Oshima Kinue reflects on the 2009 Pagoda tour
and her work with Theatre Nohgaku.
Interview and translation by David Crandall.
Oshima Kinue is a member of Oshima Noh Theatre and a professional performer of the Kita School. Ms. Oshima played the role of the Mother in Jannette Cheong’s English-language noh “Pagoda” for the 2009 & 2011 Theatre Nohgaku/Oshima Noh Theatre tours. She has also served as a Master Instructor for the Noh Training Project.
● Re-printed from “In the Noh,” Vol. 5, Nos. 1-2.
Q. Looking back on the 2009 PAGODA project as a whole, is there any particular incident or experience that stands out in your mind?
I think I would have to say when everyone got together for the first time in Bloomsburg in the summer of 2009 to rehearse. I had had the words, of course, but it still wasn’t clear to me how the piece would come together. When I heard the text sung by everyone as utai, I thought to myself, “Ah, this can be a noh play.” Rick Emmert had given me a CD of his singing before that, but it wasn’t until everyone came together and sang, and we tried some movements on stage, that I felt confident we would be able to create the experience of noh.
Q. As a performer, did you feel there was any difference between preparing an English noh as compared with traditional noh?
When I first tried singing English in noh style, I had trouble integrating within myself the traditional voice production with the pronunciation of the English words. When I concentrated on getting the pronunciation right, it felt in my body as if I was just singing a song, rather than chanting utai. I found it difficult to produce the characteristic utai voice. But this was another example of why training is so important. Through practice and repetition, I came to see that the method of voice production used in traditional utai can be applied to any language. It’s a matter of reaching physical understanding in the body. Because I’m not really proficient in English, I had to think about the words while I was chanting. In the beginning, I had to have the text in front of me. And that meant that my mind and body were working separately. But through practice, I was ultimately able to unite them.
Q. So would you say that memorization was one key to success?
Oh, yes, I think so. If your mind is occupied with just trying to remember the words, it’s hard to focus your energy in the way it needs to be focused for a good noh performance. But the same can be said for traditional noh. You have to have the text well memorized before you can focus. So I would say that the language is not an issue; the real question is whether or not you practice enough to make the text your own. That being said, there were other aspects of English noh that I found challenging. When to come in, for example. We had enough rehearsals so that I felt confident by the time we actually started to perform, but in the beginning it felt a little like it did when I performed as a kokata (child actor). When I was small, I had no idea what the other actors were saying; I just waited until I heard my cue lines. My experience in Pagoda reminded me of that.
Q. You are such a valuable asset to TN as an affiliated artist, both as a teacher and performer. As you observe TN members at work, are there any particular goals you would like to see them strive for?
I can’t think of any specific goals at the moment. I first met TN members when I went to Bloomsburg to teach in 2006. I was impressed with their attitude toward their work. In fact, there have been times when I’ve felt that Japanese noh professionals could learn something from TN members as far as dedication is concerned. One thing that comes to mind is the boundary between acting in a Western sense and noh performance. One element that everyone, not just TN members, needs to work on is timing (the use of ma) in places like a kakeai section, where the performers trade off overlapped lines. The amount of time you pause before coming in, and the space between lines—it’s not something you can measure; you have to feel it, to get the breath right. I think it would be useful to give more thought and effort to this aspect of noh. It’s not an easy thing to teach, of course.
For example, we did Funabenkei (in Summer 2009) at NTP, and I thought that overall it went well. But there were little things that could have been improved, to make the performance more finished. So when we’re practicing utai, we should keep timing in mind. Usually, we focus our practice on sections like the kuse or kiri, things that have dances and can be performed in a program. But maybe we should start working instead on other sections, like the kakeai or the rongi, which require a different kind of timing. These are places that can’ t be measured, so they need more practice.
Q. One might imagine that the natural timing might be different for English noh than it is for traditional noh.
Well, I was speaking about Funabenkei, which was performed in Japanese. It’s true that English words, unlike Japanese, often end in a consonant, and this might change the timing. But I don’t feel I can really comment on the proper timing for English noh! But since Pagoda is a new play, I think it will take a while before the performance of it settles to the point that we can say, “This is how it should be done.” I think it went well this time around, but I think everyone involved can probably think of ways that, from their perspective, the performance could be improved. I don’t think those ideas will surface until another production is mounted, though.