The radical writer/actress/researcher who spent a summer working at the Takarazuka Revue

By Ryan Sands, Fall 2009
(Photos provided by Zehra Fazal)

(To learn more about the Takarazuka Revue, click here for an overview of the theatre and my backstage experiences at the Revue.)

Zehra Fazal is an actress and playwright living in Washington DC. She is also one of a very small group of foreigners allowed behind the scenes at Takarazuka. Zehra spent a summer as a research intern at the Takarazuka Revue, hanging out with the stars, observing their rehearsals, and learning about daily operations of the company. Upon her return to the States, she translated and adapted their most famous musical, The Rose of Versailles, into English and staged it with American actresses at Wellesley College.

Zehra’s current play, Headscarf and the Angry Bitch, is a one-woman comedy and music show featuring a folk-rock exploration of faith, love, sex and what it means to grow up Muslim in America. It has won a slew of awards, and she plans to take it on the road in 2010 . [See her site for more details:]

ELECTRIC ANT: I remember when we first met, I was in Kyoto doing a research project on dialects and Nate Shockey said, “You have to meet this girl Zehra, she’s an even bigger Takarazuka freak than you!” How did you end up in Japan, and where did you first hear about Takarazuka?

ZEHRA FAZAL: I went to Wellesley College and studied Japanese there for four years, and after my sophomore year I was awarded an internship at Tokyo Broadcasting System. Earlier that same year, I had taken a Japanese theatre class and that’s where I first heard about Takarazuka. I was also a huge anime nerd, and I very much loved the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, which I found out was inspired by the manga, The Rose of Versailles. In researching stuff about The Rose of Versailles, I came across Takarazuka there as well and it really resonated with me.

Since Wellesley is an all women’s college, we often cross-cast in our theatre productions, so I had been used to playing male roles at Wellesley. To see something that was such a precise and unique construction of gender, and something so beautiful was really appealing to me. Basically, Takarazuka is eye candy in terms of their production and the revue; they’re big on creating a spectacle and these androgynous, intriguing characters. It’s the same aesthetic that’s present in a lot of anime and manga. When I went to intern at Tokyo Broadcasting that summer, I lived in Tokyo for two and a half months, and made it a point to see a Takarazuka show every week.

ANT: Oh my god. You saw all those shows at the Tokyo theater?

FAZAL: Yeah, I saw most of the shows at the Tokyo theater, but I also made a trip down to Takarazuka City to see a show, and also to a smaller show at another theater near Tokyo.That first summer, I think I saw at least like 15 or 20 shows.

ANT: That’s incredible.

FAZAL: Yeah, I basically spent my summer stipend on seeing shows. So that’s how I first really got into them. After getting back to Wellesley my Fall semester, I knew I wanted to go study abroad in Japan. I had an idea at the time that I wanted to do my thesis on Takarazuka, and wanted to translate and stage The Rose of Versailles in America. That show is arguably the most famous musical from their repertoire, and in order to pursue it I decided to go abroad that Spring semester. I got accepted to the Stanford Center, and arrived in Japan in January 2004.

ANT: So after you studied in Kyoto, you ended up getting an additional fellowship to stay in Japan doing research for the Summer?

FAZAL: Yes, Stanford was offering summer grants for people with specific research projects to stay in Japan, and I knew that I wanted to try to get some kind of internship or the ability to conduct research at the company. I didn’t have any contacts at Takarazuka, but I applied anyway, not knowing whether or not I’d be able to get anything like that. But at the very least, I thought, ‘Oh I’d be able to hang around Japan and see a bunch of shows and interview fans.'

I had a lot of help finagling my way into Takarazuka. My professors at Wellesley, Eve Zimmerman, worked for a company that helped the Takarazuka Revue come to New York City, in the 1980s. I think they put on a few performances at Radio City Music Hall. Professor Zimmerman had been in close contact with the then-president of the company, so I wrote to her asking if there was any way possible to get in touch for him. She told me that it might be difficult to contact him and arrange an internship, but I asked if she would write to him anyway.

