Another Terrain: Theatre Nohgaku’s Pine Barrens
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
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 during the past forty years or so have, despite varied critical reception, prepared US audiences to receive something like Pine Barrens. The most well-known Japanese hybrids have tended to be Greek tragedies and the plays of Shakespeare done in a Kabuki style. The older and more ceremonial Noh has less frequently been adapted for Western audiences, and has rarely been used with original American material for contemporary American audiences.4
Theatre Nohgaku does not take Western texts developed for a different production style and blend them with Japanese performance, nor has the company simply appropriated superficial elements of Noh.5 Rather, Theatre Nohgaku is a group of Western and Japanese actors, scholars, writers, and musicians who have seriously studied Noh and are creating a syncretized form, with their mission being to take this “classical poetic stage form and transform it and its many conventions into a viable English poetic performance art.”6 The company uses either translations of Japanese texts or, using Noh theatre as a template, it develops plays out of American myths—as in its production of Pine Barrens.7 In other words, it is both more Japanese and more American than, for instance, a Kabuki Hamlet. Here, we shall examine Theatre Nohgaku’s production of an American Noh, and the production of a Japanese kyogen by its sister company, Theatre of Yugen, both presented in English. [End Page 28] The particular performance we are scrutinizing was given on 15 September 2006 at the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA) in Winston-Salem as part of a tour that also included stops at Duke University and Hampden-Sydney College.
Physically, the evening’s events at NCSA were fundamentally arranged like an event at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo would be, with a few differences. First, the performance was outdoors. Institutionalized Noh theatres in Japan attempt to retain some of the original outdoor feeling, yet audiences have the comforts of being indoors with central cooling or heating, comfortable seats, and a roof over their heads in case of inclement weather. The facade of the traditional outdoor theatre is always kept, and rocks and pine trees surround the main playing space as if the theatre were still outdoors. Noh plays were originally performed at outdoor shrines where several buildings linked together in a quiet and meditative natural setting. Some Noh theatres in Japan remain outdoors, and on this night in North Carolina, Theatre Nohgaku adhered to the older tradition, sans pastoral setting.
The company also retained the traditional shape of the Noh stage: a long bridge or walkway (the hashigakari), which begins with a curtain for entrances and exits and ends with the main playing space, runs upstage right. At stage left there is a side area for the chorus (called the waki-za), and above that, to the left of the “rear stage,” or atoza, is an exit called the “hurry door.” A triangular roof covers the main playing space, or butai, which is covered with wood planking. The only scenery included is a pine tree on the back wall of the main playing space, telling us that the plays will take place in a spiritual realm, and three pine trees of graduating size in front of the hashigakari.
Although the basic shape was the same as a traditional Noh stage, in some significant ways this setting was different. The stage house was actually placed over a shallow pool of water that NCSA uses for film shoots; although in no way as spiritually potent as the Noh tradition of raising its stages over burial mounds, the reflecting pool at NCSA appeared to be an attempt to provide ambience to the performance. Other elements, however, threatened to disrupt the mood. The back wall of the hashigakari was painted an intense blue color that, in the bright sunshine of a September evening in North Carolina, looked rather garish; the same was true for the green paint on the back wall of the atoza. With the exception of a few honored guests seated in folding chairs up front, most audience members sat on backless metal bleachers. The placement of the performance was not particularly meditative, with buses passing through the campus and cars whizzing by on a nearby thoroughfare. This less-than-ideal placement has certain political overtones, as the event was not given a priority venue at NCSA. Nevertheless, as time passed and the sun began to set, these abrasive elements started shifting. The colors on the set mellowed with the changing light; the intense concentration of both performers and audience members minimized the distraction of passing cars and buses; and miraculously, the seats seemed less uncomfortable. Even the electric lights that were eventually used for Pine Barrens were simple, mellow, and unobtrusive.
