The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun!’ and you say, ‘The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!’ then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
― Tina Fey, Bossypants
Art from other cultures can be difficult to understand, but sometimes reveals similarities to our own that we don’t expect.
While in New York City to perform in Houston Grand Opera’s production of The Passenger at the Lincoln Center Festival, I had the opportunity to see a performance by the internationally renowned Heisei Nakamura-za, one of the three most famous historic Kabuki companies in Japan. I didn’t know what to expect or if I would enjoy the experience, but I also wasn’t sure when I would have another chance to see Kabuki live, so I bought a ticket for Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki, The Ghost Story of the Wet Nurse Tree, at the Rose Theater.
Izumo no Okuni from the collection of the Kyoto National Museum. Public Domain Image.
Kabuki began in the early 17th Century with the performances of Izumo no Okuni, a woman celebrated for her beauty as well as for her singing, acting and dancing. Traditionally recognized as a miko, or female shaman, at the Shinto Shrine of Izumo, she assembled a group of women who were considered outcasts and misfits, many of whom were engaged in prostitution, trained them and directed them in short vignettes which they performed in dry riverbeds near Kyoto, and, later, at Shinto shrines and brothels. Designated as kabuki for their eccentricity and social audacity, many of the routines were filled with daring sexual innuendo. Audiences couldn’t get enough. Okuni even performed for the imperial court, although her art leaned toward the exploration of ordinary feudal life, rather than depicting the aristocracy.
Tōshūsai Sharaku, portrait of onnagata actor Sanokawa Ichimatsu III as Ihohata, 1794. Public Domain Image.
By 1629, the Tokugawa government was alarmed by the proliferation of female Kabuki troupes, the mischief and prostitution that followed their performances and the mixing of social classes that occurred there. Although women had created the genre, they were forbidden by law to perform it. It should be noted that prostitution did not disappear with the banning of women and, at some points in its history, young men were banned from performing as well for similar reasons. Bans on male actors never remained in effect for long. To this day, all Kabuki actors are male and the traditional onnagata (female characters played by men) roles have become so ingrained that it is still not acceptable for a woman to play a woman onstage in a Kabuki performance. There are men who specialize in these roles, which require a higher pitched voice and feminine movements. Portraying women of good character, like the Lady Oseki in The Ghost Story of the Wet Nurse Tree, requires a stooped posture and downcast glance.
Kabuki characters are all highly stylized and stereotyped. The way a character moves, the mode of dress and makeup and the tone and inflection of the voice not only identify the individual, but the type of character that the individual represents. This makes convoluted plots, like that of The Ghost Story of the Wet Nurse Tree, fairly easy to follow.
It’s a violent tale about deception and revenge. The painter Shigenobu is acclaimed far and wide. He has recently married and his beautiful young wife, the Lady Oseki, has borne him a son, Mayotaro. His success has made an enemy of the wicked Sasahige, a murderer and a thief who disguises himself as a passing Samurai named Namie. When the humble and defenseless Lady Oseki is attacked by a drunk seeking to rape her, the villain steps in to save her from a peril that he himself has staged. This wins the respect of Shosuke, Shigenobu’s well meaning but foolish servant. Namie asks to become a pupil of the great painter and Shigenobu grants his request out of gratitude to the man who saved his wife.
Although Namie isn’t recognized as Sasahige by the other characters until the very end of the play, the educated in the audience know he is a villain upon his first appearance. This is because of the combination of the sharp angle of his eyebrows, which are pitched downward towards the bridge of his nose, the heavy lines around his eyes and mouth, which give him a perpetual sneer, and the style of his movements. Nakamura Shido plays him with the exaggerated, aggressive masculinity that confirms him as the arch villain, even before we see him lie, cheat and attempt rape.
Once Namie gains access to the family home and the trust of the household, he tricks Shosuke into helping him kill the peaceful and stately Shigenobu so that he may take possession of the the Lady Oseki. After the murder, Namie waits the customary 100 days before forcing her into marriage, sending Shosuke to drown Mayotaro and hiring an assassin, Sanji, to kill Shosuke and get rid of any evidence. Shosuke throws the boy into the river, only to be approached by the ghost of Shigenobu, who saves the child, pardons Shosuke, and kills Sanji.
