Recently I have attended a number of Noh performances where actors or chorus members would forget their lines. I am not talking about amateurs but professional actors on important stages. Some might find this surprising: forgetting lines would be inadmissible in other kinds of theatre. Imagine a super-famous tenor, or a Shakespearean actor forgetting what they had to sing or say during a performance at La Scala or at The Globe. Unthinkable as it might be in other contexts, this kind of mistake is fairly common, and to a certain extent accepted, in Noh.
How so? There are various reasons I can think of:
Actors cannot concentrate on studying only one single play intensively for an extended period of time. Noh shite actors are involved in many other performances as ji-utai chorus while studying for their own part as shite main actor. This means studying a great number of libretti at the same time.
A good Noh actor is like Ray Bradbury’s ‘living books’ in Farenheit 451: they should be able to recall the lines of dozens of plays at any time without the need to look at the utaibon. Maybe a ‘living juke-box’ would be a better metaphor.
Since, to put it simply, Noh chants are basically variations around a very limited set of melodies, one can easily get confused, and take one line for the other. Oftentimes some verses are also the same or very similar, adding to the risk of confusion.
Unlike other forms of theatre (not opera or anything that follows the libretto literally) it is impossible for a Noh actor to improvise. If the line does not come to mind, one can only wait for the koken stage assistant to prompt him, or else jump to the next line.
Finally, one of the reasons why this kind of mistake is more accepted than in other contexts is that in Noh there is no intention to ‘hide’. There is no ‘trick’ or pretence of ‘fourth wall removal’ everything is on stage, including the fact that actors are humans.
Concluding, I hope this won’t happen to me during the forthcoming Kiyotsune! It is accepted, but better not to have the audience accept it!
… says this poster I noticed in the lobby of the Dentogeino Kaikan in Otsu (Shiga pref.) next to Miidera. A woman closes her eyes and remembers an instant from the Noh Izutsu (The Stone-Well). The poster very delicately warns the audience that it is prohibited to take pictures or film in the Noh theatre. I think this this a very well thought campaign, not only because of its gentleness but also because of the depth of its message.
“Emotion” lives on in the memories written on your heart
Leaving aside those who might have an economic or other interest in recording a performance (be it Noh or something else) I am always impressed by the number of people who feel the urge of taking out a camera and filming or taking pictures of whatever work of art they are watching. I was at the British Museum last year and I remember a group of Italian tourists who took pictures of every single piece in the Japanese section – I can assure you, they were not art researchers. Here in Japan, where taking pictures is a stereotypical feature of the Japanese prototype, photographing anything at hand is the norm. And now we have smartphones. Going to an open air-performance is difficult even for me (I’m 180cm tall) because you have to watch the stage through a thick forest of raised arms holding coloured mobiles with Kitty straps and such. The habit of taking pictures of the stage does not only apply to open-air performances, where it is often allowed, but also to indoor performances, where it is clearly prohibited. You hear digital shutters shut, see flashes flash. It is terribly disturbing for the audience, let alone for the performers on stage.
But there’s more beyond the merely physical nuisance. Whenever I see some ojisan (old geezer) with a checkered shirt, a fishing vest and a baseball hat taking a picture of the Noh stage I wonder what they will do with it. Will they watch it before sleeping? Will they print it out at theconvenience store? Will they send it to their pals? I don’t know. Or maybe I know: they won’t do anything with it. They just take the picture for the sake of taking it. They satisfy an idiotic compulsiveness. Because no one can convince me that after watching a Noh, and filming it, you go home and watch it again.
There is simply no point in filming what you are actually experiencing live and I won’t spend words explaining the obvious (that performance is an act perceived through a number of senses, and that retains a quality of ‘liveness’ that cannot be reproduced). I think it is enough to think of what you actually do with what you have recorded. Think about it.
On Friday, 10th September I joined Udaka Michishige’s performance of the Noh Makura-jido (枕慈童) at Hourinji temple (法輪寺) in the Arashiyama area. Another student of Sensei, Hanna McGaughey, has posted on this performance a couple of years ago. I served as a member of the ji-utai chorus, reason why I have been spending the week before the performance trying to learn the text: this exercise of memory has led to some reflections I would like to share. Memorising a Noh text is not an easy task first of all because of the 6-century old language used, rich in rare alternate readings and special pronunciations. Secondly, the lyrics do not always follow a narrative progression, but consist of more or less abstract associations of images and overlapping of textual layers. It is very hard to ‘make logical sense’ out of the lyrics in order to remember them as one remembers a dialogue with its causes and consequences. This does not mean a Noh text is completely deprived of logical sense, but that if one plans to rely only on ‘meaning’ in order to remember, he or she will face a very hard time.
The other night, at okeiko, while talking about this with Ogamo Rebecca Teele, international coordinator of the Udaka-kai and International Noh Institute, and first foreigner to become Noh professional in the history of Noh, I realised my difficulties are shared by many practitioners. We found out that one common way to approach the memorisation is to re-write the utai on separate sheets. This is not a mere ‘verbal’ exercise: as Japanese is an ideographic language, one does not write the ‘sounds’ of the lyrics, rather he paints the text, that slowly takes the form of a matrix of sounds and images. While singing, one visualises the ideograms that have a strong pictorial, hence evocative, component. Of course, the most common and effective way of memorising is listening to the lesson recording and repeating, repeating, repeating … ad libitum.
However, even in the repetition one might distinguish between learning by heart or learning by understanding. There is no time here but to make some superficial comments on this distinction. Where the first is a rather mechanical activity, in which one mostly focuses on the sounds, the second focuses on the meaning of the verses and relies on the logical or grammatical flow of the text in order to recall the words. As one might imagine, both methods are necessary combinable. What I found interesting is that the more my language proficiency grows, the more I naturally tend to rely on the memory of the meaning of the lyrics, immediately understandable, rather than on the sounds, which require time and repetition. However, relying on the meaning means that my brain needs to be in continuous conscious activity, focusing on what comes next in what I would describe as an ‘active’ recalling of the words. When I sing using this technique, I can hardly do anything else. If my minds get distracted by something else, the flow of meaning is interrupted, and I will skip some syllables trying to catch up with the delay. If, instead, I memorise by sound, which would at first appear as a rather ‘dull’ form of learning, I can easily multitask, as my brain is not ‘actively’ involved in thinking about the story, what came before and what comes next. Words come out automatically or instinctively.
I am not sure what sort of conclusion I want to draw after this but I would just want to encourage those who cannot understand Japanese. Memorising the sounds without the meaning is an excellent (the best) start in the training of utai. Focus on the breathing, on the emission, on the rhythm instead – those are the qualities that the audience will appreciate, rather than your understanding. First come the image, then the meaning – this is very close to another famous say by Zeami.
I feel thankful toward Udaka-sensei who allowed me to take part in the performance (I wonder how many foreigners had the privilege to be singing for a Noh professional actor of his caliber in a public performance) and I hope this chances will become more and more frequent as I refine my singing skills.