Translating Noh into Now:  Mikiko Uesugi’s Set for This Lingering Life

Elevation representing the set, by Mikiko Uesugi

Elevation representing the set, by Mikiko Uesugi

Scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi was familiar with most of the stories in This Lingering Life long before she started working on the project.  In Japan, her maternal grandmother had studied Noh with Umewaka Rokurou-sensei and began taking her to performances when she was three years old.  In addition, her great-grandmother told her the stories as a child.  Still, faced with the task of designing a space for those familiar characters—or their modern avatars—to inhabit, she returned to the original plays and studied them in earnest.  (Nowadays, Mikiko reflects, Japanese children do not necessarily grow up hearing the traditional stories, whether historical, quasi-historical, or mythological.  I suppose that, in a similar way, it would be possible today to find a British child who could not tell the story of “the princes in the Tower” or one in the United States unable to identify who said “Four score and seven years ago” and on what occasion.)

Scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi

Scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi

It was a great privilege for me to be permitted to interview Mikiko in person.  I knew that it was she who had designed the elegant set for Chanticleer’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, and I was very excited to meet her.  Luckily, she lives only two blocks away from me, so we were able to meet in a neighborhood café, where she arrived carrying a plastic tub almost as large as herself.  The tub contained a maquette for the set, which required partial assembly.  As Mikiko began to unpack the components, I immediately demonstrated my ignorance by surmising that Japanese Noh performances probably do not need set designers, given that the stage has a time-honored structure to which modern practitioners adhere.  Not always true, Mikiko pointed out, and presented for my perusal two impressive volumes containing photographs of Noh being performed in indoor and outdoor venues, including one instance in which there was a skyscraper, rather than a tree, at the back!

The Traditional Noh Stage

The structure of a traditional Noh stage reflects a minimalist aesthetic.  A long walkway, called the hashigakari, leads from the far left of the stage (when seen from the perspective of the audience) to the main playing area, which is square.  Traditionally, three small pine trees are located at intervals alongside the walkway; a script sometimes indicates that an action occurs at the first pine tree, the second, or the third.

Traditional Noh stage, from Wikipedia

Traditional Noh stage, from Wikipedia

There are no curtains, nor is there a proscenium or backdrop specific to the play.  A Noh stage almost always has a pine tree painted on its back wall, and no attempt is made to conceal the pine tree, even if the action is supposed to be occurring indoors or somewhere else where a pine tree would not grow.  Some people believe that the ubiquitous painting represents a particular pine tree, at the Kasuga Shrine in Nara; other people believe that the image is a reminder of the time when Noh plays were performed outdoors at temples.

The ubiquitous pine

The ubiquitous pine

On the stage are four pillars, each with a definite purpose.  At the front right corner of the stage (from the perspective of the audience) is the waki pillar, so named because it is where the waki character,  who is mainly a witness to the story, sits after he has made his entrance, introduced himself, and arrived at the location where the action of the play is to occur.  Near the right back corner of the stage is the flute pillar, where the flute player sits throughout the play.   At the left rear corner, near the walkway to the stage, is the shite pillar, where the main character stands upon entering the stage, and which can be seen as a sort of home position for that character.   And at the front left corner is the sighting pillar, which is of the utmost importance, because the main character often wears a mask with tiny eye holes that make it hard for him to see very much at all; without that pillar, an actor would be at risk of walking right off the stage!  The four pillars ordinarily support a peaked roof, evoking the roof of a Shinto shrine.  When a Noh stage is built within a large, modern building, it still has a peaked roof, as if there were no ceiling above it.

On the stage there are no solid structures and very few objects.  A frame structure can represent a hut, a well, or a carriage.  In some cases a play features an elegant dais.  But all these items are highly stylized, exquisite in their simplicity.  There is no attempt to portray the scene (or anything else) realistically.

Example of a frame structure, from Purgatory, Theatre of Yugen 1981

Example of a frame structure, from Purgatory, Theatre of Yugen 1981

During a play, the musicians traditionally sit along the back wall of the stage.  The chorus members sit along the right side of the stage.  There is a small door near the right rear corner of the stage for use by the musicians and chorus members.  There is no attempt to hide performers who are not in character, and a person theoretically invisible to the characters on stage might yet be visible to the audience.

All the wood surfaces—the immaculately polished floor, the back wall (called the mirror board), the walkway, and the pillars—are of Japanese cypress of a warm yellow color.  Because there is no real furniture or other distracting decoration, the effect is of a clean, bright box with a mural depicting a pine tree at the back of it.

The Set for This Lingering Life

Mikiko’s set for This Lingering Life offers a modern take on many of the conventions of Noh.  There is a tree, but instead of being painted on a wall, it is three-dimensional, visible behind a black scrim, and treated so that light can play upon it.  This idea, as Mikiko explained it, intrigued me; however, no explanation, no elevation, and no maquette could have prepared me for the effect achieved as, in the dark of the Z Space in San Francisco, the tree was illuminated in a succession of stark or brilliant colors, depending on the scene being enacted.

Set of This Lingering Life, photo by Elliot Kallen

Set of This Lingering Life, photo by Elliot Kallen

As on a traditional Noh stage, the main acting area for This Lingering Life is a square of polished yellow wood, but in this case, the floor has the effect of a luminous tile set within a dark box.  As I entered the theater on Sunday afternoon, that box gave the temporary illusion of being cobalt blue.  On either side of the wooden floor is a strip of darker floor, used often by actors entering or exiting the stage from behind the scrim.   On the right sits the composer, in seiza position, with the laptop from which the music of the production emanates.

Pendulum, photo by Mikiko Uesugi

Pendulum, photo by Mikiko Uesugi

The four corners of the stage are marked not with solid pillars, but with pendulums that can be set into motion.  Like many Noh plays, This Lingering Life stages encounters between characters from different times against a backdrop of eternity.  To my mind, at least, the pendulums evoke the marking of time, while the tree is a reminder of the continuity of life from season to season.

A large rolling dais, modeled on a similar device used in certain Noh plays, makes it possible for stage attendants to move one or more actors, prone or frozen in position, on or off the stage, and some scenes take place on the dais.

Dais, photo by Mikiko Uesugi

Dais, photo by Mikiko Uesugi

The goal, as in Noh, is not to clutter the space with visual elements but to let the audience focus on what is there and—what is of the greatest importance, in theater and in life—on who is there.

Ladies in purple light, photo by Hap Tivey

Ladies in purple light, photo by Hap Tivey

It feels quite insufficient to me to say that I have never seen such an exquisite set.  Kudos are due not only to scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi but also to Joshua McDermott, who built the structures, to lighting designer Allen Willner, who bathed the set and the actors in glorious light, and to the group of ensemble members and friends who gathered to cut out leaves for a tree that will forever make me more attentive to seasonal changes and other evidence of time passing on the plum tree outside my window.

Gangsters under a Tree, photo by Hap Tivey

Gangsters under a Tree, photo by Hap Tivey

I hope that readers who are in or near San Francisco will come to see This Lingering Life (at Z Space through June 14) to experience its visual beauties, the ingenuity of its narrative, the complexity and interest of its sonic design, and the compassionate energy of the performers.

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One Response to Translating Noh into Now:  Mikiko Uesugi’s Set for This Lingering Life

  1. A J Crumpacker says:

    Thanks for introducing me to this blog. That is one magical tree.

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