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Interview with Michael Naishtut

michael_naishtut.gif This month's interviewee is a bit different from our usual academic focus. Michael Naishtut is a comedian and actor who has been active in Japan for over a decade. While not having worked as a teacher, he has been the face of English education for many Japanese children.

He did this interview by e-mail in February, 2003.

ELTNEWS
Tell us briefly about your acting career before you came to Japan.
Michael
I've been doing plays since I was a kid. I was always the class clown who would make fun of the teacher. I got a degree in Theatre from the State University of NY in Oneonta where I was constantly acting in a play. After graduation, I toured NY with a children's play, did a political street theatre piece, performed at the NY Public theatre, did some children's musicals, toured the country in a 2 man show, performed at EPCOT center in Disney World for a year, did other regional theatre and Shakespeare in Florida as well as some DJ and CM work and then came to Japan.
ELTNEWS
What made you decide to come to Japan? Did you come "on spec" or did you have a job before you arrived?
Michael
I came to visit my girlfriend at the time, for only a month I thought, and then was hired by Toho Geino.
ELTNEWS
How did you go about landing that job? What did it involve?
Michael
I already had met the bucho of Toho Geino several times at Disney World so when I got to Tokyo, we just met a few times and he asked me if I was interested in helping out on this new project. I started to work on it and things went well, so I was offered a longer contract that kept getting extended.
ELTNEWS
You worked as an entertainment planner at the then new Sanrio Puroland theme park, whose most famous inhabitant has to be Hello Kitty. What's she really like? Do you have any scandalous backstage stories?
Michael
On the outside she seems like the perfect Japanese girl, cute, soft, quiet (she has no mouth) but backstage she would drink too much and yell orders at everyone. We secretly called her, "Hell Kitty."
ELTNEWS
Your acting career in Japan has led you to work on many educational projects. Have you ever worked as a classroom teacher?
Michael
No, but I have taught acting and given workshops in improvisation in Japanese and English, and English for non-native speakers.
ELTNEWS
You've participated in a lot of different Japanese performing arts. How have they enriched your life here?
Michael
Studying the traditional arts have enriched my life here greatly. It has taught me about the concepts and importance of "Kata" as well as Student/teacher and sempai/kohai relationships. They have given me more insight into the Japanese mind and spirtit as well as being excellent training for my voice, movement and rhythm. An actor never stops training and learning.
ELTNEWS
Given that you're a New Yorker and an actor to boot, hasn't the importance placed on the whole sempai/kohai thing ever cramped your style or made you frustrated?
Michael
One of the benefits of being a gaijin is that we're not expected to understand or follow the traditional codes of behavior that Japanese are, but if we do, it can help relations go more smoothly. Also, I think we're cut a lot of slack, as long as we produce results. In the martial arts, however, I think its important to understand these traditional relationships and abide by them.
ELTNEWS
Which of the educational projects you've worked on are you most proud of?
Michael
I think Eigorian (Web site -- Japanese only) has been the most fun and creative. Especially working with Nakamura Yuji, who I think is a comic genius. Eigorian, for me, is more of an entertainment/comedy show done in simple English, so it was always a lot of fun to do.
ELTNEWS
How do you find working at NHK?
Michael
I love working at NHK. I hope to always continue working there. Everyone is always very professional and kind. The pay is a little low however. But,I'd also really like to work on an NHK drama. Maybe a taiga drama about the life of Lafcadio Hearn!
ELTNEWS
They say that many Japanese would happily work on an NHK production for nothing, just for the prestige it brings. Have you found that it gives your resume something "extra"?
Michael
Absolutely. the reputation of NHK helps in all aspects my life in Japan, from quick acceptance at immigration to getting a housing loan.
ELTNEWS
Can you offer any advice to English teachers here in Japan that have been bitten by the acting bug and are thinking of getting into professional narration or acting?
Michael
I would say first study a little bit. If you really want to be an actor, then you have to act. Do plays. Take some workshops. Read about acting. Get together with some friends and read through scripts. There are lots of agencies in Tokyo that deal with foreign talent, so put together a professionally made demo tape (for narration) and a basic resume and good pictures and just call the agencies and set up appointments. But if you want to be successful, you need to develop your skills.
ELTNEWS
Is there a lot more competition for those kinds of jobs than, say, ten years ago?
Michael
I don't think so. Its a very transient world. Lots of narrator/actors leave Tokyo as more arrive. People say the economy has really slowed down, but I'm busier now than ever before. Only the pay scale has gone down in comparison with the bubble years.
ELTNEWS
I enjoyed one of your performances with the Spontaneous Confusion comedy team a few years back. Have you managed to made improvisational theatre more popular in Japan? Where can people see you performing these days?
Michael
Yes, the Tokyo Comedy Store performs every Thursday eve. at Bar Isn't It? in Roppongi alternating between English and Japanese. Now there are more Japanese improv groups and we'll even be having the first Tokyo Impro Festival in February. See our homepage for more info, www.tokyocomedy.com.
ELTNEWS
What plans do you have for the future?
Michael
I'll continue working as an actor/narrator in Tokyo. I'm now doing English voice-overs for Bakusho Mondai with Pakkun (Patrick Harlin) on "Ponkikis", as well as narration for the TV show, "Elvis" I just finished a jidai geki play at Kinokunia hall and in Sept. I will tour with a Japanese play, "Kino, kyo ashita ...ah, kekkon" with Matsukane Yoneko, Okamoto Rei and Taoka Miyako. I'm also working on a new Japanese TV Sitcom as a comedy instructor for Japanese actors. There's always a new exciting challenge and I want to continue to grow and keep learning about Japan and myself.
ELTNEWS
That sitcom wouldn't be "HR" by any chance, the one starring Katori Shingo of SMAP as an English teacher who never seems to steach English? I read in the paper that it's Japan's first real sitcom. I watched an early episode and never realized that that was what it was supposed to be. Hopefully it's got better...
Michael
No, its not HR. I haven't seen it, but I heard it wasn't very good, even though it was written by a very famous comedy writer. The problem is probably that it was immediately produced by a major network, so if the ratings aren't good from the start they have to change things at the will of the sponsors. But any new project, especially a sit-com, needs some time for the situation and characters to be fleshed out and the audience to become familiar with them. We're starting our project on a smaller scale, in the hopes that it starts to build up an audience and reputation by word of mouth, and then move it to a larger network. I'm using improvisation comedy training with the actors to help develop characters and script ideas.
ELTNEWS
Well, we wish you all the best with it. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Michael
Thanks for having me.



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