Rehearsal March 18, hopping into the Sagi kyōgen Saddle, and a trip to the Yamaguchi Prefectural Art Museum.

My Saturday began with a trip to Yamaguchi’s Prefectural art museum. I am a bit ashamed to say this is the first time I have gone, mainly because it has a pretty high caliber collection of local art and touring exhibits. I went to hear Tarō speak about a collection of Mōri family masks and costumes from noh and kyōgen which are typically kept at Noda Shrine. As I learned, the collection, which was basically all about 300+ years old was some of the remaining pieces that hadn’t been auctioned off during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) when the clan system was dissolved and the Mōri clan started selling off their collections. Tarō’s talk was basic in nature, and introduced the crowd to the differences between noh and kyōgen masks and explained the intricacies of noh/kyōgen costumes and props. Afterwards, I got to meet the curator of exhibit and learned that many of the Sagi actors in Yamaguchi were born in Yamaguchi, mainly in the seat of the Mōri clans power, Hagi- I need to look into this.

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Hannya Mask, perhaps the most famous of noh masks. Depicts the various emotions of jealous woman. Angry or sad, depending on the angle, but smiling in spite of it all. 

I also got a question answered which I asked some time ago regarding why Sagi kyōgen was popular in Yamaguchi, despite the Mōri clan’s longstanding grudge against the Tokugawa government. According to the exhibit, the 2nd generation Mōri daimyo befriended Tokugawa Hidetada, the 2nd Tokugawa shogun and, as a result a large number of Kita and Hosho school noh families moved to Yamaguchi with the daimyo’s support. While this doesn’t speak directly to Sagi kyōgen, it illustrates that the Mōri clan wasn’t necessarily a long-suffering opponent of the Tokugawa clan. As Tarō said to me later in the day “It was the Japanese way at that time. Friends today, but tomorrow…?”

Anyways, turns out Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat will be making its way to Yamaguchi’s Prefectural Art museum- looking forward to seeing that in real life!

Later in the day I took my first Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen lesson. After some sound advice from a man much wiser than I, I decided to take advantage of Tarō’s time being freed up since his kyōgen classroom is on hiatus, and ask him to start teaching me Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen. Since the typical time in which this would occur, should a local wish to participate, is on Saturdays from 5pm-6pm before the main rehearsals, so it is for me.

I was pretty unsure of what to expect for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Tarō was aware I had taken kyōgen lessons with both the Shigeyama family in Kyoto and with the Izumi school’s Ogasawara Tadashi in Tokyo. I performed as the master in the play Shibiri as part of the summer Traditional Theater Training program offered by the Kyoto art center in 2011. This program lets people study for 3 weeks with either professional Kanze noh actors, Ōkura kyōgen actors (Shigeyama family), and nihonbuyo dance teachers and perform on the Kanze Kaikan noh stage in Kyoto. It’s really an amazing thing- Yes, I am plugging it and yes, you can still sign up for this summer! I spent almost a year learning Izumi style komai (short kyōgen song and dance pieces) from Ogasawara sensei in 2014-15 and he was the one who introduced me to Sagi kyōgen in Yamaguchi and Sadogashima.

Secondly, I was also unsure of how I would be taught, since: A) the kyōgen language is not something I can just read off the page- it is in old Japanese and I have enough trouble with contemporary Japanese! and: B) we had not discussed what we would be working on.

True to the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen way I heard about, though not yet seen, we wasted no time sitting and reading and got right to it. The rehearsal started off with Tarō showing me the basic introduction nanori, or name announcing, which is the same in a number of plays, along with some basic movement (kata) when entering, walking and turning. He spoke the text aloud, asked me to repeat it, and corrected my pronunciation when necessary. As I am not an actor, per se, I was of course given the obligatory note “speak from your diaphragm.”

Comparatively speaking, all three kyōgen stances require one to bend the knees slightly, bring the chest forward and pull the head back. While the Shigeyama style required me to bend my legs a lot (mainly because I am tall), the Izumi school required almost no bending at all. The Yamaguchi Sagi style sits somewhere in the middle, with my legs being slightly bent. I’m not 100 percent sure at this point, but I also think the Shigeyama style also may require a kind of forward leaning that is more pronounced than the other two, but admittedly, I didn’t pay as much attention to this in my first Yamaguchi Sagi rehearsal, so I will have to keep an eye out about that in the future.

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Some other differences included the way you point the fan as the master when you call for Tarō Kaja (the Yamaguchi Sagi people have a unique way of doing this) and, when doing the michiyuki (walking pattern) which designates traveling over a distance, the Yamaguchi Sagi style has one walk in a triangular pattern between the the USR shite pillar (same place as the nanori), the DSR sumi-bashira, the DSL waki-bashira and then back to the shite pillar, whereas the Shigeyama version is more of a circle. I am not completely sure, but I seem to remember the Izumi michiyuki pattern was also a triangle.

After the basics, Tarō asked me, so “what play do you want to do?” I was afraid he was going to ask me that- and believe me, I can only assume my reaction was the same as what a new doctor might have if he walked into a hospital on the first day and the staff said “so what operation do you want to do first?” Terrifying. Since Tarō knew I had done Shibiri, we decided to do that one, but this time I had to be Tarō Kaja. The play is only about 10 minutes long, which is good, since I would prefer to be able to take small bites first. Since we had no script, and I knew even if I did, I wouldn’t have the time to properly translate the script AND practice this week, I started my tape recorder. The lesson consisted of Tarō playing both parts and me repeating the part of Tarō Kaja, since that is who I was supposed to be playing.

As with any art, its the seemingly easiest things that are the most unbelievably complex. I found myself tripping over my own feet trying to do the basic walking I needed to do and repeatedly caught my body relaxing into a position which was incorrect. We spent a good 5 minutes on me trying to say the phrase “aita, aita aita aita” which basically means “ow, ow ow ow!” Listening to the recording of me doing it, I can hear what I am doing wrong, but I still don’t think I quite understand how to say it right. In revisiting the lesson I also heard myself repeatedly speaking in the patterns of the Shigeyama style of kyōgen and though, at the time, I thought I was repeating what Tarō was saying, I was, in fact, not saying it correctly at all. Boy, I hope Tarō doesn’t regret saying yes to me!

At 6pm the main group arrived and rehearsal began. It was a busy day for the middle school girl, who was required to not only practice her “hooting” as the owl-afflicted brother in the play Fukuro, but also the role of Tarō Kaja in Miyagi Daimyo because the woman playing that role was absent. As I know the reading of the scripts are difficult for everyone, I was surprised to see that although this girl had played the role of the master in this play when she performed it, she still knew all of Tarō Kaja’s lines anyways. I am going to try and take a lesson from her and attempt to remember all the lines of Shibiri, not only my own.

