Reflections of a koken

Contributed by John Oglevee

John Oglevee (during the TN 2012 Costume Workshop)

A few weeks have passed since two incredible evenings (Atsumori, August 3 & 4, 2012) of outdoor theatre were gifted to Bloomsburg Town Park through the concerted efforts of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in collaboration with Theatre Nohgaku. I had the pleasure of being the fuku jigashira (vice-chorus leader) one night, and a koken (stage attendant) the next. I discussed the challenges and rewards of singing in the chorus some weeks back and I am happy to report we did sound full and strong. I also learned an unfathomable amount listening to the way in which Matsui sensei performed in his role as jigashira. The way he could anticipate and adjust the dynamics of his singing was a pleasure to observe and participate in. I also know that I could never have appreciated being along for that ride if I had not spent the hours necessary to memorize the text. It was in me. It was in me enough to allow it to come out of my mouth, with one ear on following his lead and one ear and my eyes on observing the performance. It became clear to me that the virtuosity I hope to attain will always be just out of reach. But the knowledge of never being able to grasp the golden-ring, does not preclude the pleasure of performance. The drums that echoed off the mountains, the crackle of the fire from the torches lighting the stage, the sounds of others in the park who were oblivious to the noh; all contributed to an evening representative of the power of live performance.

Matsui Akira.

I also would like to add, that our esteemed jigashira, of whom I have just showered with praise, in the very last portion of the kiri (final dance) just up and skipped a line. Luckily I had the aforementioned ear on following and did not try to “correct” him, so that the chorus was able to smoothly continue with the song. The shite (main performer) on the other hand, was slightly taken aback. She wondered if she was ahead or if she had skipped something. But as she is a seasoned performer, she was able to quickly jump back on the speeding train that is the kiri.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the swarm of mayflies that joined us on that lovely humid evening. There was a moment where I felt I was in some sort of horror film. As a chorus member, my job was to sit and sing. The sitting is seiza, the kneeling hell in which one’s legs inevitably fall asleep or worse yet, send shooting pain to the brain sparking questions of why one would ever get interested in noh in the first place. While in seiza, one should exude a motionless calm exterior. However as my glistening hair-challenged pate seemed to serve as a beacon for the flying insects, it was everything I could do to ignore the hundreds/thousands of dive-bombing winged projectiles. They flew up my nose, in my ears, and on two occasions became a late-night snack. I am happy to report that they are rather flavorless. At the end of the noh, the stage was littered with a blanket of the fallen warriors of summer. The costumes had to be shaken out to free them of the “dress-passing” passengers. Such challenges however served only to enhance the overall feeling of accomplishment of another noh, another notch in our collective obi.

John Oglevee fixing the wig (TN 2012 Costume Workshop)

Now, I get to the koken experience. I have always thought of the koken as the poor fellows who must sit at the back of the stage and “take care” of any problems that arise. Having performed the role of koken a few times, I knew of its importance, but this time rather than a feeling of obligation at having to suffer through seiza, I enjoyed a feeling of privilege at the opportunity of assisting. I can’t help but think that my participation in the Theatre Nohgaku Costume Workshop a few weeks prior to the performance had a lot to do with that. Rather than being simply a body fulfilling the requisite space in the koken-za (stage assistant seat) I felt that if something were to arise regarding the costume, wig, props or perhaps even the text, I would have been able to assist. Being able to dress the tachi-kata (main performers) backstage, then to follow them onstage, pick up after them and then get them out of their costume as fast as possible following their concerted effort, perhaps gave me an insight into the joys of “servitude.” Not sure it inspired me to become a butler, but it helped me gain more insight into the words we use prior to a performance, “yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” or “I humbly ask you to take care of me.” This is said by all, to all. There is no “breaking of legs” or muttering the French word for excrement. There is a profound wish for support for and from everyone. It is a team effort.

Applying the Juroku mask to the nochi-shite for “Atsumori”

As I sat on the back of the stage in the koken-za the evening of the performance, with Matsui-sensei to my right, and looked out over the stage, audience and the Susquehanna River, everything felt good. I wondered where the previous night’s “insect-opolis” was, but thought perhaps the smoke from the torches was aiding in the suppression of the winged menace. At a certain point, it is the koken’s job to bring a short stool out for the shite, to sit on. When I returned to the koken-za, Matsui-sensei was gone. My first thought was, “I see, you are just going to leave me alone out here to kneel on concrete.” However in hindsight, I think it was in some way a show of respect thinking that should anything go wrong, I was the responsible party on stage and able to amend said discrepancy.

In the end, my passion for noh was reinforced. But beyond that, my belief that the study of noh, or as Phillip Zarrilli calls them, “psychophysical” forms of expression are invaluable tools for the performer of the 21st century. We are not going to become professional noh performers in Japan, that is not our goal, employing the concepts of strict discipline in an art for the purpose of expressing beauty is.

Gary Mathews as nochi-shite, “Atumori” Photo: Bill Martinak

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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4 Responses to Reflections of a koken

  1. Pingback: Noh Your Audience | Wild and Woolly Wordmithing

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I know I’m coming to your blog a bit late, but it’s absolutely wonderful. Just wanted to let you know I put a link to this entry in my newest post… here’s the link: . Thank you again for doing what you do!!!

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