“Japan after the 1960s: the ends of the avant-garde.”


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Lisa Kuly

Cornell University

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An American in Tokyo: Don Kenny and his English Kyôgen
Japan after the 1960s: the ends of the avant-garde.”

An American in Tokyo: Don Kenny and his English Kyôgen


Last spring, I gave a lecture on Kyôgen to an undergraduate world theatre class for Cornell University’s Department of Theatre, Film, and Dance. After I discussed the activities of Don Kenny, an American who performs Kyôgen in English in Japan, I was taken aback by the students’ reaction. They wondered why people would bother to attend performances of Kyôgen in English when the ‘real thing’ was readily available. They questioned Mr. Kenny’s motives for taking on such a project, castigating him as one more American intent on Americanizing another foreign culture. I was even more confused because they seemed to enjoy the video clip I showed them of me performing Kyôgen in English at a recital in Tokyo. Enjoyment aside, for these bright, articulate students, the project of an American translating and performing an ‘ancient’ Japanese theatrical art in Japan was as egregious as McDonald’s setting up shop in Paris.

Confused by their reaction, because in my experience over a twelve-year period performing Kyôgen in English with Don Kenny, I found that audiences, foreign and Japanese alike, enjoyed our performances. I did, however, secretly harbour some of the students’ objections and often wondered why the people I performed in front of came to our shows. Was it just an insurmountable language and cultural barrier that Mr. Kenny had managed to overcome that opened up a new cultural experience for foreigners in Japan? But, why did many Japanese come to the shows? In fact, Mr. Kenny’s most loyal fans come from the Cross Cultural Women’s Club of Tokyo, an organization comprised of Japanese and foreign women. Does English Kyôgen simply offer these women an opportunity to engage in an intercultural exchange over an entertaining afternoon of theatre? Or, is there a deeper cultural process at work here?

In this paper I explore the cultural processes that are triggered by an American performing a traditional Japanese performing art on Japanese soil. I frame the development of Don Kenny’s English Kyôgen against the backdrop of the angura movement illustrating how the theatrical activity of that period influenced Mr. Kenny’s work. I do believe Mr. Kenny’s English Kyôgen is a product of this vibrant period of Japan’s history.

From Atsugi Naval Base to Waseda University

Mr. Kenny came to Japan as a junior officer with the American Navy in 1959. Three days after his arrival, knowing no Japanese, he travelled four hours from the Atsugi naval base to Tokyo to see Kabuki, an excursion which prefigured his naval career, where, he recalls, he was more interested in directing theatrical productions for Atsugi’s drama club than orchestrating naval operations. A year later, he enrolled at Sophia University as a Japanese language student and graduated in 1964. Serendipitously, while teaching English to finance his education, one of his English conversation students introduced him to Nomura Mansaku, the famous Kyôgen actor, who accepted Kenny as his student.

Kenny, one of a small number of non-Japanese to write university entrance exams, was then accepted into Waseda University’s Department of Theatre as a graduate student and researched Japan’s classical theatre under Kabuki scholar Gunji Masakatsu. He left Waseda five years later, in 1969, without submitting a graduate thesis, but had acquired enough knowledge about Kyôgen
to write A Guide to Kyôgen, which was published by Tokyo’s Hinoki Shoten in 1968. According to Donald Richie, Kenny’s accomplishment overrode previous English-language forays into the world of Kyôgen by such scholars as Donald Keene, Burton Watson, Sakanishi Shiho, and Richard McKinnon (November, 1968: 7). Lack of finances prevented Kenny from going through the bureaucratic necessities of applying for a diploma from Waseda.

Coming of Age during Tokyo’s Decade of Love

Kenny’s decision to enter the exclusive world of Japanese classical theatre was as reactionary as a group of ragtag twenty-year-olds driving into a small village in a dilapidated bus and performing confrontational theatre in front of an audience of bewildered farmers. By the 1960’s, young theatre directors rebelling against the monolithic enterprise of traditional theatre, a system that was ‘preserved in quarantine’ from other forms of theatre and maintained by a strictly-adhered to ‘system of hereditary custodianship’(Tsuno, 1969:12), threw untrained actors onto makeshift stages in non-theatrical spaces. They recycled traditional theatrical styles into new forms of theatrical presentation. They also used theatre to engage the predominant social concern of the time: the US military presence in Japan. Members of these renegade theatre companies participated in the students’ movement.
Beginning with the Security Treaty riots of 1960, university students challenged the establishment with demonstrations and strikes. During this period, the young generation re-examined its role in society and questioned the authority of its government, the interference of a foreign government, and the conservative value systems of the family. The majority of students in Tokyo had come from rural homes, where traditional values had been preserved and their experience in Tokyo exposed them to a newfound freedom and gave them a space where they could express their burgeoning political ideals. Uchino Tadashi comments on the period in which the angura movement developed:

The underground theatre movement, or angura, from the late 1960’s to the early seventies, is now unanimously considered to be an impressive period of both theatrical innovation and cultural intervention....Without any sense of nostalgia, we can now acknowledge that this was a time of rare productivity and rich creativity in Japan’s theatre history….This angura period was productive notably in terms of experiments in theatre language and physical expressiveness, as is often discussed, but also because it supported a wide discursive space, surrounding and permeating those performative practices’ (Fensham and Eckersall, 1999: 41).

By the late 1960's, the theatrical movement had gained enough momentum to change the face of theatre in Japan. At the head of a long list of innovators presided Kara Jûrô, Terayama Shuji, and Suzuki Tadashii. Kara performed provocative, confrontational theatre in the compounds of shrines and public parks to big audiences of young people craving a mode of cultural expression that matched their rebelliousness and bigger audiences of police. Terayama experimented with new forms of theatrical presentation that grated at the oxymoronic Shingeki, Japan’s traditional modern theatre. Suzuki produced experimental fusion projects of Greek classical theatre at Waseda University, Kenny’s graduate school.

Kenny was at the center of all this activity. He attended the famed performance of Kara’s production in Shinjuku Central Park where the police confiscated Kara’s red tent and arrested the performers. He remembers arriving at the site (the venue had been moved from Kara’s usual spot at Shinjuku’s Hanazono Shrine for reasons he does not recall), which was surrounded by line of police in riot gear. A sign on the tent announced that the police would allow the performance to proceed, but would confiscate the tent and arrest the performers at curtain’s close. The police presence, Kenny recalls, seemed like part of the performance, blurring the division between reality and theatre. Even the body-search audience members underwent as they filed into the tent felt like a choreographed scene. The play ran without interruption and for the finale, when the actors stripped naked, the walls of the tent began to slowly roll up. Kenny recalls the humourous site of the naked actors standing in a line with their bared behinds facing another line of police rolling up the walls of the tent. There was a loud skirmish as the police dismantled the tent and arrested the actors (on what grounds, Kenny does not remember.) After filing out of the dissolving space, the audience watched the police awkwardly fold the tent, the mood ranging from amusement to bemusement, contributing to a festival-like atmosphere.

As Kenny does not speak of a large media presence, this spectacle exemplifies Richard Schechner’s unmediated ‘direct theatre,’ where the narrative of the drama unfolds to a resolution merging the social and the theatrical and where the script self-consciously embraces the off-stage political reality into its liminoid sphere of influence. The bare asses of the actors pressed up against a line of police officers bedecked in riot gear is a pure Girardian ‘loss of distinction’ and indeed ‘the initial stages of a cathartic process’ were set in motion (1977: 120).
Fourteen years later, a journalist commented on Kenny’s ambivalent attitude to the activity of the 1960’s: ‘Norms Kenny is not particularly fond of. Nor does he have much to say for groups in general or movements in particular’ (Forste, June, 1982: 3). Kenny expands on this when he discusses his take on the events that occurred during this period:

In the early 1960’s the student riots over President Eisenhower’s proposed visit, the security treaty, and the education methods made the world believe that Japan was going to the dogs for sure and that those students would never be able to fulfill their future roles as solid citizens. However, during those purportedly violent riots, I found it perfectly safe to walk the streets and observe what was going on. At that time, I was a student in the graduate school of one of Tokyo’s major universities and my friends and I simply got to know the militant student gate guards, explained to them that we were there to learn, and so easily gained permission to enter the campus. We attended our seminars and classes and carried on our research in peace while outside the activists continued to wage war with the administration. I still know a number of those adamant militants, and have found that the one subject they find most embarrassing to talk about today is their participation in those riots. When pressed, most of them admit that they have no idea what it was they were fighting for – and their participation was inspired by the times and that they did it because it was simply the thing to do (April, 1986: 24).

