The History of TIP
On February 10, 1896, the first meeting of The Tokyo Dramatic and Musical Association took place. This meeting was chaired by the Chief of Mission of Belgium, Baron Albert d'Anethan. The Baron, his wife Baroness E. Mary, and 7 additional Japanese and European men and women out of the one hundred members present formed the original committee of this organization, which would later be renamed Tokyo International Players.
On November 6, 1896, TIP's first recorded performance was A Lesson in Love by Charles Smith Cheltnam. With ups and downs during the lead up to the Pacific war, in 1940, TIP was forced to disband with TIP records destroyed during the war-time bombings.
Although TIP is a non-profit group, the work it produces is by no means amateur. Over its long history, many active members have appeared in professional theatre in Japan and abroad.
The history of TIP, recounted by an Honorary Lifetime Patron
Our Honorary Lifetime Patron, Miranda Kenrick, joined TIP in 1963 and for several decades was active on and off the stage. In the years before computers, she was secretary and membership secretary on the TIP Board and also wrote publicity and the newsletter. She created, and for 40 years, maintained TIP's archives and photo library.
Part One: 1896
On February 10, 1896, the first general meeting of the Tokyo Dramatic and Musical Association — known today as Tokyo International Players — was held at the original Imperial Hotel. Prominent among the hundred people in attendance were the Chief of Mission of Belgium, Baron Albert D’Anethan, and his wife, the Baroness. In her book Fourteen Years of Diplomatic Life in Japan, the Baroness reported that after a "considerable amount of warm discussion" the decision was taken to create an amateur dramatic society. She was one of the committee of nine Japanese and European men and women voted into office. The first committee meeting was held the following week at the Belgian Legation.
Little could the Baroness have dreamed that the volunteer group that she helped pioneer at the end of the 19th century, and of which she was to be a leading member, both on and off the stage, would still be going strong in the 21st century. Perhaps, though, she would not be surprised to know that for over a century topics at committee meetings have been capable of sparking "considerable amounts of warm discussion.
A Lesson in Love by Charles Smith Cheltnam was chosen for the first performance. The committee had connections with the Imperial Household that lent, as a theatre, a splendid room in a grand hall of an engineering college.
On opening night, November 6, 1896, the audience arrived by rickshaws at the grand hall. The performers, in costume and make-up, waited backstage. Minutes before the curtain was to rise the electrical system suddenly blew, plunging the entire building into blackness. Hardly an auspicious beginning but, barely missing a beat, the show went on by candlelight.
A week later the cast, in costume, reassembled on the stage to have pictures taken. The photographer pressed a button and his equipment exploded. The blast was deafening, loud enough to be heard in the Russian and Italian legations — where it was assumed to be a bomb — and severe enough to activate a fire on the stage. It also cost an unfortunate Japanese man, enrolled to help with the photography, two of his fingers as well as innumerable terrible gashes.
It is a wonder the Club didn’t give up there and then. It’s a further wonder that TIP has never given up. The continuity for over a hundred years of the Tokyo International Players, staffed entirely by volunteers, for most of whom Japan was a foreign country, is in itself a remarkable achievement. It speaks volumes for the dedication of theatre lovers. It also suggests that TIP filled a niche in providing live theatre in the English language. At the turn of the 20th century, TIP productions were society events, on the calendars of many foreign diplomats as well as high ranking Japanese and members of the Imperial family.
Part Two: Into the 20th Century
The Academy Award-winning actress sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine were both born in Tokyo, to British parents. Olivia was born in 1916 and Joan in 1917. Their father Walter was a patent attorney and a professor of law at Waseda University. Their mother Lilian, a RADA-trained actress, chose marriage over career when she moved to Tokyo. Fortunately, she found the Tokyo Amateur Dramatic Club (as TIP was then known) and was an active member for several years.
Mrs. de Havilland starred in the 1917 production of KISMET, a three-act play written in 1911 by Edward Knoblauch which ran for several years in London and New York. It was eventually also made into a film and a musical. KISMET is remembered in TIP history as the show in which an actor was knocked unconscious on stage! The Japan Advertiser of June 1st, 1917 reported: “At the close of the harem scene, the leading man Mr. Brady was caught by the descending curtain and received hard blows on the head. He soon recovered, however, and gamely finished the play with unimpaired ability, topping off a personal triumph that has yet to be equaled by an amateur actor in this part of the world. The burst of applause that broke forth when it was announced that Mr. Brady would be able to continue showed how keenly they sympathized with him in his accident.”
Half a dozen years later the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake levelled Tokyo and Yokohama and destroyed TIP’s earliest written records. Unsurprisingly, it also temporarily halted TIP’s activities. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel had opened on the
very day of the earthquake and was one of the few buildings in Tokyo to withstand the shock. The hotel had an intimate little theatre and when TIP was revived, the Imperial Hotel welcomed the club to perform on its stage. This happy association continued sporadically until the early 1960s.
Until the outbreak of the Pacific War, Japanese law decreed that all proceeds from TIP plays had to be donated to charity. The sum to be contributed had to be paid before it was known whether there would be any profit. The result was that the actors and club members themselves often had to provide the “charity funds.” Furthermore, the police insisted on being provided with a detailed translation of each play.