Central to the success of this theatrical experience, and of our enjoyment of the evening, was the progression of events, which contained both traditional elements and surprising twists. Both the order of the program and the actors’ performances helped ease audiences into a thorough engagement with the material and the acting style. The Japanese term jo-ha-kyū may be helpful to consider as we work our way through the performance. Jo-ha-kyū doesn’t readily translate into English, but essentially it means that action should begin “slowly and gently, gradually increase[ing] in speed and tension, and finally reach[ing] a climax, where it quickly absorbs inertia and comes to an abrupt halt.”8
In keeping with jo-ha-kyū the program began with shimai dances, which are short pieces that function somewhat like movie trailers at a cinema. On any given night, the company picks a couple of shimai from a group of five possibilities and gives the audience a sample of what other [End Page 29] Noh plays the company has in its repertory. On this night, we viewed company member Gary Mathews perform a dance excerpt from The Gull, which the company bills as the first Canadian Noh play.9 Second was Colleen Lanki performing a short dance from Hagoromo, a play probably written by Zeami, in which a fisherman finds a mysterious maiden beneath a feathered robe who dances for him before she flies off to the heavens in what is known as the kiri, or final section. Both of these pieces were short, in English, and performed by Americans. Seeing a woman performing in Noh was a first for us, and her strong focus and control immediately affirmed the nontraditional, mixed-gender performance aesthetic.10 This was our first glimpse of a production choice by Theatre Nohgaku that deliberately broke with Noh tradition, and this element of resistance pleasantly broke our expectation that the company was striving for a kind of “purity” or “authenticity,” even as it worked within a classical form.11
Subayashi instrumental music, played by older, experienced Japanese musicians, came next in the evening’s program and provided a spotlight moment for the percussion and woodwind performers. The musicians played traditional Noh music on instruments such as a flute, stick or taiko drums, and hip drums. On this evening, the songs, sung in Japanese, mainly set a mood and worked to foster the audience’s comfort with the unusual sounds of the instruments. Perhaps it is useful to think of this as being similar to a pit orchestra in a musical, which first plays the overture and then blends into the background. Just as we might do with such an orchestra, the audience gave the Japanese musical performers its full attention, got to know the rhythms and the instruments, and then internalized that as underscoring for the rest of the evening. By the time we reached the kyogen, everyone was familiar with the movements of the actors because of the selections from The Gull and Hagoromo, and we were comfortable with the music because of the subayashi performance.
Japanese Noh dramas are often preceded by kyogen,12 short, farcical plays that are usually quite physical. Theatre Nohgaku’s sister company, Theatre of Yugen, chose The Melon Thief (in Japanese, Uri Nusubito) (fig. 2) for this evening’s comic prelude. Briefly, the story concerns a man who steals melons from a farmer. The farmer gets wise to the thief, so one night he puts himself in the place of his melon patch scarecrow to catch the outlaw. When the thief arrives, he is set upon by the farmer/scarecrow, and hilarity ensues.
In the kyogen tradition, broad physical comedy and use of easy-to-understand language make kyogen plays audience favorites. What most people may not realize is that kyogen uses many styles of language, from the poetic to the contemporary. For anyone who does not know the history of the Japanese language in all its permutations since the thirteenth century (and that includes most Japanese as well as most Americans), much of this variety of language is lost. However, in this English translation by Yuriko Doi there were clear levels of sophistication and variety in the language of The Melon Thief. In general, the thief’s language was very simple and completely accessible to any native-English speaker, even young children. But when he steals his first melons, the thief is reminded of a passage from a summer Noh play, which he ecstatically recounts. Not only did the language heighten poetically during this passage, but we also realized that it was a chance for the performer (Jubilith Moore, fig. 3) to showcase her virtuoso vocal and physical abilities. Moore’s breath control, use of onomatopoeia, and variety of volume and pitch, combined with her full physical commitment, were impressive without calling unwanted attention to her technique.
Similarly, the physical discipline required to perform kyogen gave legitimacy to the broadness of much of the comedy. It required disciplined clowning, using sophisticated techniques that eloquently altered our understanding of space. In The Melon Thief, various physical signs, some of which are quite common in both Japanese and Chinese traditional theatre forms, were used. For instance, in order to indicate distance, the thief did full-body, 180-degree pivot-turns upstage and then back downstage, thereby showing travel and arrival in a new location. Moore also helped us “see” the melon field by searching for the fruit by rolling on the floor, “looking” for the melons with her whole body in a very controlled (yet remarkably silly) way. Through vocal and physical [End Page 30]
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techniques Moore therefore skillfully defined space, helped us hear the complexities of language, and imagine the space clearly, yet still managed to convey the simplemindedness of her character and make the audience laugh.