The final scene happens nine years later. Namie arrives at the home of the Wet Nurse Tree to get healing for the Lady Oseki, who is dying. He is recognized as the villain Sasahige and killed by the ten year old Mayotaro, who thereby avenges the spirit of his dead father. The ending was curiously satisfying to this western viewer, although it required the irretrievable loss of the child’s innocence. I wasn’t proud to recognize my own desire for vengeance.
One of the most impressive elements in Heisei Nakamura-za’s production was that, following a much lauded Kabuki tradition, the lead actor and director of the play, Nakamura Kankuro VI, played three of the five main characters: Shigenobu, Shosuke and Sanji.
Shigenobu the artist is a peaceful man, with a passive stance, a slow and stately manner and a soft spoken nature. He isn’t terribly interesting until he becomes a ghost robed in white, signifying purity and death, and gains the unpredictability that is inherent in spirit beings. It appears that good guys are more heroic when they are dead.
Shosuke, his servant, provides the comic relief. He’s a lovable guy with a partially shaven head and big eyes, deliciously awkward and not too bright. I was roaring with laughter when Namie got him drunk. Even his whining and sniveling were hilarious, although, at times, I felt ashamed to laugh at him.
Sanji the assassin isn’t made up like the arch villain, which would make quick changes difficult, but he does have a brash and abrupt manner. He is the only character to appear bare-chested, revealing the athleticism and the shameless lack of class that personifies this thief and murderer for hire. This bad guy is hot!
It was astonishing to see Kankuro exit and appear with dazzling speed on another side of the stage as a completely different character, aided by costuming and stereotyped personality. “Shosuke, we didn’t see you there!” The audience broke into thunderous applause every time. This was nothing however, compared to his performance in the penultimate scene, a fight between Shosuke, Sanji and Shigenobu’s ghost at a waterfall. The waterfall itself was a technical and design marvel (parts of the audience were issued rain ponchos), but the split second quick changes between Nakamura Kankuro VI and his body doubles were nothing short of miraculous. When a character’s face was visible to the audience, he was Kankuro, or perhaps more accurately, Kankuro was him. As the fight went on, he would inhabit each of the characters in turn, either by ducking through the door of a small onstage hut or changing in the pool below the waterfall. I can’t imagine having to remember who I was at each and every moment of the scene and modifying my movements and utterances accordingly. If you thought Cloud Atlas was revolutionary for having main characters in different scenes played by the same actors, you should see what Kabuki actors do in theaters every night.
Tōshūsai Sharaku, Portrait of Otani Oniji, 1794 Mie pose, Public Domain Image, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Anime fans, I highly recommend that you attend a Kabuki performance at some point. Anime often features still shots which show the characters (who are often highly stylized and stereotyped as well) clenching fists and teeth, making faces and sometimes vocalizing to show conflict. This originates in Kabuki, where it is called mie, or pose. Characters pause during the action to exhibit the emotion they are feeling. Opening their eyes as wide as possible, they may clench or open their hands and teeth, or they may cross their eyes to express anger or agitation. Vocalization or saber rattling may accompany the mie, or musicians may join in to intensify the moment.
Aside from the stylized technical and production elements, the characteristics which make Kabuki entertaining are not so different from those in most popular situation comedies of Western television: risqué jokes and innuendo combined with serious subjects that lean heavily on the maudlin and moralistic, all centered on the life of “normal” people. We use the same stereotypes to characterize our communities, although we don’t picture our characters in the same way. We have our villains, our good guys and heroes, our damsels in distress. The idiot is certainly no stranger to Western viewers, nor is his mistreatment by other characters and the audience, but it is perhaps less common to see an idiot used as a means of destroying the hero. It is the mixture of comic and tragic elements that are most engrossing and shocking. The Ghost Story of the Wet Nurse Tree depicts the common man’s experience of the world–full of both humor and cruelty. It’s quintessential Kabuki and yet quite understandable to a Western audience, making it a fantastic choice for the Lincoln Center Festival. I’m glad it was my first experience with the genre.
Have you enjoyed the magic of a bank of fog, letting it slip around you as surroundings vanish and reappear? Many who experience fog simply find it inconvenient and dangerous. Like many natural phenomena, it is both beautiful and perilous, especially for travelers.