The last rehearsal of the day was Busu. Thanks to Tarō’s lecture at the museum earlier, I learned a little something interesting about one of the performers- the one with the incredible voice. I noticed his practice fan was not like the others, it was gold with green horizontal stripes. Since Tarō had identified this type of fan as one used by the Kanze noh school (of which Tarō studied with at the Tokyo Arts University) I knew immediately this actor must also have experience with Kanze noh- which would explain his crazy strong voice. I’m not saying that noh actors have a “stronger” voice than kyōgen actors or that Kanze noh is known for its strength of voice over other noh schools- just that the fan made it clear this actor has had prior training outside of his work as a Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actor. I’ll be interested to hear more about his experiences when I start interviewing in a few weeks.

Rehearsal, Saturday March 10 and a Day at Ouchi Elementary’s Yamadera Concert

This weekend was super busy with rehearsals on Saturday and an all day performance at Ouchi Elementary school on Sunday.

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Rehearsal was rather low key as Tarō was busy hosting an event downtown for an Amami Shima-uta musician from Kikaijima named Saori Kawabata. She plays the sanshin, which is a 3-stringed banjo-like precursor of the better known shamisen, which is the 3 stringed instrument you probably hear whenever something needs a “Japanese” sound. The sanshin was first brought to Okinawa sometime in the 16th century. The instrument was adopted by blind narrative chanters known as biwa hoshi (named for playing the biwa, which is also a stringed instrument) who started collaborating with puppeteers sometime in the last 10 years of the 1500s. This collaboration would lead to the creation of ningyō jōruri and bunraku puppet theatre. The shamisen was also adopted by the kabuki theatre.

Unlike the shamisen, which is typically made from cat or dog skin (sorry kitties and puppies!), the sanshin is made from snake skin (python to be exact, sorry snakes!), though today you can buy non animal skin ones. It also makes use of a chimi, which is a claw like apparatus worn on the index finger to pluck the strings, whereas the shamisen uses a flat paddle-like plecturn. Sound-wise, it is said because the shamisen has no B or F notes, it is a brighter sounding instrument than the shamisen, but I imagine people would probably debate that point. I’m not a musician so I don’t know.

Shima-uta is a brand of music specific to the of Amami Islands, which like Okinawa, makes up part of the Ryukyu island archipelagos. Among the Amami islands is Kikaijima, which is where Kawabata-san is from. It got real popular after 2000 as a form of pop-music/traditional music fusion thing.

Anyways, at rehearsal, Bunmei worked with some of the new actors, one of which I have seen around lately, but have yet to meet officially. The group worked on Busu, which was conducted in a more “traditional” way of rehearsing, in which Bunmei recited and the corresponding actor repeated the lines. Since the new guy seemed pretty good at it and didn’t have any trouble remembering long passages of text to repeat, I’m thinking he might just be coming back to the group after an extended absence- I’ll find out.

Sunday at around noon, I headed over to Ouchi Elementary school to attend the 8th annual Yamadera Concert. According to the program, this concert is kind of a homage (I guess) to an event called the “February Meeting” which used to be held up until the end of the Edo period (1600-1868) at Yamaguchi’s famous temple Kōryūji. This year there was a combination of pre-schoolers (I think) singing, kids Sagi kyōgen, Kawabata-san and shima-uta, Sagi kyōgen, bugaku and gagaku. Fortunately it was a nice day, so the turnout was good (at least at first).

First up was the Kangaroo Pocket group, which was the pre-schoolers singing really basic stuff. Certainly something more for the parents than the general public, I surmised, particularly as once it was over, pretty much every parent in the audience grabbed their kid and split. Next was 2 kids Sagi kyōgen shows- Busu (The Delicious Poison) and Yobi Koe (Tricked by a Rhythm). At first I thought I wondered how this event was only supposed to last about 3-4 hours when each kyōgen being performed averaged 30 minutes. However, it became clear almost immediately that the shows had been abridged.

bugaku

After the kyōgen the bugaku and gagaku performers were up. Bugaku (dance art) and gagaku (music art) are some of Japan’s oldest forms of performance, imported from Korea (then called Paekche) around 600AD by a guy named Mimashi. These forms have represented the aristocratic practically ever since and certainly influenced noh and kyōgen’s style. These were also the marks of culture the Tokugawa shogunate was trying to match when they made noh and kyōgen shikigaku (ceremonial arts of the bakufu) in the early 1600s. So, yeah, it was slow and made me sleepy. But it still was a cool thing to see it in action- the instruments are really ethereal sounding. The bugaku was performed by local kids, while the gagaku was done by adults.

shimizu

Then it was back to kids kyōgen and this time it was Fune Funa (A Pronunciation Problem) and Shimizu (A Demon for Better Working Conditions). While Shimizu and Busu are crowd favorites and really accessible, I was really surprised these kids were doing Fune Funa and Yobi Koe. Fune Funa is all about wordplay, which is really boring unless you can LOCK IT UP and Yobi Koe requires some incredible rhythmic ability. I wish I could say these kids had it, but they’d all only been rehearsing for about 2 months (though the Shimizu kids have been doing it for quite some time), so this was kind of an impossible task. That being said, since most of the actors were brothers and sisters, there was something kind of fun about watching silly power dynamics through siblings.

sakka

I finally found out why the Sagi kyōgen people were rehearsing Sakka as that was the show they did here. It was OK, but I think the performance was visibly jostled by the mass exodus of people in between shows prior. It is too bad because I think the dynamic of Tarō, Tsuchimura and Bunmei in this configuration is really good.

Finally, Kawabata-san performed. I felt bad for her going last, since there was only about 1/3 of the audience left by the time she got on stage. It also didn’t help that the whole thing was 1/2 hour behind schedule. Kawabata-san is an amazing performer and has a crazy good voice- I did find myself watching the performance as a weird hybrid of past and present, which I think is the point of shima-uta. She tried at one point to get people to sing along, sort of successfully, but again, everyone was just so drained. My only complaint about this part of the show was Kawabata-san’s voice was so strong, and this combined with gymnasium acoustics (the performance was held in the school gym, if you couldn’t tell from the pictures), made using a microphone overkill.

Rehearsal, Saturday March 4th, kyōgen magic, and a trip to the 28th Annual Nōgaku Forum in Ōsaka

This past Saturday I got treated to a little more of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen’s “kyōgen magic” as the group did their weekly rehearsal. This phrase is the way Bunmei describes kyōgen’s ability to create a new story through characterization. In the western theatre world we probably take this kind of thing for granted, as personal interpretation is a key element of performance, but in a traditional performing art like kyōgen discovering how to do this is kind of the challenge for the actor and one of the joys for the viewer.

