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Theater artists nationwide unite for Japan benefit

In this March 6, 2012 photo released by Lincoln Center, Paolo Montalban, standing second right, and Thom Sesma, standing right, rehearse for 'Shinsai: Theaters for Japan' with pianist Mark Mitchell at Lincoln Center in New York. American and Japanese theater heavyweights will come together for a one-day fundraising effort by about 70 theaters to benefit Japanese artists on Sunday, the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In this March 6, 2012 photo released by Lincoln Center, Paolo Montalban, standing second right, and Thom Sesma, standing right, rehearse for "Shinsai: Theaters for Japan" with pianist Mark Mitchell at Lincoln Center in New York. American and Japanese theater heavyweights will come together for a one-day fundraising effort by about 70 theaters to benefit Japanese artists on Sunday, the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. (AP Photo/Lincoln Center, Erin Baiano)
By Mark Kennedy
AP Drama Writer / March 7, 2012
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NEW YORK—In a rehearsal room below Lincoln Center Theater, seven singers have gathered around a piano, trying to nail a mash-up of two songs from the musical "Pacific Overtures."

"Let's do this from the top," Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher tells the singers.

"The whole thing," musical director Paul Gemignani says, with a smile.

The music swells. "Here we go," singer Thom Sesma says.

They're getting ready for more than just a concert: The group is part of an unprecedented, one-day fundraising effort on Sunday by dozens of theaters across the nation and some abroad to present a menu of 10-minute songs and plays.

Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of when a monstrous earthquake triggered a tsunami that roared across Japan's coast, leaving nearly 20,000 people dead or missing, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, and sparking the worst nuclear crisis the world had seen in a quarter century.

American and Japanese theater veterans including Doug Wright, Richard Greenberg, Suzan-Lori Parks, Philip Kan Gotanda and Naomi Iizuka have contributed original works, while others, including Edward Albee, John Guare, John Kander and Tony Kushner, have donated older pieces. Japanese playwrights have also contributed their own works that are being translated and will be performed at a later date.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, who teamed up to write "Pacific Overtures," did something a little different: They combined the songs "Four Black Dragons" and "Next" from their 1976 musical about the Westernization of Japan, added new lyrics and incorporated lines of spoken information about the destruction and recovery.

"There were two or three different parts of `Pacific Overtures' that Steve and I thought we could pull out and really reshape so that they addressed the terrible results of this tsunami and I think this is the best solution," said Weidman, who attended the mash-up rehearsal on Tuesday and said he liked what he heard.

"It's exciting and satisfying to feel that something we created with something completely different in mind so long ago could now be reshaped in order to make this kind of statement," he said.

About 70 theaters and colleges in America -- ranging from Malone University in Ohio, the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey, Theatre Conspiracy in Florida, Wheaton College in Illinois, and the American Conservatory Theater in California -- have signed up for "Shinsai: Theaters for Japan," as well as companies in Canada, Turkey and Italy.

Drama clubs, theaters and colleges on Sunday are invited to craft their own fundraising event with their own actors using the 10-minute plays and songs -- downloadable from the Theatre Communications Group's website -- or using works from their own residential artists.

"You don't need a lot of high-tech savvy to get the message out. You just need a three-dimensional space, some willing actors and the desire to help," said Wright, who won a Pulitzer for "I Am My Own Wife" and wrote "A Guide to Japanese Etiquette" for the benefit. "The simple, down-home, threadbare nature of our craft makes it especially useful right now."

All money raised will go to the Japan Playwrights Association, which will ensure the funds go to repair damaged theaters or rehearsal spaces and be spent on company needs. All the playwrights, actors and organizers are donating their time.

"I think our theater community really believes that we have a responsibility to utilize our art form to change the world if we can," said Teresa Eyring, the executive director of the group, which connects 700 member theaters and has spearheaded Sunday's event. "It's kind of in our DNA to collaborate and to be concerned with the lives of others."

In New York, the city's leading theater companies, including Atlantic Theater Company, Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons and the Public Theater have teamed up for a two-performance benefit downtown at the Great Hall at Cooper Union.

The New York bill will feature such stars as Patti LuPone, Richard Thomas, Mary Beth Hurt, Jay O. Sanders and Henry Stram, who are teaming up with several prominent Asian-American actors, including Jennifer Lim and Angela Lin from the recent Broadway run of David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish." Tickets for each show will cost $25.

The event comes on the same day as a new play premieres in New York about the medical staff who risked their lives at the Fukushima nuclear disaster. "Hikobae," a fictionalized story based on interviews with doctors and nurses, is being produced at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater by Stella Adler Studio of Acting and The Actors Clinic, a prominent acting school in Tokyo.

The idea for the "Shinsai" benefit came from James Yaegashi, an actor who starred on Broadway in "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" and "Take Me Out" and whose family lived near the quake zone. Last spring, he proposed the theatrical community do something to help and "Shinsai" -- which means great quake in Japanese -- was born.

"Theater is a great way to get at the heart," said Yaegashi, whose parents live 40 miles west of the tsunami-flattened city of Sendai. "We rationalize in so many different ways but when you experience a good story, you're affected in a way that other mediums can't accomplish."

Some of the selections on offer include a section of Guare's 2002 play "A Few Stout Individuals," the performance of "Underwater" from Kushner's "Caroline Or Change," a new play by Nen Ishihara, the title song from the "The Skin of Our Teeth" by Kander and Fred Ebb, a monologue from Albee's "Seascape" and a new two-person piece by Greenberg called "Where Were We?"

Organizers say that while the theater community has come together for one-day events before -- including "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later," based on interviews that occurred a decade after the 1998 killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard, and the nationwide performance of the anti-war "Lysistrata" in 2003 -- a complicated effort of this magnitude hasn't been accomplished.

Wright, who has been to Japan several times and has several Japanese friends, said he signed on instantly. He has read many of the donated pieces and been impressed with how they have made something intimate from something so massive.

"When a good playwright takes an event so large we can't wrap our minds around it and distills it into a scene between a husband and wife sorting through debris to decide what to save, or a man in a hospital bed consulting with a nurse about the extent of his radiation, suddenly the headlines melt away and it becomes so intimate and so human," he said.

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