Interning in Sengawa Theatre

I could write a novel about my two-month internship in Tokyo. In this case, I will let photographs, videos, screenshots, and some text do my storytelling for me.

I believe it truly was Fate that I was introduced to Akihiko Suenaga, the theatre coordinator of Sengawa Theatre, early in 2018. He and a colleague, Kasumi Kitai, were visiting New York to learn about educational theatre. They visited various organizations and institutions, from Ping Chong and Company to Brooklyn Academy of Music, including the City University of New York’s Creative Arts Team. My mentor Helen Wheelock contacted me because she knew I could speak Japanese (what she didn’t know was it was only at a very basic level). We had such good rapport though that I made sure to visit them when I went to Japan that summer.

Around that time, I recognized the importance—both academically and personally—of experiencing educational theatre in an Asian context from an Asian perspective. I wrote to Suenaga-san and asked him if I could intern for the theatre over the winter. He and I made some arrangements and right after the last day of the Fall semester, I headed to Tokyo.

I lived in a share house above a restaurant called Anchor Here in Sengawa, Chofu City, Tokyo. I lived on the roof where it was bitterly cold, but with a wonderful view.

The day after I arrived was the opening day of their Christmas family play, Alice, and I was set to work on the merchandise booth. Through that position, I was able to observe and experience how Sengawa Theatre ran their front of house.

I was also able to experience some theatre for young audiences in Japan firsthand.

It was a good start to the internship.

Interestingly enough, in spite of flying all the way to Japan to experience community-based theatre in an Asian environment, Stephen DiMenna, a previous faculty member of New York University’s (NYU) Educational Theatre Program, taught a week-long teaching artist workshop in the theatre. I was able to participate.

What was most striking for me in this chapter of my internship was how differently I was reading the room as a postcolonial subject compared to my Japanese colleagues who have no history of being colonized. I prefer to talk about this in person because this is a sensitive subject I’m still processing, but to just illustrate: during our final workshop day, we had to implement a ten-minute excerpt of a session plan we designed in pairs. The participants, all of us Asian, were on the stage and facilitating our excerpts with one another, one pair at a time; while Stephen—with his Japanese translator beside him, a woman—was sitting in the audience area watching us and giving supportive comments after each facilitation. There was also another observer in the audience: a white man from Italy, who also had a female Japanese translator sitting beside him.

I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that my initial reaction when I realized the room’s configuration was rage. We were not goldfish to be observed and commented on. I looked around me and realized, however, that my Japanese peers didn’t neither notice nor care. Why should they? I was probably unnecessarily overthinking matters.

Still, this isn’t a comment on Stephen or any other white person I’ve come across. Overall, it was still a lovely workshop. Given I haven’t taken any of his courses in NYU, I was glad to have been able to learn from him in Japan. I learned a lot of activities from him that I could use in my own practice.

One of the most special experiences I had was being an assistant stagehand in the National Noh Theatre. I learned about the practices surrounding Japanese traditional theatre. It’s a much more severe world compared to contemporary Japanese theatre, where seniority and conventions are strictly adhered to. I was also able to watch kabuki and was moved by its sheer artistry. While the feminist in me bristled about how women were not allowed to perform in these so-called “sacred” spaces (because women are “dirty”), I still couldn’t deny their beauty.

I had the opportunity to watch contemporary Japanese theatre. There’s a very strong physical theatre influence in the two shows I’ve watched. I can’t conclude if this is usual in Japanese theatre, however, or if this is merely my taste in theatre dictating my choices.

I was also able to watch an Undesirable Elements collaboration between director Ping Chong, director Hiromi Sakamoto, and six members of the Japanese community confronting various physical and mental challenges living in Japan today.

The most significant chapter of my internship was serving as an assistant stagehand for the Sengawa Theatre Stage Reading Festival. From the last two weeks of January to the end of February, I supported both community theatre groups and professional theatre groups.

A (male) Japanese colleague commented that I probably didn’t fly all the way from New York to put tape on the floor. I disagreed.

Given I had received so much from the community, I jumped at every effort to give back. I was able to co-facilitate in some workshops while I was there. This video below is a cross between a devising workshop and a process drama in an after school with elementary school children from the district.

I have just barely scratched the surface of applied theatre in Japan. Similar to the United States, applied theatre manifests itself in different fields under different names in this country. Sometimes it’s called outreach, or workshops, or art projects. At times it’s implemented with very clear objectives, such as providing arts opportunities for young people on the spectrum. At times, it’s simply a joyful way to bring the community together through art, with no other “social justice” objective.

In short, while there inarguably are cultural differences, at the heart of it, I believe we all humanly share this desire to wholeheartedly and authentically connect as a community. Art is one of the ways to do so.

I am genuinely grateful to have found another artistic home in Japan.