So, as I have said over and over, kyōgen, as a traditional art, has to follow the rules- in the form of kata. These predetermined movements and vocal patterns not only define traditional kyōgen as an art form, it also separates one family’s style from another. So then, why would you watch something if it is always supposed to be the same, right?

I think the answer to that is two-fold. Let’s think of Shakespeare. On the one hand, we appreciate an actor’s ability to effectively speak in iambic-pentameter, Shakespeare’s kata, of sorts. On the other we also appreciate the new spin the actor puts on a character. Now, of course, one would probably argue that when it is discovered that a great Shakespeare performer says “oh, I didn’t even pay attention to the iambic pentameter,” only a few purists are going to clutch their pearls, because the portrayal is kind of the most important thing. In Japan, on the other hand, there is probably going to be a lot more pearl clutching going on if a kyōgen actor suddenly decided “hey, I’m just gonna do it my way.”

So how do you make something your own then? As I am learning through Yamaguchi’s “kyōgen magic,” it is all about subtlety. As I mentioned last week, Bunmei’s master in Sakka is much different than Tarō’s. That being said they are both saying the lines basically the same way and doing the same movements. So it’s got to be in the facial expressions, right? Not exactly. I would say that all the kyōgen actors in Yamaguchi avoid crazy facial expressions- This reason for this, I’m not sure, but I suspect it is similar to the western director’s common request of an actor “don’t tell me, show me.” In other words, big, hammy overacting is “telling” whereas subtlety is “showing.” In other words, a major part of enjoying a play, east or west, might be the discovery of the actor’s character through subtle cues.

I don’t think facial expression is of no value, mind you. I have mentioned the “look on Tsuchimura’s face” when he played Tarō Kaja in Sakka as a major source of my enjoyment. However, in watching him perform the character of Sakka this week, I realized his face always looks like that- it’s his “kyōgen face.” So what I think I saw in that moment was Tsuchimura’s core character realized- Zeami’s flower blooming. Much in the same way, as Bumnei plays the master, his face never changes, but his face, at times, perfectly captures a unique personality that makes his portrayal of the master different from other actors.

I also think slight variations in speech play a big part too. While I don’t think that the general rhythm of the lines changes, a well timed pause between two character’s interactions can have a profound effect on how we view the character. For example, after Tarō Kaja mimics his master exactly, sounding like an idiot, the master says “Yai, Tarō, chotto koi,” which basically means “Tarō Kaja, can I have a word with you?” When Tarō played the role of the master, he spoke the line immediately after Tarō (the character) made the mistake. This made the master seem like he was fed up with Tarō. Bunmei, on the other hand, took a slight pause before asking to speak to Tarō, which suggested a much more measured man, trying to tamp down his feelings. It is just a little pause, but it says so much about the character- facial expressions or major acting choices don’t define them, little things do. It’s pretty neat.

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One of two dolls given to Sengorō IX upon the Shigeyama family’s debut performance at the Imperial Place in 1822. On display at the Nōgaku Forum at Kansai University.

Then, on Monday, I headed to Ōsaka’s Kansai University for the 28th annual Nōgaku forum because its focus was on kyōgen. I was invited by Jonah Salz, who is basically the western kyōgen guy here in Japan (if not the world). He has been doing kyōgen fusion work with the Shigeyama kyōgen family since the 1980s and is the artistic director of Theatre NOHO, as well as a professor at Ryūkoku University in Kyōto. I owe a lot to him as he was my kyōgen sherpa for the year I lived in Kyōto.

The conference’s main purpose was to celebrate the efforts of a man named Ikari Takashi, whose family has kept a book of Shigeyama kyōgen in his family for over 100 years, however the celebrated kyōgen scholar (and deshi of Nomura Man), Taguchi Kazuo, and the recently renamed Shigeyama Sensaku also spoke. I will admit, I didn’t understand a lot of what was being said, though I did get the gist of the conference, which was to basically talk about really specific particulars which these preserved documents contained. I was also kind of bummed that a conference on kyōgen didn’t include a professional Izumi school actor, since the Shigeyama family was so well represented.

In the last roundtable discussion that included all the guests, I was struck by Ikari-san’s assertion that Shigeyama kyōgen is good because it is “real,” as in reflecting a contemporary audience’s definition of “real.” I thought that was a really weird thing to say for two reasons. One, I wonder if the “real” thing is a contemporary poisoning of Japanese aesthetics by western acting models? I mean, at over 600 years old, kyōgen is not real at all by contemporary standards, so why would real be something that is prized? Second, the comment also made me kind of sad. I like kyōgen because it offers a reality that is not my own- It requires me to use my imagination and be a part of a world that isn’t my “real” life. Maybe I am just being a snob, but frankly, when it comes to theatre, sometimes I think Realism can cram it with walnuts.

Overall, I was most appreciative of spending time with Professor Salz, who taught me two very interesting things about amateurs I need to look into. One, he noted that at a certain point in the Meiji period (I think) when the Shigeyama family’s father had a falling out with his son, the father refused to teach his son and the family split into two. The son wanted to continue, so he got trained by amateur Shigeyama actors. Eventually, the son became the main man and his kyōgen became the standard for Shigeyema kyōgen. Professor Salz noted that collaboration is not only interesting because it shows how necessary amateur actors were in this case, it also explains why the Shigeyama’s style is less stiff compared to other kyōgen families.

Second, during one of the breaks, Professor Salz went and spoke to Sensaku backstage. At this point Sensaku told him that before the establishment of the Nogakudo in the 1940s, the line between amateur and professional was way less strict. Once the “union” came to be, however, the actors were forced to create official lines between themselves and the “amateur” students.

This was some really interesting stuff. I need to get on top of both of these things!

Rehearsal, Saturday February 25

Got to get this one in before I go to my rehearsal today! Things have been hectic this past week, so I haven’t had the chance to get this done. This Saturday’s rehearsal was pretty comprehensive as the group rehearsed three out of the five plays they will be doing for the Fall 2017 show. With the Shigeyama hanagata show and questions of labels still swimming around in my brain, as I watched this rehearsal, I really started thinking about the ramifications of separating art from person in a Japanese traditional performing art like kyōgen.

The first performance practiced was Fukuro and to my surprise, one of the middle school girls from Ōdono had come because she will be playing the part of the looney, hooting, brother who is the cause for the yamabushi being summoned. Bunmei was kind enough to give me a copy of the script he had made, which enabled me to follow along and see how the actors worked with it. Professional kyōgen is an art form utilizing kuchi utsushi, or oral transmission, and Sagi kyōgen is no different. This means that the script alone is kind of useless (at least in terms of exact performance execution) without a master to interpret and clarify notes.  Bunmei, Professor Inada and Tarō did this, particularly for the middle school student who seemed genuinely bewildered by the whole experience.

