Finding the Dog in Noh, and Leaving it Alone

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Ms. Preston provides some insights concerning her new work  Zahdi Dates and Poppies, premiering on March 30, 2016 at the Tsai Performance Center, Boston. Please consider providing your support by visiting the project’s funding page.]

Contributed by Carrie Preston

“A lot could be said about how the text is structured, what it takes from noh and what it leaves alone, and how the English language conditions the narrative flow.”- David Crandall

carrie_prestonIn David Crandall’s fascinating post, Finding the Dog, he expressed the hope that I would talk about some of the above topics in my own contributions to this blog. Basically, David has thrown down the gauntlet for me and not for the first time in our wonderful collaboration over the words and music of Zahdi Dates and Poppies. One evening, several days before we were going to stage a workshop version of a scene from Zahdi, David called to say that he needed “about ten lines of warrior hell poetry” for his score. He had them by morning, I’m proud to say, and I rather like that moment in the play. What he needed musically was also a statement of suffering that the play required.

I have always written best when I have an assignment, either thrown at me by someone else or self-imposed. This post is the result of both David’s assignment and my own (to write a blog before my toddler wakes up from his nap) with a dash of inspiration drawn from David’s “Finding the Dog,” which I highly recommend. One of the things that fascinated me about his post was the way he described dividing his canvas into vertical fields, cutting up images of a painting, and pasting them into the fields. That methodical artistic process sounds like an assignment I could try, even with limited painterly ability. And the result, Jennifer Dreams Wisteria, is gorgeous, as is the dog David unintentionally, unknowingly created.

_DSC9316The writing of Zahdi Dates and Poppies began with a similarly methodical assignment. In order to learn about the sections (dan) that combine like my son’s legos to build noh plays, I set myself the task of replicating those sections down to the specific number of syllables in each line. Since the opening song (shidai) is usually repeated by the chorus in a whispering echo, that was what I wrote, and I made sure those lines were worth repeating poetically and thematically. This structure, particularly all the syllable counting, was maddening at first. But, I had two driving desires or two dogs in the fight, so to speak: I wanted to learn the structure of noh plays so that I could write a better book about the noh theater (see the webpage for my forthcoming book Learning to Kneel). And more importantly, I wanted, no needed, to face the ghost of a man my husband killed while deployed to Iraq as a fighter pilot. I needed to explore the impact of such deaths on those who do the killing and their families, and I had struggled to do this in my poetry and other writing. The warrior play tradition in noh often features the ghost of a defeated soldier telling his story, facing his enemy, at least in spirit, and sometimes finding peace in the process. This ancient genre of warrior plays had something to teach me, I was sure, about finding peace.

So, I followed the noh warrior formula, hammering my story into those structures and syllables. It was a discipline, a labor of precision. I think of this process as searching in noh for the dog, the hidden beast of wisdom that would help me give stage life to that ghost, my ghost. When I was finished, I seemed to have built a neat little house in which nobody had lived, nobody could ever live, particularly not a messy dog. So, I went back into the play, loosening the structure, opening the windows, demolishing some rooms, to make space for my characters and for me. Often, this meant searching through the play for the _DSC9260poetry that was all the more tense and chiseled for having been forced into a rigid structure. I let those poetic images expand and then cut the material that didn’t feel alive. The emotions I needed to explore in the play were already present in the images of burnt Zahdi date palms and poppies that would open in the sun’s warmth – and in all the resonances and permutations of those images that the exacting process of trying to write in the noh form had revealed.

Zahdi is not a noh play. I have always been more interested in what noh could teach the contemporary world about art, performance, and beauty than in following noh’s ancient rules. I have spent many years studying and writing about the noh theater, even taking lessons in the performance technique with teachers from Theatre Nohgaku and in Tokyo with a beloved master teacher, but I am not part of the noh world and its rather regimented institutions. I can study and admire the traditions, but they are not mine. And I don’t mean to imply that I believe in some essential understanding, based on race or culture of birth, that would prevent me from becoming part of that world. As I write these sentences, I am aware that there are warning signs everywhere flagging my orientalism and exoticism, long histories of cultural appropriation, and my privilege as a white American. I take those warnings very seriously and then proceed, as humbly as possible, with the many lessons noh has taught me.

