Laura Dredger

Laura Dredger

Laura Dredger

At the start of 2022 I set the intention to focus the year engaging in my practice, what it currently is and how it can progress and develop.  To support this development phase of my reflection, July – August 2022 was dedicated to training, studying and cultural investigation in Kyoto, Japan.  The focus for my trip was enrolling on a 3-week intensive training programme, ‘Traditional Theatre Training’, hosted by Kyoto Arts Centre.  Participation on the course was made possible with funding from LUTSF, The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and DYCP Arts Council.

This course is not limited to theatre practitioners, with participants from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, including university professors, actors, and health care professionals.  T.T.T summer intensive has been a fixture in Kyoto since 1984, with its aim to give participants an intense and immersive training in a traditional Japanese theatre practice.  Techniques covered over the years have been Noh, Kyōgen, Kabuki, Bunraku, Nihon Buyō, and Rakugo.

This year was the first year back to face-to-face learning, following the covid pandemic, and the techniques covered on the 2022 programme was Noh, Rakugo and Kotsuzumi, Noh and Kotsuzumi was open to all language speakers, Rakugo was for Japanese speakers only.  The 3-week training culminated in a recital on August 12th on the stage of the over 100-year-old Ōe Nō Theater.

When I wasn’t in training, I was able to engage in theatre, cultural visits, and events in Kyoto.  This combination of training and engaging in Kyoto, has contributed to my creative practice, and developed personal reflections.  This report will outline the course, detailing the technical elements of the techniques, the learning and teaching process and my intentions going forward, disseminating my learning and intended application.

Across the 3-week training schedule, I was enrolled on Noh (thirteen sessions, 3 hrs long) and Kotsuzumi (six sessions, 2 hrs long).  The training was intense, and each session was a combination of group learning, one to one direction and self-practice.  The techniques were taught in Japanese, with immediate translation into English by interpreters on the programme.  The delivery of instruction and teaching in Japanese heightened the learning and deepened the connection to the tradition of the techniques and the practice.  The course was led by Masters of the technique, each Master a practicing artist and performer in Japan. The Noh Masters were Katayama Shingo, Tamoi Hiromichi, Ōe Nobuyuki (Kanze School) and the Kotsuzumi Masters were Hisada Yasuko, Takahashi Naoko.  Each sensei had taught previously on T.T.T over the years, and at the start of this year’s training they all expressed their joy at returning to face to face training. 

Noh theatre has a deep and long history in Japan, having originated around the 14th century.  Over the centuries the narratives, and content/technique has evolved to reflect the landscape of Japan.  There is no spoken text in Noh theatre, the performance is a combination of chanting, dance, and music.  There is one main character, called shite, this character usually wears a wooden mask.  The mask is worn to portray women, old men, and supernatural beings.  The mask is tied to the actor’s head, and they can see through tiny holes in the eyes.  Along with the actors there is a chorus alongside the right side of the stage, they chant for the characters, and musicians along the back of the stage, 2-3 drummers and a flute player.  The stage is simple, with no scenery, only a pine tree painted on the back wall.  The movement is very stylized, with abstract gestures or gestures with specific meaning.  The audience sit on 2 sides of the stage, the front and the left and the average length of a Noh performance is 2-3hrs.

The Noh training began by establishing the following three fundamentals of the technique – posture, walk and holding the fan.  These elements are the primary base of the technique, all other movements and gestures are supported by these fundamentals. These aspects were so important to the technique, that each session focussed on these qualities for 20-30 minutes, this ‘warm-up’ set the form of the body and gave a foundation for the learning of more detailed and complex movements.  This reinforcement and continued focus developed my understanding and application.

The forward leaning posture has the following elements – soft bend in the knees, angle forward at the pelvis, lift upright through thoracic spine, chin slightly in.  The placement, shape, and form of the arms are constantly in a curved position, without tension in the shoulders.  The placement of the fan, either closed or open, follows the line of the arm as a means of extending and expanding the gestures.

The technical walk in Noh, suriashi, needs to be maintained from the moment you enter the performance space, to the moment you leave and is an integral part of the technique and practice.   It’s a sliding walk – the foot slides across the floor flat, at the end of the slide the toes lift, toes return to the floor as weight is transferred to the sliding foot, ready for the process to continue.  The knees are soft the entire time and the upper body maintains its position as previously described. 