I was surprised at how short Fukuro is. The script itself is about two pages- although I have not seen the actual performance of it, so I am unsure how much action will contribute to the length of the performance. The middle school student has only one line (repeatedly saying “hoot”), but the yamabushi has some pretty complicated chanting to do.

Since there was a lack of attendees (at least at first) the next play rehearsed was Sakka. I was particularly interested in the way Bunmei was playing the master, as Tarō played this role last time. Unlike Tarō’s portrayal of the character as a stern and quick to anger fellow, Bunmei played the master as an exhausted victim of Tarō Kaja’s buffoonery. I don’t know that either are “correct,” but I will say Bunmei’s version definitely made the master a lot “funnier.” Dramatically speaking, Bunmei’s version enabled a build up in the anger of the master, so when he finally grabs Tarō Kaja it is clear that he can no longer stand the shenanigans. But this just be my western sensibilities on drama coloring my impression of the performance.

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That being said, I began to think about the various ways in which traditional performing art must function-i.e what are the influences that shape it? Unlike a western play where, I think, art is either an expression of self (be it the actor, director or playwright) or an expression of style (again, same), or a combination of both, traditional performing arts, in particular ones like Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, have the added complication of expression of community. I tried to envision a chart that might show how these three considerations interact- First I thought maybe a venn diagram, with self, community and art all overlapping in various ways- I also thought maybe tradition itself should be a factor- so I created a circle within a circle style graph with self being the center, followed by community, then art and finally tradition. In other words, if self is the center, then community influences self, which in turn is influenced by art, which in turn is influenced by tradition…I’m not sure how I feel about either of these models…

Finally Shinbō-san arrived, so Miyagi Daimyo could be rehearsed. Like last week, Shinbō was the one getting hammered the hardest in terms of direction. This week’s most common note was “shikkari,” which I suspect meant Shinbō was not vocally presenting the firm convictions necessary of the character. I also got that these convictions are not just vocal considerations, but character ones as well. Since Tarō Kaja in this play is an expert compared to his idiotic master, the confidence in the actor’s voice is a key component of illustrating that fact.

Shigeyama Hangata kyōgen

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This past Saturday before rehearsal I went to Munakata’s Yurix Performing Arts Center (I don’t know what a Yurix is…) to see the young kyōgen stars (sort of) of the Ōkura school’s Shigeyama family perform one traditional and four shinsaku (new) kyōgen. The event was illuminating, but curious, to say the least, as what the group performed really got me thinking about how amorphous kyōgen really is.

First there is the traditional side. I have already spoke about the idea that within every school (Ōkura, Izumi and Sagi) there are families (such as the Shigeyama’s, Nomura’s, etc) and within those families are different ways of performing. While the uniqueness of an actor is nothing new in the western world, because kyōgen is a traditional performing art, there is the expectation that what is being done is a preserved version of what once was. In the rules for being an intangible asset it says that it is expected of a recipient (person or place) that they will continue to maintain, with little deviation from, the style of the art that has been passed down through their respective generations. Typically, the weight of carrying on the family traditions resides primarily with the first born son of the main line. In the Shigeyama family, this is Sengorō XIV’s job today.

Then there is the innovation side. The Shigeyamas are kyōgen’s bad boys and are known collectively as “Ōtofu kyōgen.” In an interview with Sennojō Shigeyama the Japan foundation did, Sennojō explained that when his grandfather was performing, because his style was so “bland,” critics started calling Shigeyama kyōgen tofu kyōgen. However, this label was quickly embraced as a compliment by the family, and Sennojō suggests that because tofu goes with anything and everyone can enjoy it, being tofu is a good thing. I think this label enabled them to let their creative impulses fly in a way that may seem contrary to traditionalists. Sennojō, after all, was one of the first kyōgen actors whose inter-arts collaborations did not rock the foundations of the traditional performing arts world.

But Sennojō is not a first son, he is a second. The second, third and so on, born sons have more freedom to experiment because they typically aren’t saddled with the burden of exacting transmission. So, for example, since Sennojō was the second son of Sengoro XI, this is probably the reason why he had more freedom to pursue those non-traditional projects. Today. Sennojō’s son Akira and his son, Dōji, also enjoy such freedoms and have been long active in inter-cultural performances in Japan and abroad.

At Saturday’s performance, this push and pull between tradition and artistic innovation slapped me in the face. First and foremost is that while four of the five members of the production are not the main-line’s actors, Sengorō XIV is- in fact he the family namesake (as of 2016, which would explain his inclusion in this event, I think)!  So what is the deal with him acting in these non-traditional kyōgen? More importantly, why are these plays being presented falling under the umbrella of kyōgen?

Watching the first play, the traditional Kaki Yamabushi, I could see how the Shigeyamas live up to their name while doing what most would call “kyōgen.” Compared to the Nomura kyōgen I had seen recently and the Sagi kyōgen I watch all the time, this was like kyōgen on speed. The gestures were bigger, the laughter more booming, the zaniness way more pronounced. Sengorō played the role of the offending yamabushi and watching him ravenously devour those persimmons spoke to the boldness of Shigeyama kyōgen. I found myself wondering if the Ōkura school’s 13th iemoto, Toraaki, who, if you remember criticized the Sagi kyōgen of the time for being “hectic” and “saying nonsense,” was spinning in his grave.

I then watched the group perform a collection of some truly odd plays. Form-wise, some could be considered kyōgen, while more extreme others were perhaps “inspired” by kyōgen and might better be considered experimental theatre. There was an air of modernity that all of the shinsaku kyōgen breathed, as they employed modern pop music, disco balls, sporadic contemporary dialogue, and other performing art forms. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk made not one, but two appearances!

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Tanuki Yamabushi. A nonchalant tanuki (Sengorō) could care less about a loud mouthed yamabushi (Dōji) and his companion (Shigeru).

At first, I grumbled “well, this isn’t kyōgen.” But then I thought, wait a minute, am I falling into the trap that all those traditionalists have set for me?  I am in Yamaguchi to prove why traditional thinking has limited our understanding of kyōgen to the professional families and I am simultaneously lamenting innovation when I see it? What a hypocrite!

OK, this is kyōgen. So then is what I saw Shigeyama kyōgen because it employs Shigeyama style? Or is it Shigeyama kyōgen because it was performed by Shigeyama family actors? At what point does what a kyōgen performer does cease to be “kyōgen”?

