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Theatre students learn 600-year-old art form from traditional Japanese artist

Published February 21, 2012

Six weeks is a short time to learn a craft developed more than 600 years ago and mastered over numerous generations. However, that’s the challenge students in NDSU’s Department of Theatre Arts face while learning the traditional Japanese art form of kyogen.

A Japanese comedic theatre first developed in the 15th century, kyogen portrays themes from folk tales and everyday medieval life depicting Japan’s ancient feudal society. Theatre NDSU is scheduled to present “Wokashi: A Program of Classic Japanese Kyogen Comedies” Feb. 23-26 and March 1-3 at Askanase Auditorium.

Visiting artist Tokuro Miyake is one of the world’s most renowned kyogen performers and just the second female to perform it professionally. First appearing on stage at three years old, she’s been immersed in a lifetime of training that her family has passed down for generations. Miyake is spending six weeks using that experience to teach NDSU students an art form that remains virtually unchanged from its beginnings.

“It’s been really fascinating and a different way of learning it,” said Ryan Thomas, a Phoenix native and senior majoring theatre arts. “We’ve learned about kyogen in a textbook before. To actually see it and work hands-on with it has been a challenge, but it’s been really rewarding. When you get it right, you know it’s right. You feel it.”

Making the students embrace a feel for kyogen was one of Miyake’s goals. “I would like them to acquire not only the skill and technique,” she said. “There is a spirit of the Japanese that has been handed down for 600 years. That is why kyogen hasn’t disappeared. There is a truth to it. It can communicate to everyone, every age and every era. I want them to feel such spirit.”

Thomas is one of 16 students who will perform a sample of kyogen taken from the more than 250 pieces available in the classic kyogen repertoire. Miyake herself will perform in the final piece of each performance in the traditional Japanese. 

Kyogen features distinctive costumes, movements and vocal inflections—all of which must precisely match what has been previously performed. “In order to learn the tradition, you have to learn what the master has done before,” said Seth Eberle, a senior theatre arts major from Bismarck, N.D. “Each tone on each word is predetermined from what has been done before. Miyake-san will raise her hand up and down to indicate tone. The performers can memorize their lines outside of rehearsal, but they might get the tone wrong. They can also work on their moves outside of rehearsal, but you can get the timing wrong and move on the wrong word.”

Eberle’s biggest challenge was creating the masks common in kyogen performances. He began his design based on his own research and examples Miyake sent him prior to her arrival in January. Miyake brought several authentic costumes with her and was pleased with Eberle’s handiwork.

In addition to the correct design, performers learned how to pick up, address and wear the masks. Eberle said the performer is to acknowledge the spirit of the mask before and after a performance. “It’s really unique because we’re trying to reproduce as closely as possible a 600-year-old tradition,” he said.

NDSU is Miyake’s first attempt at teaching an English translation of kyogen. The biggest hurdle was making sure the Japanese-to-English translations remained true to tradition but still matched the performers’ stage movement and vocal timing.

The students were able to provide feedback on the translations, as was Paul Lifton, associate professor with NDSU Theatre Arts. He invited Miyake to NDSU after seeing her at a kyogen workshop at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He helped Miyake select the kyogen pieces that will be used in the performances. “There were little modifications to the translations to help approximate the rhythm and length of the lines,” Lifton said. “She knows how it sounds in Japanese with the movement.” 

Ticket information for “Wokashi” is available at


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Last Updated: Thursday, August 08, 2013 8:33:23 AM