The Melon Thief also reminded us of the power of anticipation. Even more than techniques used in Western slapstick in which we are primed for a pie to be thrown or a person to slip on a banana peel, the kyogen performance style was effective at drawing us in, letting us know what was about to happen, and then—at the height of the tension, or maybe even a second beyond what we thought we could take—finally resolving that tension. In addition, we were struck by the difference in hearing a kyogen in English instead of Japanese and how this added to our sense of anticipation. Although we had noted that performers in kyogen typically do move and speak slowly, for some reason when we saw productions in Japan and heard the dialogue in Japanese, it never registered to us how long it takes for characters to say the simplest thing. We knew that often the characters in kyogen are rural or uneducated, yet—probably because of our poor Japanese language skills—it still did not sink in that the slowness of their speech might have a dual purpose. In this English production, it all became clear. By the time Moore, as the melon thief, would get to the third word in a line, we would know what was coming, and part of the comedy came in waiting to see how long it took her to get the simple thought out or to pick up a melon. The character’s physical slowness then became a sign of her dim-wittedness, and the longer she took, the dumber (and funnier) she seemed, even as she outsmarted the supposedly sharp-witted farmer: pure low comedy.
Anticipation also formed an important part of the entire evening, as it does jo-ha-kyū As Carol Sorgenfrei has observed, “throughout a nō performance, the spectator savors the ebb and flow of time, and especially the drawing out of actions, which is one of the form’s distinctive and appealing features.”13 After the kyogen was over, we were aware that we were on the upswing of the evening’s energy, and were given time to look forward to the Noh drama to come. A 20-minute break gave performers time to change costumes and prepare mentally. At the same time, the sun finished going down, the stage lights were brought up, and the night began to noticeably cool.
By the time the performers finished preparing, the nip in the air had us ready for a good ghost story. As Japanese performance is very much connected to seasonal festivals and events, so does Theatre Nohgaku connect its work to American seasonal traditions. American audiences would probably place Pine Barrens in the horror genre, along with other ghost or supernatural stories, because the subject of the play, the Jersey Devil, haunts the woodlands of New Jersey. In Japan, the supernatural season is summer: summer is the time of O-bon, when the spirit world opens and conflates with the world of the living. As we have heard Japanese friends explain it, kaidan (ghost stories) should thrill and chill you in the dead heat of summer and therefore cool you down. The autumn, with its associations of Day of the Dead festivals in Latin American countries and Halloween in the United States, is the creepiest time of year for most Americans. Straddling both summer and autumn, this evening’s spooky offering was Pine Barrens, a new play written by Greg Giovanni, with direction and music by Richard Emmert. As we took our seats, the first performers to enter were the musicians (hayashi), who took their places in the rear-stage, directly in front of the pine tree and behind a large mound of pine limbs up-center. The chorus (jiutai) followed and sat stage left in the waki-za.
Pine Barrens is based on the American legend of the Jersey Devil. The exposition tells of a poor woman who had 12 children and was about to give birth to another when she begged the devil to take it. The devil complied and raised the child as his own in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. In order to connect the Noh style to the legend, the playwright took the Buddhist-influenced focus on nature and translated it into Western terms by using nature-focused Wicca.14 The waki (secondary character) and the wakitsure (secondary character’s sidekick) are wandering “white witches,” or Wiccans (fig. 4). Like the traveling monks found in Noh dramas such as Matsukaze, they act as story catalysts and add a positive spiritual force to the play. Often in traditional kaidan we find vengeful women and children; because Noh is rooted in Japan’s past, when women and children were regarded [End Page 32] as property of the patriarch, many of these stories tell of women and children taking revenge upon the living (usually adult men) from beyond the grave. Priests are often employed to rid the world of these vengeful spirits. The pagan-influenced Wiccans in Pine Barrens become corollaries to these priests, since they are called upon to exorcise the Jersey Devil from the land. Notably, they are also positive, powerful female figures—something rarely seen in classical Noh.
