Continuing the 600-Year-Old Tradition of Kyogen

ACTA - Posted on 27 October 2008

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By Yuriko Doi

Master artist Yuriko Doi (right) and apprentice Lluis Valls.Editor’s Note: Portola-based Yuriko Doi is a master artist working with San Francisco-based apprentice Lluis Valls in Japanese Kyogen theatre in the Alliance’s Apprenticeship Program this year.  Doi is the founder of the 30-year-old Theatre of Yugen, located at Noh Space Theater in San Francisco.

We sit facing each other, bow and say Yoroshiku Onegaiitashimasu.  “Please take care of me.”  So begins each lesson.  Being mindful of where we are, who we are with and why we are there.

Kyogen has been passed down from generation to generation and survived for over six centuries because of its inherent human quality, depending heavily on the practitioner’s prowess as a singer, dancer, and actor.  My teacher, Mansaku Nomura, is a son of Kyogen actor Manzo Nomura, the sixth generation in his Nomura Kyogen acting family, and designated in 1998 as a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government.  The disciplined training of such a performer is as rigorous as the skill it demands of the performer, delivered mostly orally from one teacher to one student, one lesson at a time.  Nuances are highly prized, and only the intimate setting of a one-on-one lesson can convey those subtleties.  Even in the United States and even as a woman, basically in my teaching I strictly follow the tradition I have learned from my master and have shared my knowledge.

A Kyogen actor will begin by learning a song, line by line, from the teacher.  Through repetition the complex musicality and meaning of the song will be conveyed.  Then after the song has been learned, the dance is taught, movement shaped by the musicality of the song.  After these are both mastered, the song and dance are then re-learned within the context of the play.  The character and situation informs the dance and song, giving new life and meaning to the simplest of gestures.  Many times there are limited, or no explanations given as to why or how to do a certain move until the final steps.  An actor’s struggle to find unexplained nuance and subtle movement by himself/herself is akin to the Zen method, and is an important process to reach more depth.  The actor is trained to observe and mimic his or her master and is not allowed to experiment with the forms until he or she achieves the form thoroughly, which generally takes 25 to 30 years.  The most prized skill of an actor is the ability to see and hear clearly, both others and themselves.  By learning to focus and see details, they will then have the clarity to portray archetypes with complexity.

A rehearsal of Uzura-Mai.  The cadenced Japanese text which one must recite in Kyogen is accompanied by nuanced and precise gestures and movement.  Uzura-Mai—translated to “Quail Dance”—offers a drunken, humorous account of a man who has consumed his fair share of sake and tries to shoot quails with bow and arrow, then brags that the quails are so ample, he can catch them with his bare hands as he crawls toward them.  Here, master artist Doi demonstrates to apprentice Valls the movements which punctuate the line which translates to: “I succeeded to get close.   All the quails sprang away.”Since I founded Theatre of Yugen in 1978, my direction has developed and changed, as the actors have grown and developed their acting skills and as we have learned from our theatrical experiences in the United States.  In the world of American theater, actors are constantly on the move.  Therefore, I have given the opportunity for American actors to experiment with the form in the experimental fusion plays earlier than normally would be allowed.  But I have been very privileged to have some actors stay and develop their skills, such as one of the current Artistic Directors Lluis Valls who joins me as an ACTA participant as a Kyogen apprentice in this year’s Apprenticeship Program.  He has studied, trained, and performed for more than 15 years under my direction and under the direction of our guest Kyogen and Noh masters, who have given numerous workshops in our San Francisco Theater, NOHspace.

Kyogen’s storylines are simple and show basic human situations, very often in humorous predicaments.  While the basic elements of story and character are simple to begin with, through vocal patterns and movement they become complex, highly structured and stylized.  In developing the script in English, we are constantly challenged in translating both the rhythm and clarity of original Japanese dialogue to go along with its movement.  One of our trials is to keep as much Japanese as possible in the script to deliver Japanese cultural nuances and simplicity.  As we have found in previous translations, Japanese in Kyogen carries a certain rhythm and American audiences appreciate it.  In general, we keep onomatopoeia in Japanese, which is one of the Kyogen characteristics and part of its beauty.  We also speak in Japanese when the Kyogen gestures demonstrate their obvious meaning; arigatoo zonjimasuru (thank you), kokoroemashita (yes, sir), and he (yes), etc.

The apprenticeship was able to support the purchase of a hand-carved wooden Nukegara mask, which will be worn by Valls during a full evening Kyogen performance this fall in San Francisco.  Nukegara portrays the humorous tale of a master who punishes his sleeping, drunken servant by affixing a demon mask onto the servant, who, upon arising, becomes terrified when he sees the reflection of a demon in the spring water as he tries washes his own face.In the process of our latest translation, Nukekara, we have incorporated much of what we have learned from the 18 Kyogen pieces that we perform and from our over 400 Kyogen performances in the past 30 years.  Developing a translation style that works well for Western audiences has been a long process with many experiments in direction along the way.  Especially through this apprenticeship, I am able to spend more time with Lluis Valls in explanation of its background, nuance, vocal pattern, and rhythm along with movement of the original play in Japanese.  Nukekara is produced to be more of an original Kyogen performance and to focus on translation to express Kyogen’s intonation, Haru.  A Kyogen teacher uses the word haru very often.  According to the Kojien Japanese dictionary, haru means “to stretch or push fully”, but in chanting, “to chant to raise higher note.”  Generally, Kyogen emphasizes the second syllable of the word, but I am interested in the haru position within the sentence.  Theatrical delivery of a sentence depends on how the actor emphasizes and delivers his/her expression to audiences.  Carefully checking the haru position in a Kyogen sentence, it very often matches with the important meaning.  Following a lesson with Master Yukio Ishida in Tokyo, Lluis and I tried to figure out how to translate this emphasis.  We found that it is best to choose a word that includes a long vowel so that we can play with the word in dialogue and chant.  And this emphasis goes along with physical and stylized movement.  I believe that establishing Kyogen rhythm and vocal pattern in English with Kyogen intonation will deliver Kyogen’s satirical and poking comic dialogues clearly and strongly.  The satire of Kyogen comic theater from 14th century feudal society will bring another layer of laughter to contemporary American audiences.  Like in Nukekara, we encounter the master and his servant’s warm relationship, not just a regular master and servant relation in the strict class society.  Kyogen comic theater offers many layers of laughter to audiences.  Its humor is shared internationally and beyond time.

Our training process is based on tradition that has brought Kyogen down through the centuries to our time.  The translating process developed by myself, Lluis Valls and Theatre of Yugen brings Kyogen across the ocean to an American audience.  Through the apprenticeship we will continue to enrich our future artistic product as well as audiences’ appreciation.  Otsukaresamadeshita, I bow and say to Lluis in the end of the lesson with a Kyogen fan: “Thank you for your hard work, you must be very tired.”

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