When a theatrical form, in this case Noh, combines highly poetic language, dense intertextual references, slow pace, few obvious plot points, and music that—at least to some Western ears—sounds jarring and dissonant, it is not hard to understand why the prospect of seeing a night of Noh portends hard work more than enjoyment. Noh’s place in Japanese society, as something encouraged and subsidized by powerful shoguns and practiced and developed for a small elite (the samurai), may also have something to do with its reputation as a form with limited relevance. Many of these problematic elements are only reinforced by trying to experience Noh or kyogen through video as we in the United States usually do.
This essay is not designed for people who have seen and enjoyed numerous Noh performances. Rather, we hope that those who have been put off by the form might come to see how a skillful live performance of Noh and kyogen (especially in one’s native language) can produce a powerful experience for the spectator. We also hope to provide a brief overview of the complexities and questions raised by a cultural interchange between a Japanese theatrical form and North American content. In order to achieve these goals, we will document the presentation of an American Noh play, Pine Barrens, to a US audience by Theatre Nohgaku, a company formed in 2000 and comprised of Canadian, Japanese, and US citizens.1
Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to establish an American Noh drama by using legends, stories, and myths of North America. Pine Barrens is a Noh treatment by an American playwright (Greg Giovanni) of a New Jersey folktale (the Jersey Devil) (fig. 1), on this occasion presented at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Theatre Nohgaku travels throughout the United States and Canada presenting in communities with strong Asian influence or interest as well as in academic settings, usually offering lecture/demonstrations and performances.
Any examination of cross-cultural work such as this (also called intercultural, syncretic, transcultural, and multicultural)2 must necessarily address questions of cultural appropriation. We are reluctant to wade too deeply into these waters, since we want to spend the bulk of this essay discussing what we found to be a fresh and interesting theatrical endeavor; however, it is certainly worth considering the strategies and merits of this hybrid. We will touch on what is gained and what is lost in this cross-cultural work and on the potential for (mis)understanding as we look at Noh in a new context. We will also examine such issues as the relation between Noh masks and its style of chant, the shifting of context and content from Japan to the United States, the matter of gender in a traditionally all-male form, and the intersections of presentation style and story content.
The most obvious way to begin looking at Theatre Nohgaku may be as an interesting cross-cultural experiment—one that extends the impact felt by Western theatre scholars and practitioners for many years. In 1964, director Jerome Robbins shared these reflections after watching a rehearsal of the Noh play Ikkaku Sennin:
It was like turning on a light that illuminates another terrain of the theater. Through extreme disciplines and limitations of space, costume, voice, action, expression, gestures, music and pitch; through the distillations of the essence of drama; and through an awesome, tender and [End Page 27] religious love of the theatre, its props, costumes, and the very surface of the stage itself, a final poetic release of beauty is achieved.3
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Long before Theatre Nohgaku formed, people like Robbins, Derek Walcott, and Bertolt Brecht (who used the Noh play Taniko as his base text for Der Ja Sager und Der Nein Sager [The yea sayer and the nay sayer]) recognized the power of Japanese theatre to provide different models for actor training and theatrical practice. We should therefore acknowledge that East/West collaborations and the many hybrid productions done...