In the opening scene, these Wiccan waki decide to spend the night in the swampy Pine Barrens, but must perform a magical ritual of protection before they sleep. The Wiccans circled through the main playing area, shaking amulet sticks, chanting, defining their sleeping area as inviolable. Perhaps as much as anything in the performance, this mindfully slow, highly energized movement—more dance than blocking—set the mood of the piece, establishing a crucial idea in Noh: yugen, which is generally translated as the beauty/intensity that lies beneath a reserved or refined surface. Here, unlike the dopey slowness of the melon thief, the Wiccans’ lack of speed conveyed watchfulness and restraint, helping us to know that the forest was dangerous; what was being restrained was fear. Facially, in a big departure from the kyogen performance, the two women (one of them Jubilith Moore, who played the rubber-faced melon thief) were—except for their mouths—quite still. Eyes wide open, they moved through their ritual in hyperawareness, a sense of pressure behind each step or gesture.
The actors’ vocalizations, historically linked in Noh to the chant of Buddhist monks, tended in this first section to be stylized chanting rather than the more naturalistic spoken style. This chanting, which we may also link to nineteenth-century Western declamation, taught us more about chanting [End Page 33] and declamation than we thought possible from a single performance. First, we really had no problem connecting to or understanding the meaning or emotional thrust of the text, even in the more stylized sections. Second, we realized that the chanting is not just about intonation; rather, it is a vigorous vocal technique that requires constant breath support and so is well suited to outdoor (or very large indoor) spaces. No wonder nineteenth-century Western actors used it; audiences can hear and understand the words when they are declaimed, even in a large or outdoor space. A good performer also uses the rhythm and energy of the speech to structure her or his character’s “argument” and reinforce the poetry, much as do skilled actors when working with Shakespeare. Declamation or chanting propels the language forward, giving it energy and shape. Surprisingly, we found that this did not necessarily eliminate real emotional connection during Pine Barrens. In some cases, the chanting minimized and occasionally obliterated everything but rhythm, but the best actors were able to play within the chant, finding internal nuance even as they held onto the form.
After this first section of the play, the character of a young boy entered: the play’s shite (primary character). The shite often appears as an ordinary person (maejite) for the first half of the play, leaves midway through, and returns as a spirit (nochijite)—in this case, transforming from the young boy to the Jersey Devil. At first, the shite entered to the middle of the hashigakari and delivered an introductory speech. Next, in the center section of the play, the Wiccans question him about why a small boy would be wandering about the Pine Barrens alone at night, worried he could fall victim to the Devil because they have heard rumors of lost travelers in the area. This section concluded with the exit of the shite for a transformational costume change.
Because such a transformation must take place, the shite wears masks (the young boy mask and later the Devil mask), which allow the main character to be performed by actors of any age. This role usually goes to the most experienced (and possibly the oldest) performer of the troupe, and as we watched and listened it became clear why an especially adept performer might be needed—not only to handle the physical and psychic change of the transformation, but because of the mask work.