At the same time, I had gotten to know a lot of alumni from Kyoto University via the Stanford Kyoto program; I had given a speech on my Tokyo Broadcasting research and made some friendships there. They were all in their 50s and 60s, around my parents age, and became some of the best friends I made in Japan. One of the men in the alumni group was very good friends with a businessman who happened to be the husband of one of the heiresses of Kirin Beer.

ANT: Whoa, that’s amazing. Like Cindy and John McCain.

FAZAL: Yeah! He was sorta high up connected in Japan’s business world. That man had a friend who was connected to Takarazuka and agreed to write a letter of recommendation for me. They were all so willing to help me out. I think because they could tell this was something I was really passionate about and would work really hard at. And honestly, I think being a young female oreign student was a little unusual for them and so, without making the experience sound cheap, I think people took a special interest in me.

ANT: When I interviewed Fred Schodt in Issue 1, he mentioned that being a foreigner at a certain place at a certain time, sometimes these serendipitous things seem to happen.

FAZAL: Yeah, definitely. This business executive happen to hobnob with the current president of Takarazuka and had mentioned that since Takarazuka was looking to expand and go more global, it might be good to let a young American researcher in. So having my professor and this businessman vouching for me both came in separately around the same time. And it was really, as you said before, serendipitous. I was very, very fortunate and very, very grateful. I’ll tell you though, Ryan, it was a scary month and a half before Takarazuka let me do something with them.

ANT: Didn’t you get an apartment near the theatre, just in case you’d be able to work with Takarazuka?

FAZAL: (Laughs) Yeah, after the semester ended I moved in an apartment in Takarazuka City, as close as I could find to the theatre, and just lived there for a month and a half there and was kinda depressed. All of my friends had left Japan for the most part, or they were back in Kyoto and I didn’t know whether or not my plan was gonna work out.

But then I got a call from the Takarazuka Grand Theater office, and they invited me to come in and have an interview. After that initial meeting, they decided to go forward and basically put together a schedule for me. I presented to them what I wanted to do, to see all elements of the Takarazuka company. And one thing I stressed was that I wasn’t approaching it from a gender theory / sexuality / sexual politics angle. I left that completely off.

ANT: Is that because Jennifer Robertson and other researchers had already covered those areas, or because that wasn’t the story that they wanted told about Takarazuka?

FAZAL: The latter. Actually, Jennifer Robertson had gotten very much into the structure of Takarazuka but I feel that, and I think that she’s talked about this before as well, they kind of felt that her book and topic of research was a bit of a betrayal. The company tries to project a very pristine image of the company, stripped of sensuality. And having felt that they had been burned by an American researcher before, so to speak, they were hesitant at first.

I explained to them, ‘I’m an actor and performer myself, and I love your company. I love your aesthetic and want to learn more about it so I can teach about Japanese Theatre in the US.’ And with that research topic I was able to get an internship with them.

ANT: So being an actress yourself seems key to the way they embraced you?

FAZAL: Yes, absolutely. This is Japan here, and to be completely honest, I don’t think it hurt that I was an attractive young female performer. And people would tell me, ‘Oh you look like you could be an otokoyaku!’ (Laughs) At the time I had a really short haircut, and was tall and thin, so all that stuff served in my favor.

ANT: So for that summer, you basically rotated throughout the company, behind the scenes with the actresses and then on the business side. I know you spent time in typical corporate-looking offices, but then also went backstage at the wig factory or props department. Can you talk about the different sides of the company you saw?

FAZAL: I have to really thank Takayama-san and the people who were responsible for putting together an itinerary for me, and volunteered their time to be interviewed by me. They really let me see a variety of things; I spent two days at the music academy watching students in their classes, and I got to spend a day in the scene shop where they let me put some glitter on a set piece. And I got to spend a day in the costume room and saw actors come down for their fittings and shoe sizings. Another day, I went to their publications department, and got to sit in on photo shoots for publication. We even went to the print factory a few towns over to see where they actually print the programs for the shows.

