Navigating Through the Western Industry
For 22-year-old Ayaka Kato, finding her passion didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t until she sang in front of an audience, and they applauded her performance, when Kato’s dreams of pursuing an onstage career solidified. That epiphany happened in 2015 during a two-week summer camp in New York City. Known as The Broadway Experience, this summer camp is an international musical theatre program designed to train versatile student performers.
“Hearing their applause was so rewarding. It made me realize why I love musical theatre in the first place”
As a Japanese native, Kato was first introduced to musical theatre in elementary school, where she played several minor roles. In high school, she focused more on her abilities as a dancer and took jazz, ballet, and tap classes. Meanwhile, Kato also participated in a local Japanese theatre group. Comprising a very small staff, with only one choreographer and a multipurpose director, the theatre group would meet weekly to rehearse. Eventually, Kato earned her first lead role in the group’s musical adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird.
Wanting to refine her skillset even more, Kato applied to The Broadway Experience in 2013 and was accepted into the program. She flew to America for the first time that summer. “New York is everyone’s dream city,” said Kato, “so I definitely didn’t know what to expect.”
Over the next two weeks, Kato joined over 30 other students as they underwent intensive training for singing, dancing, and acting. Since Kato was new to the program, the instructors placed her in the intermediate class for beginners. Alongside Kato, there were four or five older Japanese students who were also in the program. “For me, it was extremely difficult because I couldn’t speak or understand English [at the time], even though we had a translator.”
Regardless, Kato enjoyed the opportunity to train. In the evening, the students would watch shows on Broadway, which deeply immersed Kato into the musical theatre profession. “Compared to Japan, musical theatre [here] makes more of a statement, which tends to be political. Audiences can learn something from just watching a show,” said Kato. Two years later, she applied for The Broadway Experience again and returned to New York City in summer 2015. This time around, she was placed in the advanced classes where she was required to perform a song in front of an audience. Kato then knew that performing on stage would be her ultimate life goal.
“Musical theatre is unique because it has an unique way of telling stories…it’s more expressive. It emphasizes emotion, a moment… that’s how we connect with people”
Intending to major in musical theatre, Kato applied for a student visa and enrolled at Palomar College in San Marcos, CA for the fall 2016 semester. Disappointed that Palomar only offered a Theatre Arts associate degree, and not musical theatre, Kato decided to be a dance major instead. Studying dance for two years at Palomar prompted Kato to pause her dreams of becoming a musical theatre artist. She needed time to hone her skills. In 2018, she transferred to Cal State University, Fullerton as a Theatre Arts major.
With plans to graduate from fullerton this semester, Kato has worked tirelessly to earn her degree. As a step toward achieving her musical theatre dreams, she initially enrolled into the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre program. With a concentration in acting and a more professional-oriented educational approach, the program seeks out only 12 exceptional students at a time, and Kato did not make the cut. But this unexpected detour did not discourage Kato from pursuing an onstage career.
Out of the 40 U.S. productions that Kato has auditioned for, she has performed in 10 of them. As she continues to make a name for herself, Kato has encountered many obstacles within the industry. “I’m a minority, so they treat me as a minority,” said Kato. There have been instances where Kato has been typecast as an Asian character solely because of her ethnicity. “Instead of seeing an actor for their talent,” Kato said, “most people just want to see the stereotype that they fit into.”
According to Kato, Japanese musical theatre is more for entertainment purposes, so famous actors usually land lead roles in different productions. The U.S. industry is very competitive and while it has grown more diverse over recent years, Kato tends to find that certain people are still placed into certain roles. “What good is having a diverse industry when, in reality, there continues to be so much underrepresentation?” Kato wonders.
As an aspiring musical theatre artist, Kato is happy to represent Asian culture, but she refuses to let directors place her in only stereotypical roles. “If I put myself in a box for how people should see me, then I’m not being myself,” said Kato.
Photo courtesy of Seji Gaerlan | @openhours_