And now my own little puppy is calling me away.


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Finding the Dog

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Crandall provides some thoughts concerning his composition of the score of Carrie Preston’s Zahdi Dates and Poppies, premiering on March 30, 2016 at the Tsai Performance Center, Boston. Image of painting provided by David Crandall. Please consider providing your support by visiting the project’s funding page.]

Contributed by David Crandall

david_crandall_2Years ago when I somehow had the illusion of free time, I enjoyed painting as a hobby. I often found myself making images that displayed two or more worlds at once—an attempt to express the interpenetration of spirit and matter that colors my perception of life. One painting from that time, titled Jennifer Dreams Wisteria, now hangs on my dining room wall. To make it, I referred to a photo I took of my daughter Jennifer sleeping and superimposed an image of some wisteria fronds I picked from the dilapidated fence in the side yard of our Seattle home. I divided the canvas into four irregular vertical fields, pasted in cut-up images of a tree I had painted and photocopied onto tissue paper, and created a montage that I hoped would depict the dream of a sleeping mind.


Many people have seen this painting over the years, and they’ve reacted in various ways. But one friend said something a few years ago that really surprised me. She said, “Nice dog.” When I asked her what she meant, she showed me the image of a dog, mostly yellow, with two tiny forelegs extended toward the right, snout pointed straight up, and tail curved around Jennifer’s outstretched right hand. I had never seen it before.

Some artists think they know what they’re doing, and I guess sometimes they do. But I think the most interesting art is often unintentional—an arrival point that was not the original destination. I can’t look at my painting now without seeing the dog and being happy it’s there. I’d like to take credit for it, but I can’t—I didn’t put it there. It joined the party on its own, an uninvited but welcome guest.

Compositionally, Zahdi Dates and Poppies is another foray into superimposition. A lot could be said about how the text is structured, what it takes from noh and what it leaves  alone, and how the English language conditions the narrative flow. These are interesting topics, and I’m hoping that author Carrie Preston will talk about some of them in her own blog postings. Words and music are so tightly bound in noh that it’s nearly impossible to talk about one without the other, but I’d like to concentrate my own efforts on the musical montage that emerged as I superimposed a Western compositional mindset onto traditional noh structures. I won’t pretend that I knew what I was doing, but I did have certain intentions, some of which I think I achieved. What I hope will happen as I continue posting, though, is that someone will find the dog.


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Water Masks, Water Songs

WRM - Logo copy

Contributed by Linda Ehrlich

In San Antonio, a city with a beautiful RiverWalk that reminds me of Kyoto. The WHERE RIVERS MEET event is in full swing, with film showings, practices for theatrical performances, and arts events. I’ve been helping with this, as guest film curator, for a long time now and it’s exciting to know that it’s underway. Last June [June, 2014] I was an invited speaker at the Noh Training workshop in Bloomsburg, PA, and there I met Kevin Salfen—mastermind of this multi-faceted event. It’s always remarkable how one thing leads to another (perhaps that’s one thing the Buddhist teaching of cause-and-effect is about).

Hurricane Patricia delayed my arrival, unfortunately. It turned out that the flooding and winds weren’t as bad as predicted, but there was no way to know at a distance. So far I’ve enjoyed the gem-like McNay Museum of modern art (in a former private mansion) with its small Japanese garden, and the galleries of the San Antonio Museum of Art with a Japanese art gallery complete with a tokonoma and tatami.

Before leaving Cleveland I wrote intros to two films that feature noh performances [ED: these films were shown on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015]. Here are excerpts from those intros: [Note: I put Japanese names in Japanese style, with the family name first]

THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL (Tora no Ō o fumu otokotachi, 1945/52)

Looking at the span of KUROSAWA Akira’s 50-year career in the cinema from 1943-1990, we can see how he was able to produce moments of quiet epiphany which often remain in the mind of the viewer long after the thrill of the battle has passed. That is the case with today’s little known Kurosawa film Tora no Ō o fumu otokotachi.

THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL was made in 1945 but only released in 1952, due to a misreading by both Japanese and American Occupation censors. The former (the wartime Japanese) viewed the film as an insult to revered feudal histories; the latter (the American Occupation censors who reviewed Japanese films between 1945-52) saw The Men who Tread on a Tiger’s Tail as too feudalistic. They were both wrong

MEN_who_treadThis film is based on the noh play Ataka, which later became the kabuki play Kanjinchō. The story itself is based on actual events in Japanese medieval history. In the play, and film, a group of loyal retainers impersonate mountain priests (yamabushi), in an attempt to get their lord Minamoto Yoshitsune across a barrier post to freedom, after Yoshitsune’s half-brother Yoritomo issues an order for his death. These fake yamabushi are supposedly collecting subscriptions for the rebuilding of Tōdaiji temple in Nara (the temple of the Daibutsu)—hence the English translation of the kabuki play as The Subscription List. In the band disguised as the fierce yamabushi in today’s film, you might recognize familiar actors such as Shimura Takashi (IKIRU) and Mori Masayuki (Mizoguchi’s UGETSU).

The noh play is named for one of the barriers the men have to cross—those barriers were real border checkpoints. The presumed author of the original Noh play is Nobumitsu, the seventh son of Zeami’s nephew Onnami. Kurosawa loved the noh theatre and also used it to extraordinary effect in his later film (with the odd English title) Throne of Blood (literally “The Spiderweb’s Castle,” Kumo no sū jo, 1957  ).

The Kabuki play Kanjinchō is a very popular play, even today. According to (my professor) Jim Brandon’s last book Kabuki’s Forgotten War, not only was Kanjinchō extremely popular in the Edo/Tokugawa period of the 17th—mid-19th century, the play was produced 43 times in the wartime years between 1931 and 1945 (That comes to about 3x per year).

So the story is both Noh and kabuki, with its jo-ha-kyu pattern (slow-medium-fast pacing). You’ll see the restricted, stage-like setting of Noh. This works to heighten the dramatic effect. At times, however, you’ll catch a sense of expressive and rapid movement back and forth across the set, as on a kabuki stge. Some of this also reflects the very low budget and small amount of film stock common to much wartime filming.

There is also an exceptional kyōgen aspect to the film. This is because of Kurosawa’s decision to include a comic porter not found in the plays. That role is performed by the great comedian ENOMOTO Kenichi, commonly known as “Enoken.” Think about him in relation to the audience, to us. One clue is in the final tobi-roppo—usually reserved for the great warrior Benkei down the hanamichi (passageway through the audience) in the kabuki play. Film historian Donald Richie wrote that adding Enoken to this story was “like adding Jerry Lewis to a Shakespearean play.” The comic porter role also helped Kurosawa subvert the nationalistic goals of the military authorities who had encouraged him to make the film.

We can also think of this comic porter as a trickster, a “lord of the in-between.” In The Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, we also have the trickster monks, but Kurosawa’s use of that theme reached its grandest moment in Yojimbo (1961) where a clever penniless samurai (rōnin) tries to clean up a decadent town. That film was remade as A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood, in a setting more like old San Antonio.

Finally, please notice Kurosawa’s updating of this historical tale with a contemporary cinematic approach. Note the use of wipes and of specific camera angles that reveal who is really noble among this motley group of men. Also you will see Kurosawa’s penchant for 3-part stepped editing from long-shot to medium-close to close-up.

LATE SPRING (Banshun, 1949) introduction:
So what is Ozu’s cinematic world like? Very understated. there are no fancy transitions, no special effects, no evocative music—no,no,no. In fact, the Chinese character he chose for his gravestone is “mu, “or nothingness (a Buddhist concept suggesting, paradoxically, “fullness.”) As Japanese writer KAWABATA Yasunari wrote in his Nobel Prize speech, the Zen sense of nothingness is really “a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds.”

Then again, Ozu’s films are not to be confused with the natural, because they are really highly choreographed and precise. The actors were told where they must sit in relation to the lines at the edges of the tatami mats, how to gesture, where their eyes should focus.