While Kenny’s perception of the Security Treaty riots and the demonstrations of the 1960's offers a nonpartisan spin on a period in Japan’s modern history where too many voices clamour to offer opinions, he overlooks how vital this time was in energizing society and theatre. Of course, the perception of these events experienced by the Japanese differs from Kenny’s. Kara explains that ‘ ..at the time [of the Security Treaty conflict], the conspicuously violent thing was the relationship between the individual and society, in particular, the people doing theatre and society’ (Senda, 1983: 216). Kenny, whose refusal to get swept up in the fashion of the times, is commendable in one respect, as his singular attitude allows him to persevere in his goals to create a non-essentialized form of hybrid theatre, however, he overlooks the connection between the revolutionary theatre moments and societal change.

The popular protests fed the creativity of the theatre artists of the time. Kara spoke of the time of the Security Treaty riots as having had a great influence on him and his theatrical activities (Senda, 1983: 215). Kara entered Meiji University two years before the Security Treaty conflict and recalls the student theatre company that he joined followed the intellectual development of the United States that led towards the student demonstrations of the late 1960's. The troupe was highly influenced by the populist, left wing dramas of the likes of Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty), Chekhov, and Ibsen (Enemy of the People). Kara recalls the bacchanalian atmosphere he and his theatre troupe and the rest of the students created at the Security Treaty demonstrations, but does not look back on his days as a protester with any sense of embarrassment (Senda, 1983: 219-220). [1] While Terayama Shuji shared Kenny’s unimpressed attitude of the demonstrations and criticized the various groups, including the labour unions and student groups for spending too much time in meetings when they could have been more active in disrupting the Security Treaty negotiations, he too became involved (Senda, 1983: 15). He responded to the lassitude of the demonstrators by writing the 1968 play Throw Away Your Papers and Get out in the Streets (Kami wo tsuteteyo machi e deyô).

Kyôgen itself developed out of a similar rebellious spirit from the late Kamakura period (1180-1333) into the Muromachi period (1338-1568). Peasants on the shoen (feudal estates) expressed discontent with their treatment by shoen administration. Lone peasants began documenting their sordid working and living conditions and presented their petitions to the authorities who operated out of local shrines overseeing shoen administrative practices. Gradually, more and more signatures were added to the petitions. These grassroots protests against institutionalized mistreatment contributed to the eventual dissolution of feudalism. It was during this period of societal change that pieces of a comic, narrative theatre were strung together to create the cohesive comic form of Kyôgen.
Terayama Shuji’s Influence on Kenny

Out of all the activity that occurred during the angura period, Terayama Shuji had the greatest influence on Kenny. In fact, Kenny translated a number of Terayama’s plays and favourably reviewed the director’s work during his stint as theatre critic for The Japan Times. It is not surprising that Kenny appreciated Terayama’s work, as the Aomori director/ playwright began his career as a poet – his skillful handling of language was apparent in his dramaturgy.

The two shared similar training styles. Terayama preferred the rawness of amateurs to trained professionals and people from all backgrounds appeared in his productions. His training system incorporated eclectic methods of body movement, such as calisthenic exercises of the Maori and Chinese breathing exercises, to create a unique performance style that was perfected through constant repetition (Senda, 1983: 20). When Kenny formed his company, he too developed an eclectic system that drew together techniques from classical ballet, modern dance and yoga, all of which he studied during the 1960's and 1970's. Like Terayama, Kenny prefers working with people who have little experience in Japanese classical theatre because, he insists, trained performers have difficulty breaking out of ingrained habits. Kenny also believes repetition is the most effective way for the performer to absorb Kyôgen style into his or her body. Both were influenced by Grotowski.

This is the backdrop against which Kenny’s Kyôgen in English theatre company developed. From the mid-1960’s, Kenny studied Kyôgen with Nomura Mansaku, attended graduate seminars at Waseda University, and reviewed film and theatre for The Japan Times. In the beginning, he supported himself teaching English and later worked as a freelance professional translator. During this period, Kenny earned the reputation as ‘a noted figure on the Tokyo culture scene’ (Jayson, 1974: 6) through collaborations with such figures as Nagisa Oshima and associating with the people like Richard Schechner, Rudolph Nuryev, Mishima Yukio, and Tadanori Yoko, designer and founding member of Terayama’s company.

