Twenty-five years ago, Chris Wells, a 27-year-old American raised in Missouri, faced Jun Imai, a young Japanese method actor from Tokyo who was on his way to becoming a leading authority on improv in Japan. “We met at an improv show in Tokyo,” Imai says. “We had two teams against each other: a gaijin (foreign) team and a Japanese team.”
Since that day, the couple has developed both a business partnership as well as a romantic one. They launched an improv studio called Studio Gokko with several classes a week, a professional comedy show called Improvazilla performed in English, and they are months away from opening a black box theater for Japanese-language shows. And, in addition to their bilingual lessons, they just held their second Spanish-language improv workshop.
Despite their successes, however, they have found it difficult to introduce improv into Japanese culture.
Imai has found that some of his Japanese students have a difficult time embracing the elements of improv. “They feel judged,” Imai says. “They are scared to be themselves in front of people.”
Wells explains that at the heart of improv is the idea of “yes, and…,” which is the promise that you will accept other people’s ideas and use them to develop the scene. Teachers began developing this method in the West because they found that students often said “no” to protect themselves.
“In Japan, they start with yes,” Imai says. “And there’s no ‘and.'”
When Japanese improv students practice this technique, Wells and Imai feel that they are only scratching the surface of the method.
“A superficial level of ‘yes, and…’ might lead to a scene that is completely about finishing a wedding cake on time — maybe the cake falls off the table, or something gets into the batter,” Wells says. “If the actors are paying attention to one another, and working with subtle cues in the way the actor is talking, they might pick up on, say, a bit of reluctance the character has about using a certain color in the frosting.”
Wells and Imai want actors to “yes, and…” everything, not just the words. They want them to bring it out in their attitude, facial expressions, tone of voice and posture.
Imai has written several books on the topic. His first is titled, “It’s Tough To Be Free: An Improv Manual.” But from teaching workshops to students in his new studio to visiting universities and businesses to consult with them on how to “yes, and…” their workspace, Imai has struggled to get them to accept the concept on a deeper level.
In an effort to penetrate this superficial “yes, and…” barrier, Imai is teaching students to do improv from their hearts, rather than their minds. He asks them, “What do you feel, what do you want to do?”
“It’s so hard because they don’t know what they like and don’t like,” Imai says.
Over their 25 years, Wells and Imai are making progress.
“In many of the classes I give, they cry.” Imai says. “They cry because they start saying their true feelings.”
For more information on Chris Wells and Jun Imai, as well as details of their classes at Studio Gokko in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, visit www.improvazilla.com/studio-gokko.