Wearing the Role

Contributed by David Surtasky

David Surtasky. Photo: William Martinak

I’ve had the opportunity in the past to watch professional noh actors as they’ve been dressed in costume – while on tour with them, backstage at various theaters and at workshops. There’s often a slight glaze to their features, a distant look sometimes accompanied by closed eyes or somnambulist appearance as they’re tugged around being padded, swaddled and tied up. I’d always presumed that it was related to strictly preparation for the role; putting oneself in a particular mindset in order to accomplish the task ahead of one.

Now, after being dressed as the mae-shite for Atsumori (Taira no Atsumori in the guise of a grass-cutter,) my opinion has changed slightly. Now I think: well, what else are you going to do really? Submit.

I’m not suggesting that the restive look is entirely unrelated to fulfilling the role, but  instead that at a certain level you’re turning yourself over wholly to your partners in performance since it is impossible to put the costume on yourself in any way. That you adopt a passive posture is completely human and natural, and more helpful than fussing around while you’re being assisted. That your pants (hakama) are so large you can’t sit down by yourself is a mitigating factor.

While you’re being dressed there is a deep sense that you’re being cared for, taken care of in a way that is alien at certain levels of Western theater experience. Your dressers are your fellow actors, not a sub-class devoted to a level of servitude and at the whim of some faceless producer in a New York office. This aspect of noh is something that was very attractive to me once I understood it better – that it was the actors themselves who made the props & scenery (tsukurimono), who dressed each other, who brought each other water when it was needed and who assured you with their touch right before you entered the stage.

In the West we’ve divided ourselves up into specialist classes: an actor is an actor and might have no idea how to play an instrument, or hem a seam. A dresser is a dresser and may have never willingly stood alone before an audience and felt the weight of their gaze. I know it wasn’t always like this. I know that at some point there was less division and less specialization in the craft. That we’ve permitted this to occur doubtless provides more opportunities for people to work, but it also creates a division – a group of people brought together to accomplish a task who are not at one with each other and who may fundamentally not be able to relate or to understand what their fellow human is experiencing.

This is another special aspect of noh, the feeling of the care and concern of your fellow performers all of whom understand what you’re experiencing. The more I’m permitted to practice and learn the craft, the more profoundly I’m filled with the emotions that are at the core of it. The essential and undeniable humanity of it.


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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