Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Stage veteran invites Tokyoites to try treading the boards

Established back in 1896, the Tokyo International Players is Japan’s oldest-running English-language theater company. Now in it’s 118th season and just in time for Christmas, TIP is presenting a brand-new version of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved “Little Women,” which follows the lives and loves of the four March sisters. TIP stalwart Ann Jenkins will play the role of the sisters’ acid-tongued Great Aunt March.

Although Jenkins has taken roles in numerous TIP productions during her 24-year involvement with the group, she is just as active behind the scenes. When she isn’t performing in one of the shows, Jenkins can usually be found out the front selling tickets and letting patrons know about upcoming productions. She has also been a member of TIP’s board of directors for the last six years.

“I’m never without brochures or flyers about TIP,” she says. “I’m still meeting people who’ve lived in Tokyo for years but have never heard of us.” Jenkins is more than happy to put that right.

Hailing from Warwickshire in the English Midlands, she inherited her love of the theater from her mother, a schoolteacher and amateur actress who also wrote and produced plays for her students. Jenkins says she never actually got to see her perform on stage, however, as her mother moved into the teaching and production side after starting a family.

A precocious child who taught herself to read as a toddler, Jenkins was given the green light to start school several months early and found herself in her first play at the ripe old age of 4½. While Jenkins admits she doesn’t remember much about her stage debut, she has a cherished photo of the occasion.

“I played a soldier and there were several of us in a line,” she says. “I was the one looking the proudest.”

With the support of her mother, Jenkins pursued her passion for performing right the way through school, but when it came to training for a future career, acting was not seen as a viable option.

“One of my biggest regrets was that I never even applied to drama school,” she explains. “Instead I was encouraged to follow an academic path, so I studied English and drama at university.”

While still a student, a part-time job teaching English as a second language to European children sparked Jenkins’ interest in a professional teaching career. From the mid-1970s and through most of the ’80s, she pursued postgraduate degrees in education and traversed the world, teaching in Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Middle East before eventually arriving in Japan in 1989 to work at a women’s university in Sendai.

After a year in Tohoku, however, Jenkins longed to get back into the English theater scene and searched for employment closer to Tokyo. This led to a 20-year stint as a member of the English faculty at the Teikyo University of Science in Yamanashi Prefecture from 1990 to 2010.

Jenkins settled on the very outskirts of western Tokyo, just inside the Tokyo-Yamanashi border, relying on her car to get her wherever she needed to be. All the time spent on the road over the years has proved useful when practicing for her various roles.

“I record my lines on an old-fashioned cassette player and listen to them in the car,” she grins.

Jenkins made her TIP debut in a small role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in 1992. In the early years of her involvement, her hectic schedule took its toll.

“The logistics of working full-time, living far out of Tokyo and working even further out made it very difficult at times,” she says.

Gradually, however, along with increasing seniority at work came a more flexible work schedule and more time to devote to the theater.

One thing that sets TIP apart is the fact that anyone is welcome to try out for a role, irrespective of age, experience, nationality or time in Japan.

“Our auditions are always open and we cast according to people’s suitability for the role, not on their past body of work or their years with TIP,” notes Jenkins.

“This helps to keep thing fresh. It is almost guaranteed that in each production there will be someone in their first role with TIP and — maybe — someone in their last role, too.”

In her time with TIP, Jenkins has seen some major changes, as the group has adapted to the changing economy and the transient nature of the foreign community here. For many years, the group was closely linked in the minds of the general public with the Tokyo American Club (TAC), which provided the venue for performances and a core audience.

“There was a misconception that we were actually TAC’s ‘drama club,’ not an independent group,” explains Jenkins. “Then when TAC started rebuilding their facilities in 2007, we became homeless and were forced into the theaters.”

Around the same time, the economic fallout from the so-called Lehman shock saw a large number of expat families on international assignments in Tokyo being repatriated, with fewer people coming to fill their places.

While the last few years have been a challenging time for TIP, which is still yet to find a long-term home base, Jenkins says it has also helped the group to solidify and develop in new directions.

“If we are to continue for another 118 years, we need to attract more local and long-term patrons from among the community,” she says.

In an effort to better cater to Japanese audience members, TIP has recently begun providing synopses in Japanese in their programs. Another initiative is Japanese audio guides at certain performances. As Jenkins points out, preparing the guides is a labor-intensive task, requiring the talents of bilingual production staff to translate, record and operate the system during shows.

For those with an interest in the theater but perhaps lacking the time or confidence to try out for a role, there are informal gatherings known as “TIP Reads!” where participants can enjoy reading plays in a relaxed setting with no prior preparation required.

TIP Youth was started five years ago to encourage and instill a love of theater in the next generation. With one section for children aged 8 to 12 and another for teenagers through high-school age, TIP Youth leads youngsters on a six-month program encompassing various aspects of performing and stagecraft, culminating in a full-scale production of a musical in a professional theater.

Although much of Jenkins’ time is devoted to TIP these days, she is also involved with a volunteer-run initiative called WELL (Women Educators and Language Learners). Founded in 1995, the group is open to women of any nationality in Japan. While communication is primarily in English and Japanese, those involved with other languages are also very welcome, Jenkins says.

WELL runs an annual two-night conference/retreat at the National Women’s Education Center in Saitama. Promoted as “a weekend of learning, discussion, networking, relaxation and fun,” any woman can participate. The 2015 retreat is from Feb. 6-8.

“The name behind the acronym WELL gives the impression that we are only for teachers or students, but we are working to dispel that image. In the broader sense, all foreign women living in Japan and all Japanese women interested in English are language students, are they not?” she asks rhetorically. “Also, the word ‘well’ can indicate a source of knowledge or a traditional gathering place where women shared information.”

It comes as no surprise to learn that Jenkins is in charge of the entertainment for Saturday night at the WELL retreat, when participants with an artistic bent or just a love for the limelight can come up on stage to sing, dance, recite or perform as the mood takes them.

“Always a lot of fun, whatever happens!” she says.

Since switching to freelance work as an English teacher, narrator and voice actress four years ago, Jenkins is enjoying having more flexibility to pursue the things she loves. She finds it difficult to pick out her favorite role among the many she has had over the years, but the one character that she would still relish the chance to play is the powerful Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde. As for actresses she admires, they include Meryl Streep, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren.

With an eye to the future and her work with TIP, Jenkins says that the group is in the process of applying for NPO status and is currently searching for storage places for costumes and workspace for building sets and props.

“We’re 100-percent volunteer-run and always welcome sponsorship and donations,” Jenkins says. “We already have a strong partnership with the Yamano Beauty School, who do our hair and make-up, and we’re now looking to forge relationships with art colleges, fashion houses and performing arts departments in what, we hope, can be a win-win collaboration.”

Above all, in order to better represent the “international” in Tokyo International Players, Jenkins would like to see more Japanese and other non-native speakers of English become involved with TIP.

“We’re a community theater group and we want to provide services and productions relevant to our community here in Japan,” she says.

Tokyo English Players presents an original version of “Little Women,” adapted by Alysha Haran, Dec. 4-7 at the Ebisu Echo Theater. Tickets: www.tokyoplayers.com/index.php/en. WELL: welljapan.org. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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