The production is a collaboration between multi-award-winning composer Joe Hisaishi, who executive produces, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Improbable and Nippon TV. It will reopen at London’s Barbican arts complex this fall. Hisaishi was the original composer of the film.
More from Variety
Mei Mac will reprise her Olivier and What’s on Stage Award-nominated performance as Mei Kusakabe with Ami Okumura Jones returning as older sister Satsuki, Dai Tabuchi in his role as Tatsuo and Jacqueline Tate as Granny. Also returning as Kazego Puppetry ensemble are Boaz Chad, Jasmine Chiu, Andrew Futaishi (Hiroshi), Matthew Leonhart, Arina Ii (Miss Hara), Yojiro Ichikawa, Si Rawlinson, Mark Takeshi Ota and Shaofan Wilson.
Joining them are Jessie Baek, Jasmine Bayes, Ka Long Kelvin Chan (Kanta), Elizabeth Chu, Anna Kato, Heather Lai, Amanda Maud (Nurse Emiko), Yuki Nitta, Bright Ong, Emily Piggford (Yasuko), Daniel Phung, Gun Suen and Naomi Yang (Tsukiko).
The coming-of-age story follows one summer in the lives of sisters Satsuki and Mei. In order to be closer to their mother while she recovers from an illness in a rural convalescent hospital, their father moves the family to the countryside. Mei encounters magical creatures and the ancient protector of the forest she calls Totoro and the sisters are soon both swept up in adventures.
The production, adapted by Tom Morton-Smith (“Oppenheimer”) opened at the Barbican in October last year and broke the Barbican’s box office record for most tickets sold in a single day. It won six Olivier Awards, five What’s on Stage Awards and the Critic’s Circle Awards for Best Design. Variety gave the production a rave review.
The show is directed by Improbable’s Phelim McDermott with production design by Tom Pye, costume design by Kimie Nakano, lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun, and movement by You-Ri Yamanaka. Puppetry design and direction is by Basil Twist, created with puppetry associate Mervyn Millar’s Significant Object and the Jim Henson Creature Shop. The production features music from Hisaishi’s score in a new orchestration by Will Stuart, performed by live musicians including singer, Ai Ninomiya, with sound design by Tony Gayle. Video design is by Finn Ross and Andrea Scott. Casting director is Hannah Miller CDG. The associate director is Ailin Conant.
Artwork for the stage adaptation of “My Neighbor Totoro” includes a hand drawn title by Toshio Suzuki, producer for Studio Ghibli, who was involved in the planning and production of the original animated film.
Variety spoke with the lead cast members Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones on the returning show.
The first run of the show was a massive success, and your performances were acclaimed. Will you be doing anything different with the roles this time around i.e. were there any aspects that you would improve upon/change?
Jones: Going into rehearsals again, you always want to approach the roles with a freshness and an openness to change. There’s nothing specific that I would say I want to improve or change, but the show is different every night in any case, and this show has such a joy and playfulness and freedom to it, so I think the most important thing is making sure we hold on to that very gently and keep that freshness and openness and see what happens. That’s the beauty and magic of the show.
Mac: I think this time around, because we have a new company, and the new company are making up the world in which we all get to explore, we sort of have no choice but to change our performances, as we are responding to them, the same as the girls would be responding to nature as it changes and as the seasons change. That’s the sort of thing that we will discover in the rehearsal room, which I’m excited about. I don’t think there is anything predetermined that we know will change because theater is live, so the point is that we are responding to everything live. We will have new puppeteers puppeteering Totoro, and so Totoro might take on a slightly different personality or might be slightly cheekier one night or slightly more stern another night, and that’s true of theater every single night regardless of different runs anyway, but perhaps even more so with a new company. The other thing is that Phelim McDermott, our genius director, always encouraged us in the last run to keep things fresh and use improvisation as the tool to do so, so we were always invited to improvise the way that we found things, the way that we blocked things, the way that we discovered things on stage, and I think that foundation of how we make work will stay true with this run too.
Adapting an iconic property is always a challenge given the sheer weight of fond, associative memories that the audience has. As actors, how did you deal with this challenge, especially given that you were portraying characters who were animated in the source material?
