Japanese Exchange Students Expand Life Experiences at MCT

By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO, Media Relations Coordinator at MCT

Aristotle once said, “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”

Close friends Mariko Shimada and Mizuho Yamada – 21-year-old Japanese exchange students at the University of Montana – are proof that life narrows or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

Their challenge: To earn roles and successfully participate in the Missoula Community Theatre’s recent production of Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical, directed by Executive Director Michael McGill.

After arriving for the fall 2012 semester, Mariko began to search for a place to get involved in local “musical activities.”

“I used to be in a concert band and have played the Japanese euphonium for six years,” says Mariko. “I decided to take part in MCT because I love musicals and staging a musical in the United States was one of my dreams.”

As a show of support, Mizuho auditioned for a part in Miracle as well. “Mariko had a hard time deciding to do it or not. I guessed that if we could pass the audition together, we could join a new group.”

Mariko and some of the Miracle cast members.

Mariko and some of the Miracle castmembers.

For Mizuho, one of the unforgettable components of her experience at Missoula Community Theatre was the audition process.

“I have never auditioned in my life,” says Mizuho. “I was really nervous about taking the audition in English. First of all, I had no confidence in singing. I am not so good at singing and I have not sung in English since I was sixteen. Although I could not sing in English, Michael was really kind to me. However, I felt I could not pass the audition. When I saw the result, I was really surprised.”

Mariko says that even though musicals are popular entertainment in Japan, community theatres and local theatre groups are scarce. “There is no group like MCT around where I was in Japan,” says Mariko.

Community theatre at its essence is about relationship building, overcoming obstacles, and simply having a meaningful time in a friendly, quality environment. Mariko said that her experience at the Missoula Community Theatre was rife with memorable instances, but a particular event stands out.

“We all were warming up and singing ‘Lean on Me’ together before the show,” says Mariko. “That is the most unforgettable for me. We all felt the same way at the moment, and it was really touching.”

Mizuho with director Michael McGill.

Mizuho with director MichaelMcGill.

Mizuho’s favorite recollection stems from performing one of the play’s signature songs.

“It was singing, ‘That Man Over There Is Santa Claus’” says Mizuho. “This scene was really fun and I really enjoyed singing it in every show.

“The thing about Mariko and Mizuho that was so impressive was that they fully committed,” says MCT’s Executive Director and director of Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical Michael McGill. “They jumped right in and committed – nothing halfhearted.”

No matter how frequently the girls prepared and practiced, there were some understandable complexities.

“The chief difficulty for me was the language barrier,” says Mariko, “because I’m poor at English. For example, I couldn’t catch what people said sometimes. It made me upset. I desperately struggled with these feelings. Besides, it was hard for me to sing and memorize songs, because lyrics were written by all English.”

The most troublesome aspect for Mizuho was the language impediment and its intertwined cultural nuances, which at times left her puzzled.

“Talking with the cast was hard,” says Mizuho, “Remembering the words of the songs, understanding lines, following Michael’s directions, and so on. Mariko and I tried to talk in English with each other, and to use English more. Sadly, we often could not understand why everyone was laughing or what was funny at certain moments.”

Mariko backstage with some new friends.

Mariko and her new Missoula Community Theatrefriends.

Mariko’s frustration, she says, was mitigated by the support of director Michael McGill and the encouragement of cast and crew.

“All were very kind and friendly, and gave me a lot of support all the time. For example, they always tried to talk to me slowly and repeatedly, and sometimes praised me for my sousaphone and singing. Without their kindness and help, I could not overcome these difficulties and accomplish this musical.”

Mizuho echoed this sentiment.

“Although I thought my English was too poor to join and communicate, this was a really good experience for me,” says Mizuho. “I want to say thank you to Michael and other all of other members and crew. This experience gives me confidence to try everything I want.”

McGill says that the enthusiastic duo provided a good example of “how building community doesn’t have a language barrier.” He adds that Mariko and Mizuho “contributed mightily to our production,” and “that the shared experience of the 34th Street cast and crew was greatly enhanced by their participation.”

Success and failure are often relative abstractions. Perhaps what is more definite is that a mind that is extended by a new experience – one that stretches comfort zones – can never go back to its former dimensions. Mariko and Mizuho are both glad that they chose to widen their perspectives a bit.

“Don’t be afraid of doing new things and meeting new people,” says Mizuho.

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Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.

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Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country NewsUSA TodayWisconsin TrailsBark MagazineMontana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine.

His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. D’Ambrosio’s next book, Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, a biography of the Montana boxing legend, will be published by Riverbend Publishing in 2013.