When Community Theatre Is Just Theatre

Yukio Ninagawa

World famous, 71-year-old Japanese theatre director, Yukio Ninagawa announced in 2006 that he was setting up a year-long acting project for non theatre professional people aged 55 and over. Called the Saitama Gold Theatre it ran at Saitama Arts Centre, where Ninagawa was artistic director.

The company was formed out of Ninagawa’s desire to search for a new form of theatre based on the histories of older people. It drew applications from 1,273 hopefuls from all over Japan.  After auditioning 1,116 people face-to-face, Ninagawa finally chose 19 men and 27 women with an average age of 66.9. The company met Monday to Friday every week to undergo intensive lessons from some of Japan’s leading theatre specialists. After the year was up, Ninagawa was so excited about the prospects of the company, he continued to work with them creating  a production every year.

Seven years later in May 2013 The Saitama Gold Theatre performed at the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris.
The great thing for me to learn about the company was that it had started off as a gathering of amateurs who got into drama as a “second life.” Yet, under Ninagawa direction and training programme, the quality of their performances became very high. After six years a Japanese producer living in Paris suggested that Ninagawa put on a production in France.
Interviewed by the Japanese press Ninagawa said:

“Without a doubt, this is one of the world’s unique troupes, with seniors performing on a continuous basis. It’s three times as tiring as a normal performance to direct people with more experience than me, but putting together a production with non-actors is interesting in a different kind of way from a professional play. The joy of being seen by others makes a person healthier. Some of the performers were bedridden, but now they can commute to the rehearsal hall on foot. I wanted to create a new performing art by refining physical expression according to accumulated age.” 

Saitama Gold Theatre

One of the leading actress Etsuko Shigemoto of Saitama Gold Theatre spoke about her experience of performing in Paris, saying she forget that she was 87 years old.

“I have weak hearing and poor sight. I have problems all over my body,” she said. “But I am still young in spirit. I have already reached the afternoon of my life, but it’s wonderful to spend my last days with the company”

“Drama makes me vigorous. I am too busy to get senile. I still feel as if I was 20 years old and now my dream is to become a good actor,” said another member of the company, actor Kiyoshi Takahashi, 85.

Ninagawa has spoken lovingly about the members of Saitama Gold Theatre. I was particularly interested in an interview with him on Performing Arts Website, Japan where he analysed the quality of perfomance by one of the group:

“There is an elderly member named Mr. Toyama, and watching him perform I see qualities that no ordinary professional actor can match. In his voice, his gestures, the way he speaks and his timing  he has a completely different quality of acting that no professional actor could begin to approach. Seeing that has made me realize the value of this programme”

When I was at Northern Stage we presented The Ninagawa’s Company with a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1996 and we had the opportunity to meet with him and discuss his work . He was a guiding inspiration in the creation of  The Northern Stage Ensemble.  Years later his work with older people, and more importantly what he learnt from creating Saitama Gold Theate, has been another of the inspirations that has guided me to create a new company, The Performance Ensemble.

The Performance Ensemble

We started out developing The Performance Ensemble in London. We ran a two week workshop based at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in August 2012. We gathered a group of professional performers, all of them over 60 years old, to come together and explore some different ways of working. We wanted to hear their stories. It was unusual for them as professional performers, with a wealth of professional experience in theatre, television and film, to play themselves and not pretend to be somebody else. Through working with them to present themselves on stage we created a beautiful, endearing and piece of ‘work in progress’.

Fife Performance Ensemble

A year later in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, we created a two month project, “Dancing Days”, with amateur and community based performers based on their own stories from the dance halls of Fife. These performers had less inhibitions in talking about themselves and telling their stories through performance. Most of them attended a weekly afternoon tea dance. They enjoyed dancing. We worked with them to let their stories emerge from within the structure of the tea dance, that they were already familiar with, and where they felt comfortable. Others joined in from various amateur theatre groups. Slowly we created an ensemble of performers who felt comfortable with a performance style that was not like that of professional performers, but one that felt completely authentic.

The common ground between professional and community/amateur performer, in both projects, was that they presented themselves completely, sincerely and with an openness and vulnerability that I have found rare in theatre today.

The Calder Valley Performance Ensemble


Our next step is to work with a mixture of professional and community-based/amateur performers. We are making a new piece with people from the  community in Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. After performances at Mytholmroyd Community Centre at the end of June, we will transfer the work into the professional setting of West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, this July. We will work with other local community/amateur performers as well as professional performers.  We will see what progress we make.

The most important lesson I have learnt so far in this process it that we can learn equally from the professional and the community/amateur performers and they learn from each other. This process is not a well intentioned community project, rather, it is the way we have chosen to make our piece of theatre.

We expect it to be good enough to be performed in front of a paying audience who, in turn, are expecting quality theatre. They will be moved and entertained by a company of performers, all of whom will be over 60, from many different experiences and skills. They are a theatre ensemble of equals, creating contemporary theatre of substance.

Or at least that is the plan!