Thursday, June 30, 2011

Location


One of our scenes for Noh Garden takes place in a garden, and we decided to film it outdoors. Elk Rock Garden at Bishop's Close, in Portland, offers some interesting options. The problem was to come up with something that might pass, if no one looked too closely, for an olive grove in Palestine. Joyce Lew and I spent a pleasant hour wandering the garden (if you haven't been there, you should go), and finally settled on this location. Here I am standing in our faux olive grove on a rocky hillside somewhere in filmland.

Camera closeups will help--and an actor wearing something more authentic to the scene than my Picasso in Paris summer shirt. Yes, this is the same guy in the picture upper left column in a somewhat less Zen mode.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Zeami

The classic work on the art of Noh is Fushikaden (The Transmission of Style and the Flower), by Zeami (1363-1443). He was an actor and playwright whose writings defined the Noh. In Zeami's view, the art of Noh was a "way," like the way of tea or the way of the sword: a spiritual practice passed from one to another that provides a guide to living. "The mind," he wrote, "is a flower"; the Fushikaden was to lead the actor to that proper mind whose end is a way of life achieved through art. The image of this transmission is the passing of a flower from one to another (made famous in an incident from the life of the Buddha, when he passed a flower to a silent follower to indicate that his teaching is beyond language). Translated by William Scott Wilson as The Flowering Spirit, Zeami's treatise is available to us in a fluid version that hints at the rigor and power of the tradition that informs classic Noh.

The subject of Noh Garden is not just "Mary Magdalene meets the risen Christ," but rather, "Mary and the other disciples discover that the spiritual life is a way rooted in the mystical." Noh Garden is a transmission of the flower, of the inner tradition of the mystical. It is not about the orthodox teachings of Christianity. The subject is empty space and time.

Here is what the translator of The Flowering Spirit says:

"Noh is a dramatic form comprised essentially of mime or role-playing, poetic chanting, and music. These three are set upon a stage that is bare except for four pillars and a painting of a large pine tree in the background....This understatement or suggestion is the essence of the drama itself. All unnecessary complications are swept away, and the primary presence before the spectator is no presence at all, but empty space and time. Thus any words, movements, or sounds--no matter how slight--take on an extraordinary significance. The hidden truth of things can be expressed only when sensual illusion is shorn away...."

Monday, June 27, 2011

Screen

Pamela Racs, a wonderful artist in Portland (and a friend), is creating a screen for the stage on which we will be filming part of Noh Garden. It features a pine tree, which is the traditional backdrop for Noh stages.  The backdrop is called the kagami-ita. The model for the traditional pine tree is at the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, Japan (a Shinto shrine associated with the Fujiwara family). Our pine tree does not look like the one at Kasuga Shrine, however.

I (Ken) visited the Kasuga Shrine in the summer of 2006 (and will see it again when I return to Japan in November of this year). The access to the shrine is through a deer park, filled with fearless deer (as many as 1200!) who pester visitors for what we called "deer cookies," on sale in the park. There are also thousands of stone lanterns in the park that are all lit during two festivals each year. The shrine itself was first constructed in the eighth century and has been rebuilt several times since.

In my book, Circle of the Way (a few copies are still available from Amazon), I allude to this visit to Kasuga in the form of a tanka (Japanese verse form of five lines):

The deer in Nara-koen
gracefully insistent
beg for cookies
one of the Noble Truths
the endless disappointments of desire

A photo of the Kashuga Taisha shrine follows (with a few of the lanterns):

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Olives

One scene in Noh Garden focuses on a gardener, who is a comic character in the Japanese tradition of Kyogen--humorous plays about common folk (not usually inserted into Noh, however). He is proud of being an olive grower and takes pains to explain the process.

"I've worked here all my life, in this same garden, since I was a boy and my father taught me horticulture, especially the difficult work of olive trees. You can't believe how much you have to know just to make a tree produce an olive."

He is a bore. Of course, his real subject is what he calls an "irritant preacher" who was executed and buried in his garden. This injection of a "realistic" figure into our abstract drama is somewhat unusual. To emphasize his realism, I decided to film part of his scene in a real (instead of a Noh) garden. Yesterday, Joyce Lew and I went to the Elk Rock Garden at the Bishop's Close (HQ for the Episcopal Church in Oregon) to scout a location (a beautiful place to visit, along the Willamette). There are no olive trees in this garden (I asked the head gardener), but after roaming the grounds we found a spot that is rocky and dry--and a tree that could pass for an olive if we shoot it in low light. This image here is an olive grove but you can see how other trees might pass.

