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'Shinsai' benefits Japan theater people

Director Bartlett Sher and John Weidman during rehearsal

Director Bartlett Sher and John Weidman during rehearsal for "Shinsai: Theaters for Japan" Benefit in aid of Japanese theater artists devastated by last year's earthquake. (Mar. 6, 2012) Credit: Erin Baiano/

Helplessness feels like a special kind of dread these days. There is no way our media-saturated consciousness can escape nonstop breaking-news images from every bloody battleground, every natural and man-made disaster, every school massacre -- all with the word "devastation" attached, and most, alas, deserving it.

Even so, when the 9.0 earthquake in Japan set off the tsunami and then the nuclear catastrophe, damage felt almost too monumental to process in a cable-news cycle. So most of us sent a check, felt awful and let the dread carry us to the next numbing wave.

But theater artists, bless them, have worked nine months on a project to help their colleagues across the world. Sunday at 3 and 8 p.m., one year after the earthquake, big-time playwrights and actors are throwing what appears to be a wildly ambitious and compelling benefit at Cooper Union, Seventh Street at Third Avenue, with proceeds going directly to Japanese theater people in, yes, still devastated areas. Tickets for each part is $25. (Phone 212-967-7555, visit tcg.org/shinsai or publictheater.org.)

"Shinsai: Theaters for Japan" -- Shinsai (SHEEN-sigh) means great quake -- includes 10-minute plays and songs by American and Japanese artists. Some are premieres (including ones by Suzan-Lori Park, Doug Wright, Richard Greenberg, Philip Kan Gotanda and Naomi Iizuka). Others are excerpts or adaptations from existing work: songs from "Pacific Overtures" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, "Caroline, or Change" by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori and "The Skin of Our Teeth" by John Kander and Fred Ebb. There are scenes from Edward Albee's "Seascape" and John Guare's "A Few Stout Individuals."

The two programs, directed by Bartlett Sher ("South Pacific") overlap somewhat, but each has its exclusive lures. Jay O. Sanders and Mary Beth Hurt will be there for the 3 p.m. program, Patti LuPone and Henry Stram at 8 p.m., Richard Thomas is doing both.

And thanks to extraordinary planning by a consortium of New York theaters and service agencies, some 70 companies in this country and some as far away as Turkey, Italy and Scandinavia will be hooking into the benefit. They are welcome to download any or all of the New York works, and add their own local pieces.

This all started because, soon after Japan's quake, New York actor James Yaegashi, rallied the theater community to do something. Yaegashi grew up in Sendai, the closest city to the epicenter, and his parents still live there. "This literally hit close to home," he told me.

"The reality is that the disaster got headlines when it occurred but people need sustained help," he explained. "This is a very long-term situation. There is an incredible amount of displacement. A lot of theater artists lost their space, many lost their audience. Theater artists who are able to continue are faced with logistical problems. So many people lost jobs. Whole industries are gone. How do artists get the work to the people?"

The Japan Playwrights Association, which has 462 members, is working with 28 playwrights from Tohoku, the rural area most affected by the disasters. "In Japan, the model is for each playwright to have his own company," Yaegashi explains, which basically means 28 companies.

The association has provided thoughts from a few of those playwrights -- comments that share a reality we cannot get any other way.

From Fukushima, about 30 kilometers from the reactors, Yoichi Kaneko writes, "Even now, many members of our company are evacuated and we are still a far way from being able to even figure out what we can do with such a small number left. . . . I intend to write a small play based on my and my friends' raw experiences and somehow find a way to produce it."

Koji Komuro writes, "I can't help but feel sad that we are starting to be forgotten from all those people who rushed to our help -- that we are becoming figures of the past. . . . As towns disappear and people disappear, the light of culture is quietly about to go out as memory fades."

Yuto Ishikawa asks, "In such a time of chaos, what good can a play or a novel or a film or a sculpture do? I hear this all the time now. . . . They want us to stop creating because they think it's a waste of time and resources. . . . But I do question myself. Can theater have the power to recover earth? Yes."

John Weidman, who wrote the book for "Pacific Overtures," says Sondheim has written new lyrics for two songs in the audacious 1976 musical about the 19th century opening of Japanese trade routes. These will be on both programs.

"Instead of looking out to see the steamships," Weidman told me, "People see the tsunami." He feels strongly that these events "will have an impact we don't get from journalism."

Doug Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "I Am My Own Wife," has written a monologue, "A Guide to Japanese Etiquette," which can only be seen at the evening performance. After the quake, playwright friends from Japan "were emailing photos of the grocery stores with empty shelves," he recalled, adding, "This seems like a tangible way to help. People have written haunting, touching pieces. We have a powerful slate of performances."

Asked why the ticket prices are so low, Yaegashi believes "If what we do can rekindle that good will in people, the impact will be significant. People will be able to give online and by texting after the night."

He said that, after a yearlong struggle for survival, "it is time to take care of the heart." Here, as well as there.

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