Actor Tomoko Saito is so inspired by theatre that her two cats, Tybalt and Puck, are named after theatre characters. About Puck, Saito said, “he just had to be named from my first Shakespeare show because he was my first cat.”
But that was a long time ago for Saito, who is currently performing in Annex Theatre’s show Faeristruck, about a young runaway who would do almost anything, include sell out her family, to have an adventure in Faerieland. “When I saw that Faeriestruck is a movement-heavy puppet show about a fairyland, I just couldn’t resist,” she said.
In the show, Saito plays multiple roles, mostly characters in the fairyland. “I like Bunnyip the most amongst my characters, because he is big, slow, heavy, muddy, and nothing like the kind of roles I usually play,” she said. “A puppet show is very equal-opportunity in that sense, as what I look like really doesn’t matter and casting is done solely on a given actor’s capability.”
Despite the many mythical creatures in this show, Saito finds that the emphasis is on our shared humanity. “I always go back to the theater to confirm that artists are, at heart, the same no matter what their race or cultural background is,” she said. “All who worked on this production were fascinated by the complexity of the human heart and emotions, and were more than willing to give their all to express it to the world.”
Saito has felt inspired by theatre since she was a young girl. “When I played Mother Mary in a nativity play, I was very enchanted by the whole experience,” she said. “I mean, there was no way in real life that a 5-year old girl in rural Japan can be Mother Mary, but I was her for that 30 minutes of the play.”
Even at that age, Saito connected theatre to real life. “My little brain was also working very hard to understand how a mother would feel to give birth to a child in a burn, with the full knowledge that a very hard life awaits that baby,” she said. “That’s when I learned that acting is an ultimate tool to experience someone else’s life that helps you understand that character with cultural context, and I can’t imagine myself living without that tool.”
Saito yearned for more opportunities to perform. “While traditional performance arts such as Kabuki, Nou and Rakugo are well-protected and respected in Japan, it is hard for commoners like myself to engage in theater,” she said. “The lack of theatrical activities in Japan made me crave to learn theater extensively someday.”
Those desires were fulfilled when Saito came to the U.S. and eventually earned a BFA in Theater from the University of Central Oklahoma. “The chair of the department, Dr. Robert E. McGill, had acting experiences with Royal Shakespeare Company, and he cultivated my love for Shakespeare to the point that I was doing Shakespeare in the Park in my junior year,” Saito said. “That school was true magic and changed my life forever.”
Saito has now been in Seattle for a decade, but she says it’s still a struggle to develop a career in theatre. “The hardest part has been making connections and self-marketing,” she said. “Getting my name out has been hard without any recognition from a local school or community. As an any actor would do in that situation, I have gone to any and all auditions that catch my attention, volunteered to work backstage, and taken on even the smallest gig.”
In addition to these efforts, Saito has many theatre goals in her future, including visiting Japan to see traditional Kabuki and Rakugo, and translating and directing a modern Japanese script entitled Chichi to Kuraseba (My Life with Father) by Hisashi Inoue. “This script is about a daughter whose father has died from radiation poisoning during WWII, and is written in distinct Hiroshiman accent,” she said. “For my family, theater is like air, it’s always there for us so we don’t even think about it, but we won’t be able to live without it.”
For now, Saito feels that her work in Faeriestruck is a respite from the challenges of daily life in American society. “It’s important for us to have a moment to just be human, free from all the labels like gender, age, race, social class,” she said. “A fairy tale like this can touch the core of your heart to make you realize the simplest truth that we are all humans, and that all the labels are just man-made concepts that don’t matter in the end.”
Faeriestruck runs October 25 to November 23 at Annex Theatre, 1100 East Pike Street, Seattle.