Bringing It All Together

Zen Mountain Monastery Sumida River Rehearsals (Pt. 6)

 Contributed by Kevin Salfen, University of the Incarnate Word
Photographs by Kevin Salfen (except where noted)

IMG_4949One of the most gratifying and inspiring aspects of Theatre Nohgaku’s residency at Zen Mountain Monastery has been how it has brought people (and institutions) together. Of course, the monastery residents are our hosts. They invited us, have supported us physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and have given us an idyllic place to rehearse and perform. Then there’s the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, where I teach music history. My university has provided for TN members’ travel to Mt. Tremper, in part because TN will perform Sumida River again in November 2015 at UIW as part of a larger program called Where Rivers Meet. Sumida River will open that program, followed by a new English-language “kyogen” about the San Antonio River by the city’s Poet Laureate Emerita Carmen Tafolla, and finally Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, which transports the basic story of the noh Sumidagawa to medieval England. (To make it even more ecumenical, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and School will also play an important role in that project, as will the San Antonio Museum of Art and other community partners.) But there’s more to TN’s performance of Sumida River at the monastery than institutional support.

In some ways, noh’s needs are simple. There’s no elaborate set, and most of the performers wear montsuki and hakama—Japanese formal wear—instead of a custom-designed costume. To make it even simpler, TN is performing Sumida River as a hakama-noh, which means that even the main roles will don standard formal wear, though the Madwoman (played by Richard Emmert) will still wear a mask and hat.

IMG_4983[ Photo courtesy Zen Mountain Monestary ]

But noh needs pillars at the corners of the main stage. On traditional noh stages, these pillars hold up a roof, but outside Japan TN has typically used smaller wooden blocks. These were built for us by monastery residents (K—, often assigned to “carpentry projects,” seems a likely candidate) before we arrived. Noh also needs a backdrop of a stylized pine tree, a symbol of longevity. In Japan, these pines are painted onto the back wall of the stage. Here, H—, our patient guide to zazen and the dokusan line, painted a beautiful one for us on separate paper panels, which were assembled and affixed to the wall of the performance space by H— and K— (the carpenter).

IMG_4970I’ve already mentioned that noh doesn’t have elaborate sets, but individual plays frequently require a tsukurimono—that is, some sort of stylized prop. This can be a water well, a tree, a bell, or many other things; in Sumida River, it is the grave mound of the Madwoman’s son. Spoiler alert. Hidden inside for the entirety of the performance is the “spirit of the boy,” a kokata or “child role,” and the coup de théâtre occurs when the boy’s spirit comes out of the mound in the play’s final minutes, summoned by his mother’s chanting of the Buddhist prayer “Namu Amida Butsu.” In Japan, the grave mound prop is IMG_4958built according to certain traditional specifications, and TN wanted to get as close to that as possible. So John Oglevee, TN’s Development Director, took pictures of the inside of such a prop in Japan, sent those and some dimensions to David Surtasky, TN’s Managing Director, who built it and shipped it to Mt. Tremper. Members of the Sumida River cast put the thing together, and Tom O’Connor (our wakitsure) refashioned the top of the structure to give it more of a rounded appearance. Then J—, who has been so central in bringing Sumida River to the monastery, found some beautiful fabric to cover the mound, and K—, an accomplished seamstress at the monastery, sewed it to fit. Finally, David Crandall and Tom O’Connor went foraging for foliage to place on top of the mound.

IMG_5014And then there’s the documentary. Filmmaker Brian Higdon arrived on Friday to shoot footage for Becoming Noh, a feature-length film focused on the members of Theatre Nohgaku and the process of bringing the new English-language, Elvis-inspired Blue Moon over Memphis to the stage. Brian was also in San Antonio earlier this year, shooting at the University of the Incarnate Word during our kickoff event for the Where Rivers Meet project. With so much selfless, tireless effort from so many, here in Mt. Tremper, across North America and in Japan, it feels as if Sumida River at Zen Mountain Monastery is riding a Hokusai-sized wave of good will. The spirit’s right. Time to perform.

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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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