Kyogen Workshop

I took a 10-day workshop in Kyogen, the 700-year-old comedy form of Noh theatre taught by 8 different Kyogen actors, including Manzo Nomura IX, who is a Living National Treasure.  The form blends ancient techniques of Chinese and Japanese theatre. There is no book for teaching Noh and Kyogen. It is handed down by experienced actors and learned through imitation. Children begin learning at 3 or 4 in a 5-minute lesson. Each day 2 minutes are added to the lesson. The first role given to a child is that of a monkey. The role is quite a difficult one because the player must wear a mask which limits breathing and visibility.  During one of our sessions we put on the masks and moved around on the stage which proved to be quite challenging. The wearing of masks in Nom and Kyogen symbolizes the embodiment of the gods.

The workshop was from 10 – 5 every day and at the end we presented a performance to an audience. This was the most difficult work I have ever attempted! Dance and theatre have been challenging for me but I also felt that I had some talent or gift for it. This workshop showed me my weaknesses and really put me in my place.

There were 6 gaijin (foreigners), 2 from the US, 1 director from the UK, 1 director from Germany as well as a French director and dancer who was his wife.  The rest of the participants were Japanese dancers and actors. We were allowed to choose what we wanted to learn. I wanted a challenge so I chose to take on a small role (in Japanese) in one of the plays. All of the other gaijin chose to learn songs and dances which is actually the first step in learning how to be a Kyogen performer. I spent hours and hours outside of workshop time just trying to learn the lines, which are written in 600-year-old Japanese which is even difficult for modern Japanese speakers. The instructor and I decided that it was truly impossible for me to experience success in this role.

So then I began to try to catch up with my other colleagues who were well on their way to learning 2 songs and the fan dances that went with them. Again I spent many hours learning ancient Japanese words, strange melodies and how to move and manipulate a fan while wearing a tight kimono. I did eventually feel confidence in performing these dances and songs. The performance was terrifying but ended up being quite successful. I was most impressed by my Japanese friends’ performances in this completely unrealistic, extremely challenging form.

Another small role we all had was to perform as mushrooms, where we scurried around on the balls of our feet with our butts on our heels, very close to the floor and then squatted in stillness on our knees. This was very difficult.

Another small role we all had was to perform as mushrooms, where we scurried around on the balls of our feet with our butts on our heels, very close to the floor and then squatted in stillness on our knees. This was very difficult!

The Noh stage is designed with concepts from the Shinto religion in mind. All aspects of human life are included. The actors enter from the west, like ghosts travelling down a bridge from the past to the present to share a story. The audience sits in the south, highest point of the sun, the position of the gods. There is a small door on the eastern side signifying rebirth and transformation. This is the entrance for the assistants, played by high ranking actors who help with onstage costume and prop changes. Big lives come from small doors.  Upon entering the actors must bend low and step through from darkness into the light, birth into the Kyogen world. The north side is where the musicians sit. This is the dark shadow side into which the audience sees. The music (drums, flute and voice) is a significant part of the story, keeping the rhythm, reflecting the inner life of the characters as well as sound effects. There is a pine tree painted on the back wall, whose evergreen nature signifies all seasons. The three pine trees in front of the bridge where the actors enter are small, medium and tall to give perspective. A moat filled with small white stones surrounds the stage, both to include the element light and to illuminate the actors. Underneath the wooden stage huge earthenware pots are arranged to add resonance for voices and foot stamping in the dances. The columns are named for 1st , 2nd, and 3rd actors and signify their positions on the stage. The 4th column is called “metsuke” or eye-fixing column and is used for mask navigation.

Noh drama was created to entertain the upper classes and Kyogen is for lower social classes. The costumes for Noh and Kyogen are basically the same. High-class characters wear long “hakima” (pants) which drag the ground always striped to symbolize stability. Lower class characters, servants and such wear short hakima always plaid. The long pants signify that these characters don’t have to do as much movement as their lower ranking associates. Actors must practice manipulating and moving these enormous pantlegs, not to mention sleeves. swords, and the fans, which are used to represent pantomimed props. All Kyogen characters, whether high or low class wear the symbol of the dandelion on their costumes, symbolizing the toughness and stubbornness of the common people who will always endure. High class characters use real swords rather than fans which are used by the lower class counterparts.

The “Maku” (curtain) which is raised by 2 bamboo poles for the slow “suriashi” (sliding walk) entrances of the actors contains 5 colors suggestive of the 5 elements of human life: 1) Green – nature, 2) Yellow – metal for tools, 3) Red – fire for heat. 4) White – water, 5) Purple – earth. These symbols come from Taoist and Buddhist  philosophies.

Noh and Kyogen use exaggerated movement and voice because they were originally performed in outside gardens where the audience was farther away than in the more focused concentrated area of the Noh theatre. My personal belief is that, as ghosts from the past returning to earth to tell stories, these characters have forgotten how to be human and therefore must present themselves as best they can, from memories of what it was like to be in the world. The style also relates to samurai ideals of a kind of sadistic stoicism, keeping death in mind there is no time to relax; you must behave with focused, patient tension. Kyogen and Noh are like life, difficult and painful; you must endure, hold and build the tension until the release at the end.

Use of the voice is probably the most significant aspect of Noh and Kyogen. They told us to speak like we are singing, with the vocal current flowing like a river over stones. The actors exchange breath with eachother as they speak.

I have seen four different Noh /Kyogen performances. This workshop has given me such insight into this fascinating theatre form. Each time I witness a performance  I enjoy it more and feel that I gained so much understanding from the workshop. Thank you International Theatre Institute.