Tag Archives: New World Stages

An English and Japanese comedy show by an Italian and a Canadian in London 

I first met Katsura Sunshine back in 2017. He lives in Japan, the US and Canada and currently performs an ongoing monthly rakugo (Japanese storytelling) show  at the Leicester Square Theatre in London AND a regular monthly rakugo show at the New World Stages in New York.

A couple of months ago, I saw Sunshine’s London show, not for the first time. On that occasion he had, as his special guest, London-based Italian comic Luca Cupani.

They are together again at London’s Leicester Square Theatre this Sunday.

We talked on a Zoom call this week. Somewhat appropriately, given the multi-cultural and multi-national mix, Luca was in a hotel room in Milan, Sunshine was in a living room in Toronto and I was at the Soho Theatre Bar in London.

Luca (top left) with me (top right) and (bottom) Sunshine


JOHN (TO SUNSHINE): How long are your monthly London and New York shows continuing?

SUNSHINE: They’re both indefinite runs at least for the next year. I’ve just been talking to the Leicester Square Theatre about next year’s dates and the New York show has also been confirmed to the end of 2023.

JOHN: Two months ago, Luca appeared in your London show. He did rakugo (for the first time) and his stand-up; and you did stand-up (for the first time) and your rakugo.

SUNSHINE: It was a lot of fun, just like ‘appreniticing’ each other. Luca is teaching me stand-up and I’m sort-of teaching him rakugo.

JOHN: So how did Luca – an Italian – get involved in performing at London’s Leicester Square Theatre with a Canadian who does traditional Japanese storytelling in New York?

LUCA: Sunshine offered me the chance to be on stage and it felt like a crazy idea so I couldn’t say No. I am enjoying being out of my comfort zone. I’m already an Italian doing comedy in English in London, so I’m all for cultural cross-over.

SUNSHINE: I met Luca eight years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe and we’ve been friends for all this time. We’ve gone to see each other’s shows. When he told me he was going back to the Edinburgh Fringe this year for the seventh time – I’ve performed there four times… Well, I know how much it costs and the producer side of me said:

“Luca, to save money, just rent a West End or Broadway theatre and add that to your resume. Or, instead of that, just join me!  I’ve already got the theatre. I’ll put a kimono on you and we’ll turn it into a thing. It would be fun to do it together!”

LUCA: And it IS fun. I quite like the rules of rakugo. Okay, I cannot yet follow all of the rules but it’s fun to try to follow some of the basic rules. It’s very different from what I normally do and that’s why I like it a lot. You show yourself as being vulnerable and, even if you fail, it is still funny for the audience… I think!

JOHN: As I understand rakugo, there are set, pre-existing stories, so you are not able to script your own performance like in stand-up comedy?

SUNSHINE: Technically, you make up the first part and then you lead the theme of your made-up material into the scripted story which has been passed-down from master to apprentice through the ages. So the first part is a little bit like stand-up comedy and the big laugh is at the end. I think Luca’s perfectly comfortable with that except he has to kneel in a kimono.

JOHN: What was the most difficult thing about doing it?

LUCA: For me, kneeling down on the stage in a position which is not very comfortable, using the props in the correct way and remembering the basic rule that you look in two different directions to portray two different characters.

In stand-up, you usually talk about yourself and you are being yourself. In rakugo you have to create a story and sketch two characters very quickly and in a different style. That’s the most difficult. And the most fun.

JOHN: Sunshine, I think in the show two months ago that was the first time you had performed Western-style stand-up. What was that like for you?

SUNSHINE: At first glance, it seems like the same as the first part of a ragugo show, but the rhythm of stand-up is different: the laughs are coming much more quickly. When I was standing in front of the audience and talking in my usual Rakugo way, I sort-of felt the audience’s slight impatience more than I would have in storyteller mode.

But that sharpened me up a bit. 

I cut the material down; I cut words down. I got to more of a stand-up comedy rhythm. It was a great feeling and quite different to performing rakugo.

JOHN: And in the show this coming Sunday… ?

SUNSHINE: We will both do some (solo) stand-up comedy and both do some (solo) rakugo. Exactly the same format as before.

It was SO much fun last time. To have someone in the dressing room with me and exchange ideas about comedy and the different types of both stand-up comedy and rakugo. It was brilliant.