Perhaps more important (to me, anyways) is at what point does kyōgen cease to be “Fill-in-the-blank-of-a-family” style kyōgen? The answer to this question has TONS of ramifications. Of course the family name is the obvious answer, but if the style a family chooses to employ is utterly fluid, then there is no so such thing as a style, per say. Does this make any attempt to describe its features moot? On the other hand, if it’s style is definable, then shouldn’t the family simply be the (albeit very talented) artistic vessels for which the form is being communicated through, implying anybody can do “Fill-in-the-blank-of-a-family” style kyōgen?

All of this makes my brain hurt- but it makes my heart happy. Art is pretty cool. Shigeyama family: shine on you crazy diamonds!

Weekly Rehearsal, February 18

This week’s rehearsal was quite comprehensive and included the rehearsal of three plays. It was a great opportunity to learn more about how the senior members rehearse versus how the younger members approach a play for the first time.

The rehearsal started with Bunmei and Tsuchimura, practicing the play called Fukurō. I have never seen this play before, but it is a yamabushi (mountain priest) play where an older brother, fearing his younger brother’s strange behavior of late is due to possession, enlists a yamabushi to recite healing prayers. Soon after the yamabushi begins, the younger brother begins hooting and jumping around, and the older brother says that because his brother was in the mountains recently, it must have been owls that have possessed him. The yamabushi sets to work only to be caught up in the same behavior as the younger brother and before long everyone is hooting and jumping up and down.

Bunmei and Tsuchimura didn’t really practice the speaking parts, but rather focused on the incantations Tsuchimura, as the yamabushi, is required to do. In kyōgen these incantations are basically noh-style chants. Since the group has been influenced by various noh schools, I am not sure which, if any, noh school’s style they are mimicking at this point. However, there is certainly a “way” in which it needed to be done as Tsuchimura was assisted by Professor Inada who, as always, seems to be the expert on the rhythm and pronunciation of the text.

After the two senior members practiced, the group returned to rehearsing Miyagi Daimyo. I learned from Tarō on Sunday that all three actors in this group had never performed this play before. However, they have each had between five and ten years experience as Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen Preservation Society members, so they have, no doubt, seen it many times. This is an interesting thing when thinking about how the rehearsal process occurs. As I have mentioned before, unlike a pro rehearsal (or pro rehearsal with amateur students) in which the master recites and the student repeats, the Sagi actors just jump in. While I was, at first, confused by the Yamaguchi Sagi method because it seemed counter-productive due to the limited rehearsal time that exists, I can see now that the argument can be made that each of these actors have been absorbing the plays for at least five years.

In other words, observation on the way to do it is still occurring, it’s just that it is a slow, slow boil. In the professional world a similar boil occurs with the actors training from the time they are 2 or three years old and, while they perform sporadically as children, they don’t become regular actors until they are in their late teens, early twenties. Even then, as I have mentioned, some plays are off-limits to them because they have not mastered the skills necessary to perform them. However, this process, while it gives the learning pros lots of time to observe, it also gives them a lot of time to practice.

But in Sagi kyōgen, since most people come to the art later in life and, since rehearsal time is very limited, performing a play is a little more trial by fire.  Because of this, I am starting to think the observation process is the most crucial element in unpacking exactly what Sagi kyōgen is.  Most interesting for me is this process highlights that Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen is a collective effort. Unlike the child pros-to-be, who typically strive to emulate a single master (usually a boy’s grandfather), an adult Sagi kyōgen actor watches and learns from everyone in the room. A Sagi kyōgen performance is thus a culmination of that collaborative effort.

Yes, Bumnei as the senior member, Tarō as a very experienced actor, and Professor Inada as the group’s historian continue to provide context and guidance. but it seems to be less about copying and more about discovering. By this, I mean discovering an essence of what Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen is not something that begins with a single member, but rather by a group. Again, yes this a journey that the pros go on as well, but they have a defined leader.

If I can get artsy for a second. It is commonly thought that while Japanese traditional arts are a facsimile of what was performed in olden days, the fact that every artist is different means the art does evolve. Scholarship has focused on what are the constants in arts like kyōgen, but if an art form is a living breathing thing, how do we engage in questions of artistic ability and meaning? I imagine it is safe to say that it can’t be limited to an actor’s ability to embody a standard, but rather what the actor does with that standard. However, I do think in the pro world there is a tendency to put more weight on how the actors embody what their art should be and what it could be is less discussed. What really makes me excited about Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen is that in its preservation process, the question of standard seems to take a back seat to potential.

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Zeami, what a looker.

Each actor is pure potential and how they interpret the combination of performances they have watched into a performance of their own is what makes Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen. Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen isn’t necessarily a form, it’s an idea inspired by a form. In a way, its very practice is the embodiment of that word in Japanese aesthetics which noh master Zeami prized so highly: yūgen. This word literally means “mysterious,’ but it is applied to something which captures a subtle, profound, allusion to something  intangible. Zeami used it to describe a good noh actor’s ability to capture existential conflicts and life’s beauty. I think, Zeami’s description highlights yūgen’s other world, an electric potential for what could be- this is what I am seeing in Yamaguchi. I wonder, what might be gained if we thought of the pro art forms as perspectives rather than embodiment? If we paid less attention to form and instead focused on function?

OK, enough of my musing, back to the rehearsal. The rehearsal ended with Tarō, Bunmei and Tsuchimura practicing Sakka, this time Sakka being played by Tsuchimura, the master being played by Bunmei, and Tarō Kaja being played by Tarõ. Needless to say, the performance was very different than when Sakka was played by Tsuchimura. I am not sure why the group is practicing this play as I don’t think they are doing it in November, but I definitely want to keep seeing it to better understand each actors’ unique interpretations.

Weekly Rehearsal, February 11

It was a cold, cold day yesterday when the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors gathered for their weekly rehearsal. Attendance was a little low, I’m guessing because of the holiday.

February 11 is National Foundation Day, the date that marks the ascension of Japan’s first Emperor, Jimmu, to the throne and Japan’s official formation as a country in 660BCE. Jimmu himself is a legendary figure, supposedly the grandson of Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess who brought the world into being.

The story of Amaterasu is recorded in the Kojiki, which was written around 712 ACE, and contains Japan’s oldest records. Amaterasu’s legend is a pretty important when talking about Japan’s traditional performing arts, particularly kagura and noh. Although all of it is interesting, the relevant part of legend begins when Amaterasu’s tempestuous rival and brother, Susano-O, dropped a flayed horse (Amaterusu’s favorite animal) on her sewing circle causing death-by-shock to of one of Amaterasu’s favorite ladies in waiting. Amaterasu, so upset, fled to a cave, Ama-no-iwato, and cloistered herself inside, blocking the entrance with a huge boulder, causing darkness to fall across the land.

