1. Noh masks can change their expression
By different accounts, there are anywhere from 60 to 200 different types of mask used in today’s Noh performances. Actors treat masks with the reverence of elders and will bow when handling them. Many Noh masks have a neutral expression which can change their emotion through shadow and relief depending on whether the actor tilts them upwards or downwards. In most Noh plays, it is generally the shite, or principle character, who wears a mask. Masks are deliberately smaller than the actor’s face to show the unity between the actor and the character.
2. The Noh stage has a roof and a bridge
The Noh stage is both simple and highly stylised. Most of the performances take place on a plain yet beautiful wooden stage featuring a pillar at each corner with a painting of a green pine tree at the back. The pillars are important for the masked characters whose vision is limited and are named according to placement or function: the main character’s pillar where the main character as well as all other characters first stop when entering the stage, the gazing pillar which in particular helps masked characters find their position on stage, the secondary character’s pillar close to which the secondary character often sits, and the flute pillar close to where the flute player is always located.
A complete Noh stage, now generally indoors, features a decorative roof above the pillars – a remnant of when Noh was performed outdoors. The roof also serves to focus the musical aspects of the performance and send it to the audience. A bridgeway to the left of the stage serves both as a supplementary performing area and the place where characters make their entrances and exits. The briegeway is said to suggest a crossing point from one world to another.
3. No dress rehearsals
Noh is a highly disciplined art form with choreographed movement forms passed down from generation to generation. Still there is considerable difference among performers as to how these movement forms are interpreted. Actors rehearse their performance with more experienced actors and then generally only have one run-through rehearsal called mōshiawase to check musical and movement choices of all the performers. These final rehearsals are generally done without costumes which gives the one-off performance an improvisational quality. Over-rehearsing with the full ensemble is generally frowned upon.
4. A fan for every occasion
Performers in Noh almost always carry a fan. For the role actors the fan can be used in some instances instead of a prop, and might stand for a sake cup, a water pitcher, a sword or a bow and arrow. In general actors use the fan as an extension of the hand, often pointing to what the actor sees, whether in the distance or close by, as it is mentioned in the chant of the actor or the chorus. The designs on the fans are symbolic of the characters and themes of the play being performed and include waves, pine trees, flowers and rising and setting suns.
6. Noh is musical theatre!
Noh emphasizes music in the way the actors and the chorus sing or chant which has a tight relationship with the four-piece instrumental ensemble. Of course, in terms of vocal style, it is very different from Western opera and both are again different from Beijing Opera and the other regional opera styles of China. All can certainly be considered a ‘total art form’ in the sense of Wagner’s ‘Gesamtkunstwerk‘, with aspects of visual art, music and performance all part of the theatrical experience. However, tonally, Noh actors use a powerful stylized speech as well as both melodic sung and dynamic chanted styles which have highly complex textures and rhythms.
7. Noh is one of the world’s oldest unbroken theatrical traditions
Noh is one of the oldest forms of major theatre to have been continuously performed from the distant past to the present day. It has an unbroken tradition dating back to its development into its present form led predominantly by Kan’ami and his son Zeami in the 14th and 15th centuries. Some of its theatrical conventions date back even further to at least the 8th century. In 2008, Noh and the accompanying theatre of the comic Kyogen were recognised as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO.
8. Noh employs space and time to create dramatic tension
Moreso than Western classical music and theatre, Noh often has significant pauses in both the music and the dramatic action. Actors train to center their body so they can stay still on stage which in turn gives dramatic tension to both smaller and larger movements. Musically, the timing between beats is often stretched, or pregnant pauses felt in the music without the benefit of a conductor, all giving a dynamic tension to the performance. These reflect the Japanese concept of ‘Ma’ – which indicates space in terms of time. The pauses are also reflective of a line in the Buddhist Heart Sutra: “Emptiness is form; form is emptiness”.
9. Noh actors train like martial artists
Noh means ‘skill’ or ‘craft’, and this brings many aspects of its performance together. In a similar way to martial arts, the tea ceremony, flower arranging or calligraphy — all deeply influenced by Zen in the 14th century, Noh has a series of kata or standard choreographed patterns which actors learn as they master the fluidity of a performance.
10. Actors can speak each other’s lines
Stylized speech and chant/song can be traded between Noh performers even if they appear to relate to a single character. It is not uncommon in a Noh play for the chorus to sing the lines of a dancing actor. Perhaps more uniquely, the principle character (shite), supporting characters (shite-tsure) and secondary characters (waki) may also finish each other’s sentences or trade verses, suggesting a shared space for thoughts and feelings.