Noh theatre shining in the dark

I haven’t written here for a long time. Apologies. As the “corona days” continue, noh and kyogen activities have resumed, albeit with restrictions in terms of audience capacity. Programs tend to be shorter, and in some cases plays that feature fewer performer appearing on stage at the same time are chosen. Chorus members, often reduced in number, wear cloth masks. I have also seen productions with plexiglas panels between the musicians. I think this is more a way to show that the performers “care” to reduce the chance of infection more than anything else…

Meanwhile I was asked to write a short essay for “Noh”, a small publication produced by the Kyoto Kanze Noh Theatre.

I translate the Japanese title in “Noh theatre shining in the dark”. In the essay I talk about an age-old issue: what should be done to attract new audiences to the noh theatre. Tanizaki Junichirō praised the darkness that enveloped noh performers before the advent of natural light. Much of that darkness has been lost with the advent of artificial light. Artificial, not artistic. I am drawn to the “darkness” of noh, a word which I use as a metaphor for the the unknown, the unseen, the unprocessed. Perhaps even the non-existent. Although this is what I find fascinating about noh, most of the attempts to attract new audiences to noh theatre go the opposite way. Explanations, demonstrations, workshops – all of which, I admit, are things in which I am involved, and that I myself promote. These activities provide answers to questions. They “shed light” on something obscure that needs to be understood in order to be enjoyed. This is a misunderstanding of how art appreciation in general (not just noh) works. I find this tendency to be particularly strong in Japan, where manuals on the “correct way” to appreciate noh or other arts proliferate, and performances are typically preceded by an “explanation” by a scholar or other expert (again, something I have done and will probably keep doing). I believe that enjoying noh cannot be reduced to finding confirmation in the answers we give in workshops. Noh is not Q&A. It should be more like a conversation emerging from the encounter with the unknown. The preparation we need to watch noh is not to be found in manuals, but in an education in “creative interpretation”, something that requires a much longer period of “study” than a workshop.