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'Wondrous Tales of Old Japan'

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UW-Fox Hosts UW-Madison's Production of 'Wondrous Tales of Old Japan'

Wondrous Tales of Old JapanEast and West converge in a stage production being presented at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley on Monday, April 19. “Wondrous Tales of Old Japan” is a University of Wisconsin-Madison theatrical presentation being performed from 7:00 p.m. to 7:50 p.m. in the UWFox Student Union on the Menasha campus. The performance is free and open to the public, with open seating available on a first-come, first served basis.

While the performance is entertaining for any age, it is particularly appealing and educational for elementary school children, and families are encouraged to attend.

Barry Robinson, Business Manager for the UW-Madison Theatre, said, “We wanted to bring this production to the Fox Cities because there is such a strong learning core in the for the Japanese culture there. We’ve presented this program in Madison and Milwaukee, and we’re really looking forward to our performance in the Fox Cities.”

The production emerged as Peter Brosius, artistic director for the Children's Theatre of Minneapolis, was mired in quandary. He was casting about for play to be the company's touring show for the 1998 season, and had his heart set on a production that would introduce Japanese culture to Western audiences.

Brosius placed a call to his friend David Furumoto, an expert on Kabuki theater and an assistant professor of theatre and drama at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"He asked me if I thought it was possible to create a piece that melded the folktales of Japan and Kabuki. I told him it would be a very good combination," Furumoto says.

In the end, Furumoto ended up being not only the playwright of "Wondrous Tales of Old Japan," but also its director, choreographer and one of its actors. "We toured for four months through 12 different states, playing in mainly smaller towns and cities that might not get much live theater," he says.

Dating from the early 17th century, Kabuki is the theatrical descendant of Okuni, a shrine dancer in the ancient capital of Kyoto. Over the next 300 or so years, the form evolved into the highly stylized form we know today. Sophisticated makeup, costumes, sets and music play pivotal roles in bringing to life stories ranging from epic histories to everyday vignettes.

Like the Children's Theatre of Minneapolis production, the UW-Madison Theatre version of "Wondrous Tales" is touring elementary schools, statewide. Furumoto says that the company is divided into two teams, the actors and the education team. The e-team often does double duty, he says.

"When the show is being performed, the actors obviously are acting, but the education team doubles as sound board assistants or stage hands," he says. "In one case, while the show was rehearsing, the assistant director and others on the education team were hard at work putting together the education packets that we will send to the schools."

All members of the cast and crew, mostly UW-Madison undergraduate theatre education majors, conduct workshops in the dozen or so elementary schools that the play will visit.

Education team director Takeo Fujikura, a Ph.D. candidate in the UW-Madison Theatre for Young Audiences program, is a renowned mime artist in his native Japan. He says that working on "Wondrous Tales" really brings what he is learning in his classes into sharp focus, and gives it fresh perspective.

"Teaching is very different in Japan and the United States," he says. "Japanese students postpone questioning of what they are learning until they have completed a very long period of observation. Here, students are encouraged to question what they are learning right from the beginning."

Fujikura and Furumoto have known each other for upwards of 20 years. Since Furumoto was an observer at the National Theatre of Japan Kabuki Training Program, he is able to blend expertly Eastern and Western teaching and directing styles, giving his students a new way to approach their education. For his part, Furumoto finds that he too is growing as both an artist, a scholar and a teacher through his involvement with the project.

"I've been asked to consider writing other Kabuki plays based on Japanese stories and myths. It keeps me reading and improving my performing abilities," he says. "I look upon this project as a way of honoring the time my teachers invested in me, and also as a way of passing on Japanese traditions and my love of Kabuki theater."

However, Furumoto says that quite possibly, the most important goal for the production is something else altogether: "I hope that audiences - and the cast and crew - come away with an appreciation for the importance of telling stories to their children and to each other to keep alive the rich storytelling tradition that exists all over the world."

The “Wondrous Tales of Old Japan” performance at UWFox is sponsored the by the UW-Madison Speakers’ Bureau. The University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley is located at 1478 Midway Road, Menasha. Free parking is available on the west side of the campus.

Posted on 4/15/2004