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In the Noh

November 29, 2011—Two graduates of the Department of Theater and Dance spent part of their summer performing an old Japanese stage art—in English—in Japan, China, and Hong Kong. They shared their story, and some photos, with IUP Magazine.

By Elaine Jacobs Smith

Giovanni and Surtasky closeup

Department of Theater and Dance alumni Greg Giovanni ’84, front left, and David Surtasky ’89, front right, performed with Theatre Nohgaku in four Asian cities in June and July 2011. Photo by Kazuhiro Inue, courtesy of Theatre Nohgaku

When Greg Giovanni and David Surtasky studied theater at IUP in the eighties, they read about noh, a centuries-old form of Japanese musical drama, but had little idea they would one day be part of an internationally performing noh theater company.

During Theatre Nohgaku’s Asian tour in June and July, someone asked Giovanni why western-trained actors would want to take on “something so difficult, hard to understand, and challenging.”

“We said because it’s so difficult, hard to understand, and challenging. Why do something easy?”

Noh: Up Close and Personal

Giovanni ’84 was speaking from experience. His hands-on introduction to noh came in 1998, when he was searching for a way to use his fellowship money from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The Philadelphia-based actor, director, and playwright came across the three-week Noh Training Project at the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. Offered in association with Bloomsburg University, the program teaches the performance of this classical Japanese drama form in English. Remembering learning about noh during his college days, he enrolled.

Lead actress

Lead actress Oshima Kinue is pictured during the June 2011 performance of Pagoda at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo. Photo by Kazuhiro Inue, courtesy of Theatre Nohgaku

A week into the program, he regretted the choice. The stillness, music, and style were alien to the underground-theater pioneer. “I was totally in tears. I was convinced I blew a whole lot of money on something I’d never use.”

That all changed by the end of the three-week training. “I came back the next year and was hooked.” So much so that he was among the students who joined Richard Emmert—also the Noh Training Project founder—in starting Theatre Nohgaku in 2000.

“Suddenly there were ten to twelve of us who were trained and had worked very hard,” Giovanni said. “The only way we would be able to perform was to start our own company.”

For Surtasky, who came to the Bloomsburg recital in 1998 mainly to see his former college roommate perform, the fascination was immediate. “I couldn’t understand it at all, but I had an emotional reaction to it. I thought there was something going on there.”

Upon returning to Indiana, where he works as director of production for the Lively Arts at IUP, Surtasky ’89 read voraciously on the subject. In 2006, he accompanied Theatre Nohgaku as a photographer on tour at various U.S. colleges. Later that year, he took part in the Bloomsburg training project, and in 2007 he joined Theatre Nohgaku.

What Is Noh?

Describing noh in the context of western theater isn’t easy, Surtasky finds. “There’s singing, but it’s not opera. There’s dancing, but it’s not ballet.” Still, those are probably the closest comparisons among western theater forms.

Full stage view

The chorus is on stage with the actors for the duration of the noh play. Company members are highly cross-trained and can often serve as chorus members, musicians, or actors. Photo by Kazuhiro Inue, courtesy of Theatre Nohgaku

Compared to Japan’s more popular kabuki, noh is far more reserved—a changeup for Surtasky, who works with Broadway shows and other large, commercial acts that come to IUP’s Fisher Auditorium.

Costumes in noh plays involve a high level of craftsmanship, he said. The masks, worn only by the lead actor, are wood and may be hundreds of years old; the costumes are intricate and expensive. “Even garments worn underneath, with maybe only a part of the sleeve showing, spare no expense. They might be full silk with gold embroidery.”

During Theatre Nohgaku’s recent performances in Asia, Surtasky and Giovanni were part of the chorus. In noh, the chorus is central to the action—situated on stage with the actors but seated during the entire play. The music features a narrow palette of instruments, with only taiko drums and a nohkan, or flute, but is made up for by complex rhythms, Surtasky said.

Some ways noh differs from other theater forms may be less obvious to the audience. A noh play may several actors, four musicians, and eight in the chorus, but each performer has a high level of cross-training. “Someone in the chorus, a musician, and a lead or secondary actor are very knowledgeable. They’re trained enough that they can easily understand each other’s parts,” Surtasky said.