But the majority of my time was spent observing rehearsals, with the actors and production staff the watching the communication occurring in rehearsal. The summer I was there was a big period of big international collaboration; they had brought in a choreographer from Cuba to help develop one of their Revue shows.

ANT: At what level of the company or the actors/business managers, did you feel that they were aware of the way that Americans perceived Takarazuka? Usually when I show pictures of Takarazuka to friends, people are immediately amazed by it but they have never heard of it before. If they have, it’s usually someone with an academic background and often a strong gender & sexuality academic interest in it.

FAZAL: I don’t think the actors themselves think that there’s much awareness of Takarazuka in America. Japan is already such a removed society, and my impression was that Takarazuka actors are isolated within that already sort of isolated society. So for them, seeing and interacting with foreigners is something unusual and they react to that in a variety of individual ways. Some actresses choose not to interact, and some choose to super interact because they’re so curious, I got all kinds of responses. So I would say the actors themselves are kinda oblivious.

But, in terms of the production staff and directors, the people who are looking out more and trying to find ways to expand, they are concerned with image. Not only abroad, but within Japan. Because it’s image that sells, and it’s image that keeps the housewives coming back for more. It’s all tied together, the actors and how they carry themselves offstage and not wanting break any kind of illusion or make anything sound impure. I mean, the motto of the company is, “Purely, Justly, Righteously.” They’re very image-conscious about anything that would break that. They send company representatives with actors if they’re doing external photoshoots, to make sure that everything is hunky dorky. But I’m not really sure how aware they are of that whole gender theory and sexuality element of it.

ANT: It sounds like a really fun summer. You made friendships with some of the actors, right? They must have been right around your age or just a little older.

FAZAL: Yeah, I did! I was 19 at the time, and made friends with actresses who were in the their early and mid-20s. The way I met a couple of them was kind of funny. I was backstage at the musical Phantom, the Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit version. I was sitting in the stage manager’s office area where the staff meets before a show, and the actors were coming down in costume already. A few were clustered around the window looking in at me and smiling, and I was confused like, ‘Oh you’re looking at me?!’ They had never really seen a “foreigner” in their workplace before, someone backstage who wasn’t a choreographer or director.

When they introduced me and told everyone like, ‘Zehra-san will be following us and observing, so yoroshiku ne (Take care of her),’ these two girls in particular were like, ‘Oh my gosh, where are you from? You’re from Boston? That’s so cool, let’s be friends!’ That reaction was really amazing. They would invite me out to dinner, we would hang out or go to karaoke. It was really fun.

ANT: Oh god, that sounds really intense. I was freaked out just doing karaoke with you as a performer, doing karaoke with Takarazuka stars sounds scary! What kind of songs did they sing?

FAZAL: I think the girl I was with did some musical theatre standards, and she asked if I knew how to sing “The Rose” by Bette Midler. Yeah, it was really surreal.

It was really cool, I got to go to places that were after-show hang-outs that the general public wouldn’t necessarily know about. The women I met were all young, professional actors. The year after I left, several of them retired because they were hitting their seven-year mark in the company. Generally, if you’re not on the fast track to being a top star, the average amount of time someone spends with the company is about seven years. I’ve kept in touch with them through email, and when they’ve visited the States, I’ve met up with them in New York.

ANT: Were you ever onstage during an actual production? Like in black garb moving tables around or anything?

FAZAL: Oh! Well, I was in an actual production right next to a technician who rides up on the platforms. He’s hidden in the set piece, because he makes sure the actor gets up and down okay, so I was onstage but I wasn’t helping him I was just being his shadow.

