Spicing It Up: Theatre of Yugen Inverts Its Process for a New Noh-Inspired Show

This Lingering Life, which opens this week, is a departure for playwright Chiori Miyagawa and producing company Theatre of Yugen. The Mission District-based ensemble, now in its 35th year and whose members have been studying together for up to 20 years, creates new works of Noh and Kyogen, traditional forms of Japanese theater that emphasize movement, music, and ritual over text. Plots, typically very simple, often involve ghosts leaving the world of the living. Though Miyagawa has a longstanding interest in myth and non-naturalistic theater, This Lingering Life, which comprises nine interwoven scenes all inspired by 14th-century Noh plays, marks her first exploration of the form. We talked with the New York-based Miyagawa and Theatre of Yugen Artistic Director Jubilith Moore about how their collaboration came to be and where this play falls on a spectrum of traditional and contemporary styles.

SF Weekly: How did this project begin?

Chiori Miyagawa: We have a mutual friend, Erik Ehn. He and I and three other theater artists were invited to go to Japan to study Noh theater — not the performance, but how the text works. There is an American Noh company in Japan, Theatre Nohgaku, and the actors wanted to have American playwrights write new plays in the Noh format. The other writers from that group went ahead and wrote plays. I was a failure. I couldn't do it. Why not?

Part of that is cultural baggage. I was born in Japan, and Noh is this sacred thing. [Historically] it was all male. It's still largely that. I have never seen a female performer.

Jubilith Moore: There are about 2,000 professional Noh performers — they have a union — and about 2 to 3 percent of them are women.

Miyagawa: I loved the tradition of Noh, but I think two things stood in my way — the all-male-ness — but also I wasn't interested in putting content into certain forms. I think content drives form. But years later, I realized I liked the content of it; it's so brief, but so outrageously dramatic and sometimes insane and supernatural — all the things I'm interested in. It's like very disciplined magical realism. I decided to write my play based on the essence or elements of the content and didn't think about the form at all. Then I showed it to Erik, and Erik said, “You should send it to Jubilith!”

Tell us about the nine stories that inspired the piece.

Miyagawa: I chose plays because I liked a moment or a character about the play. I found one thing in each story, and sometimes it was wrong—from the academic, agreed-upon understanding of the story, or because the plot didn't support it. I wrote with deep disrespect for the existing text!

Will the show be Noh in look and feel?

Miyagawa: I wasn't thinking there would be any Noh elements to it. To me, it's my usual writing — ghosts, lacking specific locations. Once rehearsal started, [Moore] started incorporating some of the vocal use and movement, and that was really fascinating and sometimes distressing. The style of speaking is very beautiful, but it messes up the meter so I can't understand what [the actors] are saying. But we worked it out. These beautiful moments that seem stylized — they're not exactly Noh, but they remind us of Noh.

This play was an unusual choice for Theatre of Yugen. Why is that?

Moore: We get script submissions, and many of them are 45-100 pages long. I'll read the first couple pages, and I'm just like, “This is a text-based play. It's not for us.” But then I read the first couple pages [of Miyagawa's], and instantly I thought, “I know these characters.”

Most scripts you produce are about five pages long.

Moore: But those five-page scripts could be an hour long. It's not a short experience — it's just augmented with a lot of movement and music; text is sung.

This Lingering Life might be among Theatre of Yugen's more accessible shows for Western audiences. How do you generally cope with that cultural divide?

Moore: It's become quite simple for me to understand after many, many years. American audiences like to know; they like to understand what is going on. If you veil the content with too much form, then you have distanced the audience. That balance between distancing them and baiting them, trying to encourage them to come to your world, is very difficult. It takes each generation of actor to figure out that balance. One reason [this show] is such a grand experiment for us is that we've been telling Western stories, but we've been telling them in a foreign form. This is the opposite approach: The stories are pretty cool! Let's start with that. We're just going to sprinkle it with dashi flakes.

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