For these actors, the answer is 'Noh'

For 600 years, Japanese Noh theater actors have taken their places on polished cypress stages to play out stories of gods, nobles, demons, ghosts, warriors, and beautiful women. The essence of Noh has changed very little. At the back of the stage, drummers pound and a flute shrieks. To the side, a chorus chants. Center stage, the main actor sings as he moves ceremoniously through a dance crafted generations before he was born.

Noh is a classical Japanese art form that fuses movement, music, drama, and poetry. Seeing a Noh play for the first time can be a very strange experience. "The drummers' calls are not what our ears are used to," says Jay Rubin, Harvard's Takashima Professor of Japanese Humanities, "hooting and howling sounds, and groaning - not what you imagine as music!" Actors don't so much walk as glide. They wear magnificent costumes that have so many layers the performers need other people to dress them. Many roles call for masks, such as that of a beautiful woman, a young god, or a fearsome sharp-horned demon. On the Noh stage, horns mean anger.

"Almost every play has some easily recognizable human emotion," Professor Rubin explains. "The single secret to its [Noh's] longevity is that it's about fundamental human emotion. And storytelling. All Noh has storytelling. A beautiful kind of storytelling."

Developed in 14th-century Japan by an actor and playwright named Kannami and his son Zeami, Noh was originally supported by shoguns, or Japanese leaders. Whether indoors or outside, the stage always has a large, curved roof, a bridge-like passageway for entrances and exits, and a painted backdrop of a pine tree. (Noh was originally associated with shrines of Japan's Shinto religion, and an ancient Shinto belief held that gods lived in pine trees.)

Noh plays usually have about 20 performers, but each play tells the story of only one role, the shite (sh-tay, or "doer"). The shite does not speak, but sings, as in an opera. The role portrays a type, rather than a fully developed character. The main role might be "the woman who was once beautiful" or "the ghost who was jealous." Noh actors are mostly men, who pass their skills down to their sons.

"It's the longest consistently performed theatrical tradition in the world," says Jubilith Moore. She's joint artistic director of San Francisco's Theatre of Yugen, which creates and teaches performance based on traditional Japanese theater arts.

According to Ms. Moore, who studied Noh in Tokyo, each play can last from 45 minutes to three hours. A traditional performance includes five Noh plays with Kyogen - shorter, amusing pieces - in between. A full program can go from 10 in the morning until 10 at night. Some audience members stay the whole time!

Although the stories can be tragic, Noh theater strikes many people as beautiful and emotional. There are no unnecessary objects on stage, and audiences must use their imagination to conjure the evening dew or a vast ocean. A boat may be represented only by its outline, or a moonrise by the way an actor arcs his fan.

A Noh actor can be so skillful that even when he sits completely still, he can project an emotion that moves an audience to tears. Only the most experienced actors play "still" roles, such as those of old women, which are among the most dignified parts.

Noh performers train their whole lives. Haruhisa Kawamura of Kyoto's Kawamura Noh Theater played his first stage role at age 3, and the first of many leading roles at 10.

"My practice," Mr. Kawamura says in rapid-fire Japanese, interpreted by Professor Rubin, "would always center on a specific play. I'd work on the dance, singing, of that play. In middle school, I was in the choruses. This is in fifth or sixth grade. Then the training gets serious.... I went to different teachers to learn different instruments. Every day I was learning something. It becomes impossible to measure the time [spent training] because it's not hours each day, it's the whole time. Even now, when I'm teaching, it's a kind of practice."

"Kawamura has everything inside his head," Rubin says. "He could recite a whole play at the drop of a hat." Kawamura says he has memorized 200 Noh plays.

Professional Noh actors are taught "mouth to mouth," or by imitating their teachers exactly, Moore says. "This is changing," she adds, "due to technology. Now you can buy an audiotape of a Noh play and practice with that. But if you are a professional, you don't use recordings."

Noh actors have long careers. Because actors are masked, a white-haired man can play a beautiful young woman, or the part of a general by a young boy - or girl.

Not many girls perform in professional Noh dramas, but Kawamura has been training his daughter Haruna since she was 2. Now she's 10, and accomplished enough to take parts in the scenes her father performs when he travels the world doing demonstrations. If she wants to, says Kawamura, she can have a place in his company, but only if she continues training. "I don't know," he muses. "She is interested in ballet."

If Haruna does continue in the theater, she will be in a minority of performers. "There are about 2,000 Noh performers in the world, and they all live in Japan," says Moore. About 2 percent of them, 40 or so, are women. "It's changing very slowly," she says.

But, Moore adds, there is a very large number of amateur Noh players in Japan - both male and female - who study for years and perform Noh scenes at recitals. Some Noh players also live in the United States, such as those associated with Moore's theater.

"We have to have discipline to do our kind of theater," Moore says. "You have to train your body and voice. Women, in general, have been willing to put in the years it takes." In her San Francisco company, at least, "We've always had more women than men."

For an ancient art, ancient masks - but watch out

You may never have seen a Noh performance, but you may have seen a Noh mask. The masks are often in museum collections. The oldest masks are carved from blocks of Japanese cypress that were soaked in water for five or six years first. The masks are greatly revered, and families of performers pass them down through the generations. (Haruhisa Kawamura, the Noh actor featured in this article, owns a 600-year-old mask.) There is even a special room in Noh theaters called "the mirror room," where performers go to don their masks.

Actors are able to show a range of emotions by tilting their masks to catch the light just so, or put them in shadow. But masked Noh actors can't see very well because the eye holes are very small. One of the four pillars on every Noh stage is called the "eye-fixing pillar." Performers use it to figure out where they are on stage so they won't fall off!

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