Tentative Beginnings: Alice in the Land of the Correct Place

Alice in the Land of the Correct Place (Tadashii kuni no Alisu) is the first production Mr. Kenny directed and wrote, in collaboration with Vicki Lynn, a Texan studying at Sophia University. He considers this production to be the cornerstone of his English Kyôgen theatre company. The production took place in the spring of 1974 at Van99Hall, a venue for underground theatre. In the programme, Alice is described as ‘[a] bilingual production with an eclectic cast made up of performers from 12 countries including Japan.’ The production fused elements of Kyôgen, Ikebana, Kudo (archery) and Bunraku into a satirical work which commented on the social conditions of Tokyo. Kenny views it as ‘a sort of ‘underground’ theatre piece that expresses the process a foreigner must go through to learn to live in Japan and like it on a continuing basis…’ (1977: 27). Lynn created this play so she could come to terms with her experience as a foreign student, from which she concluded that foreigners must be broken before they can adapt to life in Japanese society. The theatricalization of the process of being broken occurred in the climax of the play where a Bunraku puppet raped Alice.

Shukantaishû (The Popular Weekly), a popular, male-oriented ‘sports newspaper,’ provides the one critical account of the production in an article entitled ‘Nippon fushigeki’ (Japan Satirical Theatre)(1974: 5-8). The writer was not impressed by this performance produced by a group of ‘blue-eyes.’ According to the reviewer, the audience was not satisfied either and was in a slight ‘uproar’ at the ‘pathetic’ atmosphere created by the performers. Angered by foreigners commenting on such events as mothers stuffing their babies into coin lockers and drunken ‘salary-men’ brawling on commuter trains, the writer unsympathetically responds to this representation of the foreign experience in Japan, a response reflective of a conservative voice-piece not entirely comfortable with members of the foreign community commenting on the social health of their host country.
Alice made tentative steps in joining the angura tradition. Richard Emmert, a cast member who would later become a professional actor, musician and scholar, observed that Alice contained elements of angura aesthetic, particularly in the ways in which traditional theatrical forms were used in debased ways. The theatre practitioners of the time, in Terayama’s words, attempted to ‘sully the sanctity of [Japan’s] long tradition of theatre’ (Senda, 1983:18). [2] But, there is an ambivalence in the production, as if Mr. Kenny and Ms. Lynn could not fully commit to the radical ideals of the angura tradition. Lynn appeared naked holding her breasts and smiling into the camera in a promotional shot for Tokyo Weekender (March, 1974: 6). Perhaps I am just being a prude, but I think this type of self-showcasing softened the edge of the satire and social commentary of Alice and turned it into a dinner theateresque spectacle.

From the Silly to the Sublime: St. Francis

The next production that Kenny was involved in was St. Francis, a play written by Arthur Little, a professor of drama. Originally produced in 1970 at Earlham College, Indiana, St. Francis was remounted in Tokyo at Roppongi’s Franscican Chapel in the spring of 1974. Kenny produced St. Francis and also played the part of the Ai Kyôgen, the character who presents a colloquial version of the story. Kenny considered this production to be the second cornerstone in the foundation of his Kyôgen in English company.
The correspondence between Kenny and Little that took place during the long pre-production period reflects the concern about Japanese classical theatre performed by non-Japanese. In one letter, Little explains why Kenny should produce St. Francis in Tokyo:
…I would like for us to be a first. The interest in Japanese theatre abounds and grows apace in this country, and I don’t want somebody else to do an American No in Japan before we do. Added to this is the possibility of a professional Off-Broadway production here which would be encouraged by the fact that it had been done in Japan. Nobody quite knows what to make of it; and nobody in a position to produce it knows whether it is the ‘real thing’ or not. A Japanese production would reassure them. Besides, even if it were done here professionally, it would delight my soul to have it down in Japan first (10 October, 1974). [3]
While we can sense Professor Little’s urgency to be the first to produce an ‘American’ play on Japanese soil, I argue that the issue at stake here is the unclassifiable nature of hybrid theatre, something we will encounter with Don Kenny’s English Kyôgen.

If Professor Little had neither the years of experience of living and studying in Japan, nor sensitivity to the culture which inspired his creation, St. Francis would have run the risk of being a mere showcase of cultural appropriation. His deep understanding of the Nô drama overrode his neo-colonialistic intentions. All the people involved in the production of St. Francis, on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, were dedicated Japanologists. Leonard Holvik, music professor at Earlham and highly regarded collector of traditional Japanese music, composed the score. Little and Holvik had studied in Japan and had connections with such classical theatre luminaries as Nomura Mansaku, teachers from the Kita school of , and the Iemoto of the Komparu school of . [4] The Tokyo-based participants possessed a wealth of experience: Matsui Akira, who choreographed the dance selections, acted on the professional stage; the actor playing the shite was an amateur student of ; Rick Emmert, alumnus of Earlham College, appeared in the 1970 production of St. Francis; and by this time Kenny had been studying with Nomura for ten years.