It is important to bear in mind that masked Noh performers are notoriously hard to understand. When seeing Noh performed in Japan, we have always given up on understanding even simple words, and because we had been told that Japanese theatregoers also had trouble understanding masked performers, we assumed that the declamatory style of the language was to blame. However, we had trouble understanding Richard Emmert, even though he was speaking English and we knew he was usually easy to understand. So something that should have struck us earlier finally did: Noh masks, when they have mouth holes at all, have only tiny openings through which to speak.15 The language wasn’t the barrier, the style wasn’t the problem—it was the mask. Therefore we reasoned that perhaps the declamatory style of Noh is also an attempt to overcome the performers’ difficulty in conveying intelligible words from behind such masks. And of course it would make sense to put your most skilled performers in roles so vocally demanding. The size of the mouth openings may be due to a desire for Noh masks to be elegant and “take on a more refined beauty.”16 This is clearly a technical impediment, but in one way the vocal intensity the masks promote actually helped with the build to the climax and the resolution of the play.17
In the meantime, though, the evening took a detour and introduced us to ai-kyogen. In Noh, when the shite exits to transform into a devil or spirit, a small comedy related to the main plot may cover the transition. In keeping with the swamp theme, Theatre Nohgaku presented an ai-kyogen titled Three Mosquitoes. The three ravenous insects paralleled the Jersey Devil’s hunger for souls, but in a comic way. Speaking in over-the-top thick Jersey accents, the mosquitoes buzzed about their unseen victim, goofily planning their strategic strikes before exiting in a panic. This interlude was a bit strange, and since no one in Pine Barrens was using a Jersey accent—whether thick or not—it was a bit jarring. Still, it provided a release from the tension of the Noh play and allowed us to return to the climax fresh and ready for the resolution of the plot. Even more, it reaffirmed the American intervention in the Noh—something we shall discuss below in the section titled “Debriefing.” [End Page 34]
After the ai-kyogen, the climax of Pine Barrens began with the revelation of the spirit’s true character, the Jersey Devil. The shite now reentered in full regalia, wearing a beautiful kimono and an impressive mask, and told the story of how he came to the swamp. This was accompanied by a complicated series of dances and movements as, in the climax of the play, he descended upon the Wiccans to murder them. He started moving in a series of circles, stamping his feet, sending shocks of frustration and energy into the wooden floor as he told about his life and prepared to destroy them. However, fending him off, the Wiccans disarmed him with chants and charms, and the boy disappeared—the demon (oni) having been cast out (amazingly, for Noh) by two women.
Then, rather suddenly, the production ended, with only a brief denouement. In keeping with tradition, the play ended on a bittersweet note as the waki and wakitsure, now safe though with lingering sadness, described the plaintive sound of the Pine Barrens:
Quiet embrace, heaven’s light, hush the barren pine.
In the stillness, a whining cry pierces the dawn.
A whining cry pierces the dawn.18
Even before leaving the theatre area, we stood by the reflecting pool and talked about the power of the performance. The intensity of the acting and the careful structuring of the evening’s events had carried us easily through three hours of theatre, and helped us to understand and experience the concept of jo-ha-kyū. No one in the audience had gotten up to go to the restroom during the performance or caused any other kind of disturbance; instead, the pleasure of intense listening and watching had gradually taken over the space—far from the experience people usually have of watching Noh on video.
In short, this hybrid theatrical experiment had given us deeper access into the profound impact that Noh can have on an audience, some of the keys to which we have touched on above. First, we realized that Buddhist-derived chant styles, while unfamiliar, are not too strange to allow emotional connection. Rather, when the performers were skilled in this vocal technique, we believe we experienced the performances more deeply than we might have in a more naturalistic style. We learned something about our own theatre traditions as well through this experience, especially in terms of understanding the workings of chant and declamation.
Second, the movement patterns of Noh were not completely beyond a Western audience’s comprehension, and they effectively communicated space, time, and mood. This is not to say we were able to understand everything, or even that every member of Theatre Nohgaku was able to plumb all the meanings of the language, music, and movement used in Noh—though we have no way of knowing to what extent they have internalized these codes. The company’s artistic director, Richard Emmert, has been studying Noh for decades, and most of the musicians are Japanese; none of the actors, however, have studied Noh since childhood. This is not necessarily a negative, since it allows for a critical distance that is useful in other ways. Yet, as Christopher Balme points out: “A key criterion for a cultural text is that it is only fully comprehensible within the culture that produces and uses it.”19 Noh’s stylized movement is usually considered a major barrier for Western audiences because the movement codes are considered either too foreign or too ancient for North American audiences to interpret.20 Noh scholars like Yasuo Nakamura brush this aside by saying, “True art should not be understood, but experienced.”21 However attractive such a sentiment might be, nuances of history, culture, and meaning are undoubtedly lost, at least to US audiences; or, as theorist Chidananda Dasgupta says, our “understanding, misunderstanding, if you like, is bound to be absorbed and reflected within the culture of the receiver—even the most well-informed.”22 [End Page 35]
We would assert, however, that performances can be thoughtfully enjoyed within the context of that misunderstanding. Facilitating such enjoyment is, in fact, an important task of all such cross-cultural theatre. The problem of understanding is exacerbated by the fact that most Westerners only experience Noh—if at all—on video. As we know, videotaping a live performance can strip an event of all that is moving and entertaining, as well as distorting vocal and spatial elements. While watching Noh on video, one cannot feel the mood or appreciate, among other things, the effect of the movement patterns on your sense of space and time. Experiencing the Wiccans defining a ritualized, safe space in an eight foot by eight foot area cannot adequately be captured on video; experienced live, it was—despite any loss of cultural nuance—totally mesmerizing.
