Stage

Dramatist brings citizens of all ages together

The increasing demand for community theater in Japan can in part be attributed to Yukio Ninagawa's efforts to bring young and old to the stage

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Public theaters across the country are holding significantly more community productions and workshops aimed at local residents who are looking to get involved in performance art.

Undoubtedly that’s in part thanks to the pioneering work of the nation’s leading dramatist on the world stage, Yukio Ninagawa, who in April 2006 unexpectedly announced open auditions for regular folk aged 55 and over who wanted to act.

After auditioning each and every one of the 1,011 aspirants who applied, Ninagawa selected 48 candidates to be founding members of his Gold Theater company based at Saitama Arts Center, where he was, and remains, artistic director.

Then, three years later, he again held open auditions, this time to select young people wanting to be actors in a new project he was setting up called Next Theater.

Nowadays, the two companies constitute an important part of the 79-year-old maestro’s work.

His Saitama Gold Theater has been nothing short of sensational since Ninagawa released that genie of latent acting desire among his supposedly self-effacing senior compatriots. After all, who expected that the elderly troupe would play to full houses overseas — as it did in Paris and Hong Kong in 2013 and ’14 — and garner high critical praise?

Inspired by the publicity these triumphs attracted, residents all over Japan have begun badgering their local authorities to launch community theater projects. Not surprisingly, public theaters have been quick to get on board.

Among these is Kanagawa Prefecture’s public Kawasaki Art Center, where artistic director Asaya Fujita launched Theater Company Our Town in 2012 with the aim of building a regionally rooted citizens theater.

“When I reached out for members through adverts in local newspapers in 2012 — using phrases like, ‘Let’s make plays together’ — scores and scores of people of all ages responded,” recalls Fujita, who also heads the Japan Directors’ Association and the Japan Playwrights’ Association. “One of those was a mother who brought her daughters, aged 4 and 6, to the audition, saying, ‘I think theater would work fine in helping to bring up children.’ I told her instantly that I really agreed, and we would welcome them.”

Fujita, 81, stresses his commitment to the project.

“In today’s Japan, most people belong to a horizontal, closed society in which they’re compelled to compete to survive,” he says. “However, once someone drops out of all that, it’s difficult for them to find another niche in society where they’ll ever be free of their perceived failure.

“In the mixed-age society of Theater Company Our Town, however, our 57 members can behave in an unstructured manner, with oldies warmly scolding their juniors and children openly asking them whatever is on their minds.

“It used to be exactly like that in the small back-street communities in Tokyo, and I think this mixing of people of all things about community theater.”

The company’s name comes from U.S. Pulitzer prize-winner Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play “Our Town,” Fujita says, adding that its debut production, “Our Town Shinyuri,” was created by alternating episodes from the original text set in New Hampshire with others drawn from the Shinyurigaoka district of Kawasaki where the theater is based.

“Our Town Shinyuri” has been a popular repeat program since it premiered in March 2013, and is often invited to other venues in the area.

For the troupe’s fourth production, titled “The Chekhov,” Fujita decided to use Anton Chekhov’s short plays as the main theme, asking members to read lesser-known works by the author of such masterpieces as “The Seagull” and “The Cherry Orchard,” and then dramatize and adapt them as they wished.

After the entire team had pitched in enthusiastically to create their new body of work, I attended a full-house performance in mid-March.

From the start, I was astonished how the amateur dramatists had brought so many original ideas to their adaptations — but without sacrificing any of the Russian author’s sublime sense of humor. On top of that, the staging and their acting was quite simply splendid.

“I was completely amazed at how some elementary school children came up with original adaptations from Chekhov’s works,” Fujita says, smiling.

“Every week, I received a few new pieces from the members until I had about 50 original drafts,” he says.

“One person adapted 12 of Chekhov’s short works one after the other, while another created one original daylong play from different pieces,” he says.

