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Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010

News photo
Andrew Woolner appears in the Yokohama Theatre Group's August 2009 production of "The Beggar's Opera: In Concert." COURTESY OF JOHAN ROOMS

Putting true community back in theater

Canadian Andrew Woolner infuses Yokohama Theatre Group with burst of creative energy

Special to The Japan Times

Throughout the Western world, community theater spices the dramatic arts.

News photo
Andrew Woolner, wearing a kilt, gestures on a street in Yokohama. KRIS KOSAKA

Mentors passionate for the stage infuse young artists with their experience and knowledge; social and cultural concerns pepper the community with fresh viewpoints and raw perspectives; audiences swallow new ideas and old traditions as they celebrate storytelling.

Andrew Woolner, a Canadian living in Yokohama, hopes to add this same taste to Yokohama Theatre Group, where he volunteers as artistic director.

Woolner never doubted he wanted to work in theater. "Kicked around" from the acting department to directing and playwriting at York University in Toronto, Woolner earned a bachelor's degree with honors in theater in 1998. He instantly plunged into the dramatic world, streaming his final thesis piece for graduation into a show that led to creation of his own company, Squeezebox Theatre.

"I had rented a studio at Young People's Theatre in downtown Toronto as part of my final directing and playwriting project to produce my show, and we needed a name. Since the play was set in the 1940s around music — plus I liked the idea of squeezing out those creative juices — we named ourselves Squeezebox Theatre."

Woolner's group was soon registered as a nonprofit organization and produced 12 official shows in the east end of Toronto between 1998 and 2003.

Luckily, he found a way to pay the bills while pursuing his dream: "I was working a full-time job, of course, as theater does not make money; it usually loses money." Woolner worked as a computer engineer for Ontario's Trillium Foundation, a charitable grant-making foundation started in 1982.

"I did a lot of computer gaming when I was younger, and in the early days of network computer games, you really had to learn to troubleshoot computers if you wanted to play your game. Computers were my hobby."

His passion lay with theater though, and he dreamed of making it his livelihood.

Engulfed in the creative chaos of producing a show every few months, Woolner couldn't predict his life would suddenly veer toward Japan. He met his future wife, Kumiko, in summer 2001 while she was completing an 18-month course in Canada.

Her plans included a return to her homeland, and by September 2002 Woolner seriously considered a life-quake: "I had no interest in moving to Japan before meeting Kumiko. I just realized that if I wanted to grab this keeper, I would have to change my life."

It took a year to honor his commitments to Squeezebox; he was offered a teaching job with the ECC language-school chain and finalized his plans to move to Japan in spring 2003.

"At that point, I had already quit from Trillium, closed the theater, gave up my apartment, had found an apartment in Japan, bought my ticket — when the SARS outbreak shut down ECC's recruitment of new teachers from North America."

Although teachers who had already signed a contract could go to British Columbia and teach over the Internet, people like Woolner, with a job offer on the table pending a signature, there was nothing to do — except board the plane anyway or lose his ticket.

The summer of SARS had barely started when Woolner touched down at Narita International Airport in June 2003 with a 10-day incubation period to be cleared. After the requisite wait, he contacted ECC, but they couldn't bend the official policy. The foreign managers in the company sympathized with his situation, however, and they arranged for him to get a work visa, tentatively scheduling his ECC training classes to start in September.

Reunited with Kumiko, Woolner set off to find work — any work — until that September. He found a few part-time positions before landing an information-technology job at the American School in Japan. As it turned out, Woolner never worked for ECC.

Focused on adjusting to a new country, a renewed relationship and a new job, Woolner couldn't devote much time to theater, although he constantly looked for opportunities to volunteer.

"It was the beginning of my life being opposite, because computers should have been my hobby, but it became my job and theater became a hobby. I have finally, today, started making some headway in reversing that reality, but it's been my struggle, the last 10 years or so, to get back to having computers be a hobby. Unfortunately, computers pay much more than theater."

Woolner worked two years at ASIJ, marrying Kumiko in 2005. He took various jobs in the IT industry, and when a new job in central Tokyo cut Woolner's commute in half, he spent the extra time pursuing theater.

An IT job interview in Yokohama introduced Woolner to Yokohama Theatre Group (YTG). Started in 1900 as the Yokohama Amateur Dramatist's Club, YTG originally gave English-speaking audiences one of only a few opportunities for live theater in Japan.

The group's long history includes numerous distinguished productions, but as Woolner explains, "YTG had gradually evolved into a social club, but that wasn't working for the group anymore. YTG wasn't bringing in new members."