In contrast to what we learned that evening about the power of Noh’s ancient formal elements, several choices made by Theatre Nohgaku helped deepen our appreciation of the company’s hand in the work, as it undercut a few of the more problematic elements of the art form. Based in a rigidly patriarchal tradition, Noh performance tends to reinforce male and female gender roles and in particular notions of female weakness, in part through the physical codes used in portraying women. Grace, lightness, and fragility tend to infuse and limit most representations of women in Noh plays. Few women, with the possible exceptions of deranged or demonic characters, have much agency in the dramatic action of these plays—not surprising, given the circumscribed lives of women in feudal Japan. However, banishing female performers from the stage denies women a subjective role in the portrayal of even their own gender, further denying female characters agency, and women self-representation. Theatre Nohgaku and its sister company, Theatre of Yugen, are clearly not bound to this aspect of the tradition of Noh and kyogen, and, in fact, several of the best performers in the companies are women. Prominent roles in the performance we saw were written for and/or cast with women: the melon thief, the waki and the wakitsure, two of the mosquitoes, and one of the shimai performers. There is no reason why women cannot perform Noh and kyogen as well as men, and this was amply displayed in the performance we experienced.
Another choice, though one almost certainly driven by financial constraints, erased another problem we have encountered on our trips to the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo. There, audience members regularly fall asleep, and the experience tends to feel rarified, museum-like, and precious. On the positive side, it is also comfortable, gracious, and elegant. Theatre Nohgaku, as previously noted, had us sitting on metal bleachers in a very casual setting. Although there were “first class” plastic folding chairs up front, thus maintaining a minor class system, the main effect in the audience was one of egalitarian simplicity. No hyperformal, hushed mood suppressed the audience’s energy. To be sure, the sense of history, tradition, elegance, and ritual were minimized, if not entirely lost, but other things were gained. Dozing off was not only impossible due to the hard bleachers, it was not even a temptation because of the immediacy of the performance, with high-energy acting and a stage less than thirty feet from the most distant spectator. We do not suggest that experiencing performances in Tokyo, at the world’s most revered venue for Noh performance, does not provide important benefits in terms of performer training, refinement, and skill as well as audience comfort. However, the experience at Theatre Nohgaku was fresher, more energetic, and more immediate for us.
Tadashi Suzuki has noted that Noh remains one of the few theatrical forms unmediated by most forms of technology. Performers’ voices are not amplified, and music in Noh is not recorded; both are conveyed to the audience directly. Further, he writes that
[c]ostumes and masks for Noh plays are made by hand, and the stage itself is built based on traditional principles of carpentry. Although electricity is used for lighting nowadays (which I still object to—in the old days it used to be done by candles and tapers), it is limited to the minimum, never like the elaborate and colorful lighting of the “modern” theatre. Noh theatre is pervaded by the spirit of creating something out of human skill and effort.23 [End Page 36]
This is not simply nostalgia, but a philosophy that can have palpable effects. The focus on the body and the actors’ mindfulness and attention to language, combined with the simplicity of the staging and lighting, all create an experience unlike most technologically driven work.
The authors of this essay have nothing against technology and, in fact, tend to write about and study multimedia performance, but the meditative, almost trance-inducing effect of Noh was clear in the evening we spent with Theatre Nohgaku. We witnessed spectators picking up water bottles and drinking from them in slow motion as they watched Pine Barrens. No one flipped open a cell phone; no one glanced at a watch. Since the performance took place near downtown Winston-Salem, buses and cars along the interstate whizzed by the performance space, but even these could not quite break the audience’s concentration.
