Suigian (水戯庵), a sushi restaurant featuring a noh stage, is set to open in Nihonbashi (Tokyo) on March 20, 2018. The restaurant will offer daily performances of Noh and Kyogen. I have mixed feelings about it. Yes offering this kind of performance is not philologically incorrect as people did eat drink and even smoke inside noh theatres in the past. Yes, we need to bring more people closer to noh so we should embrace ways to popularize it. But would you like to watch noh with the noise of people drinking cheering chewing etc? With the smell of food and alcoholic burps in the air? Would performers like it? The restaurant looks posh enough and is endorsed by performers (you can see famous actors and musicians featuring the photos on the website) still… I wonder what plays they will perform… in the case of Noh, I can think of very few that I would enjoy watching while having something in my stomach… I wonder what you guys think!
Every year at this time of the year Udaka-sensei performs a brief ritual of purification of the butai, the stage on which he and his students practice during the rest of the year, at the okeikoba practice space. As you can see in the pictures, a small altar with an Okinadoll and various offerings (rice cakes, mandarins, uncooked rice, salt and rice wine, etc.) is set up at the back of the stage. During the ceremony omiki, a ceremonial sacred cup of wine, is also served. This ceremony derives from shinto practices associated with the New Year, where various places or objects are blessed or purified, getting ‘refreshed’ for the new year.
From a secular perspective, I found this ritual very meaningful. The practice space is not a place like any other. Theatre practitioners such as Stanislavski and E.G. Craig wrote it in red letters in their notes. The stage is like a workplace, one that is shared with others. It is a space for meeting and transmission of knowledge. The stage demands respect. Much of what happens on stage would not be convincing without the necessary amount of concentration and tension. We treat the stage like an ‘other’ place, for example we don’t walk on it without wearing white tabi socks, or we don’t sit on its edge – all this informs our conscious and unconscious awareness that the stage is not like any other place, and this results in an heightened state of tension when performing on it. The theatre stage is charged by the gaze of all those who look at you when you perform on it, but the private practice space needs extra attention in order to perceive at least some of the emotions you feel when you go on stage. That is why we need to respect our practice space, whatever it is, wherever we are.
A true priest is aware of the presence of the altar during every moment that he is conducting a service. It is exactly the same way that a true artist should react to the stage all the time he is in the theater. An actor who is incapable of this feeling will never be a true artist.
Kyoto-based French photographer Stéphane Barbery has worked with a number of Noh actors in Kyoto over the past few years, and has developed a special eye for capturing meaningful moments in the performance. Photographers working with Noh have to endure the torment of being assigned a fix position from where they can only shoot using a powerful zoom, hence losing much of the tridimensionality that the Noh stage in particular is able to convey to its audience. Stéphane mostly works with B&W which allows him to sharpen details and recreate depth even in low light conditions. I am sure you will agree he has done a wonderful job.
I am reposting a couple of stills from Kiyotsune(both the performance and the dress rehearsal) but I invite you to visit his Flickr page to see more of his amazing work!
Recently I have attended a number of Noh performances where actors or chorus members would forget their lines. I am not talking about amateurs but professional actors on important stages. Some might find this surprising: forgetting lines would be inadmissible in other kinds of theatre. Imagine a super-famous tenor, or a Shakespearean actor forgetting what they had to sing or say during a performance at La Scala or at The Globe. Unthinkable as it might be in other contexts, this kind of mistake is fairly common, and to a certain extent accepted, in Noh.
How so? There are various reasons I can think of:
Actors cannot concentrate on studying only one single play intensively for an extended period of time. Noh shite actors are involved in many other performances as ji-utai chorus while studying for their own part as shite main actor. This means studying a great number of libretti at the same time.
A good Noh actor is like Ray Bradbury’s ‘living books’ in Farenheit 451: they should be able to recall the lines of dozens of plays at any time without the need to look at the utaibon. Maybe a ‘living juke-box’ would be a better metaphor.
Since, to put it simply, Noh chants are basically variations around a very limited set of melodies, one can easily get confused, and take one line for the other. Oftentimes some verses are also the same or very similar, adding to the risk of confusion.
Unlike other forms of theatre (not opera or anything that follows the libretto literally) it is impossible for a Noh actor to improvise. If the line does not come to mind, one can only wait for the koken stage assistant to prompt him, or else jump to the next line.
Finally, one of the reasons why this kind of mistake is more accepted than in other contexts is that in Noh there is no intention to ‘hide’. There is no ‘trick’ or pretence of ‘fourth wall removal’ everything is on stage, including the fact that actors are humans.
Concluding, I hope this won’t happen to me during the forthcoming Kiyotsune! It is accepted, but better not to have the audience accept it!
I rarely publish pictures of myself on stage. Today I will make an exception as I received some great shots from Massimo Fioravanti, a very talented Italian photographer who has been following Udaka-sensei the past few months, taking pictures of performances and training sessions. Massimo has been working on various projects in Japan. Most notably, he published a photography book on Zuigan-ji in Matsushima, which has been severely damaged by the tsunami, and photographed the costumes collection of the Kongo family on the occasion of the 1989 exhibition at the Sforza Castle in Milan, published in a luscious volume.
In November 2012 Massimo came to Matsuyama where Sensei performed Sesshoseki (nyotai ‘female’ version). Before the performance there was a recital to which various members of the International Noh Institute took part with su-utai chant and shimai dances I did Yashima, which I have already blogged about here and here. Here are a couple of pictures that Massimo has kindly sent me.
For those new to Noh, a shimai is a short excerpt of a play, something like an aria in opera. Shimai dances are studied independently from the full Noh, and are often performed as complement of a programme featuring full plays. Masks and costumes are not used, but formal montsuki (a plain black or white silk kimono) and hakama – the equivalent of a formal Western suit. There is no hayashiorchestra playing, only a small chorus of four sitting in the back of the stage. A shimai is the adaptation of the dance that would be performed in the full Noh, so movements are slightly different, and props are rarely used. In the case of Yashima the shite holds a sword, here substituted by the fan – the open fan in my left hand is a shield (this is the way it is portrayed in the Noh, too).
Publishing pictures of Noh performances is not easy because of copyright issues. I will try and post more pictures of me – if I have decent ones – in the future. Massimo Fioravanti has been taking some amazing pictures of Udaka-sensei’s performances during the past few months and he is planning to hold an exhibition (in Venice and in Rome) and hopefully to publish a catalogue afterwards, which I hope will be available internationally.
The allure of Noh theatre reaches the world of videogames. The new release of the popular Tekken features a stage on a Noh stage – along with an interesting soundtrack with nohkan and ko-tsuzumi. At first I didn’t realise, then I zoomed a little and… check out the soundtrack and the pictures below. I am trying to figure out what play it is – judging from the costume and what look like candles on the headpiece my guess is Kanawa.