If you had a son or daughter who announced they wanted to be a stage actor, whatever would you say to them?

In Japan today, as in centuries past, this still remains a dreaded scenario for many “respectable” parents hoping to raise children who will better their lots materially and in the all-important eyes of society.

Many strict, conservative families would simply order a stagestruck offspring to “think again,” while less dogmatic parents (and grandparents) would point out that acting is a difficult, insecure job that often pays little. In Japanese, actors and beggars are both referred to as kawaramono (literally, “riverbank dwellers”).

Yet plenty of young people in Japan still yearn to be in the spotlight performing works by the likes of William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Hisashi Inoue or Koki Mitani. But how are such aspiring thespians to go about realizing their dream? Sure, there are countless tiny theater groups whose members perform for their friends, and occasionally one of them achieves national or even international standing — as with Yume no Yuminsha, founded in the 1970s by Hideki Noda, and Chelfitsch, established by Toshiki Okada in the late 1990s.

However, Japan’s contemporary theater world — unlike that of traditional kabuki and noh — has always been short on systematic training. Instead, actors accepted by small theaters generally just learn to do things the company’s way without ever aspiring to greater things.

By contrast, says Tamiya Kuriyama, the former artistic director of the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT), actors in most European countries learn their craft at national stage schools or theater companies. “This allows them to share a ‘common grammar’ — much as ballet dancers do — so they approach any part with an already established skill set to build on.”

Though the NNTT may have been late in realizing the benefits of formal training for actors, it finally launched Drama Studio in 2005. Headed by Kuriyama, the program offers a three-year course on professional acting skills, including elocution and movement.

One of the first to enroll was Hibiki Kitagawa, now 33 and starting to make a name for himself as an actor. He was one of 15 people accepted into the initial program from a pool of 600 applicants. In a splendid rehearsal studio at the NNTT in Shinjuku’s high-rise district, he tells The Japan Times why he signed up.

“I had been in a private theater company’s training course for three years, but I wanted to study drama at the highest level,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in being in films or on television without mastering basic stage-acting skills.”

At that point, we had to break off our chat, as Kitagawa was called to a rehearsal for “Nagai Bohyo no Retsu (A Long Line of Grave Posts),” an intense drama about a politically minded group of students in Japan’s militarist prewar period.

Running through March 24, the production marks a milestone for the Drama Studio: It’s the first time the NNTT has cast graduates of the course alongside established actors in an extended program.

“I realized there was still a big gap between the Drama Studio graduates and experienced theater professionals, so I wanted to create a career bridge between them,” says the play’s director, Keiko Miyata, who also serves as the NNTT’s artistic director. “It’s exciting that they get to play important roles in a major program rather than in a trainees’ ensemble. So I hope that working with veteran actors will help them learn how to prepare and play a role.”

Kuriyama, who still heads Drama Studio, shares in the excitement.

“Once the NNTT was established in the ‘hardware’ of this theater in 1997,” he says, “I started to focus intently on creating the ‘software’ of an academy to train actors. Otherwise, I thought, there would be no future for Japanese theater.”

Indeed, in his 2007 book “Enshutsuka no Shigoto (The Work of a Theater Director),” Kuriyama recounts how, on a research trip to Sweden, he was “thunderstruck” when the head of the National Academy of Mime and Acting wondered how the NNTT could even stage a play with no national training course for actors.

“South Korea started its national actors studio in 1946 and there are almost 80 drama colleges there today,” he says. “So most Korean actors have a proper theater education.”

But the difference is not just about training. “When I did a workshop in Seoul a few months ago, I was surprised at the actors’ passion for creating theater,” he says. “Nowadays in Japan, people in the theater industry easily lose that passion because of the pressure for profits and the need to run an efficient business. In other words, after World War II Japan chose economic growth and Korea chose human growth — and it’s time to review the system in Japan and get back to drama’s basics instead of just chasing instant rewards.”

Kuriyama and Miyata both stress that the blame for Japan’s unfulfilled potential lies not just with the system — but with the aspiring actors themselves.

“I’ve seen many young trainees who don’t want to communicate with others; it’s not that they can’t, but they don’t want to,” Miyata says. “Many of them tell me they’ve never argued with their parents and that they have no strong relationships with anyone. But an actor must have a deep curiosity about people and life, and you can’t get that from sitting at home staring at screens.”

Kuriyama, for his part, says he didn’t want to pour cold water over the current “quiet drama” movement, which typically features young actors delivering monologues about themselves in subdued voices.

“I do believe the essence of theater is ongoing renaissance in the depiction of the human condition,” he says. “But actors must be able to deliver lines properly to express their character’s human nature to audiences. That’s why I tell young actors doing avant-garde drama to acquire the basic skills first.”

Miyata adds a further point: that strong egos are not conducive to good acting. “I wish the NNTT students would concentrate on gaining maturity and the flexibility to cope with any type of director and all types of plays. However, it’s better if directors and playwrights are individualistic and self-centered — and I’m saying that as a director,” she says with a laugh.

In fact Miyata chose to stage “Nagai Bohyo no Retsu” because the events are so alien to the young actors’ life experiences. Written in 1957, the play is loosely based on the true story of a liberal economist who was intimidated by the militarist authorities. The lead is played by veteran actor Takehiro Murata, but his youthful followers are mostly portrayed by Drama Studio alumni.

One of those tested by his role is Satoshi Imai, a 2011 graduate who admits to being “distressed” playing a right-wing student named Konishi.

“I can’t figure out what Konishi means by loving his country, and why he feels his political beliefs justify him being violent to others,” he says. “I’ve hardly ever thought about patriotic feelings, so it’s hard to understand him. However, I am trying to overcome that by studying books and documentary films about that period in Japan.”

Such confusion comes as no surprise to Kuriyama. “When I asked 30 NNTT students if they’d read any Shakespeare, just a few said they had. It’s a crisis, because actors can’t act a Shakespearean role by mimicking someone else’s performance. Nowadays, although we have e-books, for example, it still takes intense analog work by actors — reading a text carefully and expressing it using their voices and bodies — to get to grips with a role.”

As if to offer proof of Kuriyama’s philosophy, Imai freely admits that, thanks to his Drama Studio experience, he is able to confront his own weaknesses.

“People used to say I was shifty,” he says, “and I’d just interpret that as me being prudent. Since going to Drama Studio, though, I’ve stopped trying to gloss over that trait and have been trying to do something positive about it.”

Fellow graduate Kitagawa, with a few more years’ experience, says Drama Studio gave him the confidence to “perform for audiences with a firm belief in myself as a stage actor.”

After a short lunch break, the cast returns to the rehearsal in great spirits — exuding a real sense of optimism for the future of Japanese theater — as Miyata appeals to them from her director’s chair to imagine they are living here in the 1920s or ’30s.

“Nagai Bohyo no Retsu (A Long Line of Grave Posts)” runs till March 24 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, in Shibuya-ku. For more information, call the NNTT at (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.

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