Late_springOzu’s films are full of patterns, symmetries, parallels, cycles and repeated motifs—something film scholar David Bordwell illustrated brilliantly in his book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. These might be repetitions of seemingly simple objects (trains running along tracks, laundry hanging from a line), or repetitions of larger structural themes. Ozu also liked to play with his patterns, sometimes tricking us when we expect a certain connection and then giving us something else. Film Scholar Kirsten Thompson wrote: “Ozu’s playfulness is precise but it is also unpredictable.”

As Bordwell wrote: “When a single event finds a spot within all these structures, it gains an enormous narrative richness.” Another writer, Paul Coates, even compared Ozu’s geometric compositions to paintings by Mondrian or by the great Italian painter of still lifes, Morandi.

Here’s a paradox of Ozu’s cinema—you strip down the stories, the action, the camera movement to its bare minimum, and what is left is something so recognizable that it doesn’t matter that the characters are speaking another language and live in another country. Then again, the films also reflect very specific times in modern Japanese history. In the case of LATE SPRING, the setting is post-WWII Japan when the memories of the hardships of wartime were still vivid.

A young director who served as an assistant director to Ozu, and rebelled against him, was Yoshida Yoshishige (aka Yoshida Kiju). Yoshida went on to make his own highly experimental films but, as an older man, re-evaluated his earlier appraisal of Ozu and has written a fascinating book, of short, succinct passages, entitled Ozu’s Anti-Cinema, beautifully translated by Daisuke Miyao and Kyoko Hirano.

In this revisiting of Ozu’s work, Yoshida wrote:

“Viewers do not look at Ozu’s films, but vice versa. In this sense, Ozu-san’s films seem to deny their own existence…Ozu’-san’s films are about looking at humans from the point of view of objects.” To elaborate on the last sentence—it doesn’t mean objectifying the people, but rather how the objects themselves seem to play a role as characters. Ozu leaves us with rooms left empty and quiet, after their owners have departed, rooms that seem to have lives of their own.

Another Japanese film historian, Satō Tadao, earlier wrote a similar estimation of Ozu’s work when he said that “the characters in Ozu’s films always act as if they were aware they were being watched…Yet even when people and the objects around them barely move, their inner beings go through incredible transformations in pursuit of harmony”

The Noh play seen in the film–we believe it is Kakitsubata (The Water Iris), a third category/woman play, based on an episode in the Heian-period classic The Tale of Ise (Ise monogatari). The play is attributed to Zeami although more recently to Komparu Zenchiku. The title refers to how the water iris blooms in mid to late spring. Kakitsubata recounts the time when the Heian-period poet Ariwara no Narihira (a frequent love interest) visited Yatsuhashi. He composes a poem about irises he sees there. The figure of the young woman we’ll see in the play-within-a-play is the spirit of those irises.

But the actual Noh play is never identified in the film, and most Japanese viewers wouldn’t recognize it. What is astonishing is how long the sequence is, and what happens near the end. According to one scholar, this play is “a tribute to the union of man and woman, leading to enlightenment.”

Well, this has been a lot to say about someone who described himself as nothing more than a “tofu maker.”

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Girl in the Grave Mound


[EDITOR’S NOTE: Ms. Kagan-Dubroff recently performed the kokata role in the English-language adaptation of Sumidagawa “Sumida River,” in South Texas. The kokata (子方) role in the play is a depiction of the Spirit of a Dead Boy. During almost all of the performance she is hidden from view of the audience within the tsukurimono (作り物, in this case; a grave mound.) During the South Texas 2015 performance tour, we asked her “Just what is it that you’re doing in there that whole time?” Below is her response. Ms. Kagan-Dubroff is 10 years old.]

Contributed by Miriam Kagan-Dubroff

When the little girl is sitting in the grave mound, what does she do? That is the question I know you’re asking and I’m here to answer it. I try to do all the things I can to amuse myself . The first thing I do is find a position in which I think I will be comfortable for _DSC0273most of the play. Then I try to amuse myself by shadow puppets and looking for shapes in the fabric covering the grave. Sometimes if I’m a bit sleepy , I close my eyes and listen to the Ji sing. [The “ji” is the chorus.]