One of the advantages of filming Noh Garden is that we can mix a stage presentation with film locations in the natural world, as we plan to do with this scene. It begins in the "olive grove" but ends on the stage when Mary Magdalene encounters the gardener and realizes that the man she met earlier was not a gardener but the risen Christ. She sings her part of the conversation; he stumbles over spoken words in the presence of this spirit being. He leaves in confusion, warning her that the garden is too dangerous for a woman.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ma

The concept of "ma" in Japanese culture and art is integral to our production of Noh Garden. Simply put, "ma" means "silence," but it has a deeper meaning than just an absence of sound. It signifies an openness of space and time. One might almost define it as what is violated by sound. In Japanese arts, such as the Noh, the primal state of being to which all returns is this ma. It is the condition--an emptiness--to which the art aspires. When I play the shakuhachi, particularly the honkyoku pieces that are rooted in Zen, the sounds emerge from ma and return to it. Between each sequence of notes, there is ma. And when the piece is finished, there is only ma.

During our rehearsal last night, this concept became central to the singers' interpretation of Joan McMillen's complex and yet simple score for Noh Garden. Matt Smith, our music director, instructed the singers to pause at the end of the written lines (which are laid out like poetry), and to extend the pauses into discomfort. It is difficult for us in the West to do this; but once our singers found that space, that timeless interval between notes, the music came alive.

Here's a video explanation of ma that includes a brief cut from a Noh play:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cast

Tonight we hold our first rehearsal for Noh Garden, following an intense pre-production meeting last night. The realization of this dream to create a dramatic work in the Noh tradition has been a long time coming. (In the links below you will find an earlier drama in the Noh style I wrote a few years ago.) A number of people are volunteering their time on this project, and I am grateful to all of them. Here is the cast and crew for the film, as of now.

Director/Camera Operator: Ken Arnold
Script: Ken Arnold
Music Director: Matthew Smith
Composer: Joan McMillen
Production Sound: Jennifer Thomas
Script Supervisor: Joyce Lew
Set Decoration: Pamela Racs

Jesus: Andy McQuery
Mary Magdalene: Erin Walker
Peter: Arne Hartman
Martha: Rebecca Kelley
Gardener: Dennis j. Parker
Chorus: Mary North, Anne Kennedy, John LaFrentz, Matthew Smith, Rebecca Kelley, Arne Hartman
Drummers: Matthew Smith and Anne Kennedy
Shakuhachi flute: Ken Arnold

The film will be shot at St. Stephen's Episcopal Parish, SW 13th and Clay, Portland, and the Elk Rock Garden at the Bishop's Close, also in Portland.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Martha

Martha in our story is one of the disciples. Although the Bible does not officially name any women as disciples, it is clear from the context that women were among the closest followers of Jesus. Martha is named as being among them. In John's story of the resurrection, the two disciples who go to the tomb are Peter and John. I've substituted Martha for John.

Rebecca Kelley plays Martha. She got her start singing when she picked up a guitar several years ago, just before leaving Seoul, South Korea, where she had been working as a freelancer in TV, film, and voice-over. From Seoul she went to New York City, where she attended a two-year actor training program at the New Actor's Workshop. Her traveling spirit then took her to Kunming, China, where she landed a gig with a jazz band; from there she began freelancing again, getting gigs around Yunnan Province with various Chinese and foreign musicians, singing jazz standards, blues/folk music, and Chinese ballads/popular songs. Having returned to the United States, Rebecca got back to playing guitar, and has been attending open mics ever since. Recently, she moved to Portland, OR, for the location and reputation of the town. Rebecca is very excited to be filling a role in Noh Garden, the zany and unexpected nature of which suits her just fine.



Composer

Joan McMillen is the composer for Noh Garden. Here is what she has to say about herself:

One of Joan's earliest memories is of her father tucking her into bed at night, then sitting down besdie her to sing and play his father's guitar. She's been singing, playing piano, composing, teaching, and directing choruses ever since. She has a B.Music degree in piano performance and education, and an M.A. in music history. Joan lived for many years in Menlo Park, CA, where she sang, played piano, taught, directed choruses (and founded one: Voices of the Coming Tribe), and began writing music for plays. Among her song cycles for choruses is one that has traveled the world via CD: Remembering the Way: Ceremony in Honor of the Labyrinth at Chartres. Last year Joan wrote music for, and performed in, a play about Emily Dickinson, Tell It Slant. This October she will perform her own music in a play about Georgia O'Keeffe, Hanging Georgia. In addition to her work as a musician, Joan is a licensed Feldenkrais practitioner. She is very intrigued by the Noh Garden project and delighted to help bring it to life here in Portland.