Mac: Ami and I, and pretty much all of the company I think, we all grew up with Studio Ghibli and we grew up with Totoro, and so these characters are characters we feel we’ve known our whole lives. I certainly feel like I’ve known Mei my whole life, and so I know her really well – the way that she moves and interacts with things, the way that she feels and thinks, she’s sort of embedded in my soul and in my brain. When we came to rehearsals, Ami and I decided we weren’t going to watch the film again for while as we had already watched it about seven million [times] in our childhoods It turns out that these characters were truly embedded in our physicality and in our souls, so it felt quite easy to come to them from that angle. Also, Phelim was very clear with us, and we agreed, that we didn’t want to imitate children, and maybe that’s why people felt so drawn to us and the performances, because we weren’t trying to pretend and trick people that we were children. What Phelim asked us to do was to capture the essence of these young children, which we all have inside of us, it’s just about remembering what that feels like to have that childlike wonder and to see things and experience things for the very first time, and to be really truthful to that experience.
Jones: It’s a huge challenge and it’s a huge privilege and undertaking to play characters that people not only know so well, but really love. So yes, there was pressure there and it was quite scary, but also so much fun – how often do you get the chance to do that?! I also think that, being animation, there’s such a lovely live quality to the Ghibli animation and I think that is something that we have captured in the stage production. There’s a playfulness and a theatricality in the production that I think really echoes the animation style that is in the Studio Ghibli film. That was something quite easy to bring to a theatrical style in a way – that vividness of the animation is very present in our stage show.
Mac: Because the animation is so loved, and every frame is a piece of artwork that you can put on your wall, for us as a company we didn’t want to try to recreate something that is kind of already perfect, it was about us interpreting it and breathing a different kind of life into it and breathing it into a physical life form, and because Studio Ghibli were so generous with us and trusted our creative vision, that freedom was really creative for us – how do we honour these frames that we all know and love, whilst also breathing new life into it.
Jones: It is an adaptation. Tom Morton-Smith, our writer, has made it into something different – you can’t just lift the screenplay directly and put it on stage, he has adapted it to something that is more theatrical, and the characters – I think particularly Satsuki – are a little bit different from the characters in the film, so we also had some license to make these characters our own – it’s Mei’s version of Mei and it’s my version of Satsuki.
Mac: Shout out to Haruka Kuroda’s daughter, Iris Mia, who was with us in rehearsals, who had just turned five at the time, who we got to spend a lot of time with in rehearsals, running around Stratford-upon-Avon. I know that my version of Mei was inspired by Iris Mia and the way that she saw the world.
How has “My Neighbor Totoro” changed you as actors and as human beings?
Mac: This is a huge question because there is a huge answer. This art, this show, has completely changed our lives. The beautiful thing about the show, is that it holds really complicated and nuanced emotions really well. It holds the grief, and the loss and the darkness of the story, with this undeniable and infinite joy, and I think that’s something that I have tried to take into my daily life. Phelim McDermott has changed the way I make art forever. The way that I make any work is largely community focused, it’s the singular thread that goes through all of my career, but Phelim’s way of bringing community into the show and finding community in the company is really special. There is a reason Joe Hisaishi, our executive producer and original composer for ‘My Neighbor Totoro,’ picked Phelim, because Phelim has this spirit that I think Joe-san said reminded him of Miyazaki Hayao and they share that.
The amount of collaboration that we have in the room, the amount that we bring ourselves to the work, is unlike any project I have worked on before. I think because we all poured so much love and heart and soul into the work, I really think that’s what audiences felt. They felt how much we love the show, how much we love our audiences and how much we love what we’re doing and wanted to honour those things and honour our communities and authenticity. I think that’s what makes this show so special. I think I take that everywhere with me, the spirit of Totoro and how we made this show.
Jones: It’s changed my life. To be in a production like this, it’s a total actor’s dream. Beyond that, we hear words like ‘play’ and ‘non-hierarchical’ and ‘open’ a lot in this industry, and a lot of people do work towards those ideals, but Phelim makes those work in the rehearsal room on a level I didn’t think possible before this. He is radical, in the most gentle and loving sense of that word. I hope to and want to take that culture and philosophy into every rehearsal room and workspace I go into in the future.
Mac: Radical is a word which is used a lot in artistic spaces, but I think this space really truly is radical. The other thing radical about it is how much celebration there is of East and Southeast Asian culture and artists being championed and to have that representation. To be invited into the room in such a core collaborative way has been really unique and something that I hope to see everywhere, not just in the artistic industries but everywhere where people are marginalised, it has shown me how that can be done and made us all feel like we belong. The fact that this show, on such a mainstream stage, got to highlight so many incredible East and Southeast Asian talents is incredible. We had so many first ESEA artists nominated for Olivier categories, myself included for best actress – it’s complex because it’s really sad and frustrating that its taken this long, and it’s a cause for celebration. It’s a real milestone for us, the show, the company, the community and I’m so proud.
“My Neighbor Totoro” returns to the Barbican from Nov. 21, 2023-March 23, 2024.
Best of Variety