Interview with Kenneth E. Lawrence

DigiLetter: What inspired you to pursue writing about Noh?

Kenneth E. Lawrence: “What do you love about Japan?”

This question was asked some twenty years ago by a Japanese colleague. The expected answer was, I think, “sake.” This was before the Japanese economic bubble burst, and this particular colleague loved to take me out to eat, introducing me to new and different cuisines, drinking non-stop and exchanging ideas about the world. My answer, though, took him completely by surprise.

“The Noh,” I said.

After arriving in Japan, I attended performances of Noh and Kabuki almost immediately. For me, Kabuki was stunning, but it was Noh, haunting and dream-like, that kept coming back to me in the days and weeks that followed.

What do I love about Japan? After being asked, I contemplated another possible answer: safety. A short time later, Japan’s economic bubble burst, and the buying and partying frenzy gave way to a short period of calm sanity, then a prolonged fear as the economy continued to slide. Then, on a day like any other, a religious cult, trying to jump-start the apocalypse, released deadly nerve gas on the train line I took to work. Any illusions I had about life in Japan evaporated there and then.

The question remains in some ways difficult. The same things that can make Japanese society frustrating often make Japanese culture fascinating, even enthralling. The list of things I love about Japan is very, very long. Even within my own family, conversations about “Japanese culture” would be all over the board. My father and mother are not Japanese, but they discovered American baseball thanks to Japan. They didn’t start watching baseball until after Ichiro became a Seattle Mariner, and their understanding of Japanese culture is largely through Ichiro’s statements, his life story and his rituals (my father, even today, somehow manages to root for Ichiro while remaining steadfastly anti-New York Yankees). When my wife, a Japanese national, wanted to turn me on to “Japanese culture,” one of the first things she did was buy me a set of books by Haruki Murakami (though in seeming contradiction, she says that Murakami sounds more natural in English than in Japanese).

For the next generation, Japanese culture means something completely different. For my older son, bilingual and a writer of poetry, it’s all about Japanese literature, particularly poetry. To my utter amazement he shares my love of the Noh. My younger son, though he has outgrown Pokemon and Digimon, still speaks fondly of Japanese manga, anime and computer games. He has even turned me on to several literal and epic samurai manga, including Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai Executioner and Blade of the Immortal, all classics of the genre. He’s looking forward to attending SakuraCon, a hugely successful anime/manga convention. Clearly Japanese culture means many things to many people, and its influence, still strong, spans generations.

After returning to the United States, I worked with a Seattle-based non-profit organization, the Japan Arts Connection Lab (JACLab), a group of like-minded volunteers dedicated to connecting Japanese artists, artisans and performers with collectors, practitioners and all those who love Japanese arts and culture. We were first pleasantly surprised, then completely overwhelmed, by the enthusiastic response to our mission from people in the Pacific Northwest, across the country and around the world.

Since leaving Japan, the question now has become “What do you miss most about Japan?” For most of my family, the answer is a no-brainer: the food! But for me, the answer is the same. I miss soba, fresh vegetables and plum wine, of course, but my heart longs for the Noh drama. I miss it very, very much.

I married into a family of licensed Noh performers. I used to love hearing my mother-in-law’s chant and my father-in-law’s flute, as they practiced late into the night. I hate to admit it, but I first attended Noh performances out of sheer obligation, an early attempt to impress my future in-laws. But from the beginning I was intrigued. As a musician, I wanted to know more about the interlocking drums, the haunting flute and those strange drum calls. Clearly the music wasn’t improvised, but it had a logic of its own, a logic I hoped to discover.

I was given the opportunity to attend many, many Noh performances, take lessons in Noh music, movement and chant, even observe backstage. In an effort to better understand and appreciate the mystifying happenings onstage, I read voraciously the stories on which the plays were based. It was then that I discovered the Japanese epic “Heike Monogatari,” Tales of the Heike.

I’m not delusional. I’m no samurai, not by a long shot. But by reading these old tales I made an astonishing discovery. I started reading expecting entertainment, hoping for understanding. But what I discovered was beyond mere understanding. Sad tales, beautifully told, of men, of women, of life. A disillusioned young samurai, Hamlet-like, contemplates suicide. An older warrior cynically recognizes the glass ceiling and falters. An elderly samurai dyes his hair, not out of vanity, but in an attempt to be taken seriously by the enemy. These experiences, though presented in a “quintessentially Japanese” form from the 14th century, are, it seems to me, international, even universal, and timeless. My experience was more than understanding: I could relate.

Ironically, it was through Noh that I discovered many of the beauties of “my” culture. I went on to read the prequels to the Heike story, the “Hogen Monogatari,” the “Heiji Monogatari,” then the “Taiheiki,” before moving on to the Indian epic “Mahabharata,” China’s “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and epics of Africa, Greece and Rome and Europe. But I always return to the “Tales of the Heike” and the Noh plays they inspired. Over the years, the play that affects me most profoundly changes, depending on my situation and time of life. Lately, for better or for worse, I have been able to relate most strongly with the aged warrior Sanemori.

I think Noh is undervalued. It’s presented as ancient and esoteric, but that’s all. It is respected by theatre people across the globe, and has been very influential in the arts, but to people beyond that it remains a one-off, a distant, odd ritual. That’s unfortunate. There’s much to be gained from experiencing Noh and understanding its esthetics and its stories. The stories, however, need to be presented in a logical order. All that’s needed is a little guidance.

