A Noh Performance in English: Waseda University Cosponsors “Blue Moon Over Memphis” at UCLA

For two days starting on October 15, 2018, Japanese and American researchers, Noh performers, and Noh mask-crafters assembled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to participate in the event “English-Language Noh: 2 Days of Noh.”

The event formed the next part of the same series as the event “Nights of Kyogen in Los Angeles: 5 Days of Kyogen,” which was held at the university in spring 2017. The more recent event was held to provide local Angelenos the opportunity to experience traditional Japanese performance art as part of the research activities conducted through a partnership—the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities—between UCLA and Waseda University’s Global Japanese Studies Model Unit, the latter being part of the Top Global University Project.

On the first day of the event, the 15th, Professor Mikio Takemoto (Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University) presented a lecture titled “What is Noh?” to serve as an introduction to the other component events that would take place over the two days. In his lecture, Professor Takemoto argued that it was crucial learn the history of Noh to understand it and explained how Nōgaku branched off from the original Noh and how Noh developed in two eras through the compilations of Noh works made by the Noh artists Kan’ami and Zeami, describing the evolution of the art form along with the historical background. The professor also touched on the “essence of Noh” that has remained unchanged throughout the ages—from the days of the ancient performing arts that were the origins of Noh to today. He noted how many of the elements considered essential to today’s Noh arose during the Edo Period and that the fundamentals of this form of performing art lie in its styles of song (or music) and dance (mai). The professor argued that, as long as these two components are present, a performance is Noh, regardless of the language of the performance and any changes to the rhythms of the dances or the songs; thus, the English-language Noh that would be unveiled during the event would be a phenomenon like performances of Italian operas in Japanese.

Concerning the future of English-language Noh, the professor explained how he believed that works—such as the one that would be performed during the event, “Blue Moon Over Memphis”—that are originally written in English, instead of being English translations of traditional pieces, would be, in the sense that he had just described, of truly great importance and meaning as part of the history of Noh and that he wanted to see for himself how such pieces would coexist with traditional Noh. This brought the lecture to a close.

UCLA students and researchers alike listened to the lecture while enthusiastically writing down notes. The lecture event was held in Japanese with English subtitles simultaneously appearing on a screen.

*English translation: Michael Emmerich (Associate Professor, UCLA and Waseda University)

That night, the English-language Noh “Blue Moon Over Memphis” was unveiled at Kaufman Hall on the UCLA campus to an audience of 200, consisting of students, faculty members, and the general public. The performers were members of Theatre Nohgaku, a group primarily consisting of Noh researchers whose first-language is not Japanese. (Japanese performers were part of the of hayashikata, the instrumental musicians who play the scores in Noh and related forms of traditional Japanese performance art.) The piece is a work written about Elvis Presley by the American playwright Deborah Brevoort after she was inspired by the traditional Japanese performance art of Noh. The plot involves the spirit of Elvis appearing before a passionate fan, Judy, who visits Elvis’s former mansion of Graceland—a sacred site to fans of Presley—in Memphis, Tennessee.

This audacious concept of performing a Noh play about Elvis Presley expertly combined the two elements, song and dance, that Professor Takemoto noted in his lecture. Additionally, the piece incorporated the element of speech (dialog) from modern theater, and scenes that included this element brought the audience to laughter. This phenomenon of laughter—which was present in the early Noh of Kan’ami’s era but which modern Noh does not elicit—was very surprising to members of the audience from Japan. Thus, the scenes of the work created what felt like a truly novel style of theatrical performance, not beholden to the traditional conceptualization of Noh. The audience was entranced by this staging, the likes of which they had never experienced before.

Reporters from the major local newspaper The LA Times were among the audience, and an article about the performance ran in the following day’s paper, demonstrating how large a reaction the Noh piece was met with in Los Angeles.

On the second and final day, there was an event, titled “This is Noh,” in which Hideta Kitazawa demonstrated the creation of Noh performance masks and Akira Matsui and Kinue Oshima demonstrated how Noh actors put on their costumes. There was a performance workshop, “Takasago (An Abridged Performance).” Numerous graduate students studying theater participated in the workshop. They watched with enthusiasm, and they posed more questions at the end than the allotted time could accommodate.

Next, at a discussion session, the performers, Noh mask-makers, and Japanese and American researchers had a roundtable symposium on the appeal of, and possibilities for, English-language Noh, as well as on issues concerning Noh as a traditional performing art in the modern world. There was a lively discussion with various viewpoints represented.

Professor Takemoto said that he believed that the two great elements of Noh—song and dance—needed to be adhered to as part of the art form’s tradition but that he considered the English-language Noh that had been performed the previous day—despite differing in the incidental elements of actors’ posture and the language of the performance—to be a new form of Noh that was a good fit for its audience and that should be further nurtured. Another speaker at the roundtable was Professor Richard Emmert (Musashino University), the founder and artistic director of the aforementioned Theatre Nohgaku, which staged the performance part of this event. Professor Emmert noted that the script for the piece was written in the 1990s after the author was inspired by Noh. The original script included more dramatic and “showy”—or musical-like—elements but had been rewritten several times until reaching its current form. After explaining this, Professor Emmert emphasized how the English-language Noh piece had been given expression by performers trained in Noh vocalization and musical accompaniment and that his aspiration was to further refine this approach as a new development in Noh.

The two-day event concluded with the idea that a common issue faced by both traditional Noh and the new form of English-language Noh is the fostering of the next generation of performers to stage exceptional works. However, there was said to be a significant difference between the two: In traditional Japanese theater, audiences come to see the performers practice their art; by contrast, in English-language Noh, they come to enjoy the work being performed. Therefore, it would seem that another significant challenge for English-language Noh will be for authors to continue to publish new exceptional works.