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The gods gathered outside the cave and tried to figure out how to get Amaterasu out and bring the sun back. The goddess of revelry, Ama no Uzume had an idea. She placed a mirror on a nearby tree, turned over a wooden washtub, and proceeded to strip off her robes, stomp her feet, and do a suggestive dance. This sight was so comical that the gods began laughing, causing Amaterasu to wonder what was going on and peek out. Catching the sight of her glorious reflection in the nearby mirror, Amaterasu came out of the cave just far enough for the god, Ame no Tajikara-O, to yank Amaterasu out and seal the cave behind her. Amaterasu joined the merriment, effectively assuaging her anger and bringing light to the world.

 Uzume’s dance is supposedly the inspiration for the creation of kagura, which is Japan’s oldest performing art. Additionally, the stamping Uzume did is supposedly the reason why the stamping in noh dance exists. This is my own personal opinion, but as a researcher of kyōgen, I also like to take stock in the fact that the world was illuminated thanks to comedy.

Anyways, the rehearsal began with Tarō and Tsuchimura practicing Kaki Yamabushi. I’m not sure, but I would guess they are going to be doing an appreciation performance at a local public school in the coming weeks, so they need the practice. This rehearsal was quick and perfunctory, as both have performed this show so many times, they can do it in their sleep.

Next, the younger actors (both age-wise and experience-wise) did a first read of the play Hone kawa. This is a pretty funny play in which a priest, trying to teach his acolyte how to be shrewd in the face of public requests, winds up causing some serious havoc thanks to the acolyte’s literal applications of the priest’s directions. While these actors were given a script last week, they were given a new one this week, which indicates that the group decided to use a different version of the play. The Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen preservation society retains several actor’s diaries (including, of course, their founder, Shōsaku Shunnichi’s) and these diaries have slightly different versions of the plays. I am interested to learn whose version is being done and why they chose it.

Bumei was not present, so Tarō and Tsuchimura read the parts of the priest and the acolyte while the three others performed the roles of the visitors who come requesting things. I don’t know if Tarō and Tsuchimura will be playing these roles in the actual production or not.

As this was the newbies introduction to the play, it was interesting to see how they approached it. For the most part, the reading consisted of Tarō and Professor Inada making clear how to read the old Japanese. Old Japanese is not like old English. While a contemporary English speaker may need to do a bit of leg work to understand the content, they can at least read the words on the page. Old Japanese on the other hand, is not only hard to understand, it is also, in many cases, impossible to read unless you know how. There is also a trend now where fewer and fewer young people are able to read kanji (the Chinese characters used in Japanese language) that isn’t used on a daily basis. While this may be a pleasant conundrum for a language studies researcher to sink his or her teeth into, for everyone else, it is one more reason why Japanese research (in Japan and outside Japan) is so complicated.

It was clear Professor Inada was the expert here, often helping Tarō. Those watching also had copies and were furiously scribbling down notes on how to read the play and how to pronounce the lines. As I watched this, I began to wonder why Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen has been transmitted this way, as opposed to the way the pros do it. The pros typically teach a play by the master reciting the play and the student attempting to mimic him. Such a process is arguably how the style remains consistent, since the student is taught to copy the master. Of course, every student, as he ages and becomes a master himself, adds his own spin on things, and presumably this spin is how the art form evolves. But the Sagi kyōgen actors in Yamaguchi have, since Shōsaku, learned by throwing themselves directly into the play rather than following a system where copying the master is the heart of learning. I am curious to find out what is gained and what is lost by this change in transmission technique.

Finally, the three actors performing Busu practiced. This was interesting because, while in the week prior, they sat in front of Bunmei who gave them notes as they read, the group sat in a triangle and simply practiced it. Tarō occasionally gave notes from the sideline, but for the most part, the actors were on their own. After awhile, I stopped watching the actors and instead watched  Professor Inada, whose actions are always telling. While he is not an actor, he always sits in rehearsals, silently bobbing his head with his eyes closed, marking the correct rhythm of speech. You can tell when the actors are not capturing the “correct” way to do it, because Professor Inada suddenly stops and waits for the train to get back on the track.

In the case of this practice, it was clear the train was rarely on the track. This is not a criticism of the actors, my guess is they just don’t have the experience with the play. But, certainly related to my interest in the means of transmission, I am very interested to see how practice evolves over the coming year and how Tarō and Bunmei guide them. I think this process will reveal a lot, not just about how the unique transmission process captures the spirit of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, but also what is most important to this group in regards to the overall experience.

Mansaku-Mansai kyōgen in Nagato 

This past Sunday, February 5, I headed over to Nagato to see Nomura Mansaku and his son, Nomura Mansai, perform at the Nagato Regional Cultural Facility (ルネッサながと). The program consisted of three plays that showcased the variety of kyōgen’s plays as well as the diversity within the Nomura style itself.

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Mansaku is arguably one of the most famous kyōgen actors alive today. Not only is his Mansaku-kai the go-to group when talking about Izumi School kyōgen, Mansaku himself has been bringing kyōgen to international stages since 1957. Mansaku, along with the Ōkura school’s Shigeyama Sennojō (who died in 2010), was a major reason why kyōgen came to be respected as its own art form in the post World-War II period. Both of these actors also challenged conventions by performing in collaborative projects with non-kyōgen actors (which, if you recall from my previous posts, is one of the “reasons” for Sagi kyōgen’s professional demise in the Meiji period). Mansaku’s son, Mansai, is one of kyōgen’s young bucks (though Mansai is now 50), who is following in his father’s footsteps, both as a kyōgen actor and as an innovator of kyōgen.

Since the Nagato Center has a proscenium style theatre, the noh/kyōgen stage had to be suggested (as the Sagi actors do in Yamaguchi when not performing at Noda Shrine’s stage) with well placed poles indicating the hashigakari (bridgeway), shite, waki and metsuke (sumi) pillars. The stage did have a built in kirido, or sliding stage door where the kōken stage assistants (and musicians) enter. Unlike the Sagi shows, however, the stage setting also included the three pine trees which mark areas of the hashigakari.

The play began with the obligatory introduction speech by the third star of the event, Ishida Yukio, who has been a student of Mansaku’s since he was in middle school and is now, along with Mansaku, a designated Intangible cultural asset. Mr. Ishida began by asking how many people in the audience had seen kyōgen before and seemed genuinely shocked to see almost everyone in the audience raise their hands. Regardless of the general knowledge, Mr. Ishida proceeded to talk about the plays being performed, about kyōgen conventions the plays would address, and about the stage itself.

