More than twenty Vassar students will be among a group of singers, dancers, musicians, and theater artists representing four continents who will converge in Japan over spring break (March 8-23) for an extraordinary performance event. Titled At Home in the World/世界がわが家、the musical production will feature the singing and drumming talents of children from Uganda and Japan in addition to the singers from Vassar, performing Japanese, African, and American music. The special event will be directed by the famed London-based theater director John Caird, who won Tony Awards for directing Les Misèrables and Nicholas Nickleby on Broadway.
The first of the two performances in Japan will take place at Tohoku University’s Kawauchi Hagi Hall in Sendai on Thursday, March 13, two days after the third anniversary of the tragic Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. The second will take place in the Main Hall of Shinjuku Bunka Center in Tokyo on Thursday, March 20.
The story of these performances begins with a most unlikely connection between a well-known Japanese foundation, Ashinaga, and Vassar College, centering around a novel, Daddy Long-Legs, written by Vassar alumna Jean Webster in 1912. The book and the subsequent theatrical version tell the story of an orphan whose education at a women’s college is sponsored by an anonymous gentleman she refers to as “Daddy Long-Legs.” An immediate worldwide success, the novel has for decades been immensely popular in Japan. Its title was chosen by founder Yoshiomi Tamai as the name for his Ashinaga Foundation (which translates as “long legs”), as he worked to accomplish his goal of providing education to children who have lost parents in Japan and elsewhere around the world. Ashinaga sponsors schools and programs offering emotional support to children and young people who have lost one or both parents in Japan and in Uganda, and brings orphans from throughout the world together for programs in Japan every summer.
On the occasion of the centennial of the novel’s publication, members of Ashinaga travelled to Vassar to visit the college’s archives and see and read materials about Jean Webster. From that first meeting there has developed an ongoing relationship between the two institutions based on a mutual interest in making education broadly accessible to young people.
“Vassar was created for the purpose of bringing a superb liberal arts education to a group – young women – who were being denied that opportunity. Ashinaga was created to enhance the educational opportunities available to another group that was being denied – children who have lost one or more parent,” observed Vassar President Catharine Hill, who will be present at one of the performances in Japan. “Our common commitment to educational opportunity unites us as surely as the historical ties between Vassar and Ashinaga that reach back to the work of Jean Webster.”
In an example of that common commitment Christine Howlett, associate professor of music and director of choral activities, and her research assistants, sophomore Malinda Reese and senior Samantha Smith (participants in the college’s Ford Scholars program), spent three weeks in Uganda last summer at the foundation’s invitation teaching music to the children at Ashinaga’s Rainbow House outside Kampala. Howlett, Reese, and Smith all will be part of the Vassar contingent participating in the March performances, which are being underwritten by Ashinaga. Howlett, who has worked closely on the development of the performance material, will direct both the Vassar singers and the Ugandan children in song.
Renowned director John Caird considers Ashinaga’s work on behalf of children who have lost parents so important that he volunteered for the project. “My first acquaintance with this project was through Jean Webster's beautiful novel, which inspired me so much I felt I had to find a way of re-creating it in the theatre,” he said. “Webster in her time was deeply inspired by her education at Vassar College. The plight of orphans all around the world inspired Tamai-san to create Ashinaga. It is now my great privilege to weave all these elements together: Jean Webster, her novel, Vassar College, Ashinaga, and a lovely crowd of aspiring young people from all around the world will come together to create what we hope will itself be an inspiring celebration – At Home in the World.”
Members of the Vassar College Choir and Women’s Chorus, plus set design and technical interns, will be among the more than twenty Vassar students contributing to the productions. A number of other members of the Vassar community are part of the project’s artistic team: Lance Ringel, senior writer in the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development, wrote the original English narration for the production; Paul O’Connor, technical director in the Drama Department, is the design consultant; Ryan Durham, class of 2004, is serving as director of production for Vassar; and Benjamin Rutkowski, class of 2009, is video designer.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential, liberal arts college founded in 1861.