Tokyo International Players “BIG RIVER” opens this week. English Shows Tokyo talked with Hannah Grace, the director. She is a professional actor well known for her portrayal of Ms. Scott on the NHK television drama “Hanako to Anne” She also regularly appears on several NHK radio shows.
Interview & written by Chieko Tanaka
Edited by Rodger Sono
－Please tell me about yourself.
My name is Hannah Grace. I am from Kentucky in the USA. I have been in Japan about 5 years now. I studied theater and acting in university at Ball State University in Indiana. I came to Japan pretty soon after graduation.
I’ve been a part of the Tokyo International Players for about 4 years now. Actually, I found out about them on my second day here doing volunteer work and helping with costumes.
－What brought you to Japan?
One of my acting mentors told me, “You have to find a place where you can make a life for yourself around your job.” It’s not just about work. His advice was, “Find a place where you can live.” It should be a good environment and a city which you enjoy being in because you will spend so much time being rejected going to auditions after audition and having a hard time between jobs. You want to have a good life in any case. I couldn’t find a suitable situation like that in America. Even though I had travelled around a bit and I had seen different cities, nothing appealed to me.
But as soon as I started to read Japanese books, manga, anime I found it. I started studying Japanese theater, Noh and Kabuki in my theater program and immersed myself in Japanese culture and language. I had a feeling at that time in my university that Japan might be the place for me. And as soon as I graduated, I came over for a month to test it out. Once I got off the plane and I was in Tokyo, I knew this was it. I’ve never wanted to put down roots anywhere. I’ve never thought a place was “a home”. But then when I got to here and it was like “This is it!”. “OK… What house can I buy?” and “Where can I work?” and “How can I get involved in some random groups somewhere?”. It was like I was ready to settle down. My first trip to Japan was for one month and then I went back to America for a year.
Back home I was teaching English lessons to Japanese ladies in my hometown and was working at a Japanese restaurant. I was getting immersed in any Japanese social event that I could find back in Kentucky. That was just a really intense year of preparation.
I decided to come back to Japan right after the earthquake actually. It happened and I got an opportunity to come over as a volunteer. I got a call and was here a month later. I’ve never left!
－How did you get involved with theater?
I think I liked theater before I knew I liked it. You have an affinity for theater which… you almost take for granted. For instance, I always thought when I was young, “Oh, I’ll be a doctor, I’ll be a lawyer. I can be those things.” But the question of “What about an actor?” that’s too easy. That’s something that I can just do. It was so natural. I noticed that something that can be very, very natural to me or comes very easy for me was actually not something that everybody else had an instinct for. I always say, “I didn’t choose to be an actress. I just… I was one”, so I followed my strength and they became my dreams and then my career.
I found out something very quickly in Japan about acting. I knew how to perform in a Shakespeare or Beckett play, but I didn’t know how to sell cereal. I had studied modeling in Nashville where we also did commercial acting. We did styling, makeup… all that stuff. Not the kind of things you have to think about in a serious acting program. But it was actually really important when you are thinking about selling yourself as a product.
－What are the main differences between theater in Japan and in the States?
The biggest difference is… theaters and spaces and the whole processes… Tokyo is such a big, expensive city. Rental space is very expensive. We get one day in the theater to do the whole show before we have to open it. That’s insane! Anyone in the States who heard that would say the same thing. Theaters book so early out. One thing under strict regulation: how early you get in the theater and how late you can stay, which is usually by 10 o’clock. In the States you could arrive at the theater anytime and stay as long as you need to get the work done. It’s amazing that we even have the time to do the show!
The regulations about theaters here are very, very different, which creates a lot of challenges for the production team. Because you have to plan the production all around one day to build and fix, run the show before opening. That’s the big change as we have to plan production way in advance.