St. Francis drew full houses and received ample media attention from respectable sources such as the Nôgaku taimuzu and The Japan Times. At one point, Kenny refers to having received ‘a full page rave review’ from the Nôgaku taimuzu (1977: 27). While this is somewhat of an exaggeration, the Nôgaku taimuzu did indeed devote almost a full page to St. Francis. Critic Nagao Kazuo describes the production in minute detail, giving a balanced critique of the production (1975: 3). Comparing Benjamin Britten’s opera Curlew River, based on the Nô play Sumida Gawa, to St Francis, Nagao concludes that the Britten production was not as effective. Kenny bore ‘a vast knowledge of Nô and Kyôgen’ and the stylization of the Nô elements was ‘well researched.’ Nagao also observes that much attention to detail went into St. Francis and praised the well-chosen cast. The orchestra, made up of music students from Tokyo’s Geijutsu University; a sculptor from the United States who carved the Nô masks; and seasoned performers such as Kenny, Emmert, and Matsui contributed to the overall efficacy of the Tokyo production. Also, the ‘packed’ auditorium was half Japanese and half foreign and Nagao informs the reader that even ‘black people’ made up part of the foreign audience, suggesting people of African descent were out of place at such an event.

Western and Japanese actors ‘smoothly’ recited the script that was ‘remarkable in its clear following of the Nô metre.’ Kenny in black bell-bottom pants, a visual counterpoint to the Nô costumes worn by the rest of the cast, spoke ‘fluently’ in colloquial style. Nagao describes Kenny as having a ‘counter-tenor melodious voice’ and possessing a ‘first-class charm.’ He lightly criticizes a cloak for being too light in weight – the power and status of the character should have been better represented by a heavier weight costume. Also, a mask representing a saint was insufficient and the Japanese idea of saintdom was not achieved. Nagao concludes the review:

If compared to an American production, this production would probably lean towards Nô, but, as a vestige of a Buddhist art, it has been alarmingly watered down, and a flavourless Buddhist taste has been left behind.

Where Nagao concentrates on the performance values, Donald Richie focusses on the literary aspects of St. Francis. Richie compares Arthur Little to Yeats, and concludes that Little is a finer writer of the Nô drama than the Irish poet, who had never seen a Nô performance (1975: 6). Richie, disagreeing with Nagao’s assessment of St. Francis as a ‘watered down’ Buddhist art, finds Little masterful at striking a balance between Buddhism and Christianity: ‘...Mr. Little keeps Noh-like Buddhist references within his Christian context.’ His criticism of the Ai Kyôgen speech longs for ‘more precise colloquial language.’ The music receives plaudits: ‘Mr. Holvik’s music is extraordinary. It is a pastiche...of Noh music so precise that it sounds exactly like the Noh.’ Finally, Richie comments on the cast’s proficiency: the musicians are ‘very able performers’ and Father Abel’s performance ‘is one of discipline and power but at the same time, and equally important, he manages to suggest the vulnerability of Francis, his triumphant innocence in the face of experience.’

The production left behind a legacy. Masuda Shôzô included St. Francis in his Nô no rekishi (History of Nô) in a chapter devoted to foreign productions of Nô-related works, thus legitimizing the production and honouring its contribution to the history of the development of Nô (1978: 138). A rich, intercultural theatrical experience, the cast of St. Francis avoided exoticizing and essentializing Japanese theatre. I draw attention to the details of the reviews because Nagao and Richie treated St. Francis like a professional theatrical production, not a showcase of foreigners performing Japanese traditional theatre. Most importantly, the popular interest generated by the production encouraged Kenny to establish a Kyôgen in English theatre company.

Don Kenny’s English Kyôgen Players

Kenny’s Kyôgen group officially formed in May 1975 with an intensive training session that continued for eighteen months during which the company’s repertoire was built. First, they rehearsed Japanese-language Kyôgen plays such as Mizu Kake Muko (The Water Throwing Son-in-Law) and Shimizu (A Demon for Better Working Conditions), then, they included William Butler Yeats’ The Cat and the Moon in English. The first performance took place in September 1976 at the Japan Culture Institute. The group then toured universities around the United States presenting English-language versions of the Kyôgen plays in 1977 and once again in 1978. As well, they continued performing in Japan in venues such as the International House, the Tokyo American Club, Sophia University, and Yokota Army Base.
The founding members of the group were Kenny, Jane Corddry, Ogawa Shichiro, and Matsui, the choreographer from St. Francis. Kenny’s reputation as a Kyôgen scholar, translator, and performer was firmly established by the late 1970's. Masuda refers to Kenny as ‘a highly professional Kyôgen actor’ in Nô no Rekishi. (1978: 142). The others, however, aside from Matsui were beginning students of Kyôgen. Jane Corddry and Ogawa Shichiro studied with Nomura; the latter would eventually become a minor member in Nomura’s Kyôgen company and teach the art at a cultural center in Tokyo. Ogawa would also become a professional partner in Kenny’s company.