For me, presenting rakugo alone in New York and London… There’s a formality to rakugo. You’re in the kimono, you bow – there’s a lot of formality – and people don’t want to insult the culture. I always have to get the audience on board… This is comedy! You can laugh! Relax!

But when Luca and I walked out at the beginning of our dual show at the Leicester Square Theatre and the first half was each of us doing (solo) stand-up comedy, we had the audience going: WOOAAAHHHH!!

They knew the routine for stand-up comedy. You cheer or laugh your head off and the performers will give you all the better performance.

So leading into rakugo in the second half from a base of stand-up comedy which the audience already understood and could enjoy and relax with was a completely different experience. It was just so much more fun and easy to perform.

JOHN: Luca: did you learn anything from performing Japanese rakugo that you could use in your Western stand-up?

LUCA: The story I had was short but fun and it involved a lot of physical stuff. In rakugo, you use your face more often than I usually do when I talk. So I think it helped me to be more expressive. Also, if you know where you want to go, you can play a bit more in-between.

In stand-up, you need laughter all the way though. You ride on the energy of laughter, otherwise it doesn’t work. In a stand-up routine, you don’t always know where you’re going because you wait for the reaction from the audience. But, in rakugo, the set-up is way-way longer and you can prepare the audience, warm them up, play with pauses.

Last time what happened – and it wasn’t planned – was that, at the very beginning, when we introduced the show, we inadvertantly almost did some manzai which is another Japanese comedy form with two artists – one plays the smart guy, the other the foolish guy. Sunshine was smart; I was foolish. When we were talking to the audience and tried to warm them up, it became a sort-of improvised manzai that we hadn’t planned.

JOHN: And you will be performing together again?

SUNSHINE: I hope so. This is the last show of this year, then we’ll be starting up again next February, dates to be confirmed.

JOHN: Sunshine: how long has it taken you to get to this stage as a rakugo performer?

SUNSHINE: I’m in my 15th year. I started my apprenticeship in 2008 and it’s three-year apprenticeship – so 2008-2011. It’s basically indentured servitude.

I was with my master (Katsura Bunshi VI), no day off, for three years – cleaning his house, doing the laundry. You’re just with the master every waking hour for three years and you just watch and learn.

In 2011, I finished my apprenticeship so I’m in my 14th/15th year as a professional storyteller, which qualifies me as a master. I could take apprentices now, if I chose or if someone wanted to be my apprentice. So far, nobody’s come out of the woodwork!

JOHN: So, Luca, do you want to wash Sunshine’s laundry?

LUCA: I’m not comfortable with hair. I got rid of mine because I was tired of washing it.

SUNSHINE: (LAUGHING) He’s changing the subject!

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He has a simultaneous one-year run in London’s West End AND on Broadway

Katsura Sunshine after two days in quarantine

Back in September 2017, I blogged about Katsura Sunshinethe unique Canadian purveyor of the traditional Japanese storytelling genre Rakugo.

He flew into London from New York last Thursday, sat out his two-day Covid isolation in a hotel, performed his show at the Leicester Square Theatre on Sunday, then flew out to Tokyo yesterday (Tuesday). I chatted to him before he left.


JOHN: When are you coming back again?

KATSURA: I’m going to be performing my show Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo at the Leicester Square Theatre every month for the next year. Dates are on their website.

It’s going to be my one-year run in the West End. It’s only once-a-month on a Sunday, but it’s a one-year-run… And, starting next month, I also have my weekly run in New York for a year, every Thursday.

JOHN: On Broadway?

KATSURA: The theatre’s on-Broadway; the size is off-Broadway.

JOHN: So you will be performing a one-year run of your show in London’s West End AND simultaneously be performing a one-year run of your show on Broadway in New York…

Reuters christened him the King of Kimono Comedy…

KATSURA: Yes. So once a month on a Friday I will fly to London to perform at Leicester Square on the Sunday.

It doesn’t make any economic sense.

However, the thought was – pending Covid etc – I can be here once a month for a week with a base at the Leicester Square Theatre and do other shows in the UK and Paris and around Europe. That would make more economic sense.

