The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Hironori Naito talks about 30 years of theater projects with the mentally challenged
Robin Hood - Rakuen no Boken
Robin Hood - Rakuen no Boken
Robin Hood—Rakuen no Boken
© Shiga Prefectural Social Welfare Corp.
Does this experience working with the handicapped people have any influence on your regular theatrical activities with your company Gekidan Minami Kawachi Banzai Ichiza and the workshops you do around the country?
What impressed us so much was the genius of their performances. We all felt it from the very beginning. Without any self-consciousness they could deliver amazing performances such as we never expected. We couldn’t help but think that behind their innocence that actually knew how to act. Their performances went beyond what we think of as acting. And, in that sense, there is a lot that we can learn from them as actors.
Particularly when I was just starting out in theater in my twenties, there was a lot of competition to try to stand on stage with a style that set you apart from the other actors and the other companies. And in my case, a lot of the things I did were actually imitations of our actors at the Azami Momiji Ryo facility (laughs). That anarchy, that inscrutability—I borrowed a lot from them.

The patient who played the lead in our Azami Momiji Ryo plays had an amazing memory. She could do things like recite all the names of the train stations around Lake Biwa.
She is truly a genius with an amazing store of facts she has memorized. If you ask her what day of the week November 6, 1951, was she can tell you immediately. It is as if she has a calendar imprinted in her mind.
Besides that amazing memory, she also has the ability to act in a calculated way. To teach her lines I rely on a doctor who has worked with her for 40 years, and sometimes she will pretend that she has forgotten the lines he has taught her when practicing and make up an excuse for why she forgot it, like “That day such-and-such happened, so I couldn’t get it right today.” But, when it comes to the actual performance she will throw in an ad-lib like “And now professor Akihama and professor Tanaka are looking down on us from heaven.” It is something that isn’t in the script and she has never said during the rehearsals but saved for the final performance day and the audience loves it and she is really enjoying herself. But it makes the director pull out his hair in anguish (laughs).

It is indeed fascinating to know that there are people with such talents.
You will be amazed at how many people with exceptional talents there are in a facility like this. That women is autistic, but autistic patients have good times and bad times and if they aren’t able to do the things they feel they have to do everyday they get very badly thrown off balance. So you can’t just make them do rehearsals as you would like them to. If they have a fit it will completely disable them and even when they may be smiling as they say their lines, if they think they have not done it right they may suddenly start screaming and pound on a table until they break three fingers. You never know when someone is going to explode. So we always consult with the facility doctors to know when it is all right to practice. They get better and better as the performance approaches, but if someone explodes everything is ruined. So it is absolutely essential to keep in constant communication with the medical staff.
For the patients, the rehearsal period is one where these strangers have come to stay in the dormitory and work with them, so there is a lot of stimulation they are not used to and it is easy for them to get into a high state. That is why it can be dangerous to overdo it. Still, we want to make an enjoyable play, so we are unavoidably walking a thin line.
In the years when we do the plays, the facility’s doctors help out by encouraging the patients to join in the play and trying to build their motivation. And if they have a half a year, they can prepare themselves. For example, there was one of the patients who was to take part in the role of a maid as one of the narrative parts. She is also autistic and she never came to any of the work sessions before the final rehearsals, but it seemed as though she was preparing herself for the role. However, even her care-givers didn’t know if she was preparing to take part in the play or preparing not to take part in it.
We didn’t know what she would do but we wanted to give her a role with lines to speak, so we gave her a simple role in which all she had to do was respond “Yes. I think so.” when someone asked her “Maid, do you think such-and-such?” And we had prepared to be ready to just move on to the next lines if we got no response from her.
When it came to the final rehearsal, however, she did do her best and said her lines. In the actual performance she managed to get out on the stage and perform for us, but part way through, she had to leave the stage. We could see that it was just too much for her and we thought that was the end of her participation. But after a while she managed to get herself back on stage and say her part. And it isn’t just her. All the participants are battling with themselves to get up there and perform. It is really rewarding for us to see them making that effort.

Even if we don’t go so far as to call it “theater therapy,” I think the theater world should recognize the significance of what you are trying to do.
I think professor Akihama was ahead of the times with his efforts in this program. We are seeing an increasing number of cases know where theater is being used to achieve some kind of effect with people who have problems or handicaps, and professor Akihama was certainly a pioneer in this field. I recall one time when I was younger, professor Akihama scolded me in a very severe voice, saying, “What if something happens to that child while you are trying to get them to do that!” He said it in a voice that frightened all the patients and staff present. But looking back I realize that was also part of the fundamental theater experience he wanted us to have.
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