Seattle and the Puget Sound area continue to be a locus of cultural exchange, this time at Youth Theatre Northwest on Mercer Island. Two practitioners of the Kamishibai tradition will be traveling from Japan to teach their art form to YTN students and community members.
According to YTN, the word Kamishibai in Japanese is the combination of Kami (paper) and Shibai (theatre). Kamishibai storytellers present narratives on street corners with the aid of illustrated storyboards.
For Mimi Katano, Artistic Director of Youth Theatre Northwest, this initiative is both personal and professional. “One of my personal missions as an immigrant artist is to bridge my two cultures through theatre,” she said. “My hope is that our students will have an experience they will not forget, and I hope to peak their interest in Japanese culture.”
To that end, YTN obtained a grant to host two members of the Marguerite Family Troupe in Nagoya for this residency: Tatsuo Kawakami, a storyteller, and Takamitsu Terukina, a visual artist. “Our executive director, Manny Cawaling, and I have been talking about launching an international program for years,” Katano said.
She and Cawaling wanted to focus specifically on educational and cultural exchange. “I began thinking about a good angle to connect Japanese theatre with what our student population would know about Japan as a way in,” Katano said. “Then Japanese Anime popped into my head.”
This made the seemingly unfamiliar street theatre of Kamishibai feel more accessible. “I had read that Kamishibai is the origin of Anime,” Katano said, “and with the popularity of Japanese pop culture and Anime in Seattle, I felt like this is something different but easy to understand.”
The next step was to figure out the funding support. “Manny was the one who recommended our development director Jessi Wasson look into grants from Japan Foundation,” Katano said. “Jessi then secured a local Airbnb owner to give us housing for the artists at a discounted rate. Piece by piece, Jessi worked to fill the pieces tirelessly until it looked feasible.”
But international cultural exchange entails much more behind the scenes. “There is a lot to this project that is an uncharted territory for us,” Katano said, “like hiring an agency to handle their work visa, finding them a flight, getting them bikes so that they can move around Mercer Island easily, and contacting schools and organizations to book performances for them so that many people and communities can benefit from their visit.”
With the arrangements in place, the two Marguerite Family Troupe artists are looking forward to their residency. “I am under the impression that Seattle is a very stylish place,” said Tatsuo Kawakami, storytelling performer and founder of Marguerite Family Troupe. “I am nervous but excited to find out whether me sweating through Kamishibai performances will be enjoyable to people there.”
Katano aimed to ease this challenge by selecting Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There as the foundational story for the Kamishibai workshop production. “I wanted to choose a play that was familiar,” she said. “It is difficult to expose American Theatre kids to different theatre, and if the story was unfamiliar, as in something Japanese, I was afraid students wouldn’t think to audition.”
Her familiarity with the play increased her confidence in this choice. “I had directed this piece about ten years ago and know that this story lends itself to many interpretations in terms of style and design element,” she said. “I felt I could infuse the Kamishibai concept into the production to make it original.”
Kawakami hopes to share his enthusiasm for an art form that combines collaboration and solo work. “When I was 33, I had just left the theatre company I was acting with and was looking for a way to express myself alone,” he said. “That is when I found Kamishibai.”
This art form provides a structure for extensive creativity on the part of the artists. “I started because it is known to not require any specific technique or training and is done alone,” he said, “but as I gained experience, I discovered a unique communication tool Kamishibai possesses which led me to today.”
The Kamishibai artists will use all their artistic tools, along with translation into English by Katano and her Assistant Director Naho Shioya, in order to make this communication as effective as possible. “Family audiences tend to gravitate towards what is familiar so that their children’s experience is somewhat guaranteed to be positive,” Katano said. “Hopefully, the name recognition of the title will bring them in to the theatre, but have them leave with something way beyond their expectation.”
Specifically, Katano hopes that this residency will foster growth for both YTN’s participants and its audiences. “Doing musicals everyone wants to do and see has its place,” she said, “but projects like this serve what is at the core of our mission, which is to get our students to push their boundaries, think outside of the box, and grow in a way that they couldn’t even imagine.”
Kawakami joins Katano in sharing an optimistic outlook regarding this exchange. “I am in a mindset that Kamishibai will find its popularity again,” he said. “I feel that while our technology has advanced and many things have become so convenient, interaction between people has decreased. But kids, and adults, have the desire to make human connection.”
That connection is the key for Kawakami. “Kamishibai provides live interaction between the performer and the audience,” he said. “I truly believe that if I perform with the desire to connect, there will be more people who will believe in this art form.”
Kamishibai workshops and tours run from January 31 to February 23, at Youth Theatre Northwest, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 4400 86th Avenue SE, Mercer Island. Workshops are free and are for both kids and adults and will be held on February 11 and 18. For more information, visit the theater’s website. Watch this video to meet the artists.