ACTOR and producer Paula Berwanger stops by on Close-up Culture for an in-depth interview. We talk about a range of topics including art’s introspective qualities, overcoming career hurdles, creating your own work and life as an actor in Tokyo.
Q: You quote the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw on your Instagram page: “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” How has art helped you in your life?
A: I LIKE how you understood “seeing one’s soul” as being helpful for one’s life, because I think that is the answer to your question.
Although art is not therapy, I think acting it is a very productive way to discover oneself.
When we are working, we need to deal with how we truly feel about things – not how we rationalize them. For example, once I was working with the circumstance of getting promoted at work – and it made me cry (not happy tears). I mean, of course I knew I was not happy, but having such a reaction forced me to actually do something about it. The realisation that I was still in love with someone made me apologize. It still did not work out, but at least now I can live knowing that I did something about it.
Acting is also a great means of letting go. All the grief, pain and rage we feel has a place to come out, to be expressed, so we do not have to keep it repressed inside of us forever. If something bad happens in my life and I do not have a play going on, I go home as soon as I can and do some movement work (Lloyd Williamson technique) and move to my pain and express it.
Even though it does not take the problem away, I am more physically prepared and emotionally relaxed to deal with the problem in a better way. I mean, movement work is not made to fix your issues, but since it has a healthy side effect, why not use it.
Also practicing character work and working off of people’s emotional behaviour basically trains you in empathy, because you practice seeing the world though a different point of view and become more sensitive to other people’s pain. And I think empathy is something the world needs more of right now.
Q: Can you talk about what attracted you to acting and why it continues to be your passion?
A: MAYBE a need to understand what is going on inside of other people? Maybe a desire to connect with them?
It is hard for me to say because I was quite young. When I was 2 years old and I was living here in Japan, an agent saw me in the street (what a cliché, right?) and asked my mom to take me to an audition. I did not like the child modelling thing, but I loved performing.
When I was an 8-year-old living in Rio, my grandmother took me to my first acting class because I would not stop performing on the living room table. When I started going to these drama classes, I had an overwhelming sense of belonging. And I think this is still one of the main things that keeps me passionate about acting. This connection.
Connecting to what people are feeling and making them connect to what I feel, which I think causes a mutual sense of belonging.
Q: You were born in Brazil, grew up in Tokyo, went back to Brazil, studied in New York and are now living in Tokyo. How have your interactions with these different cultures contributed to your development as a performer?
A: I THINK moving around has helped me with character work.
When I was younger, I would unconsciously switch my physical behaviour to adapt to the country and culture I was in. Now I do it somewhat consciously. I can also pick up on accents quite easily.
But living in different places, with different mentalities and religions has also taught me that there is no one right answer and that nothing is black and white. I believe that has made it easier for me to change my point of view in accordance to the character.
In the main technique I studied – Meisner – physical behaviour and speech patterns along with a change in point of view is the core of character work, so I think these interactions with other cultures have been quite helpful to me as an artist.
Q: What is life like in Tokyo as an actor – especially in comparison to New York?
A: WELL, I lived in New York for two years and I have been back in Tokyo for only three months. I still cannot compare.
The biggest difference that I have noticed so far is the lack of a union (I do not actually know if it does not exist or if people just do not use it). There are practically no restrictions to signing up for an agency or going to a professional audition. The only thing they ask of you is to have a working visa.
In New York – and in Brazil too – most of the time you need to be in the union to either get an agent or an audition, and they are quite tricky to get in.
The good side of that is that in three months I have gone to quite a few TV and commercial auditions, the bad side is that there are a lot of people submitted to these auditions, and most are not even actors.
Q: You have performed in productions of The Importance of Being Earnest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Is there particular a role or production you would love to perform in?
A: Many. Ever since I read about Sarah Siddons, who was a great Shakespearean tragedienne from the 18th century, playing Hamlet I have wanted to play Hamlet.
A character I have wanted to do for maybe 10 years is Moema, from Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues’ Lady of the Drowned.
