Just Good Theatre

Contributed by Matthew R. Dubroff

              For the middle two weeks of July 2015, Theatre Nohgaku had the wonderful opportunity to conduct a residency rehearsal at the Ko Festival in Amherst, Massachusetts. The focus of the process was the staging of Carrie Preston‘s play Zahdi Dates and Poppies with music composed by David Crandall, under the direction of Jubilith Moore. Four of us were there for the full two weeks, while one group of TN members was present for the first week and a different group came in for the second week. _DSC1728The play had not been staged at all and this will have been the main rehearsal prior to an upcoming performance in the spring of 2016 in Boston. The two weeks were extremely productive and I hope to document some of how we worked and what we created. Finally, no matter what occurs in a final production next spring, what happened during this process amounted to good and highly valid theatre.

The two-week rehearsal schedule was tightly coordinated and wonderfully crafted by Jubilith Moore. The first week our focus was on developing a basic sense of the text and score and crafting as much of the physical staging as possible. A line-by-line group recitation of the text led by David Crandall was conducted first with focus on accurate readings of the notation as well as nuanced articulation of the numerous transitions within the text. Crandall’s score superbly enhances the sharp variances in the mood of the text that occur sometimes from one line to the next. Along with the usual range of noh vocal production, Crandall’s score also incorporated elements of western musical notation. This is a technique he has used before as in Crazy Jane where several lines of Gregorian Chant were integrated into the score. In Zahdi there is much more extensive use of western musical notation interwoven throughout the entire piece. Even at this early phase of our work, the task was set out to the performers to see where on the spectrum from “bel canto” to “noh” these sung sections should be. Similarly, for all of the text, we were encouraged to consider the full meaning of the written word and to allow for some variance of vocalization based on English speech patterns. For those of us used to singing phonetic noh with little sense of grammar and a generalized sense of meaning, this proved a pleasant challenge.

_DSC1727Following the vocally focused work, the play was divided into 4 sections. For each section we followed a basic rehearsal structure. From one section of the play to the next all of the roles were switched so that a performer playing a main character for one section might play flute for the next and then sing chorus after that. This afforded a very open, broad perspective on the entire play from a variety of performance perspectives. The sequence of work involved three phases. During the first phase we were broken into three or four groups. Typically, Moore and Preston would spend this first phase consulting. Musicians would practice their music in isolation, frequently under the guidance of Richard Emmert. Chorus and main characters would practice under the guidance of David Crandall or by themselves focusing on the sung sections of text. The second phase brought main characters together with Moore and Preston to work on a skeletal staging. Simultaneously, the musicians worked with available chorus or main characters. Finally, for the third phase, all members were brought together to stage the completed section. With some variance based on the demands of the section of the play this was how we proceeded through the entire show. In a fairly short time we had a fully stageable version of the play that was warmly called the “hit by a bus” version of the play. This rough form of the play still contained some of the core essentials of the text work that would manifest as we continued our mining of the material.

This first run through involved major pauses in the proceedings as we needed to stop in between sections and switch roles for all six of the performers. We had the liberty to stop where things went off the tracks or where there was a need for a change to help bring out the story and meaning of the text. After several “work throughs” in this manner it was decided that we would attempt to teach each other the various sections we had created so that the play could be executed in a smoother fashion. This occurred at the conclusion of our first week of work. The qualities of this first full staging of the play were most noh-like compared to the later versions. With obvious deviances from traditional noh practice, the staging maintained a fairly solid kamae and suriashi throughout. Typical kata were employed with some mixing and matching between the Hosho and Kita Schools of noh for certain dance sequences. New kata and movement patterns on stage were also employed based on the demands of the text. One main character, the husband, sits fully on stage rather than with one or both legs folded under. This evoked the sense that he was a member of the U.S. Military instead of the typical Japanese/noh priest who sits in the waki location on stage. In another instance, three main characters move simultaneously in a coordinated sequence on stage. I refrain from using the terms shite and waki as we were encouraged not to do so from the outset. The plan for the Boston performance is that one character w_DSC1726ill be masked.

As our second week of work began, three troupe members left and three came. Quickly we brought people up to speed in an abbreviated format of the previous week’s work. In this case we focused on getting a fresh staging with people remaining constant in their roles. The play was “taught” in a much quicker fashion. With this base version re-done, we commenced an exploration to move the performance mode away from traditional noh with as much liberty as was appropriate to the text, under the guidance of the three creators of the piece, Preston, Crandall and Moore. Vocally, sections of spoken dialogue were allowed to have a full “naturalistic” reading. At times, when not dancing, certain characters were allowed to walk with no regard for kamae and suriashi. Musically, Crandall incorporated a section of overlap and harmony between two characters. The husband character, a Marine fighter pilot, was given a folded paper airplane to use in place of a fan. As this radical experimentation progressed more and more paper planes were used in dance sequences and at dramatic moments of the text. A final divergence of note from traditional noh, is that characters hold hands with each other. This version of the play was staged mid-week and represents an extreme end of the spectrum of Theatre Nohgaku’s work.

With some time left to us, significant group discussion was had regarding the ramifications of the radical changes in style with regards to their impact on the meaning of the text. Substantive questioning of the noh-basis of our work also took place. Finally, we altered and reworked several major components of the play. The radi_DSC1734cal transitions of the text and the music were brought into strong relief as the staging itself began to reflect the specific musical and ultimately emotional rhythms of the work. With much care and openness to experiment, a full third version of the play was staged in an open rehearsal that was well attended in our studio rehearsal space.

Based on the audience response and connected with our own perceptions, after two weeks of work we had created three significantly different, yet viable performances of the text. The differences were based on the various performers’ expressive abilities as well as the interpretive mode within which we worked. What the next iteration of the play will be when it reemerges in Boston in spring 2016 will be derived from this work and will vary, once again. Nevertheless, most significantly, this process had all of the hallmarks of good, basic theatre. Starting from a central text and score, all of our interpretive sensibilities, theatrical skills and training were put to use in a collaborative environment of exploration, discovery and, finally, expression. While this has been a long-held belief of mine, this work strongly confirmed, that despite any apparent exotic qualities, at its core noh is fundamental and powerful theatre. It is an exciting next step for Theatre Nohgaku to be doing this sort of work with vital and important new works.

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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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