Environmental installation artist Fujiko Nakaya makes fogscapes, designing and installing complex computerized machinery to create low lying clouds of water vapor. No chemicals are used in the process of creating her scaled down versions of natural fog, leaving the water potable. Nakaya’s works are often installed in downtown areas and truly bring the playful beauty of nature into the urban landscape, where the fog interacts with weather conditions to put on a striking show. A marriage of science and art, Nakaya’s designs have graced cities all over the world, including Tokyo, Osaka, San Francisco, Canberra, Paris, Linz, Toronto and Bilbao. She has also provided fog design for theatrical and musical productions, including dance performances. The video below was released in conjunction with an installation in Taipei, Taiwan, entitled Post Urban Fogscape.
What a gentle way to bring the awareness of nature to this city, where once rice farmers were at the mercy of the elements. Here are two more fogscapes by Nakaya, which reveal her delightful imagination. Like a true theater artist, she does not flaunt the technology behind her construction, creating a wonderful sense of mystery. Nature itself is theater.
Makeup and hygiene products often contain gluten. If you are sensitive enough to react to them, what should you avoid?
You probably don’t think twice about using a glob of hand sanitizer or a wet wipe to clean your hands. I never did. On vacation in Yellowstone National Park, I cleaned my hands in the car with a wet wipe. A few minutes later, I rubbed my eyes with my hand and noticed my vision getting blurry soon after. Then things got weird. My upper vision and my lower vision remained, but the part of the picture in between the two began to disappear, as if it had been crimped. Severe brain fog came on and talking became difficult, which I now identify with an extreme gluten reaction. After drinking several bottles of water this all subsided. I had no idea what happened at the time and didn’t even know I was gluten intolerant. I was terrified and figured I must have gotten severely dehydrated. A little more than a month ago it happened again, after using wet wipes to clean up for a sick pet. I wiped off my hands, let them dry, and then put in my right contact. Again, the middle of my vision was gone. This time I took a Benadryl and drank several glasses of water. After about twenty minutes, my vision was back. I still don’t have proof of what happened, but I believe it was gluten related.
Many wet wipes (including the brands I used), hand sanitizers, hairsprays, hair dyes and shampoos contain an ingredient called tocopherol, tocopheryl, or tocopherol acetate. It is a form of vitamin E and can be made from wheat or other sources, such as corn, soy or any number or plants as well as goat’s milk. The problem is that products containing tocopherol do not specify what was used to make it, so it is difficult to tell if these products will trigger a reaction. It is even possible that the same product may use tocopherol from different sources at different times, depending on what is readily available and cheap. Tocopherol isn’t the only name you need to watch for, either. This post about gluten free shampoo contains a valuable list of ingredients that point to wheat.
In addition to cleaning products, makeup also contains tocopherol and other forms of wheat. Most large companies have not made gluten free products a priority, especially since there is doubt over whether or not people react to gluten on their skin. Even if gluten does not cause topical reactions for you, wearing something that could potentially get in your eyes, mouth, or lungs should set off some alarm bells. If you are at all gluten sensitive, I recommend using gluten free products around your eyes and mouth. Lipsticks and eyeliners get too close to take chances, and frequently do not have ingredient lists on the item itself (save your packaging). No Gluten Natural Girl is a wonderful brand that doesn’t cost more than what you would buy at a drugstore or supermarket. I buy most of my everyday makeup from them. For lipstick, I recommend Red Apple Lipstick. It’s more expensive, but it lasts for a long time, gives great coverage and comes in awesome shades of red, which are more difficult to make because they require a strong binder. Not sure if you need gluten free cosmetics? This article is informative.
Theatrical makeup is even more challenging, as it is often designed and selected by the company you work for, especially for ensembles of dancers or chorus members. For years I have avoided Ben Nye eye pencils. I have forgotten twice at work, used them and had to come offstage in a hurry. I develop pupil dilation, light-headedness and blurry vision. Ben Nye won’t return e-mails or phone calls inquiring about gluten, which leads me to believe that their line is not gluten free. I always put their foundation on over my own and do my best to color match lip color and eyeliner. Their eye shadows and blushes have tocopherol acetate listed on the label. I use them on the eyelid and cheek but avoid getting them too close to the eyes or mouth– so far, so good. I have never had a reaction, but I always have my Benadryl nearby. If you are sensitive, you should determine what level of risk you are willing to deal with. If you need gluten free products, remember that they should be applied first so that they do not get contaminated and different brushes must be used.
The good news is that gluten free products are getting easier to find. My hope is that theatrical makeup will begin to make the advances we see in personal care and everyday makeup products. There is a company called Grimas in the UK making gluten and allergen free kits. Hopefully someone will champion this worthy cause here the U.S. very soon. Even more importantly, I hope that science will discover more reliable information about the effects of topical gluten.
