West meets East

In a Grove: Four Japanese Ghost Stories

Rod Hearn shows a mask of an “Oni,” a demon. There will be three demons in the play, he says, acting similar to the Three Stooges.

Rod Hearn shows a mask of an “Oni,” a demon. There will be three demons in the play, he says, acting similar to the Three Stooges.

Photo By David Robert

A few years ago, Rod Hearn saw his first Kabuki play. It was part of an international teaching conference, where fellow teachers shared their excitement over their recent three-week trip to Japan. As director of the Damonte Ranch High School drama program, Hearn was fascinated and wanted to know more about the trip, which was made possible by the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund.

“It’s a program that encourages [American] teachers of all content areas and across grade levels to come learn about Japan’s educational system and culture,” explains Hearn.

It was established to honor and thank the U.S. government for its Fulbright Scholars Program, which has benefited more than 6,800 Japanese recipients, many of whom were instrumental in rebuilding Japan after World War II. Through the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund, Japan hosts and pays all expenses for 400 American teachers each year—200 teachers for two- or three-week sessions each.

It’s a highly selective program that requires an application. On it, teachers are asked to describe how they’d share what they learn in Japan. “I told them I’d produce a Japanese Kabuki play, because that’s all I really knew of Japanese theater,” he says. After learning in March that he’d been accepted for the June 2007 session, he set about finding a Kabuki script. In a Grove, with its 18 roles that accommodated Damonte Ranch’s grades 7-12, fit the bill perfectly.

But once Hearn arrived in Japan and began researching, he realized that there was a lot about Kabuki and Japanese theater that he didn’t know.

Chief among the unknown facts was that in Japanese tradition, you can’t just be a Kabuki actor; it has to run in your family. As in early Shakespearean theater, men play all parts in Kabuki, male and female, and some men actually specialize in female roles. Hair and make-up are elaborate, and often observe certain conventions based on character roles; for instance, warlords wear white make-up with red stripes of paint across the cheeks.

And Kabuki is just one type of traditional Japanese theater. There’s also Noh, which centers on philosophical issues, and involves an Everyman-type of character in a morality struggle. Kyogen is similar to Noh in theme, but more comedic in nature. And in Bunraku, or puppetry theater, large, life-like marionettes walk, talk and gesture realistically.

Hearn determined that In a Grove would incorporate elements of all four. The show itself is comprised of four ghost stories: “Yukionna” ("The Snow Woman"), in which a wicked snow woman saves a man’s life, and it later comes back to haunt him; “Oni Mondai” ("The Demon Dilemma"), featuring three very frightening and stupid demons; “Shindamano No Uta” ("The Singing Monk"), about a monk who sings to save the souls of his village’s drowned fishermen; and “Azukitogi” ("The Bean-Grinder"), about a disgusting monster who grinds beans inside a human skull and preys on human flesh. The play’s masks, elaborate make-up and costuming, and puppetry were all designed by Hearn and his students. Live musicians will perform accompaniment, and the actors will take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony prior to their performance.

Hearn believes this kind of cultural immersion has done wonders for his students—so much so that he’s considering a bilingual Hispanic production for next season.

“Theater teaches cultural lessons in a non-threatening, engaging way. It helps people connect and get rid of biases. And it’s attracted a number of students to the drama program who previously may not have been interested,” says Hearn. “It’s good for kids to get out of their own back yard and see that they’re part of a bigger world.”