“Finally, I cut and edited and re-fashioned them, and we ended up with a play comprising 11 short scenes,” Fujita says. “I can tell you, it’s much easier to write a new play (with this material) than it was to do all that complicated editorial work.”

As further icing on this Kawasaki cake, Fujita says he recently found out that members have been attending local events and talking about their experiences.

“As a result, their theater activity is gradually affecting the whole regional society and bringing people together around the possibilities on their doorsteps,” he says. “One of the main reasons why drama culture is still quite marginal in this country is because that positive attitude is so rare in the inward-looking professional theater world.”

For more on Theater Company Our Town, visit kawasaki-ac.jp/th.

‘Collaboration is an important part of theater production’

Kirari Fujimi artistic director Junnosuke Tada believes in giving theater participants lots of free rein when creating a stage production

Theater has long been a minor part of life for most people. While many attend music concerts, go to cinemas and galleries, and count karaoke among their leisure pursuits, the vast majority have little involvement with theater culture at all.

In part, this is because drama is not a compulsory subject at school in the same way as music and sports. What’s more, the majority of those who would count themselves as being theater lovers are merely audience members — few actually take part in productions.

Despite this, you don’t have to look far in Japan to realize there’s an abundance of enthusiasm among ordinary citizens experiencing the joys of performing on stage as actors, working as directors or participating in a production as set or costume designers or technicians.

“Since I started running citizens theater workshops in several regional theaters, I’ve realized so many people nurture an ambition to perform in front of an audience and act on stage,” says Junnosuke Tada, artistic director of Kirari Fujimi, a public theater in the city of Fujimi, Saitama Prefecture.

“I suppose there weren’t opportunities for such people to fulfill their aspirations before. Plenty of karaoke boxes are available if you like to sing, but there aren’t any theater boxes for people who want to do a bit of acting,” Tada says with a laugh, speaking midway through a rehearsal for his production of “Fujimi Monogatari” (“Stories of Fujimi”) at Kirari Fujimi in late March.

To create the play, Tada asked 20 people he selected from a host of applicants to write their own lines and perform stories relating to their lives — however they wished.

“In community theater, I don’t provide any written text because if I did, then the actors would just memorize their lines and follow my direction,” the 38-year-old director says. “Instead, I want them to use the time to discuss things with (other members of) the group rather than study lines on their own. I believe the most important aspect of theater creation is collaboration — as well as arriving at a common awareness among the team of what’s being created.”

Whether it was a result of Tada’s go-as-you-please approach or not, participants at the rehearsal were remarkably uninhibited as they interacted with each other, running through various scenarios and raising suggestions one after another (or several at once) as they filled the room with noise and vitality.

In fact, it was stunning to see how different the atmosphere was from a classroom or company meeting, where people generally appear to avoid making any clear statements so they don’t end up being the proverbial nail that sticks up (and, invariably, gets hammered down).

“First and foremost, Japanese companies usually don’t accept diversity — and diversity’s intrinsic to theater,” says Makoto Saotome, an IT worker and one of group’s few middle-aged men. “Consequently, most salarymen aren’t attuned to drama and will have never set foot in a theater.

“However, people can and should learn lots of things from theater. For instance, the majority of leaders in Japanese companies have spent their lives blindly following their predecessors. But for the future of the country, they need to broaden their outlook radically and be much more flexible in their thinking.”

As Saotome spoke, we were surrounded by a spirited group of primary school children, who comprise around a third of the creators and cast of “Fujimi Monogatari.” They were unanimous in saying they “wanted to be like ‘T.J.’ (Tada’s nickname) in the future.”

Although denied the chance to take part in theater at school by their government-dictated curriculum, the youngsters clamored to describe their experience in the workshops where the play was being created. Ten-year-old Ryohei Yamaguchi says he applied to join the group when he saw how his older sister “changed dramatically after she started taking part in theater activity.” He says she became “outgoing and very independent” — and he also became interested in doing theater in an attempt to change his perspective.

