Honolulu Theatre for Youth has the perfect solution for filling your holidays with merriment. “Rock’n the Holidays With Rakugo!” will be on-stage at Tenney Theatre through Dec. 20.
The production, which features three stories, was created and directed by Yasu Ishida, the founding artistic director of Bento Rakugo, a Japanese traditional comic storytelling performance troupe in Hawai‘i. The first two pieces — “Man in a Hurry” and the “Gift of the Magi” — are performed in traditional rakugo style, while the last piece, “One Thousand Paper Wishes,” which Ishida himself wrote, is told in kamishibai style (kami means paper and shibai means drama/theater) with pop-up, origami and magic mixed in.
Rakugo is a form of storytelling. Using only a folding fan and a hand towel as props, a solo performer sits on a zabuton (cushion) on stage and tells a comical story. Although the rakugo artist fleshes out the story using pantomime, facial expressions, dialogue and characters, the performance also requires the audience to use their imagination to bring the story to life.
In keeping with traditional rakugo, Patrick Oiye will perform live music featuring taiko, shamisen and bamboo flute.
Kamishibai, another storytelling form, was popularized in the 1920s and 1930s. A performer would travel from town to town, carrying a small wooden stage on his bicycle. He would tell his stories using illustrated cards. Ishida wanted to turn the traditionally two-dimensional performance into a three-dimensional one through the use of pop-up pictures, origami and magic. Ishida’s decision to mix all three forms together highlights his two biggest passions — storytelling and magic.
Ishida met HTY artistic director Eric Johnson for the first time two years ago when Johnson attended a Rakugo performance that Ishida had directed for a UH Late Night Production. Last year, Ishida was a student in Johnson’s Theatre for Youth Audiences directing class at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. After learning more about traditional rakugo storytelling, Johnson knew he wanted to incorporate it into this year’s HTY Christmas performance.
“Eric wanted to make an arc for the Christmas and New Year’s production,” Ishida said, explaining that “Man in a Hurry” is a story about a man trying to get presents (before Christmas), “Gift of the Magi” is a popular Christmas Eve story and “One Thousand Paper Wishes” is a Christmas Day story.
“I knew that I wanted to have confetti going over the stage like snow, so I was looking for a snow story in Hawai‘i that had a Christmas theme. Since I couldn’t find one, I wrote my own,” he said, about “One Thousand Paper Wishes.”
The story is about a 5-year-old Japanese-Hawaiian boy who wants to see snow on Christmas after hearing about it from his Japanese grandmother. “In Japanese folklore, if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, your wish comes true, so instead of making paper cranes, he makes 1,000 paper snowflakes,” Ishida explains.
Ishida drew inspiration for the story from his own grandmother, who passed away two years ago. “She told me a lot of stories when I was a kid, so that was my favorite time — listening to stories and going to a lot of places in time through imagination, so I wanted, somehow, to bring that to the last piece,” Ishida said.
Unlike traditional plays with scene changes, the production is three separate stories, each spotlighting the three actors — Alvin Chan, Maile Holck and Junior Tesoro — in solo performances. Chan and Holck learned Rakugo style storytelling, and Tesoro learned kamishibai, as well as magic. “They are all fast learners so they got the rhythm really well,” Ishida said.
Ishida has worked with HTY in the past and he hopes to continue working with the theatre group.
“I love HTY. I get so inspired by HTY’s work. It’s not like over-preachy, which is stereotypical children theater, like ‘What can I teach through this show?’ Their focus is inspiring, artistically for kids, so the kids are the ones who say, ‘Hey, I want to learn about the Japanese culture or Hawaiian culture.’ So I like that.”
Ishida graduated in May with a master’s in fine arts degree in theatre arts. His focus was on theater for young audiences. This production is something he has wanted to do since his first year of graduate school, so it is a dream-come-true for him. His ultimate goal is to take a production similar to what HTY offers to Japan.
“This is what I believe. Great theater for young audiences is theater for all ages. Many people believe that when we say ‘children’s theater,’ that it’s just for kids. Same for magic, too. Some adults feel that they are too old for magic. But they are stereotyping. They just haven’t seen good children’s theatre, like HTY, or good children’s magic, so they stereotype children’s theatre as low-quality and look down on it. My job is to do a good-quality children theater that both kids and adults can be inspired by.”
Showtimes for “Rock’n the Holidays with Rakugo!” are Saturdays, Dec. 6 (sold-out), 13 and 20, at 4:30 p.m.; and at 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 13 (ASL/sensory-friendly performance). Single tickets are $20 for adults (ages 18-59), $15 for seniors (age 60+) and $10 for youth (ages 2-17). The show is best enjoyed by audiences age 8 and older. Tickets are available at www.htyweb.org or by calling 839-9885.