Our Process

Training for an English-language kyōgen production at the University of Hawaiʻi is a long, focused, and hopefully equally arduous and rewarding process. Planning for a production generally begins two to three years prior, with the selection of plays and setting dates for the artists’ residencies. The next step is close study of the play texts—both written and performance— to develop an English language “performance translation” that enables the rhythms and timing of the original Japanese to come through in English to the greatest extent possible. Physical and vocal training of students for the production generally begins more than a year prior, with a semester-long course in kyōgen movement and voice, affectionately called “boot camp.” This course introduces basics of the genre—walking (suriashi), types of turns, common mimetic kata, the melodic style of singing, and a short dance (komai) to build comfort with fan use, basic movement vocabulary, and familarity with the noh/kyōgen stage and staging—as well as correct protocols for the future lessons with the master teachers.

            The semester prior to production, two courses are offered— one in voice and one in movement, to enable focused practice in each area (though of course these are not mutually exclusive). During this semester and the following one leading up to the production, the master artists come to Honolulu several times for residencies ranging from three to ten days in length (all arranged around their performance schedules in Japan). With each residency they are able to introduce new material, gradually teaching each role in the plays. In between residencies, students continue to practice in classes and rehearsals, under the supervision of the project director (Julie A. Iezzi), until the master artists return again, adding more material and giving feedback to students with an aim to helping them improve technique and truly embody the form to the greatest extent possible in the execution of their particular roles. This time working closely with the master artists is somewhat akin to “field study,” with the professional kyōgen actors whose embodied knowledge of the form in which they have trained, lived, and breathed their entire lives, bringing the “field” with them to the classroom/rehearsal room in Honolulu.

To learn any technique well takes time. Professional kyōgen actors, like many artists of traditional genres, begin their training as early as two years old and debut on stage as early as age four. They grow up in a daily environment where father, uncles, cousins, and grandfather are all kyōgen actors; and family interaction takes place as much, if not more, on stage and in the dressing rooms than at home. Training and performance is a life-long endeavor. They live kyōgen.

In a year or year and a half of training, we cannot possibly hope to attain the same level of accomplishment at the University, but our goal is not to develop professional kyōgen performers. What then is the goal? What value can such intensive training in the art hold for a student? In writing about a ten-month intensive training residency in noh and kyōgen in the the 1988-1989 academic year at the University of Hawaiʻi, James R. Brandon wrote:

“The student cast member who shapes his or her body and voice into these new and demanding forms daily, in repeated sessions, under the tutelage of a master performer, over a period of some eight months, begins to absorb intuitively the significance of ‘entering a way’ ( in Japanese, tao in Chinese) of artistic dedication and commitment.”[1]

It is precisely this extensive and demanding period of training that enables students to realize the depth of the art form, opening them in varying degrees to many new “ways”—of performing (technique), of learning (repetition, copying), of inhabiting a role (“outside in”), or of understanding (with the body).

Many from outside the University of Hawaiʻi have commented that it is a “luxury” that we can bring master artists to train students, and perhaps it is; but it also an obligation. If one is going to perform kyōgen — to be true to the form, its history, and the artists who spend a lifetime embodying that art and enabling the living tradition to continue a vibrant life, it is essential to have as much direct contact as possible with that living tradition. With my own training, and permission of the master artists, I am privileged to be able to introduce, to facilitate, to act as the “glue” holding things together between the master artists’ residencies; to translate, teach about the art, and build knowledge of and interest in the art form. But for over 600 years the art has resided in the bodies of the kyōgen artists, passed directly from person to person. There is no substitue for that direct transmission.

In this respect, Remotely Kyōgen presented a new set of problems: Covid prevented travel, and without travel, any “direct” transmission had to be mediated by technology. Three dimensional inhabitation of space was flattened, and framing of the Zoom room made it difficult to see how the body moved, and impossible to speak or breathe together. That said, the long-term commitment from the students —9 months, over two semesters—involving a deep examination of the art of kyōgen was at the core of the production. During this time students interactions with our guest artist, Shigeyama Sennojō III, also had to be conducted remotely, though he had worked with students at UHM in person to prepare for three previous kyōgen productions. For this production, he met three times on zoom with groups as they were writing drafts of new works in the fall semester; and in spring, he met weekly with each cast on Sundays, answering questions and providing feedback on their creative work.  For Mango Yamabushi (adapted from the traditional play, Kakiyamabushi), students worked with video models and with me to learn the “first draft” of movements and transfer the Japanese rhythms into English, while polishing with Sennojō in the weekly meetings.

The use of “remotely” in the production title was purposeful, reflecting as it does the remote nature of the rehearsal process as well as the final delivery method (streaming online). But it also acknowledges that what was presented was not entirely kyōgen, but perhaps a step (or two or three in some cases) removed. One image that kept recurring to me throughout the process was that of a tree: traditional kyōgen as the trunk; the ever-expanding experiments of the professional kyogen artists the main branches; English iterations of traditional plays still smaller branches, and the new works inspired by a long-term study of the art the small budding branches, furthest from the trunk yet clearly nourished by and a part of the canopy supported by the trunk.

– Julie A. Iezzi

[1] Brandon. James R. “Performance Training in Japanese Nō and Kyōgen at the University of Hawaiʻi.” Theatre Topics, Vol. 3, No.2, September 1993, p.103. This article briefly reviews the history of productions of Asian theatre genres at the University of Hawaiʻi, and discusses 1988-1989 noh-kyōgen training residency in the Department of Theatre and Dance in detail. [pp. 101-120].