Theatregoers lingered afterward to discuss the performance for a long while before heading toward their cars, quite obviously affected by what they had experienced. Such a strong performance “afterglow” may be surprising, but it is one of the desired effects of a well-performed Noh play.24 Still, the audience’s animated response would no doubt have stunned theatre scholar Maurice Valency who, back in 1959, opined that Noh theatre was too slow and precise to be appreciated even by the Japanese, that kyogen were not funny, and that “the Noh play has no future. It is the drama of the very long ago, and beautiful and impressive though it may be, it can hardly be expected to play a role in the evolution of the Japanese theatre.”25 Noh may never become a wildly popular form, but the American audience we were a part of needed little help in understanding or enjoying the evening’s entertainment. And although we have seen few young people attending traditional Noh performances in Japan, it has continued to influence contemporary Japanese theatre in ways too numerous to detail here. Moreover, our experience with Theatre Nohgaku’s Pine Barrens undermines Valency’s prediction: far from having no impact, Noh has now spread to the United States, where we found it accessible, enjoyable, and illuminating.
This is not to say that Theatre Nohgaku’s theoretical positions might not be fruitfully deconstructed in another place by other scholars. We still have many questions ourselves. For instance, we wonder if the company’s explorations fit into a species of East–West work that views the West as being in need of help or vitalization from the East—a position that has been theoretically problematized by postcolonial, intercultural, and syncretic theorists. It would be a stretch to suggest that Theatre Nohgaku is doing the kind of high-profile, exoticized projects that have brought Western directors criticism for commodifying Eastern art forms. However, to the extent that the company tries to create “authentic” Noh theatre, even with American myths, it may be fighting a losing (and potentially problematic) battle, since Noh is so densely historically encoded.
We also wonder if Theatre Nohgaku is working toward a “transcultural” theatre as defined by Jacqueline Lo and Helen Gilbert. Is the group aware of and working to illuminate the incommensurabilities between Noh and American myth, between Japanese and North American theatre practice? It seems to, in some ways, keep content and style quite separate, so to what extent is Theatre Nohgaku willing to explore the tensions between the two? And to what extent would it prefer to erase or ignore such differences? Certainly the inclusion of Japanese and North American company members, the company’s gender interventions, and even its use of strong American accents in the ai-kyogen indicate a willingness to explore such potential incommensurabilities. There is obviously room for conversations about many of these areas of inquiry, and we hope this essay has opened the door for these to take place.
Whatever the answers, we are drawn to theorist Christopher Balme’s argument that syncretic theatre “involve[s] a process of cultural and aesthetic semiotic recoding that ultimately questions the basis of normative Western drama.”26 To the extent that it helps us view theatre traditions anew, encouraging practitioners and theorists alike to continually reinvent and question the normative, syncretic work is bound to be of value. Moreover, we would be dismayed if undue worry about cultural transgression began to squelch such experimentation. The Noh theatre has a long and stable [End Page 37] past, and it can certainly withstand the explorations of a small, not-for-profit theatre troupe such as Theatre Nohgaku.27
Cynthia Gendrich is associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Wake Forest University. Experimental performance work, socially engaged theatre, and directing history, theory, and practice are her main areas of interest. She has written for PAJ, Theatre Journal, TheatreForum, Western European Stages, Theatre Topics, and other publications. With Woodrow Hood, she is currently writing a book about the Japanese performance collective, Dumb Type.
Woodrow Hood is associate professor and chair of theatre arts at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina, where he teaches directing, theatre history, dramatic literature, playwriting, and film courses. He has previously published articles in TheatreForum, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, PAJ, Theatre Journal, Postmodern Culture, and American Theatre.
1. When we refer to the evening’s performance being by Theatre Nohgaku, we include its sister company, Theatre of Yugen, which has two of the same members. The responsibilities of each company, or part of the company, were not completely clear to us in the program, where Theatre Nohgaku seemed to be the main presenter. We hope this does not create any confusion.
2. The most comprehensive article to disentangle these terms is probably Jacqueline Lo and Helen Gilbert’s “Toward a Topography of Cross-Cultural Theatre Praxis.”