There are character I have done in acting classes that I became attached to: Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Vivi in Shaw’s Ms Warren’s Profession, Rosannah in Brilliant Traces, Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House – although I might have to wait a few years.
Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (actually, there must be about 5 Tennessee Williams plays I want to do), Antigone, Estelle in No Exit, Prudence in Durang’s Beyond Therapy, Una in Harrower’s Blackbird and many more.
Q: You helped produce a theatre production titled Village Wooing and worked as an assistant director to Arthur Fontes on Odeio Segundas . Are you interested in doing more work behind the scenes as well as acting?
A: I do not like to feel like I depend on other people casting me or linking me to produce art. As a creative person, I have the need to do it, whether I have been cast or not. Being just an actor I depend on a producer. Being a producer as well I can make my own work.
There was actually a little push that made me do Village Wooing. I had worked as an assistant director and interned as an assistant executive producer for almost two years, but I had not yet produced or directed my own piece.
When I was close to graduating my acting school in New York, I fell at a friends place, broke a bone and damaged my common peroneal nerve in my left leg, which led to a palsy of my left foot. The doctors said there was a good chance my foot would come back, but still, I had put all my chips into acting.
I was starting a career behind the scenes in Brazil and I left that behind, sold my things, my car, sent all my money to America, asked for a lot of financial help from my father to get the chance to build an acting career. And having palsy would make that quite difficult. There simply are not that many characters you can play if you cannot move your foot.
Because I was afraid I was not going to get any auditions, or would not pass any auditions, I decided it was time to take control over my acting career and give myself a lead role.
Fortunately my foot came back completely after 6 months, I started running (which I had never done before) and I am registered in a half marathon next moth here in Japan. Village Wooing was a great experience and I would do it again a million times, so fully intend to produce more of my work in the future.
Q: What have been the biggest hurdles in your career and how have you navigated them?
A: I THINK getting the first professional job is the hardest.
If you have never worked, you do not have professional experience and a resume needed to get hired. I was stuck in this situation for years and Brazil is not a place that has many auditions. Auditions are usually only for musical theatre, which is not what I am good at.
If I could talk to my younger self, I would not have give her the solution that I came to last year, which was: just make your own work.
Moving around and starting over again and again is definitively a hurdle. It is already a hard industry to get into in a single country. Sometimes I feel like I am a little nuts for trying to do that in multiple places.
I do not consider the palsy as having been a hurdle – it was just a big scare. In the end it was actually quite beneficial career-wise. It was what pushed me out of the comfort zone do to my own work and now it’s completely gone.
Q: What are your ambitions and do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
A: AS for upcoming projects, I am now writing the next piece I want to produce. I also started working with an entrepreneur here in Japan who is getting investment to start an art festival in Fukushima called BEM Festival.
As you might remember, Fukushima had the terrible nuclear accident. Now the data shows that it is just as safe as Tokyo, but the area is still suffering economically because people have become afraid to go there. To establish a festival in the area would help re-establish Fukushima and its locals. Her idea is to have the festival in many languages, with artists from all around the globe.
I am also helping my father who brings a Shakespeare company called ITCL (that is their name in Asia) every year to tour around Japan. This year they will perform Romeo and Juliet in May and next year will be Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I also started training in Noh Theater. To me that is interesting because in the west we were able to preserve painting and sculptures for hundreds of years, but the performing arts in a way died with their performers. What I mean by that is that a contemporary painter or sculptor can go see the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David and draw from that history, but a contemporary actor cannot go see the original production of Hamlet.
Noh has been passed on generation to generation in detail for almost 700 years, it is much older than Kabuki, and it has been preserved, making art history available for people today.
Unfortunately I cannot tell you about anything I am auditioning for because it requires confidentiality.
As for ambitions there are many. I have been self-taping (I record the audition at home with my phone) for TV series in São Paulo, so part of me wants to go there.
I have a Bachelor’s in Film, so I also want to start producing my own films, not just plays. I am also a Spanish national because of my mother, so I also want to work with European artists at some point. And I do not really understand what is going on with Brexit, but I would also love to do a play in London someday.