A chance to shine at an early age

TIP Youth gives English-speaking children and teens hands-on musical-theater experience

by Lindsay Nelson

Special To The Japan Times

It’s 9:15 on a cold and rainy Saturday morning, and Wendell Harrison is running late. “The one day I send an email telling them not to be late, and I’m the one having problems,” he laments.

Harrison’s doing double duty at the moment: directing a production of “Romeo and Juliet” by the Tokyo International Players, Tokyo’s oldest foreign theater group, and running the first half of TIP Youth’s four-hour Saturday rehearsal.

His charges, a group of 20 enthusiastic 8- to-12-year-olds, started arriving at 8:45. Within minutes they were singing along with the pop music playing over the rehearsal space’s speakers, chatting, hugging and dancing together.

TIP Youth is the brainchild of longtime TIP collaborators Dale Geyer, Davina McFadyen and Jonathan Hagans. “We did a production of ‘Oliver!’ (which has many youngsters in the cast), and a bunch of the parents asked us if there was a way for their children to continue doing something like this regularly, because there just weren’t many opportunities to take English-language theater classes in Tokyo,” Geyer tells me.

Before Harrison arrives for his class in what is now the program’s fourth year, the musical director, Clarissa White, leads the children in vocal warm-ups. “It’s like we’re going on a really slow roller coaster,” she says as they practice a vocal “siren” exercise in which the children get to sound like ambulances or fire trucks on an emergency callout.

“Can we go on a faster one?” one child asks.

“Sure, let’s go on a faster one.”

They siren their voices up and down faster.

White, who’s in a U.S. Navy band and lives with her husband on a base outside Tokyo, seems to have endless reserves of patience. She’s careful and persistent and calls the kids out when they make mistakes or aren’t paying attention — but she never raises her voice or snaps. As well, she works individually with each child on a single line of music — then returns to repeatedly working with two children who can’t get a note quite right. She stays with them until they do.

“With kids, their attention spans are a lot shorter, so you have to keep things interesting,” White tells me. “But they also have a lot more energy and enthusiasm than some adults, which helps.”

This year’s 8- to 12-year-olds musical is “Captain Louie Jr.,” the story of an awkward boy who gains confidence through adventures in his old neighborhood and his own imagination. Meanwhile, the 13- to 17-year-old set are doing “Once on This Island Jr.” (“junior” musicals are condensed, child-friendly versions of popular musicals).

In the first half of the rehearsal, the kids review the music and choreography for a song titled “Trick or Treat.” I see what White means about attention spans — when they’re not actively singing or dancing, they quickly get distracted and chat or wander around the room.

Harrison retrieves their attention repeatedly and they make it through the song — just in time for a very quick lunch break.

The second half of the rehearsal is dance-focused, with Geyer choreographing and directing. There’s a real sense of joy to this part of the rehearsal — these are kids being kids, jumping and turning and whirling. The happiness in their movement is palpable.

“Red group, pink group, whatever you wanna call yourself,” Geyer tells them as he divides them up into practice groups. “Awesome group! We’re awesome group!” shouts one.

“Lia, you’re turning the wrong way. Everybody turn this way — your leg should be long and out, like a pencil.”

“Like a compass!” someone shouts.

I talk to Levi, age 10, one of only three boys in the group, and ask him what he likes about the program. “I like how we get to express a different character in a way that you can’t when you’re yourself. You become a whole different person in a play,” he says.

Several of the girls say that they want to be actors or singers when they grow up. Lia, 10, and Aurora, 12, tell me that auditions are the only part of the process that make them nervous. “After that it’s all fun.”

For Clarissa White, though, the point of TIP Youth isn’t to turn everyone into a professional musical-theater performer. “They’re at the start of their journey. Whether they go into theater or not, I hope this experience helps them to build a sense of confidence in whatever they do,” she tells me.

With only a dozen or so rehearsals left until production week — and plenty of details left to iron out — the task of bringing two fully-formed musicals to the stage seems daunting.

Like White, though, Harrison is clear about the primary purpose of TIP Youth. “As someone who fell in love with theater very early, I just hope they continue loving and sharing this art form with others. I hope they see that performers can become anything.”

TIP Youth’s productions of “Once on this Island Jr.” and “Captain Louie Jr.” run at various times April 24-27 at Theater Bonbon in Nakano. All tickets are ¥2,000 and can be purchased by emailing tipyreservations@gmail.com.