Eleven-year-old Yosei Nagata, who joined with his twin brother, Kensei, says he is looking forward to inviting a few friends from school to see his performance in public. “It’s not that I want to show off,” Nagata says, “but I hope they will discover the fun of theater as I have.”

Meanwhile, among the women of all ages who comprise most of the 20-strong group, Keiko Aono describes herself as a “heavy user” of theater workshops.

“There aren’t even enough places for all those I personally know who want to get involved with theater in this locality,” Aono says, adding that she wished more community theater groups were available.

Tada believes the popularity of community theater isn’t just a passing trend.

“At school, everybody follows the rules and copies everyone else. In theater, however, people need to find a different way that nobody has ever seen before,” he says. “On many occasions, people in Japan are required to behave like they’re still at school and follow everyone else, but that doesn’t happen in theater creation. So we need people to be involved with theater to change behavior in society. And if people are eager to act on stage — why not?”

For more on Kirari Fujimi, visit www.kirari-fujimi.com.

Talk takes center stage

Workshop allows theater lovers and professionals to share their wealth of knowledge, experience

The great author Hisashi Inoue (1934-2010) often said the key to a playwright’s craft was, “Writing difficult things in easy-to-understand terms, easy things profoundly and profound things interestingly.”

In essence, this sentiment reflects the ethos of a theater workshop titled “Think About the Society and Arts From Shizuoka,” which was run for the third year in January by Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC).

When I visited the workshop held at SPAC’s splendid Box Theater rehearsal studio set amid hilly tea fields with Mount Fuji soaring on the skyline, I found 30-odd men and women of assorted ages in the midst of a lively discussion on “The relation between festivals and us” — the designated theme of the day.

Among the housewives, students, bureaucrats and office workers that were present, I recognized a few theater administrators, producers and actors, with one mid-level manager I knew telling me she’d joined to exchange opinions with colleagues and learn about SPAC’s thoughts on theater management.

The day before, participants attended a SPAC performance of artistic director Satoshi Miyagi’s latest work, “The Life of Gusko Budori,” a play based on a children’s story by Kenji Miyazawa in which the eponymous hero gives his life to save his village from a volcano. Afterward, everyone talked together animatedly about the play before going their separate ways — either home or to SPAC’s adjacent lodge where they were staying for the weekend.

When I turned up the next morning, everyone seemed to know each other quite well, and roles within the group — whether leader, follower, joker or rebel — had naturally been established as they embarked on the day’s mission to make a group presentation about their ideal theater festival.

One of the workshop’s two facilitators, Yoichi Shirakawa, says although most participants were first-timers, one — a young salaryman with a financial company — had been on both previous workshops as well.

“He told me he didn’t expect to get any particular guidance on acting or getting a job in theater,” Shirakawa says. “But he kept coming because the workshop was a very valuable life experience for him.”

The other facilitator, Takayuki Hiramatsu, a producer with the Urinko theater company in Nagoya, adds, “Although there is no final target, I hope this experience is a trigger to change people’s lives a bit when they are back at work or at home.”

A participant in his 30s, who describes himself as a PR officer at a tourism office in Aichi Prefecture, has little doubt of that.

“It’s a mind-blowing experience to hear different opinions from people with different backgrounds,” he says. “The international Aichi Triennale art festival started in 2010 with a great fanfare. Because Toyota (the region’s leading employer) wasn’t doing too well, the budget was subsequently cut and it lost the enthusiasm of local people. Now, because I’ve come here, I’ve had several hints as to why SPAC’s international theater festival continues to be so successful. I hope to use what I’ve learned to help improve our regional festival in the future.”

With that I departed, sure in the knowledge that extended workshops such as SPAC’s are another fine addition to the emerging rich tapestry of citizens theaters and community-based drama activities now slowly — but surely — beginning to change the fabric of society in Japan.

For more on SPAC, visit www.spac.or.jp.