Sunday, May 30, 2010

For the Good of the Team

Japan is a nation that prides itself on discipline. It is understood that if you want to be good at something, you put in decades of practice and even once you get good at it, you shouldn't be happy with yourself and you keep working on it (I think Akira Kurosawa said he felt like he was just getting the hang of things when he got his lifetime achievement Oscar). We don't believe in instant gratification.We don't complain, because if we do, we are big babies and we bring shame to our families. There are no such things as short cuts. As an example, people who do the traditional Japanese puppetry called Bunraku, have to spend at least 20 years to become the master.

Bunraku puppets are operated by three people--the master puppeteer manipulates the head and the right hand (and voices the puppet), the next rank puppeteer works the left hand, and the apprentice works the legs.

You spend 10 years at your position before you move up. 10 years. Everyday. Just on legs. But that amounts to an exquisite art form where the puppets move as if they were alive, even though the three puppeteers are in full view of the audience. Total discipline, teamwork and a lifetime commitment. That is the Japanese way. And it seems like no matter what you get into, you always start by being the person who has to clean up. That's just a side note.

Along with that, Japanese people respect seniority. Whether in social or professional setting, if you are in a company of someone older than you, you address them in "Keigo" which is a polite form of speech. Even if you hold higher position than this person, you still address them in that language out of respect for their life experience.

This whole concept was introduced me when I was in 7th grade. I went to a posh K through 12 private school in Tokyo. Once you entered middle school, you were in the big leagues. You choose your after school "club" activities and you invest the next 6 years of your life (which felt like the equivalent of 20 adult years) into this club. At this particular school, there were three top clubs that were known to be hard core: Volleyball Team, Basketball Team, and Drama Club. These three were known to have the scariest, meanest upper classmen but they also had the most respect from the entire student body because they were good. I signed up for the Drama Club.

The season (?) at the Drama Club consisted of three events: one-acts called "Practice Plays" where 9th graders direct the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in 4 different plays. Typically we had two co-directors per piece and they divided the rest of the kids evenly. We had a couple of months of rehearsals and then we performed with no costumes or set, and mainly to the 11th graders who held the highest position in the club (12th graders don't participate in club activities in Japan because they are all preparing for the college entrance exam and therefore shouldn't have any fun). The main purpose of the "Practice Plays" were to see the next generation directors and actors. Once a piece was performed, the cast and the directors get up in front of everyone and get critiqued, which was so scary.

The other two events were public. A fall play which was to take place during our school festival (a big to-do in Japan where every club holds an event, sells things, sells food, and raises money). And a spring play. The plays were selected by vote, and the 11th graders who were appointed to direct the piece conducted casting sessions. At the end, we wrote down our preferences on a small piece of paper and they sorted it out. Now, here is where the politics came in. If you were a 7th grader, it was understood that you didn't get cast. So you don't even ask. You can start to ask for a role at the end of 8th grade. Maybe. So,if you were a 7th grader, you pick a crew position you want to do and you put that down. The entire production was built by teams. You had your cast, set and props, costumes, and lighting. Each team had an 11th grade leader and the number of students per grade were evenly divided into those teams. It was amazing. We had upward of about 50 kids spanning across 5 different grade levels building a show with only occasional supervision from the faculty.

But this was the backstage drama. If you were on the bottom of the totem pole, you were pretty much nothing. 8th graders kept tabs on 7th graders and if you were considered to be "out of line," you were disciplined--and by that, I mean you were bullied. If you were walking down the hallway during school time and encounter any upper classmen of your club, you stop, you wait for them to pass, and you bow and greet them in a military-like fashion. You keep your head low and you don't make eye contact because that's considered rude. If you don't do this right, you get surrounded. If you speak up too much during production meetings as a lower classman, you get surrounded. If you stand out in anyway, you get surrounded. I got surrounded one time because the glasses I was wearing was "too stylish," whatever that meant. And if you get surrounded, you just stand there, bite you lips, apologize and move on (did I mention there is a very high suicide rate among kids in Japan?).

But then the pay off was that when you became an upper classman, you got to act like a big shot. Our class decided to take it easy on the 7th graders a bit, which made us all feel better. I got to have some really juicy roles and learned A LOT about what it takes to mount a play and how to direct them, even. Sort of. I experienced what it's like to move up a ladder, shut your mouth and observe, how to follow direction as well as be a leader all before I was 15. There are three of us out of that group who work in theater professionally. That doesn't seem like a lot, but I think that's more than many of the grade levels around us, so that's saying something.

This is not to say people in the States lack in discipline. I work with youth doing theater and I know a lot of kids with a great deal of commitment. And I know that sports in this country is also really hard core. But there is something uniform about the Japanese people and their discipline. It must be the way we are schooled--or something.

