Japanese directors and actors encounter the world of Jenny Sealey
Rehearsals of “The Tempest: Swimming for Beginners”, a play created by disabled directors and actors, are approaching the halfway point, and the actors are carrying out a standing rehearsal, holding the script in one hand as they go through the movements of the actual performance. Jenny Sealey, who is in charge of the overall artistic direction, gives directions to the actors via the Zoom screen. However, rather than giving them detailed instructions about their movements, her method is to draw out the actors’ potential by letting the actors try something, and saying “That was really good!”, or “I’d like to see this – can you try it?”. She sometimes incorporates ideas suggested by the actors, saying “Let’s do it!”. While flexible, she gives instructions as appropriate and, on occasion, makes the actors think.
For example, there is a scene in which Sachika (Sachika Segawa) and Yanagi (Kotaro Yanagi) are discussing their own disabilities. They are each explaining their actual disabilities, but Jenny sets them a task: “I’d like to involve the audience more. Think about how much you can involve the audience, even while you’re talking about your own experiences.”
The script is updated from day to day, with parts being changed or new lines being inserted even in the course of rehearsals. When Jenny sends new ideas, hard work is involved in translating and sharing them, but the directors, actors, and staff all do their best to respond to even the most challenging requests.
Despite being unable to come to Japan as hoped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and facing various difficulties directing from a distance, Jenny remains positive, saying that she has made new discoveries. “I have found that I can direct even over Zoom, and have learned various things. If Hiro (Hiroe Ohashi) and Yasushi (Yasushi Oka) are the directors inside the rehearsal room, I am the external director. I think that we have been able to take a new approach.
Hiroe Ohashi and Yasushi Oka are working as directors of this performance, under Jenny’s overall direction. Developing not only disabled actors but also disabled directors is one of the project’s aims. “There are many disabled directors playing active roles not just in the UK, but around the world. I am hoping Hiro and Yasushi will be among them. And they say that the best way for a director to learn is to watch other directors at work. I think that this is such an opportunity for both of them.”
Hiroe Ohashi, who is deaf, launched “Sign Art Project.AZN”, in which deaf and hearing people work together to create plays, and is a successful performer. She experienced Jenny’s directing during “R & J (Romeo and Juliet)”, staged at Saitama Arts Theater in 2011, but this time she also has the important role of director. “I thought that I would be able to learn various things through the opportunity to work with Jenny. But now, things are even more chaotic than I imagined – the situation really is a tempest (laughs). This is a period of worries, but I’m sure that looking back on it afterwards, I’ll be made to reflect and realise ‘Oh, that’s what was happening...’”
She talks of how stimulating she finds Jenny’s directing. “Her use of stage design has made an impression on me. For example, a chair is not simply part of the set on stage – her directing draws in even the chair itself. Subtitles are also presented as a part of the performance. It taught me a lot about how you can do things. I think the way that she enriches people’s powers of imagination is great.”
Yasushi Oka, head of the theatre company Gogo no Jiten has written and directed many of the company’s pieces. In the course of working together with Jenny on this project, he has been surprised by the abundance of her ideas. “Until now, I have directed my casts to produce expression which follows the text, but I have been blown away by the richness of Jenny’s imagery and her attention to visual aspects. As she moves the things in the rehearsal room around, saying how it would look good if an actor moved in a certain way, she pursues beauty. Also, when I put on plays in Japan, I tend to begin with the negative, but Jenny begins by affirming people, without negativity. She doesn’t understand weaknesses as something bad, but instead thinks about how to make the most of them as she interacts with us. Seeing Jenny affirm each person has had a big impact on me.”
About his own role, he says, “While Jenny pays great attention to the visual aspect, I would like to facilitate expression which is grounded in reality, depicting the internal aspects of the actors, as it were. I think that this is what I can do now, within Jenny’s world.”
Jenny’s directing seems to have been extremely inspiring for the actors, too. Rio Sekiba, known as Jonny, who plays Miranda, is the only totally blind participant this time. She was apparently surprised to learn that there was a scene in which she would dance. “Deaf people are good at expressing themselves using their bodies, so I would have understood having a deaf person dance, but I wondered why she wanted me, a blind person, to dance. But when she observed the dance scene during the rehearsal, I felt that I understood what she wanted to do. She doesn’t hold any preconceptions about disabled people or blind people. She crushes assumptions about what we are good or bad at. I believed that I was bad at dancing because I can’t move as well as sighted people, so being asked to dance was refreshing for me.
Jenny expands the range of what is possible with ideas that are unconstrained by stereotypes, demolishing received wisdom. Her approach has brought great inspiration and hope to the Japanese cast and staff as they continue to take on this challenge.
Text: Ichiko Enomoto