In 2010, YTG Artistic Director Andrew Woolner returned from the summer Fringe tour of his show 39 with a headful of ideas. After more than seven years away from the Canadian Theatre scene, he had been able to see more than 40 shows while on tour: more than he'd seen the entire past decade. The diverse creativity on display inspired him to kickstart something new with YTG.
For years, Woolner had dreamed of starting an ensemble, but until now he had always imagined it as something akin to a summerstock company: a group of people with a "stock" of scripted shows, some new, some old, that would perform almost constantly. Now, inspired by the process of creating 39 with director Kimberly Tierney, and some mind-blowing Theatre seen while touring, he'd changed his mind.
The new ensemble would concentrate on Theatre creation rather than simply rehearsal. They would hash out ideas, and using improv, exercises, and other tools, create brand new pieces of Theatre. More than this, though: rather than using a pre-existing approach to creating Theatre, the group would find their own way and not only create new Theatre, but create their own process for creating Theatre. Woolner didn't care if they reinvented the wheel by doing so; his idea was that a company-created process would be a company-owned process. Members would feel more connected to it than they would if the process came from an outside expert or book.
Also important was the multi-lingual nature of the ensemble's future performances. Since his first year as Artistic Director, Woolner had been experimenting on making the English plays put on by YTG more accesible to Japanese-speaking audience members. Two shows (The Last Christmas, and Ring Round the Moon) had been subtitled into Japanese, the Yokohama city workshop production of 39 had had a Japanese narration accompanying it, and Tartuffe had been a mixed-language show. Audiences seemed to respond better to the last two approaches, that made the Japanese language part of the show (in the case of Tartuffe, an essential part of the show). Woolner saw the ensemble as part of the transformation he'd started to turn an English-only Theatre group into something that could be enjoyed by all.
The ensemble membership would not be limited to people with performance backgrounds. Woolner thought it was important that everyone who contributed in any significant way (designers, key stage crew, etc) be a member of the ensemble and participate in rehearsals. The kind of training, he reasoned, that produced good, imaginative actors, would also be useful to others involved in the Yokohama Theatre projects. It would also serve to remind members that no one in the group was to be "just" an actor, or "just" a designer... everyone would be expected to be involved in all aspects of the projects.
It took a year and several false starts to put the Yokohama Theatre Ensemble together. The ideas behind the Ensemble were alien to many of those who auditioned, and they weren't interested in committing to such a long-term, high intensity project. The Ensemble's goal was to be the creation of Theatre art, not a resume-padding play or exposure, and it took quite some time to find the right people.
But at last the "First Five" were assembled. In the photo to the left, taken at one of their first meetings: Woolner himself, Hiraku Kawakami, Mayu Cho, Mari Kawamura, and Takahiko Arai. Although several non-performers auditioned for the company (an electrician and a visual artist were the most obvious), it seemed only performers were comfortable with the intensive (3-day a week) rehearsal process. Thus, the initial group was composed of people with a performance background. Soon after, however, costume designer Saori Kobayashi joined the group as well, and began attending rehearsals.
The ensemble has changed frequently since then, as YTG has changed its focus to smaller cast shows, but its spirit lives on!