Noh Stories, New Stories: At a Noh Writing Workshop

Text of a Noh Play, photo by Brian Higdon

Text of a Noh Play, photo by Brian Higdon

As much as I am affected by the music and visual elements of Noh, I confess that my strongest attraction to the genre is to its poetry and narrative framework.  My favorite plays are those of the type known as mugen —or phantasmal—Noh, in which an encounter is staged between a person of the everyday world (the waki) and a visitant from an otherworldly realm (the shite).  The encounter is, in the majority of cases, transformative for the shite, who is freed from the obsession that caused him to haunt the site of some painful event.  It is also, at least from my own spiritual perspective, transformative for the waki, who liberates the visitant by hearing his story, and for everyone else who bears witness, notably the audience.

Being a writer myself, I have long yearned to try my hand at writing a Noh play, and sure enough, not long after my introduction to Noh, I learned that Theatre Nohgaku ( offered an annual Noh writing workshop!  But alas, those workshops tended to take place in Japan, New York, or other distant locales, and I had no formal affiliation with an academic or arts institution that could fund or facilitate my travel for artistic purposes.

English language script, with shodan labeled, photo by Brian Higdon

English language script, with shodan labeled, photo by Brian Higdon

Why does one need to attend a class to learn how to write a Noh play, as opposed to simply reading plays in translation and studying the (relatively few) performances available on video?  The reason is that although certain large elements of structure are quite apparent—the entry of the waki, the entry of the shite in some unassuming earthly form, a cryptic exchange, the exit of the shite, the reentry of the shite as a ghost, and so on—the internal structure of each of those sections is far from random.  Rather, a Noh play consists of many smaller structural elements called shodan, which need not always appear in the same order, but which must comply with specific conventions of length, tone, prosody, and sometimes content.   The prosody, which permits the proper relation between the text and its associated music, is not at all evident when one reads a play in translation.  I already knew what story I wanted to tell, but if I hoped for my play eventually to be set to music and choreographed as a Noh play—which might be a pipe dream, but artists are supposed to have those, don’t you think?—I would need a teacher.

David Crandall, photo by Brian Higdon

David Crandall, photo by Brian Higdon

After years of waiting, I learned in the Fall of 2013 that the 2014 session of the Theatre Nohgaku writing workshop would be held in San Francisco, where it would be taught by actor, musician, composer, and playwright David Crandall.  My initial response to this news was glee mixed with awe.  I had, in fact, briefly met David Crandall on one occasion—before a lecture demonstration in a town about an hour north of San Francisco—but he mistook me for another person, and I was too shy to identify myself.   (I need not have been so intimidated.  He turns out to be one of the gentlest, most patient and supportive teachers I have ever encountered.)  My first concern was that the workshop might be restricted to people with theatrical credentials I did not have, but having been assured by the workshop coordinator that it was open to the public, I registered well in advance.

Now, how to prepare?  For a few months, I simply read or reread Noh plays I especially liked.  Some I had been studying anyway, in order to write play synopses and other materials for a project of Theatre of Yugen (   Then a few weeks before the workshop, David Crandall sent a mail message to all participants, pointing us to a set of texts that he had posted for our perusal on Dropbox.  There were scripts, in English, for the three classic plays that we would be studying in detail; a modern Noh play by someone who had taken the workshop in the past; a glossary; and a long, daunting, study of the taxonomy of Noh plays, which David assured us we need not attempt to absorb at any level of detail.  I read the materials in advance and, knowing that the class would entail writing exercises, I spent a few days making notes for the play I had in mind.

Taking notes, photo by Brian Higdon

Taking notes, photo by Brian Higdon

The workshop ran from Good Friday through Easter Sunday, which made for a relatively small group of students.  My classmates included two members of the Theatre of Yugen ensemble, one of them also a founding member of Theatre Nohgaku; the artistic director of a Las Vegas theater focused on new play development; the first poet-laureate of San Antonio, Texas, who has been commissioned to write a Kyogen play to be produced next year; a theater artist from Santa Cruz, California; and one other person who, like me, was simply an enthusiast eager for the experience.