The Problem of Reviewing English Kyôgen

Nagao reviewed a 1977 performance at Rinsenji temple, the home base of the group, in Nôgaku taimuzu, the trade paper for the world. He opens the review praising ‘[t]he polished direction and style’ of the production and commenting on Kenny’s proficiency at handling ‘the language problem,’ and then reports on the activities of the group, Kenny’s translations, his Waseda affiliation, and his training with Mansaku Nomura (1978: 9). Also, Nagao’s review appeared two months after the actual performance suggesting that it is a description of a theatrical event rather than a critical review.

Nagao goes into more detail about the recital in Geijutsu Seikatsu (Art Life) in an article entitled ‘Amerikajin no Kyôgen’ (The Kyôgen of an American) pointing towards a trend where Kenny is categorized as a foreigner performing a Japanese art (1978: 128). Nagao approves of the handling of the dialogue, but a curious tone emerges when he expresses relief that ‘the atmosphere and form of classical Japan was not in the least bit destroyed,’ as if he entered Rinsenji Temple expecting the destruction of his country’s sacred art at the hands of foreigners. He slightly criticizes the confrontation between Tarô Kaja and the Master, played by Corddry and Kenny, respectively, for being ‘sharper’ and more ‘expressive’ than in traditional Kyôgen. Nagao’s preconceptions of Westerners surface above his praise when he describes the confrontation scene between the servant and the Master:
We can see Don Kenny, as the Master, with the melodious voice of Peter O’toole, giving his commands to Tarô Kaja in a despotic Shakespearean tone that includes both anger and dignity. The typical matronly American Jane Corddry voices her human rights declarations gratingly.
Enclosing a stereotypical frame around the Americans, Nagao compares Kenny to Irish Peter O’toole; although, this is a favourable comparison, Kenny’s mid-western accent must have been quite different from the Irish accent of the title character of Lawrence of Arabia. The Western bodies and English-speaking voices create a formidable cultural barrier for Nagao, who can only connect them to Western references like Shakespeare and American feminists.

A survey of Japanese language newspaper and magazine articles finds the same information repeated over and over. With the exception of Shukantaishū and the two articles written by Nagao, Japanese journalists focus on Kenny’s ability to speak Japanese fluently, his deep understanding of Japanese customs and culture, and his long-standing professional relationship with Japan’s foremost Kyôgen actor. The novelty of a foreigner performing a traditional Japanese art also elicits much attention. For example, in an article entitled ‘Kyôgen ni miserareta’ (Bewitched by Kyôgen), the writer struggles with the paradox of an American performing a Japanese art. Observing the actor from the front, the writer sees ‘[a] face that’s different from the Japanese,’ and viewing Kenny from behind, the writer sees ‘[a] Japanese Kyôgen actor’ (Zen, April, 1981: 17). This description of a foreigner practicing a Japanese performing art conjures up the image of the Japanese writer circling around Kenny with a sense of awe. One is reminded of “The Couple in the Cage,” the performance art exhibit of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña where the couple toured museums claiming to be ‘authentic Amerindian natives.’ In Kenny’s case, however, he is an authentic American who pulls off a capable performance of an authentic Japanese performer. In most cases his double performance impresses the Japanese writers. There is, though, an undercurrent that runs through articles written about English Kyôgen that suggests the form is nothing more than novelty. For example, a headline in the Kanagawa Shinbun (Kanagawa Newspaper) perplexes the reader as it can be translated to read ‘Different Coloured English Kyôgen’ or ‘Novelty English Kyôgen’ (February, 1983: 10).