3. John D. Mitchell and Miyoko Watanabe, Noh and Kabuki: Staging Japanese Theatre (i).
4. Kenneth Yasuda’s contemporary Noh play Martin Luther King is a notable exception. Karen Brazell’s excellent anthology, Traditional Japanese Theatre, begins with a fine list of the ways that contemporary theatre practice has been affected by traditional forms, including Noh (3–4). Richard Emmert’s chapter, “Expanding Nō’s Horizons: Considerations for a New Nō Perspective,” in Nō and Kyōgen in the Contemporary World, also helps explore and define this subject, as do a number of other chapters in this collection of essays.
5. As Christopher Balme has noted, such cultural blending can be guilty of using indigenous cultural texts “purely for their surface appeal, but with no regard to their original cultural semantics” (5). We do not believe that Theatre Nohgaku can be seriously accused of this kind of transgression.
6. Program, Pine Barrens (2).
7. Theatre Nohgaku’s American material was preceded by David Griffiths, a Noh scholar and friend of Theatre Nohgaku member Gary Mathews. During the 1990s, Griffiths wrote a British Noh play titled The Dove.
8. Kunio Komparu, The Noh Theater: Principles and Perspectives (216).
9. The Gull had its premiere in May 2006 at Pangaea Arts of Vancouver.
10. Women performing Noh in public may be unusual, but it is not as uncommon for women to learn Noh as we first thought. John Mitchell and Miyoko Watanabe point out that aristocratic Japanese families often “send their children, both boys and girls, to a Noh troupe for training in Noh songs and the more simple Noh dances. For a young girl, this is an accepted means for learning refinement . . . and is considered a social asset in the traditional Japanese family”; see Mitchell and Watanabe, Noh and Kabuki (ii). [End Page 38]
11. For a good exploration of questions of authenticity, see the “Ethnicity and Indigeneity” section in The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Especially pertinent is Gareth Griffiths’s “The Myth of Authenticity” (237–41).
12. Noh programs sometimes use the kyogen as intermezzi.
13. Carol Sorgenfrei in Nō and Kyōgen in the Contemporary World (96).
14. Contemporary Wiccans and Wiccan sympathizers may see this as an exoticization or a reductive characterization. Nevertheless, the Wiccans are treated with respect and—especially as women in a Noh play—given a refreshing amount of agency.
15. Some masks have openings and some do not. When present, the mouth holes are typically an inch or two wide and about a quarter-inch high—enough to breathe through, but very difficult to project sound through.
16. Yasuo Nakamura, Noh: The Classical Theater (159).
17. Despite diligent searching, we have yet to find any satisfactory explanation for the size of the mouth holes. It is only informed conjecture to assume that aesthetics are the principal reason.
18. A program insert with the full text of Pine Barrens was handed out to assist people in understanding the words of the play.
19. Balme (4).
20. Richard Emmert clarifies the difference between kata—the units of choreography in a Noh play—and, for instance, mudras in traditional Indian dance drama, pointing out that kata are often (though not always) without specific symbolic meaning except within their particular context. There are exceptions, but Western audiences can understand the emotional quality of kata, and the intensification of emotion is their main function. Nevertheless, there may be things lost in translation here as well. See Emmert, “Expanding Nō’s Horizons” (26–27).
21. Nakamura, Noh (230).
22. Chidananda Dasgupta, “Cultural Nationalism and the Cross-Cultural Product,” in Interculturalism and Performance (249).
23. Tadashi Suzuki, “Culture Is the Body,” in Interculturalism and Performance (243). Suzuki would undoubtedly be appalled by the new subtitling devices implanted into the backs of all the seats at the National Noh Theatre. They add another level of disconnection and technology to the proceedings, and while very convenient, they diminish group experience and the sense of ancient ritual—along with further marking the theatre as tourist-friendly or, more negatively, pandering to the West.
24. Nakamura, Noh (222).
25. Maurice Valency, “Japanese Theatre: The New and the Old” (16).
26. Balme (4).
27. Craig Latrell’s article, “After Appropriation,” is an especially clear attack on critical approaches that treat non-Western cultures as simply victims, and that assume other cultures to be fragile and weak, easily rolled over, ruined, and homogenized by the West. [End Page 39]