Following the warm-up and fundamentals recap, we would move onto learning and practicing our chosen Noh solo.  I chose to learn the solo Kappo, the character is a fisherman, the movements in this extract have a fast tempo, with strong, dynamic moments.  A note given to us was the movements need to be big, to give the impression you are larger than what you are.  The learning style was copying the sensei, there was no self-investigation or individual interpretation, the sensei demonstrated, and we copied as best we could.  The sensei’s required a high level of discipline, focus and attention to detail.  Every aspect of the movement and placement was analysed, from maintaining the head alignment with the spine, to the rotation and angle of the foot on the floor and the shape and placement of the arms.  It was exact, and this precision was brilliant in understanding the movement and technique.    

A technical aspect that I found difficult to achieve and sustain was the position of the head, it remains in line with the spine, unless a specific head movement is part of the solo.  The trickiness for me was from my ballet and contemporary training, moving the head in separation to the spine and spotting.  During a set turn in the solo, you maintain this alignment, the head does not move in separation to the spine.  This difficulty was noted by the sensei’s, they understood my struggle and that my previous dance training included free movement of the head and individual interpretation of techniques.  This became one of the main focusses of my training to ensure I was performing the technique true to the Noh fundamentals, and not slipping into habitual movements.  Every aspect of the technique was clear and precise, and the detail of placement grounded in tradition and form.

I also studied Kotsuzumi, this is a small handheld drum, that is played during Noh performances.  It is held by the left hand at the right shoulder and is struck in various ways by different parts of the hand, whilst squeezing the ropes that bind it, to produce distinctive sounds.  Along with the striking of the drum, chanting is also performed, specific chants corresponding to specific strikes.  We learnt a short extract of a piece of music, which was accompanied by chanting.  We learnt the music by copying and following a score, the rhythm was not set, and the musicians and chanters find the rhythm together, in synchronisation.  I chose to enrol on this additional course to challenge my practice and learn a technique that is not in the skill set.  I don’t play musical instruments and can a times struggle to create movement to set music beats.  This course tested my timing, collaboration, and musicality, it was a challenge.  An unexpected highlight was that it supported my understanding of the Noh solo, Kotsuzumi is one of the drum accompaniments in Noh performance.

For both techniques we were required to use our voice, chanting.  The fear I had at the start was high, as a movement practitioner I rarely use my voice, so this was out of my comfort zone.  It is an integral part of the theatre practice and feeds the narrative and character development, therefore it was important that I embrace this as best I could to fully appreciate the technique in its entirety.  It adds an enhanced quality to the movement and forms part of the audio accompaniment to the play along with the live musicians.  This again was learnt by copying, I don’t speak Japanese, I learnt by following the instruction given.

An aspect of the training that I had not anticipated was called Seiza, this is the position of kneeling, and this position was taken whilst chanting, playing Kotsuzumi and when not practicing the technique.  Everyone in the space adopted this position, sensei and student, resting out of this position was only permitted from the sensei.  It’s a very difficult position to maintain, it can cause cramps and numbness, you are advised to stand and walk gently after long periods in seiza.  Being in this one position of stillness was new for me in the practicing space, I am used to sitting, lying, standing, altering my position as I wish.  This maintained still form offered a new way of learning for me, it gave me discipline, alertness, respect of the space and continuous focus on the technique, in the moments of listening/reflection.  Maybe I will try to assume the position whilst I am teaching movement workshops, will I observe the same reflections from this training?

Participation on the course also offered me the opportunity to observe the teaching practice of others.  The pedagogical practice on the course contained similarities and differences, allowing reflections on the relationship between teacher/student and teacher/space.  The nature of the theatre practice required learning via copying and reciting – the sensei led, and we followed.  There were clear roles and hierarchy in the space, but there was also mutual respect for the process of learning and training, the passing on and the receiving of knowledge.  This process is what I aim to nurture in my teaching, I am the one in control of the space, but I want to encourage dual interaction, that at its core is the forwarding of technique, creation, and practice.  Expectations were high, students needed to be punctual, dressed appropriately, tabi socks and fans required each session, self-practice and continued focus through observing others direction.  When the sensei enters the room, the students filter away personal talk, prepare for class and are ready to engage in the learning as soon as the sensei requires it.  Each class began and ended the same way, with a bow, students and senseis bowing towards each other.  The bow was in seiza and the fan place horizontally in front of our knees.  At the start of the session, we bow and say ‘Yoroshiku onegaishimasu’ and at end of the session we bow and say ‘Arigatou gozaimashita’.  This set the focus, set the relationship, and set the respect for the space and the practice. 

