Teachers across Japan no doubt understand the struggle to get junior and senior high school students interested in learning English. For elementary school-aged kids, that task takes a lot of creativity.
That’s where CALL comes in. The Circle of Acting for Learning Languages has been presenting English performances at schools and theaters since 2003 to audiences generally comprising children up to the age of 13. Troupe member Julia Yermakov, 53, says the challenge is to keep things fun and avoid becoming too “educational.”
“We know all too well how the Japanese in general get a mental block when it comes to English,” Yermakov, who is of Japanese and Russian descent, tells The Japan Times. “We think that the drama and music can provide an opportunity for children to relax and let the English enter them naturally.”
She adds that CALL makes sure the balance of English and Japanese is comfortable for its audience, allowing them to be partially immersed in English while not feeling left behind because the Japanese follows.
The troupe was founded by Kyoko Soma and grew out of the Young Ladies Theater Group, comprised of Japanese teachers of English seeking to improve their own linguistic skills through drama. After being invited to perform at a few schools, their focus shifted and they became CALL.
A narrator and voiceover actress, Yermakov has been with the troupe from the outset. She was born in the United States but raised primarily in Japan, and says she first caught the acting bug at an early age. After watching some shows by Soma’s Young Ladies group, she says she immediately wanted to be involved.
“I saw the show with my baby, and loved what they were doing,” recalls Yermakov, who now acts, directs and writes scripts for the troupe. “All the plays are bilingual, accompanied by live music and call for audience participation.”
That last element is crucial to the success of the performances. By chanting and singing key English phrases, the young viewers are more likely to feel connected to the language and gain confidence in using it.
The group, which is around 20-strong, performs mainly in Tokyo, but has traveled to other parts of the Kanto region as well as Nara in the west and South Korea.
The troupe recently returned from a five-venue tour in Boston where it gave several performances of a show titled “Three Lucky Charms,” which was adapted from a traditional folk tale by Yermakov and produced by Jun Takahashi.
“In 2012, we were requested by Minato Ward (in Tokyo) to present something that would allow the big foreign community there, especially the children, to learn about Japan, and that’s how ‘Three Lucky Charms’ came about,” Yermakov explains, adding that the first performance came in 2013 and it has been performed annually at Minato Ward’s Azabu Civic Center since.
The production starts off as two-dimensional puppet theater but toward the climax — and this might be a slight spoiler alert for our younger readers — the puppets are replaced by real actors performing from within the audience.
“This has to be kept a secret for the surprise element, but it’s the funniest part,” Yermakov says.
The Boston tour, which took place between Nov. 4 and 10, included additional elements of traditional Japanese culture including an introduction to buyoh dancing, and a primer on ghosts and yōkai (supernatural creatures) via folding panels.
“All five venues had different characteristics,” Yermakov says via email following the tour. “Among them was a Japanese language school, for which we tailored our show to provide more Japanese, and a school for autistic children.
“There was a big difference between the Japanese kids in Japan and American kids in the States on one level, but it was interesting to see that in general the play was received with great enthusiasm everywhere.”
Looking ahead, Yermakov says CALL welcomes anyone interested in helping with future productions, both on stage and off, and being bilingual isn’t a prerequisite.
“We’ve had Japanese people who wanted to practice their English skills join us, as well as foreign people who spoke little Japanese join us for the fun of acting,” Yermakov says. “Young, old, student … anyone is welcome.”
While this open-door policy may make it tougher for the troupe to bring the level of the show to a professional level, the inclusivity more than makes up for things.
“It takes a lot of patience, but it’s very empowering for everybody involved,” Yermakov says. “Really, that’s what I love about what we do.”
For more information on the Circle of Acting for Learning Languages, visit call.iinaa.net.