Crafting the Stage

While we’re on the topic of generational stagecraft:

I recently attended two evenings of Noh Theater hosted by the Japan Society, and I was particularly struck by how the ensemble of singers and musicians personally bring on stage AND strike every set piece and prop used during the performance.

It struck me not only because it’s interesting to watch the created world built and taken apart in front of our eyes — which has possible thematic resonance, depending on the specifics of the story — but also because it reminded me of a crucial component of Richard Nelson’s late-career aesthetic.

His Apples play cycle, his Gabriels play cycle, his Michaels play cycle, AND his Uncle Vanya all start with the cast similarly setting up the playing space. But whereas the Noh introducers do so nondescriptly — mesmerizingly so — with Nelson, we watch the process of the actors becoming their characters; how they go about setting up everything is our first window into who they are. Not to mention: this approach establishes the importance of reciprocal caregiving to the constructed communities we’re about to spend a few hours inside of.

Nelson sends them off stage after they’re done. But in Noh, they remain in sight, albeit with stony faces that refuse to respond to the unfolding action.

Which reminded me of an old Bart Sher trick: he’s prone to leaving his choruses on stage. But as opposed to the impenetrable gazes of the Nohs, his casts seem to reside in a middle ground between reacting to what they see in character, and donning the more detached visages of thespians waiting for their cue to fully embody the fictional reality.

Regardless, their presence on stage — whether responsive or not — can’t help but laser-focus our attention on the proceedings, which operates by an almost inverse logic. You’d think more bodies to gander at would distractingly clutter from the primary subjects, but when meandering eyes behold an attentiveness directed at one of these subjects, I find it functions as a sort of guide back to what demands our consciousness.

And when it comes to the minute movements of Noh — it’s minimalism that strips away most means of expression in order to maximize minuter means — these onstage observers channel our own observing towards this maximally-meaningful theatrical minutiae.

Yet again, a lot of character work boils down to what to look like while looking.

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