Jesus

Baritone Andy McQuery is an alumnus of the Manhattan School of Music and apprenticed with opera companies in Zurich, Santa Fe, and Central City. He created a role in the world premiere of Philip Glass's opera, Galileo Galilei, which he performed more than sixty times in Chicago, New York, and London. He made his European debut in Salome under Valery Gerefiev at the Zurich Opera. He currently works at Nike, and is active in the Episcopal Church, serving as the diocesan organizer for Integrity. He now sings just for fun, and was most recently seen in Portland in staged performances of Hildegard von Bingin's eleventh-century masterpiece, Ordo Virtutum.

Andy plays Jesus in Noh Garden. As I mentioned in the previous post about Mary Magdalene, the Jesus figure is the shite, in Noh the principal character. He is the one who, in the beginning, is mysterious or whose identity is not known to others. The waki and the shite are a kind of bonded pair, whose interaction in the story reveals the true nature and meaning of the shite. Since Mary meets Jesus in a garden where his tomb is located, she assumes he must be a gardener. After all, Jesus is dead. She and we learn that he is the same Jesus who was crucified but is now present in some new way. This changes Mary and the other followers of Jesus.





Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mary Mag

Erin Walker plays the role of Mary Magdalene in Noh Garden. In the tradition of Noh, she is the waki, or the secondary character. (The primary character is the shite, who in our film is Jesus. More about that when we post information on the actor playing Jesus.) The waki plays a variety of roles, such as a traveling priest or even a former foe of the shite. In our story, Mary is the medium through whom the true nature of the shite, Jesus, is revealed.

Erin Mikelle Walker is a recent graduate of Portland State university with her Master's in Vocal Performance. Stage experience includes: Lucy in The Telephone, and the title role in The Merry Widow at PSU; Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi and Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro with Rimrock Opera in Billings, MT; and Laetitia in The Old Maid and the Thief at Northern Arizona State University, where she got her Bachelor's degree in Vocal Performance. Erin is currently studying voice with Pamela South.







Monday, June 20, 2011

Makeup

Actors in Noh plays often wear masks, like the one over there at the top right of the Noh Garden home page. They are beautiful and, as you might imagine, expensive. For our film we are using makeup derived from Japanese Kabuki Theater, producing a white face with some red and black highlights, as you see here.
The effect will be mask-like. Last Saturday, we traveled to the home of Laurence Kominz, director of the Portland State University Center for Japanese Studies to get a lesson from him in applying Kabuki makeup, which begins with a beeswax base. Watery white is brushed over and then red highlights at the tips of the eyes, as you see, are added. We will mask the actresses' real eyebrows and paint in new brows higher up on the forehead, as is customary. The eyebrows are first red and then covered (but not completely) in black. Lips are painted red. Although we are not trying to create a replica of Noh, we want to create the effect of Noh: actors will not display much facial expression. They are not, in a sense, acting. Rather, they are ritual vehicles for the story's voice. They move in mythic time and speak in unnatural rhythms, move with stylized, gliding steps. Oddly enough, using Kabuki-style makeup will help us achieve that end. Although this style does not have anything to do with Christianity or Christian story telling, it is similar to what Greek drama might have looked and sounded like. And there is a fairly direct line from Greek drama to western theater by way of the ritual of the Mass.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Script Excerpt

Some of you know the story of Mary Magdalene's visit to the tomb of Jesus following his execution. (John 20:1-18) She goes there to mourn and discovers that the tomb is empty. When she sees the resurrected Jesus, she assumes he is the gardener but then learns his true identity. This is a common motif in Noh drama, the true self of the main character is hidden and then revealed. Noh Garden is not concerned about this story as history or dogma but as insight into enlightenment. It is about the inner life--the mystical--not traditional narrative or proclamation. It is in many ways different from the scripture that is its inspiration. Noh Garden is not a biblical story.

Here is an excerpt from the script that may illuminate what I mean. (All of these lines are sung.)



