The Tokyo Artistic Theatre Ensemble production “FREE AT LAST,” a collaboration with Tokyo International Players, opens on June 2nd. English Shows Tokyo talked with Wendell T. Harrison, the writer and the director.
Interview & written by Chieko Tanaka
－Please tell me about yourself.
I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the southern part of the United States and wanted to be an actor as long as I could remember. So, I went to university to study theater. However, I was worried I couldn’t find a job as an actor so I also studied Sociology and Psychology – which is probably the biggest influence on the kind of theater I like doing. I was fortunate to study a year in the UK, which is how I developed a love for international theater and devised theater (where performers work together to create a show). Outside of the stage, I like reading, writing, learning about design (website and interior), and playing Final Fantasy games.
－What brought you to Japan?
I wanted to go to graduate school in directing, so I visited a prestigious American university at the age of 23 to see what the requirements were. They told me I should go out and experience the world more before applying, so I decided I would do just that! I found a job to teach English in Japan and decided to go for it for a year. I could’ve ended up anywhere: Korea, Kenya… Canada! It didn’t matter at the time. I am fortunate though I ended up in such a great country, so much that I’ve been here 7 years!
－How did you get involved with theater?
In kindergarten, I did my first stage play. I still remember from that time being the one kid who was mesmerized by the whole thing, and who knew all the lines. And I never looked back. Now I have a degree in theater performance, I’ve acted in countless shows and directed about 10 shows since I’ve been in Tokyo. And I am always looking for more work!
－What are the main differences between theater in Japan and overseas?
Well, in many ways there are stylistic differences for actors. When I watch young Japanese actors, they try so hard to be overwhelmingly intense, but without clear emotional truth. It’s a bit like slapstick comedy. I think it’s because most people cannot be so direct in person, while on stage they can be exaggerated and cartoonish. However, older performers I have seen on stage really command the scene with grace and poise.
As far as English-language theater, I assume that international theater groups operate the same regardless of the country: providing an outlet for other English speakers to perform and be entertained. The differences between Japanese theater and styles outside of Japan aren’t so great that we couldn’t collaborate more often. In fact, I hope in the future to create more partnerships with Japanese theater groups.
－What made you to write and direct “Free At Last”?
I first got to know these stories from Hannah Grace and Amber Richardson, director and assistant director of TIP’s Big River, who told me about the interviews that were collected in the 1930s. They proposed using these stories to give voice to the slaves that were featured in Big River, but were mostly silent. From there, I got to work writing and researching this story with those characters in mind. The best part of this project is being able to give the immensely talented actors a chance to show off their other on-stage talents, while educating Japanese audiences about what the life of the American slave was like.
－What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
I want the audience to understand that there is a positive message of survival, and that people can go through really awful circumstances but still come out stronger and smarter. I also want to encourage the younger generation to discover what freedom really means. That they have to live their lives searching for their own happiness, without accepting that the world will not, or should not, change.
－What is your dream?
To own my own theater and to make a living by making art.
－What is Tokyo to you?
Tokyo is an awesome place where time periods continuously merge. A unique mix of the past and the future- capsule hotels and castles, kabuki and Robot Restaurant, okonomiyaki-making dancing robots and outdated fax machines- Tokyo has its head in the clouds and a foot stuck in tradition. I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
－Is it exciting for you directing in Tokyo?
For sure! As for directing, this is the first truly personal project I’ve created, talking about my version of American history. I’m absolutely honored to tell this story to Japanese audiences.
FREE AT LAST: Life Beyond The River
Date: June 2 – 5, 2016
1F Dai-go Nomura Bldg 3-47-18 Ogikubo, Suginami-ku, Tokyo
(10-minute walk from the South Exit) *Click here for map
For ticket reservations: Tokyo Artistic Theatre Ensemble www.tokyoarts.org
Entrance fee: 3,000 yen with advance reservation, 3,500 yen at the door, 2,500 for students
Tokyo Artistic Theatre Ensemble： www.tokyoarts.org/