Workshops for theater — and life

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“When I worked in an office, I was always nervous and I tensed up a lot just trying to behave correctly. But since coming to these workshops, I often feel like communicating with others spontaneously, of my own free will.”

Speaking after an arduous, six-hour stint in a Theater Workshop for Busy Workers class run by drama company Yamanote Jijosha, that was how Yukino Takeshi, 33, cheerfully described how she felt after just seven of the scheduled 10 sessions.

Since 1984, the international award-winning Tokyo-based company founded by director and playwright Masahiro Yasuda, 51, has been active both at home and also as one of Japan’s leading theater ambassadors abroad.

But alongside its mainstream activities — including an upcoming Tokyo run of “Don Juan” — Yamanote Jijosha has long been a trailblazer in offering theater workshops for high-school students, retirees, women and ordinary workers like newly empowered Takeshi. Now known as the Yamanote Method, the training it offers there — as in courses it’s asked to run at schools and in companies — lays great emphasis on participants’ own ideas and observations to create theater drama, as well as nurturing their movement and elocution abilities.

When I turned up recently at the company’s base in a three-story house in the residential Ikegami district of Ota Ward, I opened the door on 20-odd men and women — mostly, it turned out, company workers — laughing and talking loudly together in groups of four or five as they prepared for the culminating performance of their 10-day workshop course spread over several weekends.

Welcoming this writer warmly, the sole instructor, Kumiko Ogasawara, explained, “Since 1996 we’ve run one-year courses for people who want to join our company or become professional actors. But this is the sixth course we’ve run in the last few years for over-30 workers wanting to do theater, though not as a career. We noticed how workshops were getting more popular — but most were for younger people.”

Ogasawara introduced me to Keiko Uehara, 63, a retired school teacher who said she first summoned her courage and joined a theater workshop at a community center about eight years ago. “I’d always been interested in acting,” she explained, “but during my hectic working life there was no opportunity to try it. Then I thought if I didn’t start by joining that local class, I’d never get on a stage — so I took a chance.”

That brave step later led Uehara to her first Yamanote Jijosha workshop — and this one is her fourth. “When I joined the local workshop, I had a huge problem even saying one line,” she said. “But here they ask us to create scenes from daily events like going to the shops, so I can speak in a natural way. Also, the instructors praise us a lot (laughs), so to my astonishment I am now dancing here as well — and I really never thought I could dance. It’s great and very enjoyable.”

In contrast, Masayuki Kurihara, 38, a computer-software company employee said he’d been going to the theater regularly for more than 10 years — but then he started wanting to be more involved. “But it was difficult to find an acting workshop for full-time workers,” he said. “Then I found this one, and as I’d seen productions by Yamanote Jijosha, I knew I could trust their quality.”

Kurihara, however, admitted he might not be a typical company worker, “because how people spend their time usually depends on their work schedule, and company life often occupies their world. But if you want to break out of your rut and move to another phase, theater is a great way to do it — either by going to see it or doing it.”

And Ogasawara was keen to stress how the workshops don’t require any special skills.

“Most Japanese have never been to a theater, whereas drama is compulsory at schools in most of Europe,” she pointed out. “So our main aim is to cultivate a love of theater, and for people to enjoy theater creation and acting while having a great time.”

That’s why, Ogasawara said, she asks people to select themes from their daily lives to act out in front of others in the class — because she believes it helps them to enjoy their workshop experience.

“But that can work in another way,” she noted. “By making their real experiences into drama, they can use what they gain at this workshop to see their everyday routines in a different way. For example, if someone is fed up at work but starts to see their situation more objectively, perhaps they can take a fresh approach to it.”

In the case of Takeshi, who’s now between jobs but was always nervous in the office, that’s just what’s happened. “First of all, I realized I’d never used my body to express myself effectively, and there is a limit to what you can communicate just with words,” she said. “So, I always hid my feelings and my boss and others didn’t understand me. But thanks to the workshops, I started to realize that other people aren’t perfect after all, and that made me much more relaxed about everything. Now, I’m not socially nervous at all.”

Then, like a wonderful bolt from the blue, Takeshi told me her brilliant realization about theater education in Japan.

“I think there’s a political tactic to prevent theater education,” she announced. “People in power are frightened it can produce citizens who are able to communicate easily and well — and such people might break out of this country’s traditional fixed system. So it’s not good for the controllers if people study theater at school and start to think imaginatively as individuals.”

I wonder if these workshops should be off-limits — as well as drama classes in schools.

Yamanote Jijosha’s take on Molière’s 1665 comedy “Don Juan” runs Jan. 24-30 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre, Theatre East, in Ikebukuro. For details, visit www.geigeki.jp/t/ and www.yamanote-j.org.