While the Japanese-language media tends to exoticize and novelize Mr. Kenny’s work, the English-language media tends to advertise it. There is no critical review of an English Kyôgen production in any English-language publication. Instead, writers encourage people to attend the highly entertaining performances and tend to focus on Mr. Kenny’s ability to speak Japanese fluently and the fact that he is a long-term resident of Japan. Actually, this perhaps is more a reflection of the Western community in Japan. Until very recently, Westerners, for the most part, did not speak the language well and tended to drift in and out of Japan. Mr. Kenny’s perseverance at overcoming cultural barriers and commitment to master Kyôgen deserves attention, the problem is that his personality and interests (he began his career as an Opera singer, is an avid reader of classical literature in French and English, and has mastered the Celtic harp, to name just a few) shift the focus away from his productions. It would seem he has created such a novel form that there is no point of reference from which to critique his work.

English Kyôgen in the 1980’s: From Alternative to The Cross Cultural Women’s Club

Progressing into the 1980's, the number of performances and tours abroad increased, reflecting the troupe’s growing popularity. In 1981, Don Kenny’s Kyôgen Players were on the same roster with Nomura Mansaku’s Japanese Kyôgen for ‘The Classical Performing Arts Friendship Mission’ produced by UCLA. In an article Nomura wrote about the tour, he mentions Kenny, whom he considers to have created faithful English translations of the classical Kyôgen (1981: 5). Also, the group’s reputation spread to the Kansai region; Kansai Time Out highly recommended ‘the entertainment value of this experienced group’ (1981: 10).

As the company’s reputation grew, so did their repertoire and their participation in alternative venues. A joint performance with Kyoto-based Jonah Salz, an American who was also studying and performing Kyôgen in English took place in 1982. Mr. Kenny’s group performed The Cat and the Moon and Jonah Salz’s group, Noho, performed a Beckett play, Act without Words and At the Hawk’s Well, written by scholar Yokomichi Mario and directed by Kanze Hisao. Throughout the 1980's, original plays written for the company were presented along with the standard plays such as The Dwarf Tree Thief (Bonsan), The Tea Box (Chatsubo), The God of Happiness (Fuku no Kami). For example, Domoto Masaki revived a four-hundred-year old play called Meeting and Parting and a Paper Dog (Ronin Sakazuki) and Donald Richie wrote a play called Alien Registration Card (Gaijin Torokosho). Kenny presented these new plays in a month long programme of alternative theatrical performances for a festival sponsoured by Seibu2000 Ikebukuro Community College. The troupe was also featured in the Netherlands Theatre Instituut festival called Theatre Tape/Film Festival Japan’s Theatre. The programme of Kyôgen in English became more diverse to satisfy both a Japanese audience and a foreign audience.

During this period Kenny established a connection with the Cross Cultural Women’s Club of Tokyo. This group has hosted English Kyôgen performances every year since 1981. In an article in the Yomiuri Shinbun (Yomiuri Newspaper) a representative of the club explains how Japanese housewives do not get many opportunities to come in contact with their native traditions, but through viewing performances of Kyôgen in English, they experience traditional Japanese performance and also interact with foreign women (May, 1981: 21). The women of the Cross Cultural Women’s Club have less a tendency to focus on Kenny’s foreignness than the media – he simply gives them an opportunity to enjoy traditional Japanese theatre with people from other cultures. I suggest, however, that English Kyôgen has been absorbed into the campaign of exoticism that dominated the domestic travel industry during the 1970’s and 1980’s, something I will discuss in the following section, and for the Japanese members of this group, it gives them the opportunity to participate in an exotic adventure without leaving Tokyo. English Kyôgen also offers them a taste of the past, satisfying their nostalgic urges which were aroused during this extended domestic travel campaign; however, the past that Mr. Kenny evokes is one that is deconstructed and reinterpreted.

English Kyôgen and Tourism in the 1990’s

An interesting cultural process occurs with the Japan Tourist Bureau’s decision to include Kenny’s English Kyôgen as part of its package tour for foreign visitors to Japan. Since 1991, Kenny has been presenting thirty-minute lecture/demonstrations to groups of mainly American, Canadian, and Australian tourists at a first-class hotel in central Tokyo. After the tour group’s appetite has been satisfied with a tepennyaki dinner, Kenny presents a modern dress performance of a short play like The Inherited Cramp (Busu) followed by an abbreviated lecture on the history of Japanese classical theatre and a longer meditation on his activities in Japan since 1959. A similar contract exists with the Fulbright Memorial Foundation Symposium for American School Teachers, except the production is performed in full-dress costume and the audience is made up of school teachers from the United States on a brief visit to Japan at the Fulbright Foundation’s expense.

