A funny spin on Japanese theater hits the stage at Lexington's Lyric

Contributing WriterApril 17, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Katsura Sunshine

    What: Traditional Japanese storytelling, in English, presented by Japan-America Society of Kentucky.

    When: 7:30 p.m. April 18

    Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

    Tickets: $18 general public, $13 Japan-America Society of Kentucky members. Available at Lyric box office; call (859) 280-2218 or go to Lexingtonlyric.com.

Japanese comedy.

For most Americans, those are two words that haven't spent much time together. But an unlikely performer is coming to Lexington on Friday night to change that.

Katsura Sunshine is a Canadian-born theater artist who specializes in the traditional Japanese spoken-word art form known as rakugo. Sunshine (given name Gregory Robic) started out in Toronto adapting and mounting musical productions of ancient Greek plays such as Lysistrata and The Clouds. He moved to Japan to study the theatrical forms noh and kabuki but fell in love with rakugo, a comedic storytelling form in which the performer sits onstage in a kimono and presents an original monologue and a selection of traditional Japanese tales.

Sunshine, 44, spent three years as an apprentice to master rakugo storyteller Katsura Sanshi, and, in accordance with Japanese tradition, Sunshine's stage name is a derivation of his master's. Sunshine is one of about 750 performers (and currently the only gai-jin, or non-Japanese) to complete such an apprenticeship and earn the title of rakugo-ka, or professional rakugo storyteller. He has his own theater in the Japanese city of Ise, where he lives, and he frequently appears on Japanese television.

With his performance at the Lyric Theatre coming up, Sunshine spoke about the nature of language, art and performance with the Herald-Leader.

Question: What was it about rakugo that you found compelling enough to devote your artistic life to it?

Answer: Well, what I loved about Japan was how the traditional culture is still very much alive. You can walk down the street sometimes and still see people wearing kimono. And I've always been interested in comedy, and ancient theater, and rakugo encapsulated all of that. Now, when I'm on tour, my aim is to give a North American audience an experience with rakugo that's as close to what a Japanese audience would experience.

Q: How do you do that?

A: What I've learned is the less I adapt the stories, the better. When I first started performing for English-speaking audiences, I tried to adapt the form to suit them. But the audience response wasn't what I wanted. So, at some point, I just decided that I would tell the stories in English, but make them as close to a word-for-word translation of the Japanese as possible, and it worked. People laughed. People responded.

Q: Talk about the experience of being an apprentice in Japan.

A: If you've seen The Karate Kid — "Wax on, wax off." — it's kind of like that. You watch and study how your master works and lives. You clean his house and wash his car and cook his meals. There are a lot of menial tasks in addition to the art form, but there's value in those, too, I think. Now, I tell some of my master's stories and sometimes we both perform in the same shows. (Note: In Japan, one evening of rakugo will often feature multiple storytellers in succession, with the most senior performer going last.)

Q: If you're telling your master's or other traditional stories, how much can you change them to make the telling your own? Is it like the script of a Shakespeare play where you can't change a word?

A: Rakugo is looser than that. You keep the same plot and most of the same jokes, but you might add some lines or references to current events. It's a little like being a jazz musician; sometimes you play solo, sometimes in collaboration with others. You have a set of standards that you learn, and when you perform you put your own touch on them, and there are some improvisational elements, too. But essentially, rakugo is a lone storyteller creating a world using the imagination of the audience.

Graham Shelby is a writer who grew up in Lexington and now lives in Louisville. As a former participant in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, he was given an automatic membership in the Japan-America Society of Kentucky, which is presenting Katsura Sunshine's appearance, though he has no active role in the organization. Contact Shelby through his website, Grahamshelby.com.

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