Hanjo: A Director’s Diary, Part Two

Oct 04, 2017

As I post this on Wednesday, October 4th, I am in Purchase, New York, where in two days, on Friday, October 6th, we will present the world premiere of SITI Company’s Hanjo at The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College. We are hard at work in technical rehearsals trying to tease this production from the soft warm realm of dream into the harsh cold light of reality. However, the lesson of the theater is constantly that the light of reality always illuminates dimensions we never thought to dream of. I like this show more in its actual manifestation than any version of it that ever played in my head!

I can’t wait for you to see it!

The following is Part Two of Hanjo: A Director’s Diary.

(If you haven’t read Part one go read it here.)

So a number of years ago, given all the history that I discussed in part 1, I began to think about how a production might be designed to reflect the fundamental values I see in Noh theater. Most importantly I felt that I needed to find a way to allow a contemporary American audience to have an experience akin to that of a true Noh audience watching a play. A production that would not have the particular exotic surface of Noh but that would allow the audience to see the actors in a different way. To see their performance not as simply theirs but as an iteration of a performance that exists outside the actor them-self. To wonder not what an actor was going to do next, but to wonder what quality an already known gesture will be imbued with. It is more the way that we listen to a piece of classical music, or watch an opera singer perform a famous aria.

I choose one of Yukio Mishima’s Modern Noh plays, Hanjo, for a number of reasons. One of the big reasons for it was that my partner and colleague Akiko Aizawa liked it. I didn’t initially understand deeply why she liked it so much, but I have always trusted this kind of impulse in her. Another big reason was that it featured three actors and a relatively simple and elegant (if devilishly mysterious) structure. What was needed was some kind of device that would allow the audience to become expert in the play in one evening. The device we hit upon and the idea that launched our production was the thought that the entire play would be repeated, three times, with the actors rotating through each of the three roles.

Once this idea was clarified, I realized that there was a further opportunity to objectify the audience’s experience: one of the actors (Akiko) would speak Mishima’s original Japanese text, while the other two actors would speak an English language translation. Even for a bilingual like myself, the switching between languages is an experience of language outside daily life.

The play has two female characters and one male. I realized that if I had two female actors, the audience would tend to see the configuration in which the gender of the actors matched the gender of the characters as the “correct” configuration. So I knew that I needed to do the production with two male actors and one female.

The one other element that is essential to Noh, which I was interested in evoking, is the essential nature of the live musical performance that accompanies the play. I wanted to find something that would be as organic and human as the flute and drums that are used in Noh, but I didn’t want it to sound like Noh.

Yoko Shioya, Artistic Director of the Japan Society in New York, knew that I had been thinking about this, and in May of 2007, invited us to present a “reading” of this idea as part of a season in which they were presenting contemporary responses to Noh. I cast Mickey Solis to join SITI Company Members Akiko Aizawa and Tom Nelis along with SITI’s stage manager at the time Elizabeth Moreau. For the music, I asked long-time friend and collaborator Christian Frederickson to bring his viola and see what might happen.

My first conversations with Christian were centered on the thought that there would eventually be a trio that would do something similar to the actors and rotate “roles” in the music. But for the reading, we decided that Christian would just sketch out some basic ideas. I have encountered few artists who can “sketch” with the solidity and integrity of Christian Frederickson.

We rehearsed a few times in the SITI Company studio and we ended up finding some very interesting things right away. Christian quickly found some basic motifs, some of which have endured, and we found that the play works very well in a spare and minimalist aesthetic. We also found that the repetition did something beyond an academic exercise relating to Noh. We presented the reading to the public twice and it was very well received. I was particularly heartened by comments to the effect that, by the third time, there was a build up of something akin to, but not exactly, suspense.

The one big thing that I knew I had to solve was the English translation. At the Japan Society, we used Donald Keene’s excellent translation. This translation is as old as the Japanese original, and ironically the very first public performance of the play was an English language production of Keene’s translation. However, in the context of putting the two languages beside each other, there were certain rhythmic conflicts and issues of emphasis. Interestingly as well, Mishima’s 1950’s Japanese has aged better than Keene’s English. There were certain anachronisms that struck the ear oddly in the twenty-first century. So I decided that I would have to create a translation of my own.

Japanese and English are profoundly different languages. Some would argue that truly direct translation between them is impossible. There are few actual one-to-one correspondences. However, Mishima’s Hanjo contains one of the most wonderful coincidences of language that I have ever come across in Japanese-English translation. At one point the character Hanako, for whom the idea of waiting is an important leitmotif, expresses her longing for her beloved and leaps from the Japanese word for waiting (matsu), to the word for pine tree (also matsu, a near-perfect homonym), and says that she feels like she is filled with pine needles. It is a stroke of genius on Mishima’s part as the pine tree has such a ubiquitous and important presence in Noh. Keene accomplishes the same gesture by having Hanako express her waiting as “I pine” and sets up the same pun/image. It is exceedingly rare to have such a thing work out so well. Most translation is compromise, frustration and heartbreak.

With all of this now, I knew that I wanted to move forward with this project. I’ll be back with Part Three of this diary soon because, as is so often the case in theater, it took years for the opportunity to present itself. On Friday, the opportunity presented to us by the generous and hospitable team at The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College will be made manifest.

I hope you can join us.

< Part one | Part three >