The process of learning was an incredible personal investment and creative development.  I haven’t been a student of a practical technique for years, and it was great to learn for the sake of learning.

The recital was a great way to bring the training to an end.  We performed our Kotsuzumi piece, a group chant and our Noh solo, with our sensei’s supporting us through chanting.  It was my first time performing in nearly 10 years, and I was nervous taking the stage.  Performing in the beautiful performance space Ōe Nō Theater lifted my performance and enjoyment, giving depth the traditional practice and acknowledgment of learning.  We wore traditional costume, Yukata, Hakama and tabi socks, and were supported on stage by our sensei’s.

Whilst in Kyoto I had the opportunity to see Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku performances.  Bunraku is traditional puppet theatre, founded around the 17th Century.  Performers dressed all in black, move half-life size dolls through the stage, performing a play to live narration and musicians.  I attended a post-show talk, a performer will begin working the limbs of the puppet, moving up through the body as they become masters, this process can take decades.  The performance was mesmeric, after a while you no longer see the puppeteers in black manipulating the doll, the lifelike actions of the puppet became real, through the smooth movement and intricate gestural qualities.  The Kabuki performance was very different to the Noh performance, in Kabuki the audience were more animated and responded through clapping to action in the play and on the stage.  The performance was very visual with larger gestures and expansive and heightened movement.  I was able to decipher the narrative through these movements and the relationships between the characters, the physical technique and tempo of the text enabled me to gain an understanding of the narrative and content.  The Noh performance, it was more difficult to follow the narrative.  The movements and gestures were subtle, and the only text/audio was the chanting by the chorus, actors, and musicians.  This meant that the narrative was difficult to follow for non-Japanese speakers.  The costumes, masks and tempo of the movements did offer insight into character and the characters relationship to the space.  The elegant and stylized movements was visually beautiful and captivating, the performers moved with immense control and every movement was necessary nothing was thrown away.  The stillness of the chorus and supporting players added to the intensity of the plays, movement has meaning, stillness has meaning, and both offer depth to the narrative.

Both theatre performances demonstrated how the movement texture, tempo and execution can nonverbally deliver narrative and character, aspects that relate directly to my work as a movement director.  It is not only the movement but the intention behind the movement and the relationship the actor has to space, other performers, and audience.  In Noh the costumes and masks heighten the content, but even stripped down to the pure movement, the depth and complexity of the practice radiates through.

Kyoto also offered culture and national history, there are temples and shrines located across the city, all various sizes and meanings.  Each temple visit affected me differently, but the consistent response to all was overwhelming feeling and content.  A couple of temples also tapped into personal history and personal relationships and generated positive memories of people passed.  There was also an immense festival at the start of my 3 weeks, the festival involved hundreds of people and large monuments being moved through the main street towards a temple.  There was a dynamic atmosphere in the street, appreciation of human strength and agility and the desire by the participants to fulfil their role.  

The next steps for me are reflecting and processing both the training and the personal journey.  I am currently in a studio, re-finding the Noh solo in my body after 2 months, but also finding what it is in my body and practice now that I am back in the UK.  I will create a solo response to the trip in its entirety and from this solo generate workshops to facilitate and pass on my discoveries.  My intention isn’t to teach Noh or insert the technique into what I create but find my authentic response to the technique.  I am continuing to research Noh and Japanese theatre traditions as it can feed so many aspects of my creativity, as director, teacher, and facilitator.

I went to Japan not knowing how the 3 weeks would progress, I knew no one, I travelled alone and enrolled on a course that I had wanted to participate on for 5 years.  I knew that the technique and new theatre practice I was going to learn would be invaluable.  The course was incredible, it wasn’t just that I learnt a new theatre practice it was also that it challenged and pushed me as an artist. 

one to one direction from Tamoi Hiromichi

Group direction from Tamoi Hiromichi



Recital venue 100-year-old Ōe Nō Theater

Photo credit: Ohshima Takuya, Traditional Theater Training 2022(T.T.T.)organized by Kyoto Art Center