Old man mask by Hideta Kitazawa, photo by Brian Higdon

Old man mask by Hideta Kitazawa, photo by Brian Higdon

On the first day, David Crandall introduced some basic elements of Noh:  the categories of plays, the types of roles, the musical instruments, and so on.  He demonstrated the different styles of singing and how to play two of the three types of drums used in Noh.  He also showed us a nohkan, the small transverse flute used in Noh, and explained how its construction creates the eerie sound so different from that of a Western flute.  After lunch we watched and discussed a video of the Noh play Kagetsu, about a young male temple dancer whose father finds him accidentally years after he was abducted.  It is very difficult to obtain videos of Noh plays from the traditional schools, which consider the content proprietary, but David was at one time an actor of the Hosho school and had made arrangements to be able to share materials with us.  The scariest part of day was being invited to try on a mask carved by traditional carver Hideta Kitazawa for David Crandall’s Noh play The Linden Tree.  I knew from reading and from talking to actors who have performed in masks that the eye holes of a Noh mask are so small that the actor cannot easily see.  How true!  In fact, it seemed to me that there was only one eye hole, which was certainly not really the case.  When I had my chance, David asked whether I wanted to take a few steps wearing a mask—the woman from Santa Cruz had been very brave, taking steps and even shifting her weight and moving her arms around—but I was afraid to move.  Finally, on Friday afternoon we began what for me was the most unique and valuable part of the class:  David taught us about several important shodan, their prosody, and how to combine them.  The homework for Saturday was to write a sequence of shodan for the first major part of a Noh play—the entrance of the waki.

By Saturday morning, I was newly obsessed with writing lines each consisting of  7 syllables followed by 5 syllables and scanning as in the following example:

He who enters this valley/can never return.

Not all but a goodly number of shodan require this pattern, which permits the chanted text to be matched to the music in a specific way.  In addition to having the correct number of syllables with the correct stress pattern, some shodan require certain lines to be repeated.   As a person accustomed to writing prose and the occasional page of free verse, I found it a considerable challenge to follow all the rules while still creating a text with the affect I hoped to achieve:

I was going mad trying/but did not succeed.

On the second day, we learned the rules for more shodan, and David introduced several of the rhetorical figures used in Noh and classical Japanese poetry in general.  We also watched a video of the exquisite play Izutsu, which like so many “woman plays” is about a woman pining for a love now lost to her.  The main role was played by an older man with an abundance of chin visible below a graceful mask.   One might expect such a discrepancy between the actor and the role to create distance, but it didn’t at all.  The actor’s evident age and fragility evoked enormous pathos, which only increased as the play proceeded—with the actor barely moving, other than to turn carefully from one side to another—for about an hour and forty-five minutes.

I felt so very sorry/I wanted to cry.          

Feedback Session, photo by Brian Higdon

Feedback Session, photo by Brian Higdon

After the video screening came a memorable moment for all of us:  while we students had eaten lunch and watched the video, David had set our first homework assignments to music . He projected each person’s work on the screen, chanted it in traditional style, and then offered a critique, which focused on errors in prosody that made it difficult to set the lines to music.   Our homework assignment for Sunday was to write the sequence of shodan that form the epicenter of a Noh play:  the “kuse,” in which the main character’s painful memory is revealed.

The number of syllables/and the scansion too
could vary in a kuse/but I had begun
to think in sets of seven/ and five syllables,
so that at last my kuse/was too regular…

The third day of the workshop was structured similarly to the second.  By now there was a lovely sense of camaraderie within our group:   although each of us had a different artistic background and individual project, we were all comfortable asking each other questions, sharing thoughts, and offering encouragement.  David introduced several more shodan, enough so that each of us would, in theory, be able to write a whole Noh play, and we watched a third video, Ataka, in which the great military commander Yoshitsune,  in peril of his life, flees the capital with a group of retainers, all disguised as mountain priests (yamabushi).  Ataka involves no ghosts or spirits, and compared to any other Noh play I have seen live or on video, it calls for a large number of actors, many of whom move in unison in ways that make it believable that they would storm a barrier or assault a recalcitrant border official.  I understand that it is not unknown for an audience member to fall asleep during a Noh play; however, I would guess that no one ever falls asleep during a performance of Ataka.

Sharing ideas, photo by Brian Higdon

Sharing ideas, photo by Brian Higdon

The last hours of the workshop were spent sharing and critiquing our second homework assignment.  It was fascinating to observe how our stories diverged in substance and tone.  I really hope each of us plans to finish his or her play—even those of us who do not necessarily consider themselves writers.

For me, the writing workshop was not only a joyous experience in itself but a great spur to creativity.  Within a few weeks following the workshop, I had produced a first draft of my play and sent it to David, who graciously provided feedback, which I have since incorporated.  As an unaffiliated artist who has not written a play since college, I have no way to know whether mine will ever be performed, but even if not, the experience of learning to recognize the various poetic and musical structures within a Noh play has heightened my enjoyment of plays that I read or watch.  While translations do not duplicate the rhythmic patterns of Noh, they often label the shodan, and from now on I will have a better sense, when I read a play, of how it is likely to sound, and when I watch a play, I can begin to recognize the melodic contours and options for rhythmic organization that we discussed in class. I would recommend the Theatre Nohgaku writing workshop, without qualification, to theater artists and enthusiasts of all stripes, whether your goal is to deepen your understanding of Noh or, more generally, to explore alternatives to naturalistic theater or those styles of physical theater that deny the power of a crafted text .

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1 Response to Noh Stories, New Stories: At a Noh Writing Workshop

  1. Sleiman says:

    I found this post to be very useful. Thanks.

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