to work alongside a variety of Japanese traditional artists.

“The craftsmanship in Japan is amazing,” Randall says, “the bunraku puppets or the kiri-e. My puppets are basically glorified kiri-e — cut paper — the backgrounds are all kiri-e, the mechanisms are plastic, but everything else is paper. It’s really beautiful.

“There’s also a Japanese-shadow style that is very colorful, I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world of puppetry styles. It’s so complicated; it takes 50 or 60 lights and 10 people to do a production. So it’s really inspiring to be working here.”

Randall admits he is still perfecting his own technique in fashioning puppets, but he works closely with designer and puppet maker Ikuyo Hirota, a Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) artist he met on his first tour in Japan who builds most of his puppets. Sadly, Yamato passed away several years ago, and Randall credits the skills and knowledge Yamato generously shared.

“My goal now is to be better at the business side,” Randall concludes, “to continue to tour Japan with our shows and to ultimately take a show from here and bring it to the Center of Puppetry Arts in America and then on tour around the States.”

It would bring his puppetry adventures full circle, and seeing it through to fruition seems a distinct possibility, with Randall pulling the strings.

Jack Lee Randall: www.jackleerandall.com

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