DL: Have you been involved in any activities concerning Noh?

KL: In 1989 I attended a class at Waseda University on traditional Japanese performing arts and researched performance aspects of Noh. I was in a performance of the English-language Noh play “Eliza” and was a featured performer on the CD “Noh in English.” From 1989 to 1996 I worked at the National Noh Theatre for the International Theatre Institute Japan Centre where I was a correspondent and the editor of two scholarly journals on Japanese theatre. I also wrote a monthly column on Japanese performing arts for the Japan Times newspaper. I studied extensively Kanze-style Noh movement and chant, stick drum and Noh flute, performing around Tokyo and throughout Japan. I performed Kyogen at the National Noh Theatre. I lectured on Noh at Rensselear Technical Institute in Troy, New York, as part of a scholar exchange program. I was Head Archivist for the University of Hawaii. My piece “Monty Kyogen,” a Kyogen version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was performed at the University of Hawaii’s Kennedy theater and were particularly well-received. I received travel grants to present lectures/performances in Bali, Indonesia.

Since returning to Seattle in 2003, I have been working to share the beauties of Noh as part of Soju Kai (Group of Twin Trees), presenting at universities and colleges throughout the Pacific Northwest. I’m a regular contributor to the journal Parabola. My retelling of the Noh play “Atsumori” appears in their summer 2012 issue.

DL: Was there perhaps a definite turning point in your life that led you here?

KL: It all started, I think, when my father took me to see a performance by classical guitarist Andres Segovia. I must have been twelve or so at the time. It was so incredibly beautiful that it inspired me to take up the instrument. After I graduated college I moved immediately to Seville, Spain to study renaissance lute and flamenco guitar. I lived there for three years, and while I was there I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with the woman that is now my wife (she’s a Japanese national, but we still argue in Spanish). When we were married in Japan, I married into a family of licensed Noh performers who wanted to share with me their love of Noh, and in that they were very successful.

From there everything seemed to fall into place. I got a job at the National Noh Theatre working for the International Theatre Institute Japan Centre, and wrote a monthly article on Japanese traditional theatre. I was also the editor of two Japanese theatre journals. I attended theatre classes at Waseda University, studied the music, movement and chant of Noh theatre, performed extensively and recorded a CD, “Noh in English,” and saw some truly amazing theatre. My wife gave me two wonderful sons, and we left Japan in 1996, moving to Hawaii where I worked as Head Theatre Archivist at the University of Hawaii’s Kennedy Theatre. I received my MA degree in Asian Theatre from the University of Hawaii in 2003, hoping to become a cultural bridge between Asia and the West. I’ve been working towards that goal ever since.

DL: What are you like outside of work?

KL: I’m a father and husband. I loved being a father, and my response to the “empty nest” didn’t go well, at least initially. Recently, though, I’ve rediscovered my wife and enjoy very much the time we spend together. We have traveled the world together, and more recently have become devoted to discovering urban hideaways and exploring nature across the region. In the evenings we search out quiet spots to write and compose together. In my writing I dive into epics, seeking out new ways and forms of storytelling to present and clarify the rich materials there. I recently composed an opera based on the Mahabharata, for example. After its premier I realized that, though the story was from the Indian epic Mahabharata, the way the story was presented was very Noh-like. I am also completing a novel, and the influence of Noh, though very subtle, is clearly there.

DL: What are your weak points? Is there anything that try as you might you cannot fix about yourself? How do these make you interesting as a writer and entertaining for your readers?

KL: I am bizarrely unorganized. I’m never lost during meetings, but at the end, when I look at the notes I’ve taken, they look like otherworldly maps, with looping arrows joining seemingly unrelated items. I envy many of my colleagues their ability to present bullet-pointed sheets of information almost immediately – it’s truly amazing! – but I enjoy what my odd brain allows me to create. It makes my novel-writing and music-composing a much more fascinating experience. That might also be part of what draws me to Noh. Though Noh has a somewhat set structure, its infinite variety, like life, is a true journey.

DL: What’s your favorite performance?

KL: This is an extremely difficult question. I remember early on seeing an amazing performance of “Funabenkei,” enthralled by the Ai-kyogen’s performance. His ability to build the tension of the scene was absolutely incredible. I also remember a “Sumidagawa” that nearly made me weep, and a “Tsuchigumo” that wasn’t just entertaining but also was actually terrifying. I’ve always been drawn to the plays that feature the spirits of samurai, however. My wife’s uncle, Hideo Fukuhara, performed a beautiful “Atsumori” that haunts me to this day.

More recently I’ve seen a performance by young Noh master Takeda Munenori of the Noh play “Tomoe.” Tomoe is unique in that it features a woman warrior dancing with a naginata, a kind of bladed spear. It is an unusual dance, and the power in Mr. Takeda’s performance left all in attendance open-mouthed in awe.

DL: Which characters do you like?

KL: My wife and I often debate this. She doesn’t like the play “Kiyotsune” specifically because the title character is a quitter. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment, but I still think it’s a beautiful play. Kiyotsune was faced with assured defeat and death, and he knew he would never be able to return home, so he asked the ultimate question, the “Hamlet Question”: To be or not to be? Why bother? When his ghost returns and the two are able to see each other one final time, what do they do? They argue bitterly. It’s a very touching play, emotionally draining with profound discussions and dramatic, even cinematic, moments. It’s one of the easiest plays for us to relate with because the questions are universal and timeless.

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