Baptism of Fire

Contributed by Laura Sampson

2012 is my first year at the Noh Training Project, so technically I am a ‘new student’. But with a scant 10 months of Noh training before this with Rick Emmert in the UK and in Tokyo, I’m just far enough away from totally new to the form, to be a bit of an anomaly here in Bloomsburg. Fortunately for me (but slightly less fortunately for my self-esteem!) I was placed in the ‘returning students’ class, which is so full of brilliant performers, musicians, thinkers and artists that all I really have to do is show up and keep my eyes open to learn something amazing. Being a ‘returning student’ also means that I’m involved in this year’s full noh, Atsumori: one night, as part of the women’s chorus, and the other as the female Ai-Kyogen interlude actor.

Both roles were rather a baptism of fire to me. When we began to prepare for the singing Atsumori, I had never even come close to singing through a full noh before.At the end of every rehearsal, my voice was so exhausted that even someone as renowned for their verbal diarrhea as me, couldn’t get a word out for a good hour or two. Eventually, I got stronger, which was a relief…until the next hurdle reared up: making sure I know what I’m actually singing in the classical Japanese. A big hurdle, when the most polite thing you can say about my Japanese is ‘erm, good try’. When I’d finally done that, I thought I knew the play pretty well. Until I got here and had to try to sing it without the score. Eep. That is another – ongoing – story.

When I found I’d been given the role of the female Ai-Kyogen, I was absolutely delighted! Stories – telling them, listening to them, reading them, acting them out – are what I live for, so the role was not only a wonderful opportunity to get involved, it was perfect for me too. True, the role is sort of superfluous to the play itself – a simple retelling of the story of its hero’s death, without much movement or action apart from the voice. Unlike real Kyogen (the funny interludes played between one noh and another) it’s not supposed to be particularly humourous. But I didn’t care: I was so excited I memorized the script before it was finalized – never a good idea – and I’ve been working as hard as possible to live up to the high standards of my male counterpart, the brilliant, experienced, hilarious Greg Giovanni, who is not only acting the role, but wrote the script too! The mind boggles.

After the story itself, the next completely amazing this was getting to dress up in full Ai-Kyogen Kimono, which I’ve coveted since I first saw one in Tokyo last year. But the more I work on the role, the more obsessed I become by the quality of the voice. Not quite speaking, not quite singing, not quite recitative – an English language approximation of the rhythms of a Japanese sentence. It’s tricky – a drop in intensity makes the whole thing sound totally ridiculous. Too much intensity – same effect. Rick Emmert has done the best he can with me, listening, and correcting and teaching me the style. Then, leaving me to practice on my own.

For one night, it’ll be up to me, to remember what I’ve learned, and make the Ai-Kyogen a worthy part of a brilliant production. A very important noh performer once said ‘do it 100 times, and you’ll get it’. I’m on 39. I’d best stop writing, and get working!

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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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