Once I come out I see people starting to whisper to each other. I can’t help but wonder what they’re saying. I try so hard not to smile. I bet you’re wondering how I keep a straight face. I’ll admit, it isn’t easy. But the trick is to think of something scary or sad. I think of the most horrible nightmare I ever had. If that doesn’t work I think of my role in the play. I imagine I’m actually a dead boy that would never be able to live again. When I look at the mask Kinue [大島衣恵, Oshima Kinue, the shite actor] is wearing, I see the mother’s face and it looks so sad. That wipes the smile right off my face. I have performed this play once before at Zen Mountain Monastery and really enjoyed it. I’m so exited to be in Sumida River again.

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羽衣: くせ

The kuse section from the August 2, 2014 performance of Hagoromo [羽衣] from the 20th Anniversary season of the Noh Training Project. Featuring participants of the Noh Training Project, and members of Theatre Nohgaku.

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Revisiting “A River Runs through It”

Contributed by Jeff Crane

              Many years ago I was driving out of Yellowstone National Park through the West Entrance, following the beautiful Madison River, and noticed a man standing on a boulder in the middle of it, casting repeatedly without his fly making contact with the water. I knew immediately what he was doing and, being a wisenheimer in my youth, pulled over to observe. Just a few days earlier I had pretended to shop in a fly-fishing store in Jackson Hole, shocked at the exorbitant prices for flies and poles. As I wandered the store fantasizing about new gear, I overheard one man who, on hearing about the outstanding fishing at Henry’s Fork (legendary trout waters), responded, “I didn’t fly here from California to fish in Idaho.” Other tourists dropped thousands of dollars on poles, nets, dry flies, and waders. As a native Northwesterner I was trained to dislike a certain kind of 100806_03tourist, and the guy on the rock seemed to fit into this category. He was trying to shadowcast like Paul Maclean in the movie A River Runs through It. I knew this and so deliberately ruined his moment by watching him until he gave up. After that, he stepped into the river and worked his way upstream the way a fly fisherman should.

I had forgotten this incident until asked to introduce the movie, the first in the film series for the project Where Rivers Meet. As I reflected on Robert Redford’s 1992 film and its impact on me, I recalled this event and how for years I had told the story for laughs over beer. Now the sins of my callow youth became clear to me. Like many of us, that would-be shadowcaster was seeking beauty, transcendence, maybe even the sublime.

There is a belief amongst fly fishermen in the West that the film version of A River Runs through It ruined fly fishing, its popularity creating a boom of fly fishing pretenders for several years. Over time I became one of those who complained about tourists ruining our rivers and places of beauty. What I conveniently forgot was that the movie and the novel were what led me to fly fishing too. Except for the money, I was similar to those fly fishing tourists. I had fished my entire life. From running a trot line for catfish in Mississippi to tossing a Mepps lure for trout in the Cascades of Washington to trolling a silver spoon and chartreuse squid for salmon in Puget Sound, I had certainly known fishing waters. But fly fishing had remained foreign. Inspired by the beauty of the movie and novel and what this type of fishing seemed to offer, I endeavored to make myself a fly fisherman. And this has meant everything to me.

_DSC9879My days and evenings fishing the North Fork of the Clearwater (which Norman Maclean regularly fished), Kelly Creek, Henry’s Fork, and the Solduc, watching a cutt rise to slurp down a parachute adams, or seeing the flashing bright colors of a rainbow fighting through riffles, are a consequence of my seeing this film. Learning to read, work, and truly understand a river with a fly rod, and thereby escaping the pressures and anxieties of modern life while better comprehending nature and my place in it, is a gift of this film and novel.

As for Redford’s film, which won an Oscar for best cinematography and was nominated in other categories, I think it is his best work. The movie, like the novel, captures the beauty of the western landscape and the ability to temporarily transcend our limitations through immersion in nature. It is a beautiful and haunting story about loving someone bent on self-destruction, and so it is a story with themes that cut across culture and time. But the novel initially met with resistance from publishers. One rejection letter noted disapprovingly that there were trees in the story. Finally, in support of one of their beloved professors, the University of Chicago Press published it in 1976, making Maclean’s work the first fiction the press ever published.

