Jonah Salz: Tech-Noh-Logies

Tech-noh-logies: Historic and contemporary perspectives on Japanese classical masked dance-theatre expressions

6pm 23 May 2011 at Centre for Creative Collaboration, 16 Acton Street, London WC1X 9NG.


Dr Jonah Salz delivered a talk to the Forum on 23 May building on his decades of study of Noh and related Japanese theatrical forms. He began his talk by asserting that Noh is not a ‘minimal’ or ‘simple’ form, but a product of medieval technology which has solved problems arising from contexts of performance through engineering.

He noted that Noh masters often give multiple, or even conflicting, reasons for the existence of aspects of Noh performance. For instance, the gliding suriyashi walk might variously be explained by: the need to ensure the kimono remains closed; to maintain a horizontal line to ensure the power of the mask is retained; to help the actor feel the boards to ensure he knows where he is on the stage; to create energy in performance through tension; the simple fact that ghosts have no feet! Rather than being contradictory, together this multiplicity of explanations feeds into and maintains the form of Noh.

In turning to the architectural style of the Noh stage, Salz pointed out that because Noh needed to reach the largest possible audience, it was placed outside. The raised stage enabled the audience (which could number more than 3000) to see the performers. The distinctive roof protected the stage from rain, heat or the glaring sun. The bridge way (hashigakari) was originally placed at the back of the stage, but was moved to the side to enable more inconspicuous entrances. Further additions included the side-door entrance for musicians and chorus members, and the steps at the front of the stage used for receiving costumes from important patrons, though these steps are no longer used in contemporary performances.

Other technological developments included the standardization of the performance space (though the bridge way can vary in length from stage to stage). In order to ensure audiences always had a good view of the performance, a white pebble garden was placed around the front edges of the stage to keep audiences back. The dressing room, situated to the rear of the bridge way) also contained slats to allow pupils to learn from their actor-master at close-proximity without disturbing the audience.

Acoustic technologies included (apparently) placing the pebbles in the garden at a particular angle to reflect sound in direction of the audience. The tiles of the roof have a slanting back which functions as a resonator for the actor. Noh masks also amplify the voice, acting as a kind of microphone.

Masks were also a feature of technology, being a means of solving problems relating to the same actor needing to show different characters in the same play. Rather than having a ‘neutral’ expression, Salz asserted that masks have an ambiguous (aimai) expression. Distinctions in carving the mouth and eyes give masks a frown on the right side, and smile on the left, which relates to the fact that masks are usually seen from the right side when characters first enter (when they are troubled) and the left side when characters exit (when their troubles have been resolved). The smallness of the mask enabled detachment, enabling the character to be seen as a ‘construction’, thereby preventing ‘parody’. Indeed, the facial features on a Noh mask are more centred than they are on a human face, giving a greater border to the mask. In the case of female masks, this smallness of the mask maintains the traditional aesthetic that a woman’s face should be 1/8 the size of the rest of her body. Cotton padding placed in the mask can provide room for the circulation of air. Indentations carved into the back of the mask provide channels for perspiration to be caught in, as well as assisting with sound resonance. Whilst the mask may be thought of as a purely aesthetic device, it is also an engineered and highly practical device.

Salz suggested that the misconception of Noh as ‘simple’ began with the craze for Japonisme, and continued into the avant-garde movements of the 1960s. Yeats, Pound, Waley and Stopes explored Noh as literature and not performance, thereby regarding the aesthetic as ‘simple’ rather than a kind of ‘complex minimalism’. A consideration of Noh as literature, for instance, fails to take account of costume, which is presented as bunched and tucked, giving a much more three-dimensional, unrealistic, costume than a genuine kimono would. The use of colour and pattern attracts attention, especially in limited light.  In particular, the white tabi on the feet, the exposed skin on the hands of the actor, and the mask on the face, create an aesthetic triangle, enabling the key features of the performance to be identified, even from a distance in low lighting.

Properties were also ‘technological’, designed to be collapsible. This was ideal for troupes that would travel from stage to stage to mount performances. Some props could even be turned into storage containers for other props and masks when a troupe was touring.

Another feature of Noh performance was described by Salz as ‘Noh cinematography’. He argued that the positioning of actors on the stage leads to a definite focussing of attention onto the main shite actor. The main actor appears at the end of the bridge way – the length of which is given further perspective by the addition of pine trees of diminishing height to its sides. The actor then moves to the centre of the stage, but the position of the supporting waki actor, kneeling to the side, makes the shite actor appear ‘like a giant’. The actor also carefully controls the view the audience has through the distance and angle of his performance.

In the final section of his talk, Salz turned to performances of Noh today, highlighting how Noh stages had been brought indoors for the comfort of audiences after 1868, so that Noh could be appreciated like ‘Western Opera’. Shorter programs, and programs in the evenings, aimed to encourage new audiences to attend. More recently, subtitles – a feature of the NHK broadcasts of Noh plays – became included in theatres with projected, handheld or even seatback devices. Textbooks, DVDs for amateurs, and a variety of workshops all aimed to stimulate new interest in Noh. Some performances sought to be less technological, including firelight Noh (takiginoh). Others used fireworks, lasers or scenery to interest new audiences.

Salz then turned to discuss his own work as a theatre director, specifically instances where he has used Noh to create innovative works. Since 1987, Jonah has staged plays that have brought together Noh and Yeats, Shakespeare and new technologies, such as motion-sensor technology and multimedia. Some performances were so hi-tech, that they could not be staged on a Noh stage at all.

A series of questions followed Jonah’s presentation. Diego Pellechia (PhD student, Royal Holloway) suggested that the body of the Noh actor was also used as a resonator, in addition to the physical properties of the mask (which may also muffle sound) and the stage.

David Wiles (Royal Holloway) drew a comparison with Greece, in which Ancient Greek theatre has a great deal of emotion invested into it, enabling the spirit of the Greek nation to be transmitted through the plays. Noting the decline in modern audiences for Noh, Wiles questioned why this was not the case in Japan. Jonah suggested that the answer to this lies in the conception of practice and pedagogy in Japan. Noh is examined as dramatic literature, and students tend to read plays rather than watch them.  Teaching and practice is therefore separated. Whilst there is some interest in examining festivals and ritual, this rarely extends to Noh.

Matthew Cohen (Royal Holloway) suggested that, unlike other Asian traditions, which have been subject to revision and redefinition, Noh is conceived as invaluable and a form to be revered. This reverence seems at odds with Japan’s role as a world-leader in new technologies, and further marks Noh apart form other traditional Asian performance forms. Salz suggested that this difference in treatment stems from the iemoto system, in which the head of the ‘family’ tradition is entrusted to maintain and protect tradition.

(Summary by Ashley Thorpe)

Dr. Jonah Salz teaches comparative theatre at the Faculty of Intercultural Communication, Ryukoku University, Kyoto, Japan. He holds a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University, and has written and spoken widely on noh, kyogen, Beckett, and intercultural theatre. He was guest co-editor of a special Kyogen issue of the Asian Theatre Journal (2007 Spring; 24:1); his translations include plays by Mishima and kyogen. He is co-founder and director of the Noho Theatre Group, celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2011, interpreting Yeats, Shakespeare, and Beckett utilizing noh-kyogen techniques, including visits to the Edinburgh Fringe and Avignon Festival. He is Program Director of Traditional Theatre Training, a summer program in Kyoto introducing  traditional performance.

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