Senior theater troupes increasing as baby boomers seek new roles

by Takeshi Kawamura

Kyodo

Japan is seeing an increasing number of theater companies made up of elderly actors as baby boomers and other seniors seek to tread the boards.

In late May, a dozen members of an amateur troupe consisting of around 40 people aged 60 or older were busy rehearsing for a performance. The rehearsal space, a classroom in a shuttered elementary school in Tokyo, crackled with atmosphere.

Stage director Ema Kujira, 40, issued instructions as she watched the performers go through their paces. “A man talking to the wife who is divorcing him wouldn’t get that close to her,” she told one actor.

“He’s still attached to her!” the actor replied, triggering laughter among troupe members.

Kujira founded the theater company, Kanjuku-za, in 2006 to let older people experience the pleasure of performing on stage.

Theater companies with seniors started popping up in 2007 as boomers began to reach the mandatory retirement age. There are now around 40 such troupes across Japan, Kujira estimates.

Many local governments provide them with subsidies and other forms of support, hoping that acting will contribute to the health of the elderly and thus cut time and money spent on nursing care.

Members of Kanjuku-za are full of vitality. Kazuko Miyata, 71, said she was bitten by the acting bug from her very first performance. She enjoys it so much that after she was forced to undergo surgery, she put herself through a physical exercise regimen to return to the stage.

Toshihiko Watanabe, 70, joined the troupe five years ago. Until he retired, all he did was work, but now he helps his wife with the household chores. As he puts it, talking with female troupe members helped him recognize that he should “repay my wife for all the support she has given me.”

Kujira organized a national convention of senior theater companies in Tokyo in 2011 that was attended by 16 troupes. In June she arranged a second convention for a week in Minami-Alps, Yamanashi Prefecture.

Among the 15 troupes attending the second convention, Kabutsu from Hachijo Island, Tokyo, performed a folk story using the Hachijo dialect, which is on the UNESCO list of endangered languages.

Participating from the city of Fukui was a troupe consisting of members with an average age of 79, including a 90-year-old woman.

“The lack of opportunities for social participation is bad for health,” said Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, a senior researcher at NLI Research Institute and an expert on the cultural pursuits of the elderly.

Performing encourages troupe members to be more socially active, he added, “because they think the show or rehearsal will go nowhere without them.”