||Bridging Worlds Through Kyōgen
||07 December 2014 (Sunday), starting at 6:30 pm
||Buy a copy of A Kyōgen Companion from Good Day Books
The following is based on an extended interview with Don Kenny conducted by Sarah Clarke.
To most non-Japanese, the spectacles of nō, kyōgen, and kabuki are
to be enjoyed at arm's length, as a member of an audience, rather than
as a participant. Few venture beneath the surface of any of these art
forms to explore its texture, meaning, or cultural significance.
However, working under master kyōgen actor Mansaku Nomura and alongside fellow kyōgen actor Shichiro Ogawa in their company "Kenny & Ogawa Kyōgen Players", American Don Kenny has been bringing the world of kyōgen
to non-Japanese audiences across the world for over 25 years. Not only
has Kenny dedicated many years to learning the techniques of kyōgen, but he has also translated over 170 kyōgen plays (out of 257) into English, showing a remarkable commitment to the art form.
Kenny's passion for kyōgen began less than a month after arriving in Japan in 1959 as a junior officer in the US Navy. He watched his first kyōgen
performance and immediately realized that this was what he wanted to
do. He had always loved the theater and, as a music major at university,
had wanted to master a classical art form that combined movement and
voice. It took another four years before Kenny was able to get an
introduction to Nomura who, despite coming from a prestigious family of kyōgen
actors and being part of a world beset with rigid traditions, was
willing to take Kenny on as a student. Nomura had begun to explore kyōgen in English at the University of Washington and, having enjoyed the experience, traded English lessons for kyōgen lessons with Kenny for several years.
Kenny almost immediately realized that the techniques for mastering kyōgen differed greatly from those of other classical art forms. In classical ballet, techniques are taught separately, while in kyōgen
"you start right off learning songs that are going to be used in
performances." There are no voice training exercises as there might be
for students of classical opera. "Posture is taught while while the
songs are taught" and movements are learned through "constant repetition
of the same patterns" rather than as parts of dances, for example.
Surprisingly, he was advised against trying to create any facial
expression and was told to "... train with no facial expression at all
... so that when you get in front of an audience what seeps through is
sufficient ... All the expression is built into the dialogue and
movement ... The body and the voice are doing the expressing." It is
through years of this type of training that the distinctive kyōgen style is passed from teacher to student. By and large, kyōgen has changed little since its inception over 600 years ago.
the outside observer, this rigorous process of learning through
"mimicry" might seem incredible. There appears to be little opportunity
to break out from the strictures of the plays and their particular
style. Kyōgen grew out of street theater and was designed as comic relief between Noh
performances. Most plays involve two or three characters and depict a
"slice of life," a simple story in which typically a servant outwits a
master, ending in a chase. No one is killed, nor is any character
particularly evil. Thus, the audience is generally left with a warm
feeling after watching Kyogen. Kenny feels that it would be very difficult to write new kyōgen plays carrying 21st century messages, because Kyogen
describes basic human situations with simple content. He thinks that
21st century subject matter would be too complex for the simple style of kyōgen.
Despite these restrictions, kyōgen
has, in fact, been used as the basis for original work. Typically,
these have been adaptations of other plays rather than fundamentally new
art forms or true developments of the Kyogen style. For example, in the 2001 performance by Nomura's son of The Kyōgen of Errors, based on Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, external special effects and vivid sets were used to modernize kyōgen. For Kenny, this approach "cheapens kyōgen
rather than than develop[s] the style." However, he believes his
teacher has been successful in bridging traditional and modern styles in
his 1991 adaptation The Braggart Samurai, based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. Despite an apparent reluctance to develop kyōgen and inherent difficulties in doing so, these new types of plays, Kenny's work with kyōgen in English (and more recently in French and Spanish), and the increasing use of kyōgen for training in Japanese classical theater have successfully opened up the world of kyōgen to new audiences both in Japan and abroad.
in different languages presents Kenny with many challenges, not the
least of which is conveying the same character in English, Japanese, or
French. Interestingly, Kenny maintains that kyōgen is more
easily performed in French than in English, because French is "sung" and
English is more "percussive" than French. Before translating kyōgen
plays from Japanese to English, Kenny had to create a stylized form of
English. Having read widely in the English classics, he developed a
style of English that is "not of any country or place" and has a
slightly archaic sound, but is true to the kyōgen style. For Kenny, one of the keys to a successful kyōgen performance
in a language other than Japanese is to ensure that the humor works.
Interestingly, he has found that audiences laugh at the same thing in
all three languages, primarily because kyōgen relies on
"situational humor" rather than "plays on words." He has, however,
occasionally had to devise an artful translation where a literal
translation of the dialog has failed to accurately convey meaning.
It is not surprising that Kenny is viewed as an outsider in the kyōgen
world, surrounded as it is by rigid structures. He is effectively an
"unknown quantity" who will "never be anywhere in the hierarchy of kyōgen, neither part of the kyōgen community nor fully integrated into its traditions." Despite over 40 years' involvement in kyōgen, he has received no official recognition in Japan. By contrast, he is quite well known for his kyōgen work
in North America. Far from being discouraged by this situation, Kenny
is "totally happy with not being integrated" into Japanese society; he
has created his own world in Japan, a world that gives him the freedom
to develop his art as he pleases. Indeed, he recently debuted a one-man
show in which he performs several kyōgen monologues, gives a lecture on kyōgen, and plays a Celtic harp (a recently acquired skill).
While Kenny's work has clearly made kyōgen more accessible to non-Japanese audiences and influenced the art of over 580 non-Japanese actors who have learned kyōgen through "Kenny & Ogawa Kyōgen Players", kyōgen remains largely uninfluenced by the outside world. Surrounded by kyōgen artefacts and Celtic harps in his Tokyo studio, Kenny asserts that "kyōgen doesn't need [outside] influence. ... It is the strongest art form in the world. ... [Kyōgen requires] years of dedication to learn to express the form without breaking it down. ... [To appreciate kyōgen,] the original pieces have to be seen."
It is clear from Don Kenny's practical contributions to the world of kyōgen and the numerous books and articles he has written on kyōgen that, while it is possible to interpret kyōgen
in another language, it is far more difficult to bridge the cultural
gap between Japanese and non-Japanese traditions. His work has
undoubtedly been a vehicle for building awareness about Japan's culture
and art forms. Whether the reverse can be true is an open question.
To attend Don Kenny's BookNotes presentation "Bridging Worlds Through Kyōgen," you must buy a copy of A Kyōgen Companion from our shop. Paperback copies of A Kyōgen Companion may be purchased at Good Day Books for three thousand two hundred forty yen (¥3240) each, tax included.