Comedy as Community: The Amateur Rakugo World
Recently I was able to perform at an amateur rakugo tournament in Chiba. Of course, rakugo is a traditional Japanese style of comedic storytelling were the performer, while sitting down, acts out a story while playing the parts of all the characters. This was the second year I was able to perform and although I wasn't at all pleased with my performance I continue to be amazed at the community of amateur rakugo performers. The dedication and commitment to their art shown by the performers is amazing. Performers memorize a 15 minute routine which is either based on a traditional story or a new composition (by the performer). More than simply reciting the lines, the performers have to master switching between characters (shown by looking in different directions, changing mannerisms and more). Because these stories are usually based on classics the language can by arcaic and hard to understand. Although amateur, these performers, both Japanese and foreign, show a high level of mastery that could rival some professionals.
More than the performances though I find myself interested in the network of like-minded amateur rakugo performers that has formed around this and other tournaments. Many of these performers first got to know each other at these tournaments and have since formed connections via social media that has led to chances to perform together at other times in the year. As they get to know other members threy gain an understanding of each other's strengths, sometimes lead to members recommending stories that they feel would fit the characteristics of their fellow performers. Furthermore, despite the fact that often these enthusiasts meet in competition they rarely seem to let their competitive feelings show. Instead, the environment created is one of support for each other and a deep appreciation for the art. While I am sure that each performers wants to do well themselves, they also want to see other performers entertain the audience and the other performers.
Usually comedy is a performance style where the line between performer and audience, those who produce and those who receive are clearly drawn. With rakugo, partially due to its dependence on traditional stories, the line between producer and consumer is blurred. These amateur performers are instead interacting with comedy as both producer and consumer. With that level of commitment and participation these amateurs are gaining a deeper appreciation of rakugo that may warrant a deeper look.