The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Cross-over Kyogen master Sennojo Shigeyama’s quest for a new form of global comedy theater
Cross-over Kyogen master Sennojo Shigeyama’s quest for a new form of global comedy theater
Su-kyogen (Kyogen performed in a sitting posture)

Sensaku Shigeyama (left), Sennojo Shigeyama (right)
©Shigeyama Kyogen Kai
So, the phrase “Tofu Kyogen” that is now part of the Shigeyama Family Pledge was actually a phrase of ridicule at first.
That’s right. It was a term of ridicule. There is the saying, “It you don’t have anything to eat with your rice, you can always have cold tofu or boiled tofu with it.” Well my grandfather’s critics started saying, if you don’t have a sideshow [for your party], you can always call on Shigeyama and have him do Kyogen for you, his Kyogen is just like “tofu.”
 I don’t know if my grandfather had a cynical streak or if he was just practical or resolute or what. He’d say, “I’m happy to have them call our Kyogen tofu.” Cold tofu can be a humble side dish for the family table or a delicacy at an expensive restaurant, and it is very nutritional. Depending on the flavorings you add, it can be used in a variety of delicious dishes. And everyone likes it. So he started saying that our family’s Kyogen should indeed be like tofu in that sense. After he kept saying that for a while it became something like a Family Pledge for us and people started referring to it as “tofuism.”
 Underlying our current 3G Project is also my grandfather’s kind of “tofu philosophy” that believes Kyogen shouldn’t cling to the old quality standard of only being performed together with Noh. There are some people who call Kyogen art, but personally there is no word I dislike more than art. It is fine with me if other people call our Kyogen art. But, I myself never intend to perform so poorly that I have to call my stages art (laughs). I’m still an unskilled performer, but if I thought that my stages were so poor that I had to call it art in order to feel justified in showing it to people, then I’d rather quit altogether. What our tofu Kyogen is, is Kyogen that doesn’t need the label of “art.”

So the fact that you are able to undertake so many new forms of stage performance is actually an extension of that “tofuism” philosophy.
It is probably because I was raised in that kind of family and performed that kind of Kyogen that I am able to work as I do today. If it were only my own will alone, these various opportunities would probably not have come my way. Since people know that most Noh and Kyogen performers don’t perform with other artists, the outside offers do collaborations tend to come to the Shigeyama family, I believe. In July I will be directing a production of the opera Turandot at the request of conductor Michiyoshi Inoue. I don’t now much about opera, and the only music background I have is singing in our elementary school chorus, so I can’t even read musical score. So, some of my friends laughed and said jokingly that at the idea of a Kyogen actor like me directing opera is indeed “real Kyogen [comedy].”
 In fact, however, traditional Japanese performing arts and opera actually have many points in common. For example, during an opera aria, the singer faces the audience to sing, and there is applause when the song is over. In real theater something so ridiculous could never be, could it? But in Kyogen the actors face the audience and talk to them in the same way, and so do actors in Kabuki. This is a point in common with opera. Another point is the artistic license to use expediency when convenient. They have the freedom to change the conventional order of things if that makes the play flow more smoothly. And the audience goes along with it.
 Another thing they have in common is illogical developments that would otherwise be considered absurd. In representative Kyogen plays like Busu and Boshibari the Taro-kaja and Jiro-kaja characters do something bad and run away from their lord. The lord chases them off into the wings shouting, “You can’t get away with that!” and the stage just empties at that point for the intermission. When we perform this at schools the children will come up and ask us, “Hey, Mister, did the lord catch them or what?” We’re in trouble then because there is really no way to answer that question (laughs). There is no answer written in the script, and our masters never told us what happened after that. There are also many Kabuki plays that don’t really reach a conclusion and just end with the words, “We will end it here for today.” That’s more absurd than Becket’s [theater of the absurd]. That is another thing the opera and traditional Japanese theater arts have in common.
 I know Kyogen and Noh and I like Kabuki and have worked together on stages with Kabuki people, so I have many friends there. It means I have the various drawers. I have a drawer of contemporary theater friends and a drawer of friends in lighting and sound, so I can say, “For this scene I will open this drawer for help,” and learn from their knowledge and ideas. Drawing on these different drawers I have is the way I create stages as a director.

What have you been asked to do for Turandot?
Of all the forms of theater, opera is the one that requires the most money to produce. But today, the corporations and countries that have supported opera in the past have no money. In order to do opera under these conditions, you have to cut costs. But, if you cut costs with the music or singers you can’t have good opera. So, if you are going to cut costs it has to be in the set, the costumes, the makeup and lighting. And isn’t Kyogen what you have when you reduce all of these aspects to the bare minimum? Kyogen has no set or stage art, and as for props, one fan in the hand of a Kyogen actor serves as everything from a plate to a door to a carpenter’s saw. It only takes a cast of four to do a 2-hour Kyogen performance, so thinking of it in that way, there can’t be a more “ecological” and cost-efficient type of play than Kyogen (laughs). And this time the opera I am directing is a truly “eco opera” with no set.
 Still you have the 80-person orchestra, which too large to fit in the orchestra pit of a small theater. So, they have to be brought up on the stage. If the orchestra is placed at the front of the stage, however, you won’t be able to see the [soloist] singers, which means the orchestra has to be positioned on a raised platform at the back of the stage. That makes for a shallow stage for the actors and singer and eliminates the possibility of using drop curtains. Without curtains, the entrances and exits of the actors will all be visible to the audience [like they are with a Noh/Kyogen stage]. So what could we do but use the devices of the Noh staging?
Turandot is supposed to be a story set in China, but in fact the setting is the European image of the Orient at that time. From our perspective it is hard to tell what China it was, so there was no reason to confine ourselves to the Chinese setting. Instead of the makeup used in Peking Opera, we could use the makeup of Kabuki with similar effect, and the costumes could also be Kabuki costumes. In opera the chorus plays a very important role. In the practical European approach they make the chorus palace guards or maids-in-waiting and give them individual roles as well. They also assign roles according to age. In that case their costumes have to be different for the different roles they play. In Noh, the chorus equivalent is the Jiutai performers, and they are all clothed in the same plain crested kimono. So for this opera, I thought that it would be OK to costume the chorus all in the same gray and white kimono, while some extra decoration could be added for actors with specific roles. In that way they can be cast either as guards or maids-in-waiting. I don’t now if it will be successful, but at least it will be easy for the audience to understand.
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