Interviewed by Hisa
Written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alec Harris (UK)
President of New Worlds Theatre
(He’s been in Japan since ’96)
The first place that he lived in in Japan was Iwate prefecture (Northern part of Japan) as an University professor. After the experience, he moved to Tokyo and established his theatre company.
He is a person who hopes Tokyo becomes an international community including in the theatre area. He is cool to see the social issues and accept a “lesson” of being a foreigner in Tokyo.
*Interview in Azabu-juban
I had never related to theatre play.
I worked in many different countries like Russia, Italy, Europe, but I had never been to Asia. After I finished my master’s in London, I wanted to travel for a short time.
I came to Japan just to stay for six months to one year and now it’s been 12 years. Japan was very popular 12 years ago. Also Japanese culture and Japanese technology had a very big part of England. So I wanted to try a very different culture than England and escape from there.
I was working in university in Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan, before I came to Tokyo. So I really didn’t have any connection to Tokyo until about three years ago.
When I was in Iwate, I was just working. No theatre, nothing exciting. I wrote a lot and was writing in newspapers, in general, in England and overseas. But I never actually did do any theatre. I was a university professor in Iwate.
My first play.
A friend of mine in Tokyo had a theatre company. She is a Japanese and she had a very small new theatre company. They wanted to produce international plays and they asked me if I could write international plays for an international audience.
So I wrote two or three short plays for them. One of them was a story about “cross-culture”. There were three separate stories within one play about “East meeting West”. It was fun to write but I would not like to do that kind of thing again since too many people have done it.
Unfortunatelly before they could be performed, the company closed. The plays were actually produced in America in the end. But I’ve never seen them.
I decided to do my own play.
Once I started writing theatre plays, I really enjoyed it. My background is more screenwriting and I had written for the BBC four years ago.
So I didn’t have a good idea of how to write play. I had written three or four ideas but I had nothing to do with them. So I decided to produce by myself, try to write scripts.
When I did my own play, the very first play was ‘Writing William’. It was about a group of actors who don’t have very much success deciding to do a fake Shakespeare play. They wrote a fake one and produced it in New York. That was very well done and received they were fantastic casts.
I also worked at another group called “Tokyo International Players” They are 120 years old. It’s a foreign-based theatre company like mine. There are actually a lot of multi-cultural companies in Tokyo.
Every play needs some contrast.
Every piece of art work is about difference. Whether you’re writing about differences in your society, difference of men and women or relationship to relationship, or culture to culture. Everything is about difference.
The first play I wrote about was Japan to foreign cultures. Japan to Spain, Japan to England. Even the last play I wrote, the “Last Christmas”, was about different culture. There was one about Christianity and Judaism, America and not America… I think every play needs something of the contrast and that’s the fun part of writing.
In the latest play “Last Christmas”, we had American people in the cast. Also Israeli people in the cast. The lead is an Israeli so basically they changed my writing and fixed the things that I said in a very British way.
For example, “It won’t snow even two centimeters.” Americans don’t say “centimeters” so they changed that. I think this is the fun thing with plays. If it’s a screenplay or a book, it’s only the writing. But with the play, the writer writes and the cast are as much a part of that as possible. They change the language and adapt the play which changes because of who you have. That’s very exciting.
“Last Christmas” (2008)
The level of international theater companies in Tokyo is very high.
In England, it’s easy to organize a theatre company like mine, but not this level. We would never get this level. Even in Europe or America, you wouldn’t get this level. you can get new actors, everybody being new actors and young actors. But getting the level we have here in Japan is very, very difficult. So we’re very lucky. We couldn’t do it in other countries.
There’s actually a large foreign contingent who are artistic and doing different things. But of course, because of different languages and difficulties in translations, watching plays in different languages is difficult.
So we’re doing subtitles for every play from “Richard III” in October 2008. It’ll be in both English and Japanese which hopefully should stop it being English theatre or Japanese theatre.
Japanese subtitles on Last Christmas.
We’re opening Japanese society.
One of the first things that I was surprised about in Japan was how easy it is for foreigners. This is a long time ago, 12 years, but even then, road signs were in English and people tried to speak English. That’s very easy for foreigners.
