executive impact

Learning English through drama

By Chris Betros

Many English schools have come and gone over the years but one has remained strong since it was established in 1974 -- the Model Language Studio, which teaches English through drama. It was co-founded by well-known movie director, producer and lyricist Yoko Narahashi. The MLS program consists of the training for actors, audition practice, workshops, as well as English training for business professionals, adults, English teachers and children.

Narahashi, who received her formal education in Canada, trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. Among the plays and musicals she has directed are “Hair,” “The Magic Monkey” and the award winning “The Winds of God” which was performed in Los Angeles, New York (Strasberg Institute, Actors Studio, the United Nations), Australia and New Zealand. “The Winds of God” was also the first feature film she directed, for which she received the Japan Film Critics Award for Best New Director.

The Model Language Studio, now in 34 locations, was the first language school in Japan to teach English through drama. Narahashi followed that up by establishing the United Performers' Studio, a production (film, theater, TV and video) and management company for professional actors. The company now focuses mainly on casting and production work for international film and television. In 1998, she also founded UPS Academy, an acting school with an emphasis on method acting.

Narahashi has been a casting director for foreign productions since she worked with Steven Spielberg on “Empire of the Sun” in 1987. More recently, she was casting director for “The Last Samurai,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Babel” and “Ramen Girl.”

Japan Today editor Chris Betros catches up with Narahashi at one of the Model Language Studio schools in Yoyogi to hear more.

Where did your love of English through drama come from?

I grew up in Ottawa and Montreal and that’s when I first learned English. However, I was always interested in drama. I wanted to be an actress in Japan but couldn’t find a place where I could be happy, so later on, I went back to the States. That was a turning point. I was lucky that my parents always encouraged me.

How did you come to establish MLS in 1974?

I had just directed a play with university students in English and to my delight, they could all speak English within three months. I realized then that this was the most effective method – learning English through drama. You use your body, your heart and not just your mind. You don’t even need to love drama. Whether you are young or old, we nurture who you are, using the drama techniques.

How do you market the schools?

We don’t have to advertise. Students come through word of mouth because the programs are effective and fun for both adults and kids. Students range from children to elderly women.

Tell us about the United Performers Studio.

I established UPS in 1984. It is similar to the Actors Studio in New York and based on the Meisner technique, where students work from the inside out. We have about 100 students. I want to keep it small, so we don’t lose quality. Jo Odagiri was one of our first graduates, and there are quite a few graduates working abroad today.

Do you still teach?

I taught all the teachers, so now I leave that to them. I want to be able to provide more work for the actors, so that means producing and directing films, and that‘s where I focus my energies. I have a few international film projects coming up, and one that I would like to direct in New York.

Isn’t it hard getting financing for films in the current economic climate?

It is very hard now, probably the worst possible time, but I have always liked these challenges.

Tell us about your experiences as a casting director.

I started assisting Steven Spielberg with “Empire of the Sun.” Word of mouth has helped me over the years and I am now fortunate to know many directors. If they are making a movie in Japan, they want good actors who can speak English.

What if a director has a stereotyped image of a Japanese person?

I’ve had to deal with that but usually I have been able to persuade them because I can introduce them to someone who is really good.

What about with “Memoirs of a Geisha?”

Yes, that got a lot of controversy because the director opted to cast Chinese actresses as Japanese geisha. I really wanted them to use Japanese girls, but the director had his own concept about how he wanted to do it. It’s a slow process changing people’s concept.

How was “The Last Samurai?”

With “Last Samurai,” it was easier to cast. Edward Zwick, the director, respected our culture, so he was very open to all my suggestions. It was a big venture and fun. I was the dialogue coach for Tom Cruise. I thought he did a really good job with his Japanese dialogue. I also helped Ken Watanabe with his English.

Why aren’t there Japanese movie stars making it big abroad?

Language is one factor. Some Japanese actors think that because Ken Watanabe did it, they can too, if they learn English. But it doesn’t work that way. Often, filmmakers may just decide to go with Asian-American actors, but that’s not the same thing. Japanese characters have certain mannerisms and gestures, so a Japanese actor can best express those. Then, on top of all that, he or she needs to speak fluent English, be talented and have charisma or sex appeal.

What else are you working on these days?

I have just supervised the translation of translated a book called “A Star Is Found,” written by casting directors Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins. The book is about how they discovered many of today’s biggest stars, and how they were auditioned and cast when they were still unknowns.

What advice would you give to anyone auditioning for a part in a movie or play?

Try and enjoy yourself. Be grateful that you have a chance to perform. Don’t take it personally. Be confident in who you are.

For further information, visit http://www.mls-etd.com/ or www.upsnews.co.jp

© Japan Today

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I worked a while for them back when I was a student, it was pretty fun, but tough for teachers. I've heard they closed down, but apparently they are doing fine

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Moderator: It certainly is not.

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When I was in university back in Canada I suggested they start a course like this through the ESL department. They did, I helped build it, and it is still running strong, I've heard. Timeon is right, though, it's pretty hellish for the teachers (or people who create the curriculum, at any rate), and there are ultimately students who opt into it thinking it's fun and drop out or just fail later. Still, it's practical use of the thing they are studying, and involves all the spheres of learning, including psycho-motor.

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Wowow did that back in the 90's with Melrose Place. I don't know if the Japanese learned a lot from it but it sure helped me learning Japanese.

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