UPDATE 2/22/14: This season I have been using my Grimas kit to match and replace foundation makeup supplied by my company. I have begun to color match eye shadows and blushes and did the run of my last show in completely gluten free makeup. It is so worth the money I spent to eliminate the low level bloating, headache, anxiety and brain fog that I get when wearing stage makeup with gluten in it. All gone. If you are considering going gluten free on stage I encourage you to do it. Don’t you want to feel your best?
In much of Asia there is a tradition of shadow theater, also called shadow puppetry or shadow play, an ancient art in which characters are fashioned from leather or paper and positioned between a light source and a translucent scrim. The audience watches the story unfold from the other side of the scrim.
There are many branches of shadow puppetry. One of the oldest is the pí ying xì of China, which has its origins in the royal court and features a whiter and more refined scrim than many of the other traditions. This allows for more radiant color to show through. Allegedly created to placate an Emperor who had lost his favorite concubine, the tradition contains a wide variety of stories: myths, histories, morality plays and animal fables. Pí ying xì was banned for a time under communist rule because it was seen as a vehicle for religion, but it never died out and is now seen as an art that is quintessentially Chinese. Music videos and animations like Su Yang’s Phoenix, which Synkroniciti has spoken about here, rely heavily on the style and images from this beautiful art form. Here is a short film from a series called Hello China, which will give you a playful taste of this glorious art.
Video via radio86channel on YouTube.
From China, the art form spread westward with the Mongols and, much later, with explorers who brought it to France, where it would be known as ombres chinoises, or Chinese shadows. These shows were performed at various locales, including the famous Le Chat Noir in Paris, and there are a number of such troupes still in existence today.This is Jean de la Fontaine’s fable of a frog who wants to be as big as an ox as told by Le Theatre des Ombres. Hilarious and charming!
The Chinese tradition contrasts sharply with the rougher style which developed in Indonesia and Malaysia, known as wayang kulit, or shadow leather. The characters are much darker, truly looking like shadows due to a thicker, often yellowish, scrim and, sometimes, flickering torchlight. They can be easily identified by their fanciful faces, terrifying, ridiculous, or godlike, but never completely human. Their roots lie in the uneasy presence and influence of two religious traditions: the Hindu, with many gods and monsters, and the Islamic, which, in its most conservative forms, forbids the representation of human and animal face and form. These influences have contributed to the imaginative and non-representational of wayang. Here is a taste of traditional Javanese wayang from the Théâtre du Soleil at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes, Paris. The gamelan accompaniment is quite raucous, but certainly holds the attention. I doubt anyone could sleep through a performance like this.
Video via maisonculturesmonde on YouTube.
Although television is eclipsing shadow puppetry as an entertainment in urban areas, the characters remain important. Recent campaigns for health and wellness and a promotion for Vicks cough drops in Indonesia have translated these images into animation. Figures created over centuries of tradition are familiar and trustworthy in the light of urbanization and technological advances.
The contemporary art of shadow dance theater has also been influenced by the images of wayang kulit, as is revealed by this wonderful shadow dance performance from Indonesia, telling stories from the Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. The first concerns the birth of the Pandavas, heroic brothers born from Pandu, who was cursed for killing a white stag who was a wizard in disguise, and his two wives Kunti and Madri. The second is the birth of the hero Gatot kaça, or Jug Head, a story which implies the dangers of war. The last is about the twins, Nakula and Sadewa, and protecting nature from evil. Incredibly beautiful, this is an exciting blending of styles. Traditional art is wonderful of itself, and certainly worth preserving, but the evolution of art keeps it alive for the future and allows for new avenues and new voices to flourish. Impressive!
These miniature scenes have been assembled by photographer Andrey Pavlov and peopled with live ants from a hill not far from his home. Andrey is a former theater techie who saw red forest ants working studiously and then decided to build sets for them. The result shows amazing skill, a lot of dedication, and a large dose of whimsy. Let’s hope the ants don’t go on strike for a pay increase!
Art, especially the stage, is an area where it is impossible to walk without stumbling. There are in store for you many unsuccessful days and whole unsuccessful seasons: there will be great misunderstandings and deep disappointments… you must be prepared for all this, expect it and nevertheless, stubbornly, fanatically follow your own way.