Woolner made contact with its artistic director, Nicolas Gregoriades, in fall 2006, and the timing was perfect — Woolner was eager to renew his work in theater and YTG was ready for a change. Gregoriades asked Woolner to consider taking over as artistic director and by December 2006 he was voted in by the YTG board.

Woolner immediately melded his IT savvy and creative energy: revamping the Web site and adding various social networking sites; targeting a true community audience, Japanese and foreigners in Yokohama alike; bringing the company into secure financial standing "trying to reverse the trend of shows that were losing money, by doing inexpensive shows hosted at Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, where we don't have to pay rent."

As Woolner says, "Community theater directed at expats only is not going to fly anymore in Yokohama . . . we should forget we are an expat company. That's not the point. We are a community theater."

Woolner sees no problem in making YTG serve a multilingual community: "Text is important in theater, but it's not the most important thing going on in the show," he says. "Look at Shakespeare. A lot of native speakers are intimidated about Shakespeare, but because the shows are so physical and dynamic, there's always something to watch, even if you are not getting every single line."

YTG experimented with Japanese subtitles for two earlier productions under Woolner before moving to detailed scene breakdowns, starting with last year's production of "Richard III," coproduced with the Tokyo International Players. Uniting with the Tokyo company was another way to extend community, and the two companies plan to present Moliere's "Tartuffe" this fall, again aimed at a multilingual audience.

Also slated for this fall, YTG will host the Pembroke Players from Cambridge University in late September. For their production of "Much Ado About Nothing," YTG will again offer detailed scene-by-scene explanations in Japanese. With these efforts, YTG is striving to include everyone in Yokohama, foreigners and Japanese alike.

The next two productions, "Much Ado" and "Tartuffe," will both be presented at a "proper theater" — the Small Hall in the Nigiwai-za complex near Sakuragicho Station — another of Woolner's efforts to produce "world-class theater."

"There is an audience for quality, English-language theater in Yokohama," Woolner believes. "There's no reason why those shows can't be locally produced, and then they can be accessible to so many more people, touring Japan, rather than an international group that comes in and only hits Tokyo and Osaka."

Artistically, Woolner found the opportunity to further challenge himself in the last two years, making his professional stage debut alongside actress Kumiko Aso in "The Ghost of Murray Hill" ("Murray Hill no Genei"), and making it a priority to write an original script, collaborating with his YTG colleagues and Hong Kong-based designer Bridget Steis.

The evolving piece, "39," is currently touring two Fringe Festivals in Canada, and was created by Woolner and Kimberly Tierney, a director and board member for YTG, in rehearsal.

Woolner says, " '39' in itself represents YTG's new direction. It is our first show created entirely in Yokohama, conceived in rehearsal and honoring the modern tradition of ensemble acting.

"It is informed by our collective experiences of being an expat here. Even if I were to naturalize here, in Japan, nationality is considered by blood, it's not what your passport says. Yet if I go back to Toronto, it's not my home anymore. It's like in university, when you come back to your parents home and they've changed your bedroom to the sewing room."

Woolner believes the connections of "39" represents something truly multicultural.

"You can only create what you know and what you want to see as an audience member. Although we, the writer and director, do bring a North American perspective, it is a Japanese show, too, because it was made in Japan and we are all influenced by the fact we live in Yokohama. We love living here, it gets into your bones, it influences what you write, what you work on."

Woolner and YTG welcomed the chance to take Yokohama overseas. "We want people to know Yokohama has culture. We were the original cultural hub between Western and Japanese, because this area is where every foreigner had to live, almost a Yamate ghetto. I am proud of this city, and I want people to see we are doing theater that is not impenetrable, no matter what your language."

Woolner lists Tierney, Dave Waddington — a member of YTG for more than 15 years — and Graig Russell, lighting and design expert in addition to playwright and performer, as core members, along with the continuing support of Gregoriades and others. But he also hopes for an influx of new members and volunteers to re-engage the community.

Future plans for YTG include a full curriculum of drama classes for the wider community.

"Our long-term goal would be a full-fledged company where we run a theater school alongside the company, with cross-over in between." Woolner believes the core members of YTG have the passion — they just need more personnel. "We are always looking for volunteers, people who are passionate about theater."

Woolner's dreams for YTG, and for himself — making theater his livelihood — don't seem far off now. Although Woolner still earns his living from the IT industry, by currently touring in Canada and preparing for the fall shows, theater again takes center stage in his life. His dream is so close he can taste it.

For more information about Yokohama Theatre Group, visit yokohama-theatre.com

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