A big show in NYC, but little in LA for Japan quake benefit


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The New York City nonprofit theater world has come together for a star-studded benefit for Japanese theater companies on this Sunday’s anniversary of the massive northern Japan earthquake and tsunami.

The effort, Shinsai: Theaters for Japan ( “shinsai” means “great earthquake” in Japanese) is billed as a nationwide initiative, but it has gained little traction in Los Angeles, where leading companies say they weren’t approached until too late, if at all.


In Manhattan, Patti LuPone, Richard Thomas and Mary Beth Hurt will be among the performers in two shows at the Cooper Union Great Hall – the venerable venue where Abraham Lincoln delivered his 1859 Cooper Union Address.

In Los Angeles, the Loyola Marymount University department of theater arts and dance will stage a benefit Sunday at 8 p.m. in the campus’ 175-seat Strub Theatre, and the Cal State Los Angeles theater department will offer staged readings Sunday at 3 p.m. in the lobby of the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A. Playwright-actor Jeanne Sakata will recite a Shinsai-related poem as a curtain raiser for the Sunday matinee at the Theatre@Boston Court in Pasadena.

The New York performances, directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher, will feature all 17 short works and songs written, revised or specifically authorized for the occasion by such eminences as Edward Albee, John Guare, Suzan-Lori Parks, Doug Wright, Richard Greenberg and the composer-librettist team of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, who updated and combined two songs from their musical, “Pacific Overtures,” (pictured) with a new narration focused on the 2011 disaster.

Seven of the plays are by Japanese writers, and two come from California-based Japanese-Americans, Berkeley playwright Philip Kan Gotanda and Naomi Iizuka, who heads the playwriting program at UC San Diego.

A spokeswoman at L.A.’s East West Players, the nation’s biggest-budgeted Asian ethnic theater company, said this week that it only learned about the Shinsai effort in January, in an email from Sakata, who has performed with East West. The company has entered its name on the Shinsai project website as a show of support, but will not perform.

The website lists 69 participants nationwide, including five in Southern California. But, like East West, officials at the Cal State Long Beach-affiliated California Repertory Company and the University of Redlands theater department said this week that they would not stage performances.

While the New York effort involves leading companies including the Public Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club and Atlantic Theater Company, a spokeswoman for LA’s flagship stage company, Center Theatre Group, said Thursday that artistic director Michael Ritchie “was never contacted” about the benefit.

Theatre Communications Group, a New York-based national service organization for nonprofit theaters, has served as a clearinghouse for the Shinsai project, setting up a web page where interested theaters can access the project’s 17 scripts and songs and sign up to put on fundraising performances.

TCG spokeswoman Dafina McMillan said in emails Thursday that the word was spread nationally starting in December via emails “to all managing and artistic leaders of our 500 member theaters,” as well as in emailed newsletters and postings on the TCG website.

“The consortium did reach out personally….to theaters in Los Angeles and throughout California,” she added. “I think we were thoughtful and aggressive with reaching out to the field personally and through all of the communications tools.”

The effort has been spearheaded by James Yaegashi, a New York-based actor who grew up in Yamagata in quake-devastated northern Japan, where his parents still live. Yaegashi said Thursday that he decided immediately to mount a relief effort, at first envisioning a small event involving theater people he knew. But it snowballed after Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, suggested the idea had much bigger potential.

Yaegashi said that because the undertaking required not only organizing performances but commissioning and translating many new works, the push to involve theaters nationwide didn’t begin until December. He said he had worked in the past with Carey Perloff, artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, and was able to enlist her company as a particpant – the only major one on the West Coast.

Yaegashi said that some companies not staging performances on the anniversary will help by spreading the word to patrons about the opportunity for online donations to the Shinsai beneficiary, the Japan Playwrights Assn., which will disburse proceeds to theaters trying to recover from the earthquake.

The two LA performances were instigated by theater professors with a particular interest in Japanese theater. Kevin Wetmore, chair of the LMU department of theater arts and dance, is co-editor of the book “Modern Japanese Theatre and Performance.” In addition to seven of the nonmusical pieces from the Shinsai website, he said, the show involving LMU students, faculty and alumni will include an original short play written by a student and several original dances.

At Cal State Los Angeles, professor Susan Mason, who studied Japanese theater in Japan in 2009 on a Fullbright fellowship, recruited graduate student Kymm Swank to produce the readings; they decided it would make sense to stage the performance in Little Tokyo and approached the Japanese American National Museum, which provided its lobby.

Mason said the disparity between the blockbuster benefit in Manhattan and the grassroots events in L.A. reflects the ability of a highly centralized theater community to get things done quickly. “I don’t think we have a very good theater network in Los Angeles, and New York is much more networked,” she said. “That’s one of the effects of us being so spread out.” ALSO:

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-- Mike Boehm