ANT: I think that counts! I wanted to ask you about the insane project you did after leaving Japan. You translated and staged The Rose of Versailles in English with Wellesley students. I’m curious about how you adapted it, and also convinced a bunch of college actresses to re-create a bit of Takarazuka over here in the US.

FAZAL: Sure! It was something I’d incubated for about two years before it finally came to fruition, and was a really incredible time. I started out very academically with my advisor, on the nitty-gritty of the translation, getting things accurate, and then re-arranging things so they made sense in terms of the stories but also keeping it very faithful to the original musical. When I was in Japan, I’d bought like every script and version I could find of The Rose of Versailles, so I ended up with a mish-mash of various pieces. The primary source of translation was from their 2001 Oscar & Andre version of the show.

Once I had my script finalized and translated the music, I held auditions. The music translation turned out to be the most fun part of it. We had to translating the words to make sense in English, but also sound good and go with the music.

I had been talking up the project to a lot of people at Wellesley and folks were excited about it when it came together. Not because they knew about Takarazuka, but because they knew about anime and the manga of The Rose of Versailles. And there was already this energy and excitement like, “Oh we get to cross-dress and play with swords? Hell yeah!” So it wasn’t too hard to get a cast of around 16 on board. I had a really good music director who handled all the transcribing of the music we didn’t have and arranging the orchestra. And with our stage management and crew, I think all together we were an army of around 30 people.

We had a really beautiful venue in Wellesely’s Alumni Hall which is an ornate 150 year old theatre building. I just have to thank everyone for following me and this idea. Before we began the rehearsals, I showed the Dream Girls documentary, and my photos from Takarazuka. And I held gender workshops for people who’d be playing otokoyaku and musumeyaku on how to walk, the kind of voice pattern and presentational staging to use. I worked with all the teams to create something that was as close to Takarazuka as we could get. For example, our technical director built a hanamichi, that bridge out in front of the stage! For the costumes and everything, we tried to get as opulent and as colorful as possible.

ANT: How was the production received at Wellesely? And did you send photos or anything back to Takarazuka to show them the results of your work?

FAZAL: Obviously, there were things that were not perfect because it’s college theatre, but I was very proud of everyone’s work; I was very, very proud and thankful. It was received well at the college, and it was interesting to note kind of the parallels in the fan culture of both Wellesley and Takarazuka. (Laughs) Because there were certain actors who were known for playing really good male roles, and you know, girls on campus would sometimes crush on the actors. So it was interesting to see that.

In terms of sending materials back to Takarazuka, I kept in touch with the office manager but I didn’t actually send my final pieces over, which is something I still can do.

ANT: I can imagine it being a little jarring for them to see a collective of different ethnicities, body types, and girls performing their work, something they sorta see as so distinctly Japanese.

FAZAL: Right, and also I think why I hesitated was that they were very particular about the rights of the show. They asked that I not charge admission to the show, which we didn’t. Even though it was a translation of their work, they wouldn’t part with the rights, especially not for a college project. So, I didn’t want to step on that line at all with them.

ANT: A few years after I was back from Japan, I was unpacking and found a folder of my photographs and programs from Takarazuka. I hadn’t been thinking academically about Japan at that time, but I decided for fun to put some of it online with Flickr. And within a couple of days, the photos were swarmed by a really intense and generous group of American Takarazuka fans. I don’t know how they found it, but they systematically went through all my photos and added the full names and details on all the stars.

I should’ve known, but I was sorta surprised to learn there is a dedicated group of American Takarazuka fans. I was curious to know, have you interacted with that American fan community?

FAZAL: For a while, I did lurk on the Takarazuka Yahoo Group and interacted a little bit with them. I used to blog a little bit about it, and did have some fans coming to read my blog, but I didn’t really give too many details about my own experiences. I think there were a couple of reasons I didn’t do that. I guess when I knew that I was going to be working with Takarazuka, I didn’t want to associate myself with any particular fan group, because I didn’t want to approach them as just a fan; the word “fan” has a negative connotation a little bit in Japanese, you know? I wanted to approach them myself as a performing artist.

