Costume Sculpting.

Contributed by Richard Emmert.

Richard Emmert.

The costume workshop ended on Tuesday afternoon and I’m writing this on my way back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen. All in all, it seems to me that it was quite successful and met its objectives. Simply put, the main objectives were first, to allow interested people to  learn more about noh costumes, and second, allow a venue for Theatre Nohgaku to further spread the word about and foster an interest in noh.

Much has already been written on this blog about the three days we had with Monica Bethe learning about noh costume structure, and visiting several places in Kyoto to learn more about the making of noh costumes.

Osada-sensei demonstrating with Oshima Kinue.

The four days spent in Fukuyama learning the practical side of noh costuming was a wonderful extension of the Kyoto sessions. On Saturday we had an hour demonstration session with Osada Takeshi and Oshima Kinue explaining the basics of costuming and watched Kinue be costumed for the Aoinoue rehearsal; on Sunday we saw Hyakuman and Aoinoue performed in the Oshima Teiki Noh (held four times per year) with the added treat of being able to watch the dressing of the actors back stage—this really is special as it is rarely allowed for anyone to be backstage if you are not a performer; on Monday learning the dressing of the maeshite and nochishite roles of Atsumori, and a general female role again taught by Osada Takeshi and son Akira as well as Oshima Kinue; and Tuesday reviewing the costuming of the Atsumori roles this time led by Oshima Kinue and her father Oshima Masanobu.

Osada-san and Oshima Kinue.

One thing that many people unfamiliar with the noh world do not realize is that noh actors do not, for the most part, costume themselves. Putting on costumes for roles is different from just putting on the montsuki hakama (kimono and trouser skirt) which is used by members of the chorus, the instrumentalists and the stage assistants—all the performers who do not have character roles. At least two and ideally three costumers are required to dress each actor having a character role.

Detail with fan.

The reasons for this become obvious to anyone observing backstage for the first time. The costumes are elaborate and sculpted onto each actor’s body so that “one size fits all.” That sculpting is re-done for each performance. Its not just a matter of someone giving a helping hand to the actor as he gets into his costume. It requires a skilled costumer to do the sculpting—the shaping of the several layers of costume on the actor, the tying of elaborate ties and the tacking with needle and thread so the costume maintains its shape while the actor moves on stage, the shaping of wigs, and the putting on of the mask.

Osaka Akira demonstrating technique with needle and thread to Shinichi Iova-Koga.

So on Monday and Tuesday, our group of ten participants tied, retied and retied costumes again, taking turns taking the main front position, or the back position, or being the model to wear the costumes. All are learning experiences which demand observing over and over, and attempting to imitate over and over. Understanding the order in which costumes are put on clearly leads to an efficient use of time in dressing the actor, and less wear and tear on costumes, on actors and on costumers.

Workshop participant Jean Garren in the mae-shite costume for Atsumori.

To be frank, two days isn’t quite enough time to learn enough to be a useful costumer backstage at a noh performance. The participants in this workshop spent two days just learning the costuming for two roles in the play Atsumori. Perhaps some of us will be of use in the dressing for the roles to be performed this summer during the Noh Training Project (held annually in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, USA) when we do the outdoor performances of that play, but as yet we still have a lot to learn. But we have to start some place and I think everyone was excited to have this experience and get just a bit more insight in the complex art of noh.

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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