By 1940, the police were keeping a close eye on TIP, suspecting it of being an espionage center. Even without being under such a cloud, the club would of course have had to disband in the tense circumstances before the outbreak of the Pacific War. Wartime bombs then obliterated the written records that had been kept since the earthquake.
Part Three: The Post-War Period
In the early postwar years a few old-timers, with fond memories of pre-war TIP, returned to Tokyo. With the help of Occupation personnel, they slowly set about reviving the club. Two one-act plays were performed in April 1949 and, in October, a production of Jean Giraudoux’s acclaimed THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT. Also in 1949, the head of the Australian Mission and British Commonwealth representative on the Allied Council for Japan accepted the position of President of TIP. This was an honorary position and remained so for many years. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s an ambassador was approached each year to be TIP president and asked during his term to host an evening of theatre in addition to the annual general meeting. The vice president actually ran TIP.
By the 1950s, TIP was staging full-length shows in a variety of theatres. Social traditions resumed and opening nights were
black-tie occasions. A 1957 Asahi Evening News photograph shows Princess Chichibu, sister-in-law of Emperor Showa, with top diplomats attending the opening night of Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT. Until the late 1960s, opening nights were followed by gala buffet dinners where the cast made a grand entrance into the ballroom and sat at the top table. At the end-of-season galas, awards were given to the best play, director, actor, actress and so on.
A special award should have been bestowed upon the director, cast and crew of the 1958 production of Peter Ustinov’s THE LOVE OF FOUR COLONELS. The show was performed at the top of a building with no service elevator. The flats, therefore, had to be winched up the outside of the building. That would have been precarious enough under the best of circumstances, but a lurking typhoon, as if with malicious intent, struck on the dress rehearsal day. Wind and rain destroyed the sets as they crashed their way upwards. At the top of the building, they were hauled in, spread over the floor, hammered back into shape, and repainted. That made
for a particularly fraught evening as the play was exceptionally complicated on the costume and set fronts and scene changes couldn’t be rehearsed. Cast and crew crawled home in the middle of the night, horribly discouraged. The director woke in the morning to the news that a fire in the building’s basement had wiped out the electricity. No lights. No power. Not even the most loyal supporters of TIP could be expected to plod up eight flights of stairs to watch a play they couldn’t see. The director raced to the theatre, pounded up the eight flights of stairs in the dark, and found his gallant set painter still painting away. He had been there all night, a flashlight his only illumination. “By the way,” he said, “you need permission in writing from the fire department to light cigars, cigarettes, and special effects on stage.” The director sprinted back down the stairs, rushed to the fire department, and spent the morning pleading his case. Yes, he received permission. Yes, there was an opening night. The power returned and the audience arrived almost simultaneously. And the show was a success.
Part 4: Toward the End of the 20th Century
TIP was founded in November 1896 and in our long history, we have never had our own theater. We have changed our name several times and our theaters a great deal more often. For 33 years, though, from the autumn of 1974 until early 2007, most productions were staged at the Tokyo American Club (TAC).
Before the move, in the spring of 1974, Alan Ayckbourn’s HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES was performed in a Japanese theater. Opening night was enlivened by a couple of streakers. Between acts, two naked young men raced down the aisle, jumped on the stage and disappeared backstage. The audience was taken entirely by surprise—as were the cast and crew!—but laughed, cheered, and applauded. Just as well that that was our final hurrah at the time in a Japanese theater. Had it been our first show at TAC, it might also have been our last.
In live theater, the unexpected happens behind the scenes. Backstage smoking once almost triggered TAC’s fire alarm and entire sprinkler system. Fortunately, the cigarettes were extinguished in time, the audience was not drenched, and the fire brigade did not charge to the rescue. Another show, another glitch. A sound technician suddenly found himself tuned in to a weather report broadcast from nearby Tokyo Tower and was temporarily unable to monitor the play. Onstage, the actors improvised wildly to cover the missed sound cue.
A character in Alan Bennett’s HABEAS CORPUS drives a motorbike. The actor in TIP’s 1983 production must surely be the only person in the entire history of TAC to drive a motorbike inside the building. What’s more, he had never before even been on a motorbike. Each night he gingerly revved up on stage left, while the crew on stage right braced themselves, just in case...
In 1987 two actors climbed up separate ladders during Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN. At dress rehearsal, one of them contemplated her rather wobbly ladder and announced very firmly, “if there is an earthquake while I’m up there, I shall die.” There was, but she didn’t. Unbelievably, small earthquakes struck on two consecutive nights, both times precisely when the actors were perched atop their ladders.
TIP is like the proverbial iceberg in that only the performers on stage are visible. Underneath is a hidden base of indispensable backstage workers and administrators, the professional experience of many adding sparkle to productions. One TIP reality is that it is an achievement for all the cast to be present at the same time for rehearsals. Since TIP
doesn’t have its own theater, rehearsals have often been held in living rooms, community halls, offices, anywhere available. It’s a given that the cast won’t be on the stage where they will perform until production week and the technical and dress rehearsals. The show must go on, however. And overcoming all obstacles, Tokyo International Players has survived—and thrived—since 1896.
And that brings us up to the present! Thank you for all your support over TIP's long history. Here's to the next hundred years of community theater!