To Japan with love – from ‘the Hairy Man’The County Seat Theater company and cast of “Wiley and the Hairy Man” is invited to perform this summer at the World Festival of Children’s Performing Arts in Toyama, Japan.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
When County Seat Theater artistic director Cheryl Kramer-Milder noticed that a board – used to hide some stage lights along the back of the Geva Theater in Rochester, N.Y. – was painted gray, she knew that single board would “totally mess up” the dark, dramatic effect of the set of Cloquet’s award-winning “Wiley and the Hairy Man” production. And so, that night she and husband Frank Milder, the theater’s technical director, got out the GPS in order to locate a Wal-Mart store. They soon found themselves driving around Rochester at 11 o’clock at night in order buy some black fabric to cover up the board.
“They didn’t have any,” Kramer-Milder said, “but they did have black curtains! We went back to the hotel and ironed them, and sure enough, they made that board just disappear!”
It’s that sort of imagination and attention to detail that has made County Seat Theater’s award-winning production of “Wiley and the Hairy Man” a step above so many other community theater productions in the state and region – and the entire country, as well – making it a top contender at all venues.
“It’s always worth it to go that extra mile!” said Kramer-Milder.
Now, the County Seat Theater company and cast of “Wiley and the Hairy Man” is set to go a whole lot of extra miles – 5,900 of them to be almost exact – to the community of Toyama, Japan.
Following the company’s performance at the National Association of Community Theatres Festival in Rochester, N.Y., international committee members urged the Cloquet-based theater group to consider performing their production at the World Festival of Children’s Performing Arts in Japan, writing them a letter of nomination that ultimately led to their selection as the United States’ sole entry in the international event.
“It is a pleasure to recommend an outstanding theatre presentation to your attention for consideration as the U.S. representative in the upcoming Toyama Festival,” wrote James A. Sohre, chair of the AACT International Committee. “The performance was most enthusiastically received by the capacity audience [at the National Theatre Festival], and the general consensus was that ‘Wiley’ was among the most successfully directed shows in the competition….While the piece holds great appeal for younger audiences, it was clear that adults love it as well. ‘Wiley and the Hairy Man’ is an excellent artistic achievement. I believe it would be a fine addition to any international festival, and I can endorse it enthusiastically.”
The resulting invitation to attend the festival, when it arrived, floored the local cast and crew nonetheless.
“It was hard to absorb!” said Cheryl. “This goes way beyond the arts. Yes, it’s a performing arts festival, but it’s a whole cultural exchange as well.”
The festival is held once every four years. It will have as its theme this year, “We Build the Future,” and its aim – “to promote mutual cultural exchange and friendship among the participants.” For that reason, it is not a competition but a week-long festival to bind country to country through the performing arts.
At first, the Milders dragged their feet a bit about accepting the invitation, thinking their first priority needed to be paying off the mortgage on their theater building on the south edge of Cloquet. The more they thought about the opportunity and the exposure the trip to Japan afforded the theater and its players, however, the more they understood that it was one of those “must do” chances of a lifetime that may not come their way again.
The festival runs from July 31 to Aug. 5, with 20 countries from around the world represented. It not only showcases a variety of performances for children – from puppet shows to ballet – but seminars and workshops as well.
Toyoma City, where the festival is hosted, is roughly two hours over the mountains west of Tokyo and has a population of some 450,000 people.
“We’re trying to learn as much as possible about the city ahead of time, as well as about the Japanese culture in general,” said Cheryl.
As of yet, they don’t know anything about the theater venue where they will be performing, but they believe they will be able to take it in stride.
“We’ve performed in so many different places and had to adjust our show to so many stages already,” explained Cheryl.
The County Seat Theater group has already had to provide a great deal of information regarding their production to the international hosts of the festival, including a stage drawing and pictures of every piece of their set.
And just how will they get the show’s dramatic 10-foot, three-dimensional trees over to Japan?
“We’ll have to figure that out when we get to that point,” said Frank matter-of-factly. “We’ll need trees, we’ll need a rocking chair, we’ll need a rock for our characters to stand on, but that’s all part of the challenge. We won’t really know what we’re doing about those sorts of things until we get over there.”
Once the 12-person cast and crew arrives in Japan, all of their food and lodging will be paid for, but the cost of the flight there and back and shipping their props and scenery will be at their own expense.
The Milders said they are hoping to raise the entire amount it will take to fly the group to Japan, and they’re starting out by applying to area community foundations, though Cheryl admitted grant funding is a slow process. They are also talking with state legislators to see if there are other avenues they can pursue from a state perspective, and they are seeking out whatever contacts they can to pursue support.
“This is not only a state event, but a national event,” Frank pointed out. “We want to bring attention not only to Cloquet but the entire state of Minnesota, and we will be representing the entire United States as well. We think it should be a much bigger picture and much broader support than just Cloquet. We’re going to cast a wide net and see if we can’t possibly find a Minnesota-based corporation with national ties to sponsor us.”
A couple of the original cast members will likely be unable to go on the trip to Japan, and though the parts have been recast, the Milders are holding out hope the original members might still be able to go.
“You get so close working on something like this,” said Cheryl. “It’s hard to think of leaving someone behind after all that we’ve already gone through together.”
In the meantime, leading man Kirk Davis (“the Hairy Man”) is already growing out his hair and beard so it will be in shape to reprise his character role in the play, and the Milders have written to the “Ellen [Degenerous]” show twice in hopes of catching the famous comedian’s eye so she might consider supporting their upcoming effort at artistic diplomacy.
“She’s such a wonderful person, and she likes to give away other people’s money,” said Cheryl. “We just want to say to her, ‘Go ahead and dunk us in a tank of water or do whatever you want with us, but help us to get American Airlines to send us to Japan!”
“Our last email to her said, ‘Ellen, you need to come with us to Japan. I think it would be hilarious to have you with us for a week, doing your show from Japan. I can’t even imagine how madcap that would be!’” added Frank.
The County Seat Theater plans to put on at least a couple of performances of “Wiley and the Hairy Man” at the Encore Performing Arts Center in Cloquet before they are slated to leave for Japan this summer.
The trip to Japan comes as frosting on the cake for the local theater troupe and its magical production of the southern folk tale. “Wiley and the Hairy Man” earned first place honors at the Minnesota Association of Community Theatre (MACT) Festival in Fergus Falls in spring 2011, as well as at the Region 5 festival in Salina, Kan., in June, earning the right to perform onstage at the American Association of Community Theatres (AACT) national competition in Rochester, N.Y. Along the way, the County Seat Theater group accrued 13 awards for directing, ensemble performance, individual performance, costumes, set, lighting, sound and choreography.
And if all of that didn’t put the County Seat Theater on the map already, the upcoming trip to Japan most certainly will.
“For years and years, I attended national festivals, to learn and just to be around and see shows,” reflected Cheryl. “To have our show performed in a national festival was almost beyond my wildest dreams, but Japan – now that was beyond them altogether! I had never even thought about an international festival. It just wasn’t in my world.”
That world, however, is about to become a whole lot broader, and thanks to the “Hairy Man,” Japan may never be quite the same.