Interestingly, the plays presented offered three very different versions of Mansaku kyōgen, I thought.

The first was a play called Irumagawa. In this play a daimyo runs into a local while attempting to cross a river. The local explains the river is too deep and the daimyo shouldn’t try to cross it. The daimyo tries anyways and when he fails, he angrily explains to the local that because he knows the Iruma dialect has a peculiarity which makes anything said have an opposite meaning, he thought he was being told the river wasn’t deep. The local explains that because the daimyo was not from around there, he was speaking to him in a regular dialect, hence the misunderstanding. This leads to the daimyo to play a game where he asks the local to speak to him in the Iruma dialect, gives the local all of his possessions (including the shirt off his back), and squeals with delight when the local says “I humbly thank you…for nothing!” The play ends with the daimyo using some reverse logic and stealing his possessions back from the local who chases angrily after him.

Mansai played the role of the daimyo and I was immediately struck by how much his style of kyōgen resembled a noh performance. Mansai spoke in a deep, booming and throaty voice that followed a strict rhythmic pattern. The pattern was, of course, specific, to the Mansaku way of doing kyōgen. However, it was the vibration of his voice that really reminded me of a noh. The actors playing Tarō Kaja and the local mimicked this vibration to a degree, but because Mansai’s character was the imposing one, the other two has a less pronounced resonance in their speaking.

The second performance was Kamabara. In this play Tarō Kaja, upset by the quarreling of his master and his master’s wife, tells them he can no longer take it and is going to commit seppuku (ritual disemboweling) with the sickle he uses to harvest. To Tarō Kaja’s surprise, this backfires, and the two go off expecting Tarō Kaja to do it. The remainder of the performance revolves around Tarō Kaja willing himself to do it, failing multiple times because of his own cowardice. In the end, gazing at the sickle, Tarō Kaja realizes it would be improper of him to kill himself without first doing his chores, and he postpones the suicide and goes off to work.

This play is probably best described as a virtuoso piece since the majority of it revolves around Tarō Kaja alone on stage. Mansaku played the role of Tarō Kaja. In terms of staging, this play was unique because, unlike the typical kyōgen, which starts with the main character (usually) going to the shite post and doing a nanori (name announcing), this play begins the minute the actors come onto the hashigakari. As for Mansaku’s performance, itself, it was interesting because Mansaku, while sort of adhering to similar vocal patterns as Mansai, deviated quite a bit from them. As the 85-year-old Mansaku is a kyōgen master with a lifetime of experience, it is evident why he would be able to do such a thing. Like a master pianist, he can play as would be expected to in his sleep, so his performance is all about how he interprets that knowledge. This creates a kind of dual narrative, which includes both the story itself as well as the story of Mansaku’s take on his art. I will say, however, that listening to Mansaku’s projection, it sounded as if he had smoked 1 million too many cigarettes. Since Mansai is his son, and speaks with that gravelly booming voice, I wonder if this is just the vocal fate of all Nomura style actors?

The last play was a crowd favorite, Roku Jizo. In this play a country man comes to the capital to enlist a famous sculptor to create six jizo statues (Buddhist stone sculptors) for his town. However since the man does not know what this sculptor looks like, he is quickly conned by a local ne’er do well who says he can do it in a single day (provided his assistants do the work). The shyster then enlists three bumbling accomplices to pose as these statues and decides that he will tell the country man that he has kept three in a separate place so the three can run to the next location and assume the role of the other statues. The next day the country man comes, comically remarks about the statue’s “lifelike” qualities and goes from one site to the next. However, the country man keeps wanting to make comparisons, requiring the crooks to run back and forth, causing hilarious mix-ups. Finally the country man bumps into the scheming quartet and realizes he has been duped and chases them off.

As Krusty the Clown says “It’s a great piece of buffoonery, if you pull it off” and these guys did. Ishida played the role of the shyster and his style seemed to be somewhere in-between Mansaku’s and Mansai’s. While the acting of the piece had traces of the noh-like style of Irumagawa, Ishida carried himself with a similar “lightness” to Mansaku. The result was a performance that started off like Irumagawa, but eventually transformed into Kamabara.

Overall, I think what I took away from this performance is how much diversity exists, even within a supposed “style” of kyōgen. The Nomuras, who are under the umbrella of the Izumi school of kyōgen, are known for their specific style of performance. Within that style there exists the individual styles of each of its members. While each actor conforms to certain stylistic elements, how they execute them is wholly unique. This really challenges the idea that a traditional performing art exists in a fixed state. If there is this much individuality between father and son, how much difference can we assume must exist between Edo era Nomura kyōgen and today’s kyōgen?

Rehearsal, February 4

This past Saturday was the first actual rehearsal of the year. I was anxious to see what plays were going to be chosen. As I mentioned, last week there was a lot of toying around with ideas, and because Bunmei arrived with the same scrap of paper that he’d been scribbling notes on the week prior, I wondered if there had been no decisions made. However, decisions were, in fact made, and I got to witness how the group begins rehearsal on a play.

Several of the group’s members were given photocopied scripts from the Record of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen playbook and rehearsal began. The actors sat in front of Bunmei, facing him and they went about reading the script aloud. As the group went right into reading, I got the impression that they had experience with the plays they were working on already, but I’m not sure.

The reason why I think the actors must have experience with the plays is based on how the rehearsal functioned. A professional rehearsal is typically conducted with a master speaking the lines and the students repeating the master precisely, paying close attention to the musical qualities which define the speech. The Yamaguchi Sagi actors, however, read the scripts outright, with Bunmei giving occasional notes. This suggests to me they know the plays well enough that they understand how the lines must be spoken. Whether this means they have watched it enough times, or performed it, I am not sure. One of the actors did have a tape recorder, presumably so he could practice on his own.

The first play was Busu and Bunmei, along with Yamazaki-san and Masui-san, played the parts. Since the role of the master was played by Bunmei, and that isn’t a very big part, I am guessing that one of the actors who was absent on Saturday will actually be playing this role, and Bunmei was just filling in. The second group rehearsed Miyagi Daimyo, with Moriwaki-san (as the daimyo), Shinbo-san (Shinbo-kun’s mother, as Tarō Kaja), and Fukushima-san (as the lord) playing the roles.

It is interesting to note that in both of these plays, pairs of actors who worked together during the Fall 2016 performance, were again in plays together. Yamazaki and Masui were both in Fumi Ninai and Moriwaki and Fukushima were both in Inabado. I am wondering if the pairs are made simply because they work well together, as I have learned from Bunmei is a very VERY important consideration, or because of their levels of skill? I’ll have to ask about that.