I could play New York on the Thursday; fly to London on Friday; play Paris on Saturday; London on Sunday; and New York the following Thursday.

JOHN: And, the rest of each month, when you are performing weekly in New York…

KATSURA: I would be living in New York.

JOHN: With visits to Tokyo?

KATSURA: The current (Covid) quarantine restrictions in Tokyo are tight. A two-week quarantine.

JOHN: Will you be doing roughly the same show in New York and London?

KATSURA: Yeah. When I was performing before – twice-a-week for six months in New York – Thursdays and Saturdays – it was a different show every month. Meaning different stories in the show every month… and I started to get a lot of ‘repeaters’. Quite a few people would come back monthly. Which is kind of the way it’s performed in Japan too.

JOHN: So, over the next year, you could hopefully build up repeat London audiences in the same way…

KATSURA: Hopefully.

JOHN: What’s your New York venue?

The New World Stages 5-venue theater in New York City

KATSURA: It’s called New World Stages and it’s built like a movie theater in that, when you come in, there’s five different theaters. Two 500-seaters, two 350-seaters and a smaller one. I’m in one of the 350-seaters. The way I am able to do it is there’s a children’s show that has been in there for maybe three or four days a week for 13 years; on a Saturday, they do 3 or 4 shows. When you get to Christmas, they’re doing 10, maybe 12 shows a week.

JOHN: For 13 years! Jesus!

KATSURA: It’s called The Gazillion Bubble Show – they blow bubbles. It’s for small children and they don’t use the theater in the evening, so I was able to piggy-back off it. That’s the way I can do one-day-a-week in a Broadway theater, which is kind-of unheard-of.

JOHN: You should do the Edinburgh Fringe next August. (LAUGHS) Fit it into your busy international schedule. Do your weekly show in New York, your monthly show in London and fly up to do a one-off Edinburgh show the same weekend as London.

KATSURA: That’s a great idea!

JOHN: I was joking… But think of the publicity! New York on Thursday; Edinburgh on Saturday; London on Sunday…

KATSURA: (LAUGHS) It’s a great idea!

JOHN: So how is your career of taking original traditional Japanese storytelling around the world going?

KATSURA: Step by step. Being interrupted by Covid was not so good; but six months on Broadway was not bad before that; and the theater’s waiting for me there. I’m really lucky I can start again. I started the show in September 2019 and the theaters got closed down in March 2020.

JOHN: So, like all performers, Covid stopped your career for 18 months.

Katsura Sunshine in his shiny denim lamé kimono

KATSURA: I started a denim kimono fashion line.

JOHN: You seem to be wearing some sort of super-denim kimono.

KATSURA: Yeah, it’s kind-of lamé fabric, got a silver coating to it. But I also sell normal denim. And haori.

JOHN: Haori?

KATSURA: You wear them over the kimono and they come down to your knees. I’m spinning the kimonos off into a separate business: Katsura Sunshine Kimono.

JOHN: You’re a money-spinner. You sell kimonos to non-Japanese people?

KATSURA: Half-and-half. Right now, people email me for their size and it’s made-to-order.

JOHN: When you leave London now, you’re flying to Tokyo?

KATSURA: I hope… I have a lot of important performances over New Year.

JOHN: Important?

KATSURA: It’s a New Year family festival at a hotel. They’ve been doing it for like 50 years. The other performers are all extremely famous.

JOHN: New Year is big in Japan?

KATSURA: The 23rd/24th December is for dates and 31st December is for family.

JOHN: Dates?

KATSURA: Girls who don’t have a boyfriend try their best to get a boyfriend by Christmas. Everyone goes on dates then goes to a hotel.

JOHN: I’m shocked! 

KATSURA: (LAUGHS) I was shocked the first time. I thought they were making fun of me when they first told me that 20 years ago!

JOHN: That everyone goes to hotels?

KATSURA: Yes. You go to a restaurant and then you go to a ‘love hotel’. That’s at Christmas… Last Christmas I spent in (Covid) quarantine because I had just come back from New York to Tokyo… and this Christmas I will be in quarantine too.

JOHN: Eating turkey…

KATSURA: In the West we eat turkey at Christmas but, in Japan, the thing is to eat chicken.

JOHN: Not just chicken, it seems.

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