I think every culture has a wall. In England, now there’s a huge problem with immigration, in the sense of Middle Eastern people. So British people – white British people, black British people, Indian British people – All the immigrants recently came to the country now don’t like Middle Eastern people.
In Japan, of course, we have difficulties. We are opening society and it’s changing and opening constantly. And more foreigners are coming in.
Nevertheless we do have walls between Japanese and foreigners but Japanese are generally kind. Their general approaches should be nice to people.
Tokyo is becoming multicultural and international.
I think especially Tokyo is the most comfortable city in the world for foreign people. Recently Japan won the Michelin stars more than Paris or Italy and that shows how multicultural Tokyo now is.
At the same time, Japanese people themselves and Japanese culture are very inviting. Japanese people are warm compared to other countries. Tokyo is becoming international.
Also I have to say the best thing about Tokyo is transportation. Tokyo is an incredibly efficient, fast and safe city. This is why Michelin gave so many stars to the restaurants in Tokyo. Simply because it’s not just how good food is, but how easy it is to move around Tokyo to visit places. I like experiencing and trying a new culture. So I tried Africa, I tried Russia.
But I’ve never actually wanted to be there. It was always visiting. When you come to Japan, it’s very, very easy to feel a part of its culture. I lived in Iwate for eight or nine years. It was a very enjoyable place and I forgot about leaving.
We appreciate a big help from Japanese neighbors.
However, becoming a part of Japanese society is a little difficult. Even my friends who speak in a very native level of Japanese find it’s a little difficult to go between foreigners to Japanese.
Whereas in England, we have colored British people, Indian people or Western people but it doesn’t really matter what the color is. On the other hand, it is a little bit difficult to be purely Japanese here.
In terms of work, I have some difficulties here. We work in the theatre area. Booking things, arranging spaces… those are quite difficult because sometimes people are worried about foreigners using a theatre.
But we have a great support cast of Japanese people. They help us to book, arrange things and publicize. I think it’s impossible to do those things without their help. There is a large foreign poplulation in Japan but it’s still very, very small. If we want to reach a large audience, we definitely need more Japanese.
Making the international community.
I think it’s true that it’s very difficult to break the wall to do something new in every culture. I think it’s challenging, but also an enjoyable challenge. The more we get Japanese people involved in our production, the more we become an international community.
But it is very dangerous for us and very easy for us to become an English speaking community or English theatre community. We don’t really want that. We would like to be a “Tokyo community”. We have Indonesian people, Chinese people, English people and of course, Japanese people involved in everything we do. So it’s truly an international community.
Communities are separated in Tokyo. One of the things we are trying to do, especially the theatre, is to stop that. Even British only talk to British. American talk to American. You have a French speaking community, an English speaking community, an Arabic speaking community. Those are very, very different and they don’t interact. We’re trying to continuously bring those together.
At this moment, they are very separated. So a lot of time we’re basically just trying to help other people and eventually everything becomes one community.
Good education for all Westerners.
I think one of the things about being a foreigner in Japan is that it teaches you about being a foreigner.
In England, we have a large problem with racism and immigrants but I’m a white guy from England. So I’m always on the big side.
But in Japan, I’m obviously on the small side so when I read about immigration problems or racial problems, I’m a part of the problem. That is a very good education for all Westerners.
Most Westerners like American, Canadian or British never actually think themselves as foreigners in their countries. As for me, I’m always British so being a white guy in Japan is a good education about how we treat immigrants or foreigners in our own countries.
What I’m doing makes me very happy.
I’m doing what I want to do. Money is not the problem, money is not something you trifle. If you are lucky, you get money. But I just wrote, produced and directed the play of mine that I’d written.
That was the third play that I’d written in the last year and I had a great cast and they did a fantastic job with the play and I had great audiences and fantastic reviews. Nothing gets better than that. This is exactly what I want.
Actually it doesn’t matter where I do my work, whether in Japan or in other countries if I can get this level of actors, this level of commitment and this level of production.
Alec & wonderful casts!
What is Tokyo to you?
Tokyo is home where I can see myself. And it’s a city where you can achieve things. You can try to be part of the culture here.