By including Kenny’s English Kyôgen in its foreign tourist package, the Japan Tourist Bureau tacitly approves that his work represents an aspect of Japanese culture that can and should be digested by tourists. The tour groups will leave Japan with the impression that Kenny is as much an icon as Tokyo Tower, the Ginza, and the cherry blossoms of April. In a sense, English Kyôgen is an extension of the Japanese Tourist Bureau’s Discover Japan and Exotic Japan campaigns launched in the 1970s and 1980’s where Japanese tourists were encouraged to explore their roots, origins that were repackaged to appeal to the Japanese longing to return to a pure, pristine past. The audience of foreigners, however, are not returning “to a mythical past in rural Japan” (Law, 1997: 220), rather they are visiting an imagined past interpreted by one of their own. The discourse of exoticism that ran through the campaigns of the 1970’s and 1980’s is maintained with Kenny’s English Kyôgen: for the Japanese, a foreigner performing a culturally sanctified traditional art (Mansaku Nomura, Kenny’s teacher, has been deemed an Intangible Cultural Asset by the government of Japan and UNESCO designated Kyôgen as World Intangible Heritage Art Form in 2001) is as exotic as a Zen priest playing the bamboo flute in a mountain temple; for the foreigner on a package tour of the ‘orient,’ the exotic is dished out in easily digestible pieces, furthermore, the familiarity of sixty-year-old Don Kenny from Enid, Oklahoma performing ‘ancient Japanese theatre’ in English washes down nicely.


Here, we return to Arthur Little’s concern over whether an English-language production of a Japanese classical theatrical form can be considered the ‘real thing.’ In the case of English Kyôgen, I believe Don Kenny’s strives to perform the ‘real thing’—he simply repackages it for a primarily foreign audience. The longest standing member of Nomura’s group of amateur students, he had participated in every annual recital from 1964 until 2001, an accomplishment no other non-Japanese scholar or practitioner of Kyôgen can claim. He has mastered, in Japanese, the vocal delivery and stylized movement of the art, which he interprets to English and then conveys to his students. As he and I were developing the play The Fake Sculptor (Busshi) in the spring of 2000, we constantly referred to a video of the Japanese-language version he and Ogawa performed for Nomura’s student recital. Aiming for accurate reproduction of the form that Nomura has taught him, he does not exoticize the art. In his translations and in his presentations of English Kyôgen, Mr. Kenny aims for accuracy, not innovation.

In his current performances, however, he brings in new elements that stray from accurate representations of Kyôgen style. The most recent English-language article about Mr. Kenny’s activities discusses his solo performances of Kyôgen which include songs performed on the Celtic harp (Hirayama, June, 26, 2005). This innovation suggests that English Kyôgen cannot sustain itself and certainly increases its novelty value. I suspect Mr. Kenny has no plans to leave behind a legacy of English Kyôgen, especially since he has not groomed a successor to take over his company. His interests and curiosities will most probably guide the direction of English Kyôgen. What he has left behind is an opportunity for foreigners in Japan to encounter new cultural experiences because he managed to overcome numerous barriers. Whether he admits it or not, the discursive space opened up by the revolutionary activities of the 1960’s allowed him to surmount those barriers.

Lisa Kuly is a Ph.D. student in Asian Religions at Cornell University. A Monbusho Research Fellowship from 1999 to 2001 allowed her to research this paper. Next year, she will travel to Kyoto as a Fulbright Graduate Research Fellow to conduct dissertation research on rituals of safe childbirth.

[1] In rehearsal for Enemy of the People during the Security Treaty crisis, Kara’s troupe joined a demonstration in costume. Kara describes the activities of the demonstrators as theatrical, almost choreographed, creating a comical liveliness in contrast to the seriousness of the government and riot police.

[2] In fact, Terayama himself appeared at either a rehearsal or performance, but Emmert has forgotten which.
[3] An Off-Broadway production of St. Francis never materialized.
[4] Their connections reached the Imperial Family of Japan. Little outlined his strategy for negotiating a viewing of the film version of the 1970 production of St. Francis for the Emperor of Japan in a letter written to Kenny :
I wrote to the Imperial Chamberlain, Yamamoto-san, telling him that you had the film of St. Francis, and giving him your address ... in the hope that he would summon you for showing the film to the Emperor. I have received no reply. A group of us is going up to Chicago for a reception at the Japanese Consulate at the end of the month, and if it seems discrete (sic) to do so, I will ask the consul whether this should be followed up (18 April, 1973).
No further documents reveal that the Emperor of Japan did indeed view the film, yet this exchange reveals Little’s ambition.
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