Traditional noh plays have no director, no conductor, and involve no rehearsals. Performers practice individually, though they may hold a talk-through meeting in advance of the performance. “The canon of work has about 250 established plays, and most professionals are familiar with more than half,” Surtasky explained, “so they can perform them without too much trouble.”

And the shows, which draw actors and musicians from different schools, don’t have repeat performances, such as a Thursday-Friday-Saturday run. “They never come together to do it again—not with the same people,” Surtasky said. “So each play is almost like life; it happens only once.”

Breaking the Traditions of Noh

Noh is a hereditary art form; it is passed on by families. There are five schools of lead actors, the oldest of which has carried on the craft for about six hundred years.

Chorus and actress

Theatre Nohgaku aims to compose and perform new works in English with the structure and style of the original Japanese noh form. Photo by Kazuhiro Inue, courtesy of Theatre Nohgaku

Because of the tradition surrounding noh, Theatre Nohgaku may be viewed as controversial, as it aims to compose and perform new works in English with the structure and style of the original Japanese form. “Some may not like that non-Japanese people are doing this,” Surtasky said. “But some may feel that, if the form is completely closed off, it’s at risk.”

For Giovanni, who characterizes most of his own plays as performance artwork—“They’re very outside the box,” he said—writing noh plays was a welcome challenge. Pine Barrens, which Theatre Nohgaku performed on its 2006 tour, Giovanni based on the legend of the Jersey devil, said to come from the Pine Barrens section of southern New Jersey.

Another of his works is based on the folk song “She Moved through the Fair.” “It’s about a ghost, which is fitting. Noh plays are often about ghosts and demons,” he explained. “The lead is usually dead.” Giovanni has experimented with traditional Japanese theater forms, such as kabuki, writing plays based on popular children’s stories. He has also directed two works by Surtasky.

A Rare Double Bill

In addition to the Asian tour, which featured performances in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan, Beijing, and Hong Kong, Theatre Nohgaku toured Europe two years earlier, making stops in London, Dublin, Oxford, and Paris.

Hong Kong production crew

IUP alumnus David Surtasky, second from right, with the production crew of the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts during Theatre Nohgaku's 2011 Asian tour. Photo courtesy of Theatre Nohgaku

Both tours were rare in bringing together on stage nonprofessionals and members of the professional noh society. Similar to a double bill, Theatre Nohgaku supported the company Oshima Noh Theatre of Hiroshima in the traditional Japanese play Takasago in the show’s first half, and Oshima members worked with Theatre Nohgaku in the English-language play Pagoda in the second.

Serving as the lead actress in Pagoda tested the English of the Oshima family’s eldest daughter, Oshima Kinue, just as the reverse was true for some of her Theatre Nohgaku counterparts in Takasago. Because traditional noh is in medieval Japanese, the lines can be difficult even for those fluent in the contemporary language.

Well-rehearsed as the tour neared its end, Theater Nohgaku had its best performance on its final stop, in Hong Kong, Giovanni said. “They were hanging on every moment. You can feel it.”

He also appreciated an added twist for the troupe: performing in a Chinese city-state…in English…in a Japanese theater form.

Learn More about Noh

Old Japanese Noh Play Staged in Beijing in New Form
Coverage and a video from CNTV following Theatre Nohgaku’s performance at Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts in July
Theatre Nohgaku
Official website of Theatre Nohgaku, an internationally performing company that aims to compose and perform new works in English with the structure and style of the original Japanese form of noh
IUP alumnus David Surtasky’s blog for Theatre Nohgaku’s 2011 tour of Asia
Greg Giovanni
Website for independent performance artist and actor Greg Giovanni, a 1984 graduate of IUP
The Genre Jumper
Story in the Philadelphia City Paper on Greg Giovanni in advance of the 2008 retrospective of his work at the Painted Bride Art Center
Noh Training Project
The three-week training program offered by the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in conjunction with Bloomsburg University
Making a Foreign Art His Own
An interview in the-noh.com with Theatre Nohgaku artistic director and Musashino University professor Richard Emmert