A 'Shinsai' To Aid Japan's Theater Community

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A year ago, Japan suffered a shinsai — an earthquake disaster. And on the anniversary of that disaster, theater artists across the United States and around the globe are coming together to help their counterparts in Japan, in a collaboration also called Shinsai.

It all began with Japanese-American actor James Yaegashi. He grew up in Sendai, Japan, just 40 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake.

"Once I was able to confirm everybody I knew was accounted for," he recalls, "then of course I felt like, 'My God, I've gotta do something,' you know?"

Yaegashi, a busy New York actor, contacted playwright and actor friends to see if they'd like to create an evening of short-play readings to raise some money. He also went to Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York's Public Theater, to see if he'd donate some space.

"And when we got together, he said, "It's such a good idea that it would be a shame to just sort of do something small," Yaegashi says.

From there, the project just grew. Some of the greatest talents in the American theater have donated short plays and songs to Shinsai -- Pulitzer Prize winners like Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tony Kushner and Stephen Sondheim. Many Japanese and Japanese-American playwrights have contributed work as well.

In New York, Shinsai will be presented on March 11, in two parts — in the afternoon and the evening — at the Cooper Union in Greenwich Village. And there are dozens of other events.

"We have 69 theaters across the country," says Theresa Eyring, the executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a national consortium of nonprofit theaters, which is helping to coordinate the project. "There are 21 states that are participating, and five different countries."

Some theaters are presenting a full evening of short plays and scenes; some just one or two before a regular performance. All the money raised will go to the Dramatists Guild Fund, which will funnel it to the Japan Playwrights Association.

And there's a real need: Many artists in the Tohuku region have been left homeless; their theaters have been destroyed.

'They Need To "Care For The Heart" '

The plays and scenes in the Shinsai project represent wildly divergent viewpoints and perspectives. Japanese-American playwright Philip Kan Gotanda calls his play Child is Father to the Man "a meditation on life and death, fathers and sons, and this mysterious way that we connect with our lineage, both forwards and backwards."

Librettist John Weidman and composer Stephen Sondheim, meanwhile, have refashioned two songs from their 1976 musical Pacific Overtures. The changes?

" 'Four Black Dragons' was a song in which a fisherman in 1853 looks up and sees four steamships belching smoke coming at him from the sea — something he's never seen before — and he's terrified," Weidman explains.

"In this adaptation, it begins with that and then jumps forward to a shopkeeper in a coastal town in 2011, who looks up and sees something equally terrifying approaching from the sea, which is the tsunami wave."

Then, for the Shinsai project, "Four Black Dragons" elides into the song "Next" — the Pacific Overtures finale. Originally it was about the rise of modern Japan in the decades since World War II.

"Steve has rewritten the lyrics so that in this case, it's about the Japanese response and resilience and the way in which they have been rebuilding after this calamity," Weidman explains.

Yaegashi has been to Japan twice since the earthquake and tsunami. He says helping to get the theater community back on its feet there is essential.

"There's a real sort of psychological and emotional need," he says. "In Japanese they call [it] ... they need to 'care for the heart,' is what they say.

"So storytelling is really relevant and needed right now," Yaegashi continues. "And yet theater artists in that particular region are struggling to find how they can do that, just given all the logistical barriers that exist."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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