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Kitty, Chris and Siobhan, three of ALRA’s MA Directing students, spent two weeks in Japan for a residency at Kani Public Arts Centre (ALA) along with Chris Hill, the Dean of ALRA North and MA Directing course leader. They experienced the values, cultures and expressions that surround a very different organisation to ALRA North.

ma directing studenta residency in japan kani

They packed a lot of valuable experiences into the trip; attending an older people’s day centre whose visitors spoke to the students about their lives in Kani City and how things in Japan have changed in their lifetime, facilitating a theatre camp alongside the Kani Arts Centre staff and volunteers, and attending a homemade Japanese dinner with traditional matcha and okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes), amongst many other activities. They even made it into a regional newspaper in an article about their school workshops and meeting with the mayor of Kani, and were broadcast on Japanese cable TV!

ma directing studenta residency in japan newspaper

We spoke to Kitty, Chris and Siobhan about their time in Japan.

ALRA: What were the cultural differences you perceived about acting and theatre in Japan compared to what you are used to, such as the engagement of audiences and the rehearsal processes?

Kitty: Within Japan, the ideas of fringe theatre or theatre that occurs outside of the norms of a professional building seemed very infrequent. This also applies to the people taking part, with little chance for amateur groups or individuals to be involved, leading to limited variance in the types of training available to professionals due to the lack of schools and conservatoires. The introduction of practitioners such as Laban and Chekhov were well received, with the Japanese actors raring to learn new methods of finding truth and devising methods.

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Chris: Japan has an incredibly rich heritage of theatre and acting, the methods and practice of which are handed down and preserved through family lineage for hundreds of years. This is very much observable in present day culture and even in etiquette; there is a respect for values and tradition that goes way beyond anything we see in the UK, where there is a culture of breaking tradition in favour of finding new forms and of expressing conflict through art. In Japan, they are extremely careful of protecting their traditions, and disharmony seems to run counter to the status quo. It doesn’t mean to say they are not open to new ideas but it becomes more problematic when ideas of high and low art are much more rigid than in the UK.

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Siobhan: The first main cultural difference I noticed was the absence of community theatre in Japan. The Kani Public Arts Centre is a unique community-focused venue within Japan, offering workshop space, support and classes to the community of Kani - their slogan ‘we are about people, not art’ hangs in the communal office to reinforce their focus of community first. The second different I noticed was the hierarchy surrounding the arts in Japan. Unlike Shakespeare’s work, Kabuki has not been touched, altered or adapted as an artform. A professional Kabuki performer must be a man born into or adopted by a Kabuki family, then they train until they reach the top of their craft.

ma directing studenta residency in japan dinner

ALRA: What are your outstanding memories of the trip?

Kitty: Sitting in the day centre talking to a lady who remembered when all the English and American-related items were removed during World War II. Stories such as that are being lost, and it’s striking to think it wasn’t so long ago. Also, having the trust from Kani Public Arts to work with Japanese participants and discuss how drama and theatre can effectively change people’s lives for the better was highly rewarding. The food was also an experience in itself!

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Chris: It’s difficult to pick out the most outstanding moments because at the time the whole experience was quite a lot to process. I was constantly humbled by the courtesy, respect and generosity of spirit – it seemed to underpin every single moment. I thought there might be a disagreement or something, but there just wasn’t. The most memorable moments are all the workshops we shared with the Japanese actors. They were so open, responsive and committed to sharing, and it was just incredible to experience.

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Siobhan: For me it was the overwhelming welcome we received from the ALA staff and the community. From the moment we arrived we were made to feel like part of the ALA community, with our own rehearsal space, invitations to community workshops and even a ‘curry party’ on the Saturday evening with the theatre volunteers and staff.

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ALRA: How will you use this experience in your work?

Kitty: After working with children for the first time, I’m going to remember the joy and exploration that they showed us while carrying out imagination activities. As we grow older, we are told to restrict our actions, but going back to this freedom and willingness to make mistakes is where some of the best ideas come from.

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Chris: What most affected me and what I will now be wanting to use in my work, is to try and cultivate and nurture a culture of respect, harmony and community within a rehearsal room. I’d also like to explore the idea of authenticity within future work. The experience made me think deeply about the relationship between who I am as a person and who I am as a director, and prompted me to give much more consideration to how I might align the values that underpin both. It made me appreciate the unique position directors are in and how extremely privileged they are to be able to work with highly creative people and realise a vision; something most people don’t get to experience.

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Siobhan: Our time in Japan will influence my work in many ways, from the new workshop techniques and tools I experienced during the theatre camp to the attitude of welcoming and acceptance we experienced every day during our stay. I’m looking forward to using all of this in my work in the future!

To find out more about our MA Directing course, click here.