Contributed by Evelyn Leung
The Noh Costume Workshop was an invaluable experience for me, both as performer and as costumer. The workshop initially appealed to me in my role as costumer; the promise of field trips to actual manufacturing locations sounded like my dream come true, and I was not disappointed.
The first portion of the Workshop was an intensive three days of information on the history, design, artistry, and production of noh costumes. There was an immense amount covered in those three mornings, and I wished there was more time to digest the abundance. Monica Bethe was incredibly knowledgeable, and the collection of historical images she presented was a great visual companion to the numerous facts she shared with us. Clearly she only had time to share a portion of the rich history of Japanese fabric and noh costuming.
The morning lectures were complemented by afternoon field trips: a textile manufacturer, a gold thread/leaf artist, an embroiderer, and a costume conservationist. Hearing the click-clack of traditional wooden looms weaving extravagant kimono and obi, observing the delicate application of gold leaf, and witnessing the painstaking attention to detail of the costume restorers was simply priceless. I thought these experiences alone made the trip worthwhile, but then we headed to the second portion of the workshop in Fukuyama.
The second portion of the workshop brought us to the home of the Oshima Noh family, where we were allowed to observe both their rehearsal (moshiawase) as well as the performance of the two Noh plays, Hyakuman and Aoi no ue. As a performer, I found watching the rehearsal process to be perhaps more beneficial and enlightening than the performance itself. Studying about noh in Western institutions, one is made to believe that it is revered art; a definitive form of Japanese theatre passed down through the centuries in codified movement and verse, ethereal and sacred.
However, watching the rehearsal made me realize that although the above is true, noh is still at its core, a theatre performance; presented by actors who need to practice and are just as human as any other person.
While in Fukuyama we were taught the process of dressing a noh performer, and were able to use actual costumes in practice. The Kyoto portion of the workshop taught us to value the costumes we were now working with, and demonstrated to us the methodical system of dressing a performer under these layers of gold. Due to the exorbitant cost of these costumes and their lack of availability in North America, being able to handle these garments gave me a better understanding of the type of weight and mobility these traditional fabrics hold, and therefore a starting point in seeking out feasible replacements on this side of the Pacific for similar productions.
Since the workshop was sponsored by Theatre Nohgaku, a number of the participants were actors associated with the company and didn’t necessarily have as strong an interest in the technicalities of costuming as I did. The workshop revealed the value of the costumes in the labour and skill required to create them, and I strongly believe that this workshop would be beneficial for actors to experience, especially those who might have the opportunity to work in such priceless costumes.
My one regret was that it wasn’t possible for me to try my hand at the traditional wooden looms, or any of the other handiwork required to create these beautiful fabric masterpieces. However, Monica Bethe did tease us with the possibility of visiting a silkworm farm the next time this workshop came around, so I hope this might be possible for people participating in the next Theatre Nohgaku Noh Costume Workshop!