Authenticity and Accessibility: Two Decades of Translating and Adapting Kyogen Plays for English and Bilingual Student Performances

By Kominz, Laurence | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Authenticity and Accessibility: Two Decades of Translating and Adapting Kyogen Plays for English and Bilingual Student Performances


Kominz, Laurence, Asian Theatre Journal


Kyogen performances are one of Japan's .nest cultural gifts to the world. Thanks to their affordability and the adaptability of the art to almost any sort of stage, more kyogen plays have been performed overseas than works of any other Japanese theatre genre, and their reception abroad is always enthusiastic. Neophyte foreign audiences, including many people who have wondered if the Japanese even have a sense of humor, are year after year rewarded with stage comedy that is not only understandable, but fun for everyone.

Knowing this, I put kyogen performance at the center of my theatre curriculum and at the forefront of my outreach efforts to audiences within the university and the community at large in Portland, Oregon. Two guiding principles have informed my approach to this work: authenticity and accessibility. These two principles often work together, but are sometimes in conflict. Reconciling authenticity and accessibility sometimes puts Japanese actors and event producers in a quandary when planning performances in their home country or abroad. As a professor of Japanese drama here in the United States who is using kyogen in college curricula and for educational and community outreach, I seek to resolve issues of authenticity and accessibility with various approaches to translating and adapting written and performance texts, teaching student performers, and organizing performance programs.

After six years of training with Kyoto kyogen master Shigeyama Sengoro (now Living National Treasure, Shigeyama Sensaku IV, b. 1919), I came to the United States in 1983 to teach Japanese literature and drama at Portland State University. Sengoro encouraged me to teach kyogen to students in the United States (not in Japan) and to assist in efforts to bring professional kyogen actors and troupes here to perform and to teach. I had seen kyogen performed in English in Japan, and had participated in English language no plays, so I recognized that performances in translation had the potential to be educationally valuable, as well as enjoyable. Now I have been teaching kyogen performance to undergraduates for two decades. Most of my students are Japanese majors, not drama majors. My classes usually have fifteen to twenty-five students, including a few native Japanese every year. In my regular ten-week Introduction to Traditional Japanese Drama course, students devote about a half-hour per week of class time (and much more homework time) to acting, dancing, and singing training, culminating in a public recital. Our regular audiences usually number between eighty and one hundred people, of whom about one-fourth are Japanese speakers.

In my student programs for the public I do my best to present a variety of approaches to kyogen. I try to present at least one play performed entirely in Japanese, with up to three additional plays performed in English or bilingually. I also teach komai (short dances), excerpted from kyogen plays, which are presented independently to the accompaniment of a student chorus. The chorus sings the kouta songs that accompany komai dances, either in the original Japanese or in English translation. My policy is that singing and speaking in Japanese should be as close as possible to the vocal traditions of kyogen; choreography and staging should be similarly authentic, whether the language of presentation is English, Japanese, or both.

Why perform in English at all? Obviously, accessibility to both students and spectators is the answer. Given the time I allot and expect for preparation, students with less than three years of Japanese language experience rarely perform well on stage speaking Japanese. Moreover, English language kyogen makes the art accessible to English-speaking audiences in a direct and immediate manner that no other method (program notes, supertitles, pre-performance explanations) can provide for performances in Japanese. Particularly in the case of dance, when audiences can associate lyrics and images instantly with dance movements, the dance comes alive in the way originally intended for native audiences in Japan.

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