In terms of the rest of the group, I saw that a few others had scripts, but not everyone, which makes me think they may have not decided what all the plays are going to be. Also, Bunmei, Tarō and Tsuchimura did not have scripts. Since they are the senior members, and I am sure they will be performing, perhaps they are still trying to decide what play to do.

Rehearsal, January 28

This past Saturday was the post-show rehearsal for the annual Yamaguchi Prefectural University performance. Along with costume maintenance, the group began the process of choosing the shows for the fall 2017 performance.

Like the post-show rehearsal for the fall 2016 performance, this rehearsal began with the group carefully pressing and folding the costumes they used for the show. After the show they were all carted away in a storage container until they could be properly stored in their spot at the Yamaguchi Transmission Center.

Before talking about the act of storage, I want to mention why preservation of costumes is so important. First is the costume’s rarity. It is especially difficult for any traditional theatre performance group because their costumes are usually of a style that is no longer manufactured, thus making the acquisition of new costumes difficult.

Second, and perhaps more important, is that if you can get a new costume, it is going to be unbelievably expensive. A good kimono, which is by comparison, is easier to acquire (most women in Japan own one for certain formal occasions), can easily set you back upwards of 5000 USD. This is because of the immense amount of craftsmanship it takes to make.

For example, in 2015 I met a woman who makes kimonos. I asked her how much it would cost to make a woman’s kimono. She said it started at about 2500 USD. As a nice dress could easily cost that, I said “that’s no so expensive.” She then explained that it did not include the other parts of the kimono, just the robe itself. In particular, the obi, which is the large swath of cloth wrapped around the waist that hides the garment’s excess cloth, started at around 7500 USD! In other words, the cheapest, simplest, woman’s kimono that this woman made started at 10,000 USD.

So, imagine the cost of creating a non-everyday piece of traditional clothing. In a 2007 interview, which was included as part of the program for a Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen performance in Kyoto, the group mentioned that aside from finding new members, new costumes continues to be an ongoing challenge.

Finally, as each piece of a traditional costume is unique, a noh or kyōgen group, of course, would want to preserve them. Along with masks and props, costumes serve as an historical artifact that identifies the history and pedigree of the group. While compared to the pros, Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen props, masks and costumes are nowhere near as old, they still retain a lot of meaning for the group.

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When returning the costumes to labelled paper packaging, the folding of each costume was done in a very specific way. As these costumes have been folded and unfolded a number of times, the creases where the fold should occur is evident in the fabric, but there is still a specific way one must reach that fold. Among the costumes being stored, the nagabakama, or trailing long pants typically worn by masters and daimyo characters, was the most complicated to fold.

First, the pants are placed on the floor, first with the back side upward. The pleats are then pressed down by hand to make the pants as flat as possible. The pants are then turned over, with the front-side upward, and again straightened to be as flat as possible. Using the existing creases from years of folding, the pants are then folded four times from the bottom until they reach the top of the pants where the ties and back piece of the pants are. The back is then folded over the folded pants, so the crest on the back piece is face up. Finally the long strings which are used to tie the pants onto a person are folded in half, and half again (with about 1/3 of the string remaining untied) and the left strings are folded over the right on top of the (now) folded rectangle of cloth in an x-shape. The remaining ties are then threaded through the x-shape creating a lattice effect of tied strings. It appears this does not have any purpose beyond properly folding the ties (it is not used to bind up the pants, for example).

The nagabakama are then placed on top of the corresponding folded kataginu (large shoulder pieces that create a triangle shape) and the costume set is placed in its marked paper wrapper. The pair I watched being folded did not fit into the paper, so they had to unfold the costume and do it all over again. Such an activity takes a LOT of patience.

After this was done, the group sat and watched as Bunmei perused the group’s play catalogue. At first I was not sure what was going on, but I soon realized that he was considering what plays the group was going to do for the fall 2017 production.

It seemed the process was quite democratic. Bunmei first consulted with senior members and Professor Inada as to what plays they thought might be appropriate, or what plays these members wanted to do. He then expanded his request to the group at large, asking if there were any plays that individual members were interested in doing. However, no one really offered their opinions (save for one, whose request was considered “too difficult”) and the decisions seemed to be made by Bunmei, Tsuchimura, Taro and Professor Inada.

Because the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen group is volunteer-based, it does not operate like the pros. Along with the play itself, I observed that the following was considered:

  1. When did they last do the play being proposed? As the group is limited to a repertory of about 40 plays (as opposed to the pros who have anywhere from 190-240), this is an important consideration.
  2. Who is available?  I assumed they consider the frequency with which people attended rehearsals during 2016 as an indication of this. Concretely, I know they also asked people, point blank, about their perceived availability in 2017, and if people who live far away could make the time commitment (one actor travels quite a distance).
  3. Since there are both men and women, what dynamic is created by pairing certain actors with others? There was quite a bit of discussion about having one of the smaller women playing an imposing daimyo. While Taro thought this might be too weird, Bunmei thought the weirdness of it would be interesting.
  4. What plays will help less experienced performers expand their abilities? As the youngest performer is 14 and some actors have only been performing for about 2 years, the group has to consider how to maintain their repertory through calculated instruction. In the professional world there is a system of hiraki, or gateway plays, which serve as tests of an actor’s acquired skill and proof of their ability to move to more difficult plays. Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen does not have this system. I should ask them to rank the plays they deem the easiest versus the hardest in their repertory…
  5. How do all the plays chosen will play off each other. This is a common consideration for any season scheduling, be it a Western playhouse, or a Japanese traditional art. You have to think about the whole package!

In the end, Bunmei didn’t make up his mind, but rather took some notes to digest later on. The group is currently toying with the play the middle school girls did at this most recent show, Miyagi Daimyo, along with a crowd favorite, Busu, Onigawara (which they did recently at the fall 2016 Saga show) Nukegara (which is very similar to Shimizu), Kubi Hiki (Neck Pulling), and Hone Kawa (The Mixed Up Acolyte).

Ultimately, I believe the choice is Bunmei’s, but I will be interested to see how the program comes to fruition and whether or not it changes as the year progresses.

One may wonder why the decision of a fall program needs to be done in January, but if you think about the schedule the group keeps, it isn’t much time at all. For a performance at the start of November, the group will only have about a total of 36 days (and roughly 72 hours) of rehearsal. Compare that to the average rehearsal time of an Equity western play (there are all sorts of variables but I am using the typical LORT contract for a small cast show), which is 6 weeks, with one day a week off and an average of 48 hours per week of rehearsal (this increases to 52 on the tech week before the show’s open). In other words, the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen people have less than a week and half of an Equity schedule to do the same thing. Yipes!