To Jenny Sealey, Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” a play about a shipwrecked party marooned on strange shores, will ring true for anyone, anywhere, at any time.
“There’s always a storm about to happen in this world — whether it’s a war, COVID, an earthquake or whatever — ‘The Tempest’ will always be relevant,” says the director of “The Tempest: Swimming for Beginners,” speaking over Zoom from her home in London. After a year’s postponement due to the pandemic, the production opened June 1 at the Owlspot Theatre in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward.
Since 1997, Sealey has been the CEO and artistic director at Graeae, a theater company comprising deaf and disabled actors in London. In 2009, she was honored with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), but she is perhaps best known as the co-director of the London 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony along with public arts producer Bradley Hemmings.
Sealey’s experience juggling the complexities of a performance for the global stage no doubt helped while she directed her take on the Bard’s tragicomedy amid a pandemic with a multinational cast and crew located in separate countries. In “The Tempest: Swimming for Beginners,” which she co-wrote with award-winning Scottish playwright Pamela Carter, Sealey presents a kind of docudrama about the cast’s Japanese, British and Bangladeshi actors preparing to perform the play, tracing how the project came to fruition despite difficulties involving different languages, cultures, disabilities and time zones.
Further enriching the text are episodes drawn from the actors’ own experiences during rehearsals, which are interwoven with some of Shakespeare’s lines about overcoming differences and reconciling disputes. In one scene, for example, the Bangladeshi actors discuss how they could not get visas to come to Japan due to the country’s tightened travel restrictions in response to the pandemic.
Although the year delay gave them extra time to prepare, none of the cast members based overseas have been able to travel to Japan. Consequently, even Sealey, who is deaf but speaks English, rehearsed via the video-chat platform Zoom with the help of various verbal and sign-language interpreters for the cast and crew. The result is a production that combines live performances by Japanese actors with pre-recorded scenes featuring three actors in England and two in Bangladesh.
Hiroe Ohashi, who is deaf, is one of those Japanese actors. She plays Caliban, a sensitive half-monster and the sole original inhabitant of the mysterious island where the story takes place. She made her stage debut in 1999 as part of the cast of Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God.” In 2005, she founded Sign Art Project.AZN, a project that aims to highlight sign language in artistic performances, and is now among Japan’s leading performers and producers of deaf and disabled theater.
“In 2011, I joined Jenny’s adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ performed by various kinds of disabled actors at Saitama Arts Theatre,” says Ohashi, describing how she first came to be involved with Sealey’s productions. “I was so impressed by her no-limits way of creating theater, which was an entirely new experience for me. She was so open-minded, which made me want to audition for ‘The Tempest.’”
However, Ohashi landed more than the role of Caliban. Together with Yasushi Oka, a playwright and director for the Shizuoka-based theater company Gogo no Jiten, she was appointed as a co-director.
“Of course, the leading director is Jenny, but she asked me to take on the role as well,” she says. “Oka can hear, but he uses a wheelchair, so we’ve tried to utilize our own fields of expertise. For example, he checks verbal lines and I’m responsible for the Japanese sign-language, which isn’t the same as English sign-language.
“Each day in the rehearsal room involves trial and error. We had a rough script at the beginning, but Jenny carefully listened to the actors’ casual conversations during rehearsals and incorporated some of their chats into the text. And really, there is no precedent for making theater like this in such a complicated multicultural situation. So alongside my acting role, I’m also learning how to be a good director by using the exact words or sign-language needed.”
Sealey was keen to stress the need for disability-inclusive arts in today’s world, explaining how the Paralympics ceremony performed by artists with disabilities triggered new government-backed funding.
“The disability arts movement in the U.K. is probably 50 years old but it’s still developing in the mainstream world,” Sealey says. “Forty years ago, when Graeae was set up, it was also an advocacy company because creativity in arts-access is a human right. Everyone should have the right to attend drama school and be an actor.”
Thus, the director has high praise for “the British Council in Japan’s great commitment to this multicultural project.”
The British Council has been one of the production’s main supporters — along with Toshima Ward and Owlspot — since the project began in February 2019 as part of the U.K. in Japan initiative, which was launched to complement the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. The organization has been involved at every stage, from enlisting Sealey to coordinating actors and staff for remote rehearsals.
“Every time we hit a barrier they have been so supportive and encouraging, saying, ‘Let’s do it; let’s find a way to do it,’” Sealey says. “And as we can’t all be together (in Japan), our rehearsals are actually going to be played out in front of the audiences. So they’re going to see what (we’ve been going) through… and the challenge has been hard. But people’s commitment gives you energy, and the team is being as inclusive (as possible). Everyone’s really rolled up their sleeves.”
Although the U.K. may seem to be quite progressive when it comes to disability equality, Sealey says there’s still a long way to go to realize the world of true diversity she envisions.
“What we have to do is change the mindset of people who say, ‘That’s different, so it’s not good,’” she says. “We need to remember that everyone is possibly pre-disabled through accidents or age or illness. For example, if I became a wheelchair user, how would people treat me? There are always different perspectives. One way of changing people’s minds is a play like this, so people can see that access is everyone’s responsibility.
“I want the audiences to think about their own ‘Tempest’ and find a way to let their own discrimination go.”
Ohashi agrees. “I’ve been working for more than 15 years to show everyone that deaf people can enjoy music, but just in a different way from hearing people. And I hope I’ve been able to change many people’s prejudiced views through my performances.
“With our ‘Tempest’ I want many people to have breakthrough experiences like that.”
“The Tempest: Swimming for Beginners’’ runs through June 6 at Owlspot Theatre in Toshima Ward, Tokyo. For more details, visit www.britishcouncil.jp/en/uk-japan-2019-20/events/tempest.
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