The movie is great, but the novel is a treasure. And one that is not nearly as well-known as it should be. This might be because it has been classified as “western literature,” a category that novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner felt unfairly rendered great literature set in the West as merely “regional literature.” It might also be due to the fact that Maclean started _DSC1208writing fiction late in life, after retirement, and so did not build a strong following of readers. Another factor might be the rise of a more varied field of literature featuring the perspectives of people historically and culturally marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, and sexuality. In such a literary milieu A River Runs through It may feel overly masculine and traditional. It deserves greater empathy. Journalist and novelist Pete Dexter writes of the novel that it “filled holes inside me that had been so long in the making that I’d stopped noticing they were there. It is a story about Maclean and his brother, Paul, who was beaten to death with a gun butt in 1938. It is about not understanding what you love, about not being able to help. It is the truest story I ever read; it might be the best written. And to this day it won’t leave me alone.”

Those lauding the novel often cite the passage describing the use of Mrs. Maclean’s metronome to teach the rhythm of fly casting or quote the stunningly beautiful closing passage. I want to consider a different passage from the novel, one that captures the precision and beauty of Maclean’s writing, relates to key themes in Where Rivers Meet, and is conveyed effectively in the film.

The passage describes a quiet moment on a riverbank as Norman and the father watch Paul Maclean fish. It conveys the sense that older brother Norman has of being less than Paul in his father’s eyes and his father’s effort to correct it. “While my father was watching my brother, he reached over to pat me, but he missed, so he had to turn his eyes and look for my knee and try again. He must have thought that I felt neglected and that he should tell me he was proud of me also but for other reasons.” From there he describes Paul moving through the powerful waters of the Big Blackfoot in language that any fly fisherman would recognize as accurate. “It was a little too deep and fast where Paul was _DSC6276trying to wade the river, and he knew it. He was crouched over the water and his arms were spread wide for balance. If you were a wader of big rivers you could have felt with him even at a distance the power of the water making his legs weak and wavy and ready to swim out from under him. He looked downstream to estimate how far it was to an easier place to wade.” Then the father’s deep knowledge of his son, of his personal quirks, his recklessness and tendency toward self-destruction, is revealed in a passage reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver in its ability to suggest much through restrained, minimalist prose. “My father said, ‘He won’t take the trouble to walk downstream. He’ll swim it.’ At the same time Paul thought the same thing, and put his cigarette and matches in his hat.”

What follows is a passage of pure beauty as Maclean reveals the fondness of the older brother for the lost younger one and, at the same time, captures what was best about their lives on one of those glorious days shared by a father and his sons on the bank of the Big Blackfoot River.

“…However, one closeup picture of him at the end of this day remains in my mind, as if fixed by some chemical bath. Usually, just after he finished fishing he had little to say unless he saw he could have fished better. Otherwise, he merely smiled. Now flies danced around his hatband. Large drops of water ran from under his hat on to his face and then into his lips when he smiled. At the end of this day, then, I remember him both as a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter.

_DSC5328My father always felt shy when compelled to praise one of his family, and his family always felt shy when he praised them. My father said, ‘You are a fine fisherman.’

My brother said, ‘I’m pretty good with a rod, but I need three more years before I can think like a fish.’

Remembering that he had caught his limit by switching to George’s No. 2 Yellow Hackle with a feather wing, I said without knowing how much I said, ‘You already know how to think like a dead stone fly.’

We sat on the bank and the river went by. As always, it was making sounds to itself, and now it made sounds to us. It would be hard to find three men sitting side by side who knew better what a river was saying.”

As in Sumida River and Curlew River, in A River Runs through It rivers and nature are intertwined with loss and, to varying degrees, memory and redemption. This moving narrative of youth entwined with nature, of the transcendence and solace found in casting a fly to a four-count rhythm, and of the struggle to understand why some people simply will not be helped, speaks to us in the same manner as Where Rivers Meet speaks to us of love and loss. Noh theater, British opera, and American literature and cinema remind us of the power of nature, not as a backdrop but as the living stage on which we act out our lives and even as a character in our individual and collective stories.

Dr. Jeff Crane,
Associate Dean, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
University of the Incarnate Word

Visit Jeff Crane’s author page on Amazon.

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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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