If my daughter says she wants to get into theater, I will have her sweep the stage for 10 years first. That is all I'm saying.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Playing the Japanese

For those who don't really know, I work in theater. I have turned into producer/director in the past several years but once upon a time, I actually made my living acting. After getting out of college with the degree in performing arts, I quickly learned that opportunities are different for those who are labeled as "actors of color" (I would be the yellow one, I suppose). Not exactly less, but just different. This was in the 90's and mixed race cast on traditional shows were still new. So I worked a lot with a couple of theater companies that liked doing that sort of thing.

Aside from theater, there are variety of film work for actors that general public would never see. You got your traditional Hollywood films, TV shows, TV commercials--local and national. But then you got what we call in the business, "industrials," which is training films to be used within companies. They are not at all artful and often full of technical terms that are difficult to memorize, but they pay really well. I know actors who do mostly these gigs. And here is what I discovered in doing these. Generally speaking, theater world is less racist than on-camera world. For example, I have played a number of roles on stage that is not traditionally Asian. However, for these on-camera gigs, I got called in if they needed someone to play the Japanese. And often a Japanese who didn't speak English well, or spoke English with a thick accent, or a tourist. Some gigs didn't care if you were actually Japanese (given by the fact that there were other Asians called who were Chinese, Korean, and even Filipinos--I say "even" because in my Asian opinion, Filipinos and other South Asian people don't look Japanese), and some did. I did them all.

I once did a local PBS spot about learning English as a second language and played a Japanese woman who spoke very little English. They wanted an accent. As I have moved here at 15, I have an accent but it's slight--or so I have been told. I actually worked my butt off to not have an accent so that I can be taken seriously. Ironically though, for my profession, people wanted a thick accent for comedic affect. So now I can do a various degrees of Japanese accent. ANYWAY, for this gig, I was going in with this big fat accent and they had a dialect expert on the set. An older white gentleman who was on headset to make sure all of the "ethnic"actors brought in had authentic accents. I'm not sure why, but I got nervous. What if my accent isn't good enough? Will they fire me??? But thankfully, when I got done saying my lines, the lad just looked at the director and said, "yeah, that's pretty much spot on."

My most surreal moment of playing the Japanese, I must say, was in The Spanish Prisoner. This film was directed by David Mamet and was shooting in Boston where I lived. There was a call for a Japanese actress to play a US Marshall who could also look like a high school girl (if you watch the movie, you know why). My agent called me in and I read for the part and apparently it was down to me and this other woman who ended up getting the part. I was too tall--that's another thing. I've been told I'm too tall for an Asian. Like I'm faking it. But Mr. Mamet wanted to throw me a bone and had me play a Japanese tour guide. A step up from playing a tourist, I suppose. My agent kept saying, "he has written this part in specially for YOU" and yet, in the script that was given to me, there were no lines written. He just wanted me to speak Japanese in the background of the scene. So I played the tour guide behind Campbell Scott and Rebecca Pidgion for two days (of which I was mostly shot from behind after I spent 2 hours in make up) and at the end of the second day, Mr. Mamet walked over to me, introduced himself, and asked if he could record me speaking Japanese for the scene. What am I going to say, I'm too busy? So I stood in the corner of Logan Airport waiting room (where the scene was being filmed) with David Mamet and the sound guy with the big microphone and translated what he wanted me to say on the fly. He thanked me for being in his movie and commented on what a beautiful language Japanese was. As strange as that experience was, I have to hand it to Mr. Mamet for his commitment to hire actual Japanese people to play his Japanese extras. He sent his people searching for authentic Japanese through the consulate and faculty of language schools. I met some interesting, non-actors on that set as well as getting to sit very near Steve Martin--I like to say I had lunch with him. Had I gotten that US Marshall part, I would have shot him in the scene but alas, that was not to be. But I still get a check in the mail now and then. I think my last one was all of 87 cents. No joke. I want to tell SAG to please stop it.

It's odd playing a stereotype. You are doing what you fight against every day in your personal life and making money off of it. When I went to a cattle call for Miss Saigon on Broadway before it opened, there were protesters. People were saying that Asian women were so often portrayed as hookers and this show was not helping. I was interviewed by NPR while I was in line. I said, "while that is very true, this show is also giving opportunities to so many Asian actors who would otherwise never have a chance to be on Broadway."

These days as I sit in my house watching TV, I naturally pay attention if a Japanese character is actually being played by a Japanese actor. It has gotten a lot better in the last 10 years, but still, there are so many times when they are played by an Asian actors who obviously doesn't speak the language and are just killing it. I just look at my husband and say, "why didn't they just call me? I'm right here."