The other thing that we are trying to take into account of is the audience. Not only do we have an international cast but our audience is made up of Japanese and International people who are English speakers. So, how you direct the show and how you approach the material should be affected by that. In the States, everybody is mostly from America. English Language Theater in Tokyo, it’s extremely international. In my cast alone, we have most of the continents covered. We have Australia, America, Jamaica, Europe and England… all over. So that means you have to be really mindful of when you are putting on a story like this one, which is very local, you have to prepare the cast from square one. “OK, this is what America is like at this time” and take nothing for granted.
But I think it’s an advantage. Working with international people is the great experience. Because everybody can bring in a perspective that you wouldn’t necessary get if everyone were from the same sort of society. This is the difference from Japanese theater, where the most people are Japanese. So this is the difference there, but in our community, it’s a big advantage, actually.
For this production, we had to think about “How can we NOT just do a show or stage?”. “How can we also introduce some concepts and ideas?” So we had to do a lot of research. Hopefully all the work that we all put our time and energy into will pay off, and people will be able to experience the real world of “Huckleberry Finn” for the first time.
－What about Big River drew you to directing it?
I thought, “This is the right time to tell the story about the American South.”
One reason I wanted to do this was because I’m from Kentucky. It’s interesting, living in Japan realizing that America is a thing. The south in America is completely another thing. And there are a lot of things going on right now in America. It’s much easier to explain if you understand American history and where we’ve been and where we are coming from.
－Why did you choose to be a director at this time?
I’ve done this show before as a high schooler. There’s no character in the show that I really care do to except for maybe Huck. But then “I’m not a guy!”
But I can direct it if I can’t act in it. So I can work on all of the other characters. This is a show that I have an idea of how it should be done.
So I think that, for me, one reason why I wanted to do this musical in particular was because I wanted to tell the whole story. I wanted to work on Huck, I wanted to work on Jim, I wanted to work to be able to grab each of these characters and have an opportunity myself, to present their story.
－What do you want your audience to take away from the story?
Hope, and good time.
Mark Twain says, “Anybody who finds a moral in this story will be prosecuted”. The audience’s thoughts on the story are not something I want to dictate. The story doesn’t tell you what to think about anything, even slavery. It just shows the audience “This is what happened” and the audience is left to walk away with their own personal reaction to the story. I do hope you walk away with something that inspires conversation. I think this is a good discussion piece, because it deals with a lot of subjects that are still very much relevant to us today. But it does not offer any easy answers.
－What is your dream?
I think my dream right now in my life is still the same when I was in high school, which is to tell stories. I want to tell stories that are compelling, evocative and that connect to people and bring people together.
A connection happens between a cast and an audience in a theatre that is impossible to achieve through a screen.
I feel stories can save the world. I think that they can save lives. I think they can save relationships. So I guess my dream is to continue to have the opportunity to tell stories. Theater is my favorite medium in which to do that, but I’ve had the privilege to do it through voice acting and narration and film… who knows maybe someday I’ll try to write something.
－What is Tokyo to you?
Tokyo to me is my first home.
Obviously family is home. So I want to say “first.” It’s not original, but I mean the first place that I came to, that I went… This is home. This is where I will settle my life. This is where I will live, and I will work hard to do that. And I would say that… that was the case… when I came over here 6 years ago on my first visit, and it’s still the same now. Tokyo is my first chosen home.
I’ve never thought I would go back. Kentucky is a lovely place for some people. It’s not the place I want to live. But I think that in some ways doing this play has allowed me to go back or re-visit that world and come to appreciate it more.
I don’t think I will move back. But I will be able to bring a little bit of my roots to Tokyo. And that’s been a very cool experience.
“Big River – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
Date: May 19 – 22, 2016
Location: Theater Sun Mall
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo Shinjuku 1-19-10 Sun Mall Crest B1 (Nearest station: Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line Shinjuku Gyoen-mae Station) *Click here for map
Ticket handling: Tokyo International Players www.tokyoplayers.org
Entrance fee: adult 4,500 yen, student 2,500 yen
※ Performances are in English, Japanese subtitles available.
Tokyo International Players：www.tokyoplayers.org/