Top Ten Tips for Watching Noh

Contributed by David Surtasky
Photographs by David Surtasky

This summer (on August 1 & 2, 2014) a free torchlit performance will be held in Bloomsburg Pennsylvania (Bloomsburg? Pennsylvania? Who knew?) along the banks of the Susquehanna River at the Town Park. Even though it is hard to see a full noh outside of Japan, it can be worthwhile to make the effort. If you can make it to Pennsylvania, it will be very much worth the investment of time. The plays will be Hagaromo and a han-noh version of Takasago. It is the 20th anniversary of the Noh Training Project, and represents the culmination of many years worth of intensive study and practice by many talented performers. Check it out if you can!

_DSC2383The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but just a list of things to be aware when you watch a noh play. It is intentionally in plain and simple language, and are some things that I wish I’d understood a little bit better before watching my first noh. It isn’t meant for people who’ve seen noh repeatedly, rather for people who have little experience with it directly. Watching noh on video is fine, but much like watching other theater or dance on video, it just isn’t well captured and leaves a lot to be desired. Something ineffable becomes lost. Go see some noh. You’ll be glad you did.


10. Leave the Outside World Outside
Don’t even take your phone, or rather leave it in a coin locker, or better yet at home or the hotel. It will tug at your mind, and be a distraction.

_DSC3517-2Try not to have a busy agenda that day; take the time to have a coffee (or tea if that is your thing) before the show, leave time after the show for reflection or to discuss what you saw/felt with your friends. The more time you can set aside for the experience, the more you’ll be immersed in it, and the more you’re bound to enjoy it.

Take a few moments and bathe in the rich symbolism of the stage, a recreation of sacred space that divides the present world from the world beyond. From the five-colored curtain that serves as the entrance to the bridgeway (the hashigakari that leads from upstage right to offstage), to the four pillars that hold up the roof of the world. Even if you don’t understand any of it, you don’t need to. It has its own power that you’ll feel if you just open yourself up to it. Hopefully, if you didn’t understand right when you watched it, you’ll want to invest time later into a deeper understanding.

9. It Looks Easy
But, it is not. Noh is Hard, Yo. They’re just standing around up there right? You try wearing 10 kilos worth of costume, sporting a mask where you can only see out through the nose hole with, then try moving, singing and dancing and then see how easy it is. Simply standing still, not shaking, being calm but full of the necessary energy to perform, takes serious concentration and years worth of dedication coupled with the receipt of primarily orally transmitted knowledge. Not for the feint of heart, or weak of will. When you see a noh actor you’re seeing 600 years worth of careful thought, practice and theory all consolidated into a single person at a single moment.

8. They Really Are Sliding Their Feet
_DSC8169It is called suriashi. You find this also in kendo, or aikido. On one level it is about making contact with the earth, on another level it is about minimizing changes in the body’s center of gravity. By using this gliding step the actor keeps the mask centered, and avoids sort of bobbing around constantly. It reduces the distraction potentially caused by a voluminous costume and makes for an elegant presentation.

It is also hard. Try it. Try not really raising the flats of your feet off the ground and not inadvertently weaving from side to side, or taking corners like a banking airplane. One of the best compliments that an actor can be paid is that they walk well.

7. The Waki Has a Job
They’re not just sitting in the downstage left corner because they’re tired and need a rest. (I mean, they probably are tired, but it isn’t why they’re sitting there.) The waki (secondary actor) is often the first actor to enter the stage after the chorus and musicians have taken their positions. The waki is the person that has the connection between the audience and the lead actor. When they observe, comment or pray they’re doing it on our behalf. Become one with the waki.

6. The Koken Has an Important Job
For every performance there is at least one koken (stage assistant) that sits upstage right of the musicians; sometimes there is more than one. Sometimes the musicians have their own. These people really seem to be doing nothing, but they have to take care of onstage costume and mask changes, properties handling and should the need arise prompting the lead actor with a line, or even taking over the whole performance should the lead actor suddenly drop over dead. The koken needs to be a senior person, someone who really knows the performance intimately. They enter and exit around the time that the lead actor does; and as a convention we sort if don’t notice them.

5. The Kokata Also Has an Important Job
_DSC8105Some performances require a kokata (child actor.) They may represent a child, but many times they represent someone of high social rank, or someone it would be unseemly to represent as an adult. Although they’re often very cute, and add a sense of charm, they’re also an actor in training.

These are their first opportunities onstage, learning at the age of 5 or earlier not to fuss or be a distraction, to know how to sing, and to memorize their lines. When you see a child actor, you’re seeing something quite special. Take a moment to appreciate what it takes for them to do their job.

4. The Drummers Are Not Singing in Harmony
Even though sometimes it seems like they might be. The vocalizations they’re making function on two levels: timing and mood. Timing to keep themselves, the chorus and the actors “in the pocket,” and mood to function as underscore on the whole piece. You’ll notice that sometimes it’s fast, sometimes slow, loud or soft. They’re matching the textual action. If the let the musicians be your guide then even if you can’t understand the words of the play, you will understand the intended tone.

Oh, and those things the one drummer (the one who plays with the drum on their hip) are wearing on their finger tips ~ they’re made of paper. When you hear the sharp sound they make, you’d swear they’re wood, but they’re not. Paper layered and glued on a form until it is sturdy enough to take the punishment. The palm guard is leather, though.

3. It Can Be Deep
_DSC8117But don’t let that get in the way. Yes, the performances can be deep in symbolism, poetry, resonance, Shinto and Buddhist philosophy, darma, karma and sometimes drunken elves (Shojo for example.) Don’t let it bother you if you can’t understand it all, or even any of it for that matter. It really doesn’t make a difference at first.

Just let it wash over you, and you’ll take away an emotional experience that can’t be beat. Maybe read a translation of the play before or after you’ve seen it. You’ll see other people basically following the script (looking at the utaibon, or song book for the play) during the performance, but you probably shouldn’t. Don’t worry about it. Intention first, enlightenment later.

2. Jo-Ha-Kyū
It starts slow, then builds up, then is over before you realize it. Noh doesn’t have the western conventions about dramatic action (exposition, inciting incident, rising action, conflict and resolution.) If you pay attention to jo-ha-kyū, and the performance is well played, you can see that it is an almost universal aspect that underlies everything from the beginning of a step, to an extended dance.

The fractal nature of it is fascinating, and a lot like the tempos of our lives. You’ll find this structure also in Japanese tea ceremony, martial arts and linked poetry forms. If you see multiple plays in one day, these plays will also be organized in this fashion. It is auspicious. Think about your day, or your life up to this point. If you consider it for a while, you can begin to see the patterns of jo-ha-kyū.

1. Relax
_DSC3368Look, if you fall asleep, no big deal. You’ll notice other people who seem to be asleep around you. It’s ok.  I mean, you probably don’t want to snore, and you totally shouldn’t bring one of those neck pillow things that you take on the plane, but if you feel yourself nodding off ~ don’t fight it, just give in. You can be rewarded.

You may experience a waking dream, one where your drifting thoughts and the world of the performance merge. This can be awesome. Many plays take place in a dream, and that you should be dreaming within that dream can be a fulfilling duality. Don’t worry; the flute’s piercing high note will wake you up if you’re about to miss something really cool.

(If you can think of some other good tips for first-timers, please feel free to leave them in the comments! Thanks, and happy noh watching. Hope to see you in Bloomsburg!)



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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2 Responses to Top Ten Tips for Watching Noh

  1. Pingback: Noh the FactsNITEnews

  2. In 7 above, I think you mean upstage left corner.

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