So, I didn’t get too heavily involved with the fan groups. I mean, I could make all of my experiences public and share it, but it is my personal area of academic interest and research and I feel a little protective of it, I guess.

ANT: That makes sense. I know you did a thesis already, but are you interested in revisiting Takarazuka in a more accessible way, maybe in the form of a book?

FAZAL: Absolutely, I am. I’ve been trying to hatch plans to go back to Japan ever since I graduated college, but life has taken me to other places. But something really exciting I’m going to get to do this Spring, my Japanese department advisor has asked me back to Wellsely to host a series of Takarazuka workshops in to prepare folks there for a student conference in April. So I’m going to be choosing a couple of scenes from my translated Rose of Versailles to work on with the students.

I would love someday to work with Takarazuka on something, either creatively for them or on something like international marketing. They’re interested in expanding and coming back over here, but they didn’t really have too many English speakers working for them. Right now, I’ve been really focusing on getting off the ground myself as an artist and performer, and it hasn’t taken me back there just yet.

ANT: I had the pleasure of seeing you perform for the first time as Hitler, at the San Francisco Fringe Festival last year. I really loved it, you were creepy and fantastic in that show. That was a second Japanese theatre project you did, after your The Rose of Versailles adaptation.

It seems that your current play, Headscarf and the Angry Bitch, is a more personal story. I was wondering about the satisfaction you get from adapting someone else’s work, especially work from another country and culture, in comparison to telling your own story?

FAZAL: That’s a good question, because it is very different. I loved doing adaptations, and I think I have a knack for taking something that already exists and making it fit into a new mold. That’s probably why I’m so interested in Japan, because I feel like that’s what they do all the time. It’s very different when you’re writing something of your own. When you’re adapting something you know if your source material is good, but when you’re writing something on your own you’re not so sure.

On the business and logistics side of it, when you have something that’s completely your own, you can do whatever you want with it, you don’t have to pay anyone rights or think about charging and all that. My Friend Hitler was an adapted piece from Yukio Mishima, for which I had received permission from the translator to use his translation. But I can’t claim the piece as my own.

Headscarf and the Angry Bitch is a comedy, kind of an evening of song parodies, all dealing with growing up Muslim and South Asian in America. I wanted to do something that really spoke to that, because it’s something that’s been brewing inside of me for a long time. I shied away from the label of “South Asian artist” for so long, and from South Asian-ness in general, because I didn’t want to be put in a particular niche as an actor. I think a lot of South Asian performers or any performers of color tend to do one kind of culture’s work, and that’s the culture they’re from. I’d been doing a lot of Japanese performances, but I’m not Japanese or from Japan; my interest in Japan is purely out of love and academic fascination.

I wanted to do something to finally kind of embrace that aspect of myself a little bit, and say “Hey it’s okay to do a piece about South Asians as a South Asian.” I gave myself permission to that, and so it was a very important piece for that reason. And it was just a lot of fun to do, I had never done a comedy like that before, there’s elements of it that are like stand-up comedy a little bit. So it was cool just learning and toning those muscles up in my repertoire.

ANT: It sounds like it was really well-received in DC. Are you going to be able to take it on the road this year?

FAZAL: I sure am hoping to! It was received well out here, and won awards at the Fringe Festival and from the DC Theatre Scene. The response was great, not only with other South Asians and the theater community, but with the community in general. It’s pretty topical, and in Washington D.C. the whole Muslim shtick is popular (Laughs). I really hope to carry on the momentum of it, I’m staging it again a couple times in DC this season, and I’ve had a lot of interest in bringing it up and producing it in New York. And I definitely want to take it on the Fringe Festival circuit tour next summer. It’s got legs, so I’m definitely gonna try to walk with it. No, run with it!

If you enjoyed this article and want to read it in print with additional photographs, you can purchase Electric Ant Zine #2 here.