JESUS
Now we know each other 
as spirit infuses flesh.
So you are me and I am you.
No embrace can hold us
where we are both dead
and living, dead and living.
This world is a corpse-eater. 
All the things eaten in it 
themselves die also. Truth is a life-eater. 
Therefore no one nourished by truth will die.
I have not gone anywhere,
nor did I come from anywhere.
I have left the world
and come from the world.
CHORUS
How are we to understand
with just the mind,
the rattling cage of memory,
the garble of the intellect,
the useless words that come and go,
the tears we know to be
the fragile being of our grief?
How are we to understand
in our poor ignorance
anything and keep on going?
MARY
But my tears, the emptiness
I feel, the pain, my loss--
JESUS
are not truth but fictions
hiding what you see
before you, not that I am living
no, not living, but
that we have neither lived nor died
but are eternal
and our varied shapes are also
who we are
however painful, as the flesh
is painful and the loss of flesh.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Noh Dance

John McAteer, a Noh performer who has lived and worked in Japan for thirty years, has given the cast of Noh Garden instructions on movement in Noh theater and suggestions for choreography, part of which you can see in this video. Some fascinating insights here into a distinctive form of dance theater.

Noh Video

Noh Garden is not a Noh play. It is a play (and film) that borrows Noh techniques of story telling and movement. Most Noh plays draw on Japanese mythology, frequently Buddhist stories. Noh Garden draws on a Christian story, or, if you like, a western myth. The film we are making will explore the form of Noh with western story in a contemporary medium. It should be interesting, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, here is a video clip of a traditional Noh drama, Funabenkei ("Benkei in a Boat"). There are many clips from Noh on the web; just Google "Noh Drama" and surf around. See the link on this blog, below left, to "The Noh" for extensive information on the form and plot summaries of plays, including this one.

John Lafrentz

John Lafrentz is a member of the chorus of Noh Garden. He is from Rochester, NY where he began is life as a chorister in 1965 where he sang the Rochester Oratoria Society as a chorister in Beethoven's Ninth under David Zinman. After receiving a Bachelors in Vocal Music and and a Masters in Music Education from SUNY/Buffalo, John taught Vocal and General music before making a career change into high tech. Living 24 years in the San Francisco Bay area, John sang with the Schola Cantorum, the San Francisco City Chorus and with the San Francisco Choral Society. In 2002, John moved north to Portland where his day job is as a manufacturing engineer for a manufacturer of laser-based capital equipment.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Jennifer Thomas

Jennifer Thomas is the Production Sound Mixer for Noh Garden--the person responsible for making sure we are picking up sound that is clear and consistent. She will also be our boom operator. She and Ken met when they were taking a film course at the Northwest Film Center in Portland. They were editing partners during the course.

In her own words: Jennifer Thomas is a speech therapist who works with children with speech and language impairments. She enjoys doing videography for weddings and thinks films are the greatest invention since sliced bread. In her spare time, she can be found writing about life, love, and general chaos at www.trekkychick.com. She lives in Portland with her loyal fish, Lieutenant Commander Betta.





Friday, June 10, 2011

Dance News

John McAteer, a westerner and expert in Noh theater and dance, will be working with the cast of Noh Garden Saturday morning, June 11. Ken met him last night at a wonderful evening of Kyogen plays presented by students of Laurence Kominz, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at PSU. Kominz is also a polished performer of Japanese drama. Even though John is going back to Japan in a short while, he agreed to advise us on choreography. Originally from Boston, John McAteer came to Portland, Oregon, after thirty-five years of teaching English in Kyoto, where he published in the Hallstone Haiku Review and became deeply involved in the Japanese Noh theater. His major work was the 2005 production of Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man" as a complete English Noh drama with Japanese musicians and foreign cast and chorus. John McAteer is associated with the Kongo School of Noh, one of the five schools of Noh, in Kyoto. We are all grateful for his time. We will post some video footage of the dance activities early next week.



Thursday, June 9, 2011

Matthew Smith


Matthew Smith is Music Director for Noh Garden--and at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. He previously held positions at St. Timothy Lutheran in Portland, and St. John's Lutheran in San Francsico, California. He is a founding member of the vocal sextet Gaude and served on the Board of Directors of the Bay Area Lutheran Chorale and San Francisco City Chorus. He studied organ with Charles Rus. Matthew lives in Northeast Portland with his wife, Lisa, son, Evan, and daughter, Charlotte.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Workshop 2010

The Garden was first produced in a workshop performance at St. Stephen's Episcopal Parish in May 2010. The music was improvised by several brave singers/actors, and their work has become the basis for new music composed by Joan McMillen for Noh Garden, the film. Here's a video showing about ten minutes of the full thirty-five minute workshop. It will give you a flavor of the work, although what we are filming will be much more developed.