Two male and five female actors performing a play on stage with a male actor on a screen.
"Tempest" (Photo by Jun Ishikawa / © Jun Ishikawa)

A collaboration among diverse people during a pandemic

The actors and staff of “The Tempest: Swimming for Beginners” are working hard on rehearsals day after day. People with widely varying disabilities having been supporting and communicating with each other. When Yanagi (Kotaro Yanagi), who has a hidden disability, seems a little confused, Sachika (Sachika Segawa), whose legs are disabled, explains clearly and in detail to help him understand. When Jonny (Rio Sekiba), who is completely blind, moves around the stage, Bandana (Kazumi Hiratsuka), who is deaf, unobtrusively moves closer. Such sights have become natural. Despite various difficulties, there is a positive vibe as the cast seeks to overcome them. 

According to Hiroe Ohashi, who is trying her hand at directing as well as performing this time, and who is deaf, “I get the impression that each one of us has opinions and thoughts about what we want to do. In this way, we are having a positive influence on each other.” She is hopeful about the way that people with diverse disabilities are building the performance together, saying “I have heard that the combination of deaf and blind people is the most difficult. But I think that Jonny’s presence has enabled us to paint a picture that we could not have imagined by ourselves. When a world without sound and a world without light come together, I believe that we can witness a new drama.” 

However, the language barrier has sometimes felt greater than expected. The overall director, Jenny Sealey, is having to direct over Zoom, but Hiroe has felt frustrated that this does not allow Jenny to receive all the information about what is taking place on the ground. “We are communicating via sign language and Japanese-English interpreting, but there are inevitably some communication gaps. How can we bridge these gaps? Seeing everyone working together, doing their best to communicate, makes me very grateful, and my heart goes out.” 

Yasushi Oka, who is in charge of directing at the Japanese end together with Hiroe Ohashi, says that he has realised various things afresh. “I myself have a physical disability, and I believed that I had thought a certain amount about disability. However, I came to feel that I didn’t know anything about other disabilities. Even when creating the play, I am ashamed to say that I sometimes forget that there are things which some people cannot see or hear. This experience has taught me how little I have been aware of such things until now.”

This project, which already came with various difficulties, was hit by a previously unknown virus. “We are the weak ones, both societally and physically. It’s hard for us to move under the best of circumstances, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder. The fact that we have still managed to continue with our expressive activities is really our strength. This project has been both an opportunity for us to reconsider weakness, and for us to decide what to do, having acknowledged that weakness, and to give it a try.” He also speaks about how he hopes to share what the cast are currently feeling with the audience. “I think that the people watching us don’t know a lot about disability. This difficulty in connecting is perhaps, in a way, our (the cast’s) difficulty in connecting. I hope that they will also experience the way that we can make a connection somewhere, despite this.” 

The pandemic has increased the difficulties encountered, but the delay of the performance for one year has also borne fruit. According to Rio Sekiba, known as Jonny, the performers have been able to get to know and gradually become familiar with each other during that time. “I had never communicated with deaf people before this project began, but now I can use simple sign language. I had never thought to move my hands while I was speaking, so the experience of moving my hands in time with my words was a fresh one, and I don’t want to forget that sensation.” Communicating with people with other disabilities was also a valuable opportunity for her. “Yanagi, for example, has a hidden disability. Until now, I felt it was difficult to talk with someone with a brain disability. But by acting together in this play, I had to talk with him. We were able to talk precisely because we were creating a play together, bringing us closer. Being put in this situation was a really good opportunity.” Rio is the only totally blind person involved with this project, but everyone is reaching out to help her. “When I walk together with someone, I can sense their distinctive characteristics, so I am very grateful that everyone is supporting me in their various ways.”

Jenny directing remotely on Zoom (Photo by Ryuichi Maruo)
Hiroe Ohashi and Kotaro Yanagi (Photo by Jun Ishikawa / © Jun Ishikawa)
Fatima Niemogha (in the video) and Sachika Segawa (Photo by Jun Ishikawa / © Jun Ishikawa)
Dress rehearsal for "Tempest" (Photo by Jun Ishikawa / © Jun Ishikawa)

Even though Jenny Sealey has sadly been unable to come to Japan as hoped, she is confident that the performance will be a wonderful one. “This is an unprecedented piece, created in the midst of a pandemic. I think it has become a “Tempest” which encompasses everything. I hope that, when you look at the challenge we have undertaken, you will discover the “Tempest” inside yourself. And I hope that you will get a taste of the talent of people with disabilities.” She also speaks of how international collaboration under such circumstances is extremely meaningful. “It is very important for people with disabilities around the world to create something collaboratively. Even when we are in different parts of the world, we can support each other and work towards one goal, creating a piece together. This brings hope to the world.” 

The audience of this production may sometimes find it difficult to understand or feel frustrated. But instead of giving up there, by trying to overcome these invisible obstacles and putting our powers of imagination to work, there are surely things which will become visible to us. This unprecedented “Tempest” was created under unparalleled circumstances. The result is sure to be an extraordinary piece which allows the performers, the directors, and the audience to realize many different things. 

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