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Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006

Golden oldies step out into the limelight

Special to The Japan Times

Sixty-three-year-old Masatake Takei careened around the stage without his trousers, trying to beat off the angry mob of obasan (old ladies) who had just stripped him to his underpants. The audience obviously loved the spectacle, roaring with delight. But what was the president of a Tokyo architectural firm doing on stage in the first place, let alone in a production directed by world-famous Japanese dramatist Yukio Ninagawa? The same could be asked of the rest of the cast, comprised entirely of amateur actors in their 50s, 60s or 70s.

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Clad only in kneepads, shorts and jacket, Matsukate Takei (top, fifth from right) rehearses with the 55-and-over Saitama Gold Theater, an initiative of dramatist Yukio Ninagawa (above left). Ritsuko Tamura (above right) and fellow actor Minoru Ubata celebrate their opening show Friday. NOBUKO TANAKA PHOTOS

For Takei, it was all about finding a "life challenge."

"I did some amateur theater when I was a student, and ever since my business became stable when I was in my 50s, I have been wanting to do something exciting and make my life full of ups and downs again," Takei explained during a rehearsal last month. "Now, I do this until 5 p.m., then I go to my office in Mejiro until 10 p.m. or midnight."

It was something of a sensation when 71-year-old Ninagawa announced at the beginning of this year that he was setting up a yearlong acting project for ordinary people aged 55 and over. Called the Saitama Gold Theater, which would run at Saitama Arts Center, where Ninagawa is artistic director, the experiment unexpectedly drew applications from 1,273 hopefuls from all over Japan and even Hawaii. After auditioning 1,116 people face-to-face, Ninagawa finally chose 19 men and 27 women with an average age of 66.9, and in May the "goldies" began trekking to Saitama Arts Center from Monday to Friday every week to undergo intensive lessons from some of Japan's leading theater specialists. They include Ninagawa's longtime assistant director, Sonsho Inoue; physician and Pilates instructor Hisanao Sakurai, who has taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London; voice trainer Noriko Yamamoto, who teaches at several professional theater companies; professional contemporary dancer Uran Hirosaki; and renowned nihonbuyou (traditional Japanese dance) instructor Suketaro Hanayagi.

Nationwide interest in the project inspired Ninagawa to abandon his original goal of working his goldies toward just one finale, and instead he decided to stage a series of public performances throughout the course.

The Japan Times first met the goldies in autumn, after their first five-day series of sellout public performances based on vignettes of famous plays, with more than 1,000 people in total paying 1,000 yen each to attend.

The cast all had stories equally as inspiring as that of architect Takei.

Take Ritsuko Tamura, 66, who was an ordinary housewife living in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture, more than 500 km north of Saitama, until she was chosen to join the Gold Theater in March.

"My daughter urged me to apply," she said. "Then my husband took pictures for the application form just before the deadline. We had a laugh, thinking that it was just a fun episode in our daily life. When I was chosen, I thought the Saitama people were joking."

Tamura, however, seized the chance, moving into an apartment on her own in Saitama City as she pursued her dream to perform on stage.

"Actually, I joined a regional theater group in my 50s. I wanted to start something new in the second period of my life," she said. "However, I think I just stood on the stage exactly as the director suggested -- that's all.

"Now, through this course, I am learning there is not only one particular answer in theater. I've just started to understand how to precisely use my body to express the role. I probably still have a poor acting technique, but I've started to realize I can think about some different ways of expression."

For the goldies' second production, Ninagawa chose to present "Karasuyo, Oretachi wa Tama wo Komeru (Crows! We Load a Gun)," an antiestablishment play by Kunio Shimizu first staged in 1971, during Japan's protest era. Back then, young actors played the roles of old women who are battling corrupt bureaucracy and who occupy a law court before being shot and killed by police.

Commenting on his choice, Ninagawa said he regarded "Crows!" as "a mirror of current society in Japan."

