Hisa Takakuwa: Her Love for Language and Education Finds a Home in Theatre

Beth Fhaner
 | Nov 21, 2017
Hisa Takakuwa and Students

​Hisa Takakuwa with her students.

Conservatory by the Numbers

SCR’s Theatre Conservatory has served Orange County residents for more than 40 years. Each year, it (and the theatre) continues to add impact:

  • Number of students each year: approximately 2,000 kids, teens and adults

  • Number of faculty: 20, all working professionals

  • Next Generation: Free school-time matinees for nearly 12,000 elementary school students each year to see Theatre for Young Audiences shows

  • Theatre Access: Serving more than 28,000 elementary, high school and college students each year through free and deeply discounted ticket program

Conservatory and Educational Program Director Hisa Takakuwa’s enthusiasm for acting and theatre is downright contagious. Engage her in conversation and it quickly becomes evident that her energy and passion for theatre arts is unparalleled.

After earning a BA from Smith College and an MFA in acting from the California Institute of Arts, Takakuwa acted professionally for 15 years. She then made her way back into education. Not long ago, we caught-up with Takakuwa to discuss her work at SCR as a teacher and director, including her annual Shakespeare class and how lucky she is to be able to play for a living with other creative people.

What inspired you to embark upon a career in theatre?
I think I love language and learning maybe more than I love anything else, and the theatre gave me a place where I could live in both of those worlds. My MFA is as an actor. However, I don’t think that I am a natural performer. I enjoy sharing with an audience, but for me, it’s really about the process—the process of bringing the script to life, the process of understanding a character, the process of working with other people to create a story—that part of the journey has always been more interesting to me.

What made you decide to become a teacher?
I was lucky enough to work under, and be guided and led by, instructors who—and a lot of actors will say this—believe that it is a duty to nurture the next generation of artists. That mentorship role is kind of sacred to a lot of actors and I don’t think I’m alone in that. My work is always invigorated and always further developed by working in the classroom with students.  Theatre in an educational environment is really pure. It’s about unleashing creativity and reveling in the process, and there’s something really magical and sacred about that, too.

Tell us about your Shakespeare class.
For me teaching Shakespeare each fall is about the opportunity to work with the best of texts.  In class we learn how to look and dig deep into the text, like detectives, to understand the language and, thus, the characters. An actor’s task is always to understand, personalize and integrate text.  So to explore doing that with Shakespeare’s text! We get to take that beautiful, rich, humane, complex text and figure out how to bring it to life.

If you take the Shakespeare class with me, we start with basic text work. We talk about the nuts-and-bolts stuff, understanding what we’re saying and how to use reference sources and what different editions are like and we talk a little bit about history, and we talk about what Shakespeare is trying to tell us, original meaning, and then we get on our feet and try it….Acting is action. So, what am I doing with that language? How am I impacting the other person or the other character with the language? Text is the character, text is the story. So, how do I take the scratches on a paper and understand what that means and actually use my actor tools, my voice, my body, my brain, my emotions, my gut…all of it and actually make those words come to life between two characters. So we just dive in there. We dive in there and we have fun.

How familiar do the students have to be with Shakespeare’s work to enroll in this class?
We ask them to have some acting experience, or some experience with Shakespeare. To come with one or the other—to feel like, “I really love the canon, but acting kind of scares me or I want the opportunity to really stretch myself as an actor by working on the best and most complex of texts. I just want people willing to play and who want to roll up their sleeves and dive into the work. I always say that this is a workshop and I’m your guide. So, how can we help each other understand this material more deeply and specifically?NOTE: The next Shakespeare class is tentatively scheduled for Fall 2018.

What do you love most about teaching and what are some of the challenges?
My challenges with teaching are more about me than they are about the students. Do I feel prepared enough? Do I have enough energy coming into the classroom? Am I listening as well as I need to to conduct the class effectively? Just like I ask the student coming in to be ready to play, am I ready to play too? What do I have to give? What do I have to offer? How am I willing to push myself? How am I willing to improve myself to become a better teacher? Those are some of the challenges.

What I enjoy most about teaching is just being in there, just sharing ideas. I sometimes go into a classroom thinking, “I have too much to do, I don’t have time for this, I don’t have the energy to go into a classroom today.” But I always come out invigorated and excited and challenged and awakened and surprised about the work. And that’s the amazing part of it. It feeds me easily as much as it hopefully feeds the students.

How do you inspire students who might be new to acting?
Tell them that whatever they have to bring is valuable, encourage them to know that they have something to offer, that we are not asking them to be any more than they are. We are asking them to find hopefully their fullest self and be willing to share it. I say this a lot to the Teen Players. The actors gift to the audience is being willing to experience moments of vulnerability and learning and difficulty and challenge and mistakes on stage so that the audience can share and witness that and say, "Hey, I’m not alone." That we all have a shared, human experience.

Which Conservatory productions stand out to you over the years?
The work that I’ve been able to do with Erin McNally in the summer has been really glorious to me. I love music, and I have always loved musical theatre from the time I was a small child. And the opportunity to dig into Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein and other composers and storytellers that I love, the opportunity to do that with somebody I really respect and to do that with young people has been glorious. Without that partnership I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to do those things. And the kids love it. They have so much fun doing it, so that’s been really great.

In terms of the work with the Teen Players, I love the fact that we really try to do things that are diverse, so we’ll bounce from something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a Mary Zimmerman piece to maybe a new commissioned work and I get to explore those with the same kids at different stages in their lives, different types of stories and different types of material that is really fun. When I get to do something that is a little more classically based—a Dickens or Austen adaptation, a Shakespeare—that’s special to me just because that’s my first love, as my work as an actor was rooted in classical theatre, so to share that process of discovery with them is especially fun for me.

What’s the most important thing that people should know about the Conservatory?
That they’re welcome here. I think that if people come with a sense of fun and a desire to learn, they will be challenged, they will be opened, they will have fun, they will make friends, they will take resonances and lessons from the classroom that will impact them in their daily lives. I’m a big fan of theatre, so come and be surprised about yourself and others and about the creative process. I think that the desire to learn, the desire to jump in, the desire to work with others, the desire to try new things…if we could all try to do those things in our daily lives just a little bit more, wouldn’t everything be just a little bit better?

Enroll now for Winter Session.  Classes for kids and teens start Jan. 9, 2018; classes for adults begin Jan. 22, 2018.