Japanese and American playwright exchange is groundbreaking

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When you embrace another culture you explore the differences, but more importantly you discover that the likenesses tells you that we are more alike than different — knowledge that can only lead to harmony and peace. The Tokyo 2006 International Festival helped this embracing of cultures by having American theatrical plays translated into Japanese and read before Japanese audiences by Japanese actors.

The Guthrie Theater called that Tokyo action “groundbreaking” and with the Playwrights’ Center, 2301 East Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis reciprocated by the reading of Japanese plays translated into English and read by American actors before Minnesota audiences.

In Tokyo and Minneapolis, the playwrights, American and Japanese, are invited, if they can come, to the rehearsals where they are asked for their input. Then on show night, they, with actors and directors, field questions from the audience.

Two plays by women well established in the Japanese literary world were recently read at the Guthrie and the Playwrights’ Center. Vengeance Can Wait by Yukiko Motoya, translated into English by Kyoko Yoshida and Andy Bragen, was read in the Guthrie’s state of the art Dowling Studio on October 19 and Women in a Holy Mess by Ai Nagai, translated into English Kyoko Yoshida and Yuka Ando with American adaptation by Andy Bragen, was read at the Playwrights’ Center on November 5. Both playwrights came.

Nagai is president of the Japan Playwright Association and heads her own theater company, Nitosha, she founded 25 years ago. Now her plays are performed world wide and when they premier at the Nitosha Theater Company they are directed there by her as well. She is called, “a leader in the genre of social comedy.”

Motoya was two years old when Nagai launched her theater company but she caught up quite fast writing her first play while still in her teens. She also acts, writes novels, does voice over on an animated TV show and is the artistic director of her theater, Gekidan Motoya Yukiko.

Both playwrights cover social issues in their writing. Montoya’s Vengeance Can Wait has been called an edgy comedy. The story is about a couple, not lovers nor related, who have been living together for six years. They are the only survivors from an accident that happened 12 years ago. Hidenori, the man believes that Nanase, the woman caused the accident by something she said and he is planning vengeance on her but can’t remember what she said. In the meantime Nanase is trying ways to make him laugh as he hasn’t laughed since the accident. Two other characters are involved — Hidenori’s working friend and the friend’s girlfriend. The story takes many twists and turns until Hidenori remembers the word Nanase said.

Two close friends of Tsunko in Nagai’s Women in a Holy Mess are concerned about her so they go to Tsunko’s apartment and find it in total disarray. They decide to restore the place by throwing out this and recycling that and the three women soon find themselves in an avalanche of neglected stories, secrets and losses.

Directors directing translated plays have to be able to capture the intent of the playwrights. The directors for Vengeance and Holy Mess fit the profile well. Noel Raymond, Co-Artistic Managing Director of Pillsbury House Theatre directed Vengeance this year and also last year at the Playwrights’ Center’s 2006 Play Labs Festival. The Playwrights’ Center’s Resident Director Michael Bigelow Dixon directed Holy Mess.

Many people are surprised when they go to their first play reading, they think they will see actors standing still with scripts in hand facing the audience, sort of like radio actors did before television reading their lines into an old fashion cathedral type microphones. Play reading is not like that — the action is physical. Scripts are held, yes, but shifted from hand to hand or laid on convenient props and soon the audience through the actors’ actions forgets that there are scripts.

Because of the closeness of Asian Pages’ deadline to the performing night of Holy Mess, this writer opted to take in a rehearsal and I’m glad I did. I saw the working together of actors, playwright, director and staff to turn out a fine and entertaining performance. The rehearsal started with everyone seated around a long table in the Playwrights’ Center large rehearsal room loaded down with scripts, coffee thermos, cups for the brew and cups for pencils. The actors Jodi Kellogg, Amy McDonald and Sally Wingert faced playwright Nagai, director Dixon, translators Yoshida and Ando, Guthrie’s Literary/Studio Assistant Lauren Ignaut and Playwrights’ Center’s Producing Artistic Director Dr. Polly Carl. Scenes were talked about and suggestions were made and then the actors got up and performed.

It’s easy to see why Dixon has earned the reputation as one of the nation’s foremost literary directors. He’s cool, showed respect for actors and Playwright Nagai asking throughout the rehearsal for their input to make another Japanese play reading in English highlighting the likenesses of the cultures over the differences. Groundbreaking!