"Still now," he explained, "Japan is controlled by the same authorities, but nobody is bothering about it. In the '70s, young people were angry about it and protested about it; now they have become so quiet and shrewd." That's the reason, he said, why he decided to do this play; to make an impact with "allies from the same generation."

The trainees began each weekday at Saitama Gold Theater at 10 a.m. with warmups or loudly practiced lines. Ninagawa's voice would rise, sometimes to shouting pitch, as he moved around energetically correcting movements and ordering someone to "Stop doing that," another to "Think what you are doing" and yet another to "Repeat that line 10 times until you know what you are saying." He also paid attention to keeping up his trainees' spirits, cracking plenty of jokes -- mostly about age -- and remarking afterward: "These people are never frightened; they always try to do what I say and never complain."

Rather than being intimidated, one of the oldest members of the cast, 75-year-old Hiromu Kasai, from Saitama, said he felt Ninagawa himself was a very shy person -- which is why he worked so well with "shy people and actors who are suffering within."

A former junior high school teacher and then Self-Defense Forces pilot, Kasai auditioned after realizing the "miraculous power of theater" at a reunion with former students he had not seen for more than 50 years. His students recalled a school play in which he'd taken the lead -- and which they said was a highlight of their school days.

Most of the goldies were shy, including himself, Kasai said. "However, shy people need to express themselves in some way, and theater is an appropriate place for them," he observed, adding that, "Shyness and timidity sometimes becomes a huge source of energy to create something new."

The transition from ordinary life to center-stage was not easy for the aging cast, no matter how much enthusiasm they mustered.

Ninagawa had cut part of the program for the goldies' first public performance because it was not good enough to present to the public, and some actors still forgot their lines.

Then, after one rehearsal for "Crows!" housewife-turned-actress Tamura vented her own frustrations as other members passed by, chatting and laughing.

"I want to be able to build up the character of the role. Somehow, I am quite a stubborn person, so I can't easily take in the director's intention. Also, I find it quite embarrassing to ask the director or the lecturers questions in class, in front of many people. I am frightened to give my opinion, as they may think it's silly. So, now I am struggling with that dilemma."

Tamura also felt homesick at times, and suffered somewhat because of her origins, too. "I don't want to hear city people saying there is a huge gap between local and central in the amateur theater world," she said. "However, I know I have a strong Iwate dialect. Ninagawa told us today that a dialect can be an individuality point, but an actor must speak standard Japanese first of all. That was like a loud bang. 'Ahhh . . . it's almost impossible for me to speak in the standard way,' I thought. Hmm."

But Tamura has stuck it out, even as two other members of the cast dropped out for health reasons.

Finally, last Friday night, as the curtain was poised to rise on the first of five sold-out performances at 1,500 yen per seat, Ninagawa gathered his troupe together for a pep talk.

"When people get to a certain age, they tend to tolerate their history and accept it. But please forget about your own valuable story here, and try to find somebody else, a new person you know inside," he implored his charges. "Let's make a stage which only we, the experienced older people, can create!"

When the curtain fell at the end, it was as if the Gold Theater members were drunk with a sense of achievement. The post-performance party swelled with cross-generational groups swapping their ideas, reactions and impressions of the show. There was Tamura, her face beaming as she recounted how she would never have made it without the support of her colleagues. Beside her, her 70-year-old cohort Fumiko Kamio spoke in wonder: "I haven't experienced such a feeling of unity with others for a long time. Theater is such a wonderful thing."

The lights may have dimmed on Saitama Gold Theater that night, but the bold experiment staged there continues to light up the hearts of its participants.

"I am particularly interested in this project because it is not just a hobby or volunteer-level course for oldies, but because it's run to professional standards. I am dreaming of going to London with Ninagawa one day," architect Takei had confidently declared partway through rehearsals. "My target is to be a professional actor and I want to put all my effort into achieving it in the next six months. I don't want to just finish this as a fantastic life experience and memory -- I want to move through it to the next stage of my life."

An as yet undecided final public production will be staged in June 2007. For more details, call the Saitama Arts Center on (048) 858-5511 or visit www.saf.or.jp

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