The old never give the young an easy time. “They think they know everything,” “They’re lazy” — the cross-generational gripes have been around as long as people have.
One person who likely had a particularly hard time with his elders was the young German playwright Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), who often used satire to criticize bourgeois attitudes, particularly toward sex. In fact, his most influential work, “Spring Awakening,” written in 1891 when he was 26, so repelled polite society that it wasn’t staged for 15 years until the Deutsches Theater in Berlin finally dared to show it.
It continued to receive pushback throughout the years in the form of numerous bans, but in 2006 U.S. singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik brought the story to Broadway in the form of a rock musical, scooping up eight Tony Awards and a Grammy in the process.
In 2009-10, Tokyo’s Shiki Theatre Co. toured Sheik’s version across Japan. While critics said the direction was innovative, many of Shiki’s regular customers raised their eyebrows at the sexuality. The company hasn’t staged it again.
However, Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) has now worked up the courage to stage a rare straight theatrical production of “Spring Awakening,” first at its Yokohama base and then on a three-city tour.
Set in late-19th-century Germany and dubbed by its author a “tragedy of childhood,” this seminal work centers on a group of teenagers in the midst of their sexual awakening, whose parents haughtily dismiss their complaints about society’s oppressive constraints.
In casting for one of that group’s key members, KAAT Artistic Director Akira Shirai, whose career as an actor and director spans mainstream to experimental theater, auditioned lots of promising young actors before settling on Louis Kurihara — a 22-year-old primarily known in Japan’s entertainment world as a negatibu moderu (literally, “negative model”) after describing himself as “ugly” despite appearing in fashion magazines since he was around 5.
In “Spring Awakening” audiences will see Kurihara in quite a different light as Moritz Stiefel, a naive boy who suddenly “discovers” girls and is so distracted that he drops out of school, ruining his prospects and plunging him into despair.
Interestingly, Kurihara himself — whose late English father named him after the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong — was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) while living in New York with his Japanese mother before they returned here when he was 11, only for him to be bullied at school.
“When I was in New York I was really withdrawn, and my teacher urged me to watch comedy,” Kurihara tells The Japan Times. “Though my friends loved (TV shows like) ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Family Guy,’ my mother and I were more into ‘South Park.’ Actually, I loved it so much that it inspired me to be an actor.”
As a result, though Kurihara was already modeling on the Paris catwalks by age 18, he has since been shifting to theater. He first gained experience in small-scale pieces that featured actors from the talent agency he belongs to, Ever Green Entertainment, before moving to bigger productions in which he has been able to stand out.
“I’ve had the chance to work with some so-called daring directors such as Seiji Nozoe and Shuntaro Fujita, and now Akira Shirai, and I’ve learned a lot from them,” he says. “For instance, I’ve realized that it’s not being sensational that makes a production cutting-edge, but steady hard work such as minutely reading the script, allied with bold direction, that makes it sparkle.”
Kurihara says his modeling experience has helped him to relax and move naturally on stage. On the other hand, he says having ADD has made it difficult for him to memorize his lines.
“I suppose each actor tries different ways to do that, but it doesn’t work if I just read through the script,” he says. “And once I asked my manager to record the lines for me to listen to, but that was no use either.
“In the end I found that if I could remember the scenes as visual images in my mind, and imagine the picture when I’m on the stage, I’d be able to recite my lines without any difficulty.”
Then, explaining that he actually attended a few readings of “Spring Awakening” in 2014, at which actors stood around and voiced several roles each, he says he believes the play is primarily about “chū-ni byō,” which literally means “junior high school second-year syndrome” — a condition said to afflict 13- and 14-year-olds living in dreamy but highly self-conscious worlds of their own.
“In many ways, I think my character, Moritz, is very ordinary, and he’s probably the closest to our audience’s experience,” Kurihara says, likening him to the “rather toady” cartoon character Daffy Duck in contrast to the other main character, an honor student named Melchior Gabor (played by Jun Shison), who is “more of a clever Bugs Bunny.”
“Though the play was written more than 100 years ago, with Shirai’s simple but bold direction it is a very cutting-edge drama,” he says. “Shinichi Sakayori, the translator, also introduced lots of modern references, so I think modern audiences can also enjoy it as a real story about today.”
While “Spring Awakening” was historically seen as highly controversial, there were doubtless many older people even back then who could see past the generation gap and were interested in what the piece was saying. Hence it’s almost fitting, that, as we were wrapping up the interview, Kurihara made a cross-generational plea.
“There is too little support for the arts here compared with the United States and countries in Europe, and there is almost no drama education at any level,” he says. “As my personal wish, I would like to ask politicians and bureaucrats to take more interest in theater and learn to recognize its merits. Theater has a longer history than movies or almost any other entertainment media, and people get a lot of valuable things from experiencing it live.”
If Kurihara’s views are reflective of his peers, then maybe it’s time the strait-laced oldies who run the country have an awakening of their own.
Akira Shirai’s “Spring Awakening” runs from May 5 to 23 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama. It then heads to ROHM Theater in Kyoto for May 27 and 28, Kitakyushu Performing Arts Center in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture on June 4, and Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, on June 10 and 11. For more information, visit www.harumeza.jp (in Japanese).