Feature Story | 3-Jun-2024

Doctoral thesis investigated, how the noh and kyogen actors in Japanese traditional theatre achieve their awe-inspiring mastery

Estonian Research Council

Dramatic theory encompasses various theories related to theatre and the performing arts. As an enthusiastic researcher of Japanese theatre, Margit Juurikas based her thesis on theoretical texts on classical Japanese theatre. “The mere knowledge that this is a unique form of theatre not found anywhere else in the world that has consistently been practiced since the end of the 14th century was enough to spark my interest and respect for noh-theatre. The comedic kyogen as a research object, performed on the same stage as the dramatic noh, was an added bonus to the research,” Juurikas explained
“Since I am not a professional actor, I had to focus my research on theory, hence the selection of the source texts – noh and kyogen treatises,” she continued. While classical Japanese theatre may seem distant, concepts describing the actor’s development or their theatrical ideals can help make it more accessible to Westerners. Of course, the terminology in classical and contemporary performing arts is different. Interestingly enough, it became apparent that just like Stanislavsky, for example, used terminology from psychology among other disciplines to express ideas about acting techniques, the noh and kyogen treatises used terms that had travelled into these texts from other discourses.

Juurikas found that the idea of travelling concepts, on one hand, supported a certain form of dialogue between the East and the West and between classical and contemporary theatre theories, and on the other hand, provided the opportunity to study what was underlying the terminology found in the texts. Juurikas also explores the ways in which noh and kyogen theorists modified the concepts that had “travelled” into their texts for the performing arts in order to explain the relationship between the actor’s body and mind and the inner and outer, as well as its development and enactment on stage.

While analysing the terminology found in the classical treatises, it became evident to Juurikas that the body is central in the first phase of the long development process of the noh and kyogen actor. Learning takes place from one body to the other, meaning that the young actor learns by imitating the master. At some point, this relationship changes, because the tone begins to be set by the awareness of bodily movements and by expressing them from within. Increasingly, the role of the mind takes over, and the actor moves from one mind to the other in their development process. There may also be a phase where the mind dominates the body in the actor’s learning process, but in this case, the performance is doomed to fail.

Juurikas found that it is important that the interaction between the actor’s body and mind happens smoothly and is in accordance with each phase of development, because a performance can never be purely from the body or from the mind. The actor’s body and mind are in an intimate relationship with each other, the ideal form of which is expressed in an aesthetic performance. This is the case for both the noh and the kyogen actor, although the latter has undeservedly been overlooked by researchers.

“Even if the traditional Japanese performing arts, especially the noh-theatre, may seem alien and difficult to understand at first, the principles of the acting theories practiced by noh and kyogen performers are perhaps not so different from contemporary acting practices,” says Margit, summarising the broader context of her research.

Margit Juurikas, PhD student at the Department of Humanities at Tallinn University, defended her doctoral thesis “‘First technique, then mind?’ The physical functioning and mental presence of the noh and kyogen actor” on 31 January. The thesis was supervised by Rein Raud, a distinguished professor, and Margus Ott, a researcher at Tallinn University. The opponents of the thesis were Anneli Saro, a professor at the University of Tartu, and Kati Lindström, a researcher at Tallinn University.

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