At Home in the World

It was quite a convergence. Over spring break, Vassar choir members joined singers, dancers, musicians, and theater artists from four continents for a special musical collaboration between the college and the Ashinaga foundation.

Performed in Sendai and Tokyo, At Home in the World was directed by the famed London-based theater director John Caird, who has earned Tony Awards for directing Les Misérables and Nicholas Nickleby on Broadway.

The story of these performances begins with an unlikely connection between the Ashinaga foundation and the college.

The novel Daddy-Long-Legs, published in 1912 and written by Vassar alumna Jean Webster (Vassar Class of 1901), tells the story of an orphan whose education at an unnamed women’s college is sponsored by an anonymous gentleman she refers to as “Daddy-Long-Legs.” The book inspired a stage play that became a runaway hit on Broadway in 1914. And the novel—immensely popular in Japan—was greatly inspiring to Ashinaga founder Yoshiomi Tamai, who created the organization to provide education and psychological support to children around the world who have lost one or both parents. (The foundation runs programs in Japan for those who have lost parents in the earthquake and tsunami that struck the region in 2011, and in Uganda for those who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS.)

Ashinaga officials made a pilgrimage to the Vassar campus in 2012 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the novel’s publication. Since then, the foundation and the college have had an ongoing relationship based on their mutual goal of educating young people. A wonderful benefit has been the involvement of Vassar students in Ashinaga internships; currently nine students are participating in their programs in Japan and Uganda.

Lance Ringel, a senior writer at Vassar, created the original English language script for the show. He says the March 2014 production in Japan was a meaningful way for Ashinaga to emphasize the commonalities between all human beings and to bring the work of the foundation back to the Japanese audience that supports it. As for Vassar, he says, “It was a way to provide an amazing experience for our students.”

It was a tremendous undertaking, largely underwritten by Ashinaga with transportation support by ANA and Qatar. Caird directed a total of 21 Vassar choir members, 13 teenaged Japanese taiko drummers, and 30 Ugandan dancers and singers, ages 8 to 17, in fully subscribed shows at Tohoku University in Sendai and at the Shinjuku Bunka Center in Tokyo.

Christine Howlett, associate professor of music and director of choral activities, worked closely with Caird on the development of the material and directed both the Vassar and Ugandan singers.

No stage fright in sight, just great enthusiasm and unending stamina.
No stage fright in sight, just great enthusiasm and unending stamina.

The trip to Japan was a reunion of sorts for Howlett and the Ugandan children, whose relationship had blossomed over the total of five weeks the choir director had spent in Nansana, Uganda, as a volunteer for the Ashinaga foundation. Her first trip was in the spring of 2013, while on sabbatical; she returned later that summer. Her mission was to teach songs in English, Hebrew, and Latin to children attending Ashinaga’s Rainbow House school, which serves more than 60 children.

No easy feat. According to an article in the Miscellany News, when Howlett first met the children, “she found that her greatest challenge in teaching was the language barrier. Uganda’s official language is English. The more widely spoken language, however, and the one which most of the children speak, is Luganda, an indigenous language.” Differences in singing styles and intonation also made the transition difficult. Eventually, Howlett realized she could bridge the gap by teaching the children solfège, which represents the notes of scales with “do re mi fa so la ti do” to teach pitch and harmony.

Last summer, Malinda Reese ’16 and Samantha Smith ’14 traveled to Uganda as part of the Ford Scholars program, which supports faculty collaborations. They spent three weeks helping Howlett conduct singing lessons with the students at Rainbow House.

Several alumnae/i and administrators of the college, including President Catharine “Cappy” Hill, also traveled to Japan. Key artistic and production staff included production manager Ryan Durham ’04, videographer Ben Rutkowski ’09, technical director for Vassar’s Drama Department Paul O’Connor, and a behind-the-scenes team led by John Mihaly ’74, senior director of regional programs in the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development, assisted by Hiroe Nakada ’13.

There’s more! In June 2015, a version of At Home in the World with English narration will be performed in New York City and Washington, DC, before moving on to Tokyo. Watch for additional information on the Vassar Hub.