An English-speaking-ex-pat acting primer for TokyoBy Benjamin Johnson
• In Tokyo, acting and modeling are basically considered the same thing.
• Anyone coming to town with some kind of work visa can get an agent, most foreigners have more than one agent, and I’ve heard of people signing up with over twenty different agencies, however Japanese citizens can only have one.
• Once you have an agent, you’ll get emails on your cell-phone with an exact amount the job pays and asking you if you’re available for auditions on certain dates.
• Once you confirm your availability they send your headshot in to the casting agent for “picture selection”.
• If you make it past picture selection you go to the audition, usually with a manager from the agency who acts as your translator and who also works out the details for you.
• Then if you get the job, you show up on the day.
Almost all work is acting in commercials. Although most Japanese can read advertisements in English, few can hold down a conversation, and most would be lost listening to English dialogue. The English-speaking actor in Tokyo is essentially a model paid to draw attention to products. Film and TV work is basically nonexistent, save for extra work and embarrassing guest appearances on variety shows.
Theatre in Tokyo is similar to that in many other major cities. Japan has it’s own casts of Lion King, Cats and a host of musicals running endlessly. There are major houses doing translations of Ibsen and Shakespeare, traditional Japanese Kabuki and Noh plays, but as far as I can tell there’s not a single theatre job to be had for an English speaker in this town of 30 million people. The only agency that mentioned covering English speakers for theatre was a note on a list that said, “ask about theatre” next to the agency name.
There are of course, international touring companies, which perform in English, or without language, such as the new Cirque de Soleil show “Zed”. But for the most part, people are busy, life is expensive, and renting a space, rehearsing (i.e. not working a regular job), and producing a show is an expensive undertaking when your audience may not understand your carefully worded award-winning masterpiece that is basically all dialogue. Movement theatre would be the best way to go, and the Japanese already have the singular Butoh.
As for indie theatre in Tokyo, my next step is to visit a trendy neighborhood called Shimokitazawa. I’ve heard there are some signs of a somewhat indie-theatre community. I’ll investigate and report back.
Benjamin Johnson is a screenwriter and graduate of Canada’s National Theatre School, currently living and working in Tokyo.