Yuriko Doi Interviewed by Sheila Devitt


Yuriko Doi founded Theatre of Yugen in 1978 and has served as the company’s artistic director for over two decades. Most recently, she directed the world premiere of Mystical Abyss, a dance theater exploration of Japanese and Native American creation mythology. Now semi-retired, she still plays an active role in the company. Sheila Devitt began training with Theatre of Yugen in 2010, when she was invited into the apprentice program under the instruction of current Artistic Director Jubilith Moore. Sheila joined Theatre of Yugen as a junior company member in 2012 and continues to train with the senior company as well as with visiting Japanese master teachers.

Sheila Devitt: In the long tradition of Noh and Kyogen, a father begins to train his son as early as age 3 or 4. How old were you when you began training, and who were your teachers? 

Yuriko Doi: I was not born in a theatrical family, so I was not trained for a professional career in my childhood.  But my great aunt was involved heavily in Noh Theater, and she was allowed to teach Noh Theater to amateurs, which is very unusual.  Therefore, I have been exposed to Noh Theater from an early age.  When I decided to major in Theater at university, I asked my professor to introduce me to Kyogen master and National Human Treasure Mansaku Nomura.  I learned Kyogen  from him, as well as Noh Theater from his brother, Noh Master and Intangible Cultural Asset Shiro Nomura, who is from Kanze school of Noh Theater.  Much later when Mansaku Nomura-sensei became very sick, he asked his top disciple Yukio Ishida to continue teaching me and Theatre of Yugen members in Tokyo, as well as in the United States.

SD: As a woman, were there any obstacles to your training?

YD: When I started learning Kyogen about 50 years ago, it was very rare for a woman to learn Kyogen Comedy. The tragic Noh Theater form has more symbolic high society status: students are willing to pay a high tuition to study with Noh teachers, and to buy high priced tickets to attend the Noh performances, like a Western opera performance.  So some women began taking Noh Theater lessons partly because of its symbolic status.  Recently some Noh female disciples became professional Noh actresses and were allowed to teach Noh dances and songs for these high society wives.  But in the Kyogen theater world, it is still not allowed for a woman to become a professional actress.  When I started learning Kyogen, Mansaku-sensei told me that, after hard training to become a professional Kyogen performer, there are very few roles for a female performer to take.  Therefore, he discouraged a woman to become a Kyogen actor.  None of his three daughters became Kyogen actresses and one of them was even very talented when she acted in children’s roles.  But when she became a woman, she had to quit her acting on the stage.  Especially when Noh and Kyogen performances take place in the Noh Stage of a Shrine, in some places a female will still not be allowed to stand on the stage for religious reasons.

SD: You came to the United States and settled in the Bay Area in the late 1960s. What inspired you to found Theatre of Yugen in 1978? 

YD: At that time, some experimental Polish theater directors and groups were just being introduced, and I was also excited to introduce the physical theater of Noh and Kyogen.  Because most productions still relied on the Stanislavsky acting system and verbally oriented plays, I thought that it was important to introduce physically oriented theater.  Therefore I started training people in Noh and Kyogen dance and movements and demonstrated how the body speaks, cries and laughs instead of speaking through words.

SD: What were the challenges or benefits of translating the plays from the traditional Japanese repertoire and creating bilingual performances?

YD: Kyogen has a lot of humor, which is internationally recognizable.  Nowadays many Kyogen plays are translated into English, but very often the material is literally translated.  These translations often do not carry the original rhythm, nor is the dialogue colloquial enough.  That is why we translated material ourselves into bilingual scripts, in order to bring in some Japanese that demonstrates the original nuance and carries the original rhythm.

SD: Kyogen plays are filled with stock characters, and a performer learns the roles in a progression. So a child performer might debut as a Monkey character, then learn roles of the Master, the servants Jiro and Taro, the Farmer, the Mountain Priest, etc. You recently performed the role of the Blind Man in the play Kawakami Headwaters last winter in Tokyo, and will reprise the role in this spring’s Sorya! at Theatre of Yugen. Can you comment on the role of the Blind Man, and its significance in the progression of an actor’s skill and achievement?

YD: The Noh and Kyogen forms require almost life long training.  Of course when actors are 40 years old or more, they are finally allowed to develop their own interpretation of the roles, and they can challenge themselves and the audience with a higher level of acting.  Kawakami, Headwaters requires such high level of acting.  Generally speaking Kyogen is comedy, but Kawakami is tragedy and requires old age and experiences of a lifetime.  It was a very great honor that I was the first disciple of Ishida-sensei’s to be taught the role of old Blind Man.  I think that I am the only woman to have performed the Shite [pronounced sh’tay] /main character of Kawakami in Kyogen theaters in Japan.

Sheila’s Post-Script: Theatre of Yugen is now celebrating its 35th Anniversary with the theme “Still Moving”, emphasizing the thrilling tension between stillness and movement that is so characteristic of Noh & Kyogen.  Ten years ago, in honor of Theatre of Yugen’s 25th Anniversary, a retrospective book was published, full of interviews and production photos. This is an excerpt from an interview that Yuriko Doi did with Erik Ehn in 2003, that I thought was rather poignant:

 “Zeami said kyakuraika – coming back to the flower – is the highest peak. The most beautiful flower is the returning flower, which is when you get old. Kyakuraika is the highest achievement. The concept is that the greatest beauty is not just the beauty of the flower at full bloom but the complexity and experience shown as it ages and fades. … Kyakuraika. That’s what I am looking for.”

For more information about Theatre of Yugen’s current performance Sorya! 2014: We Are Still At It! click herePlease note there are two different programs. Yuriko perform in Kawakami during Program A performances:

Program A: Kaki Yamabushi and Kawakami on Saturday 3/22 @ 2pm and Monday 3/24 @ 7pm

Program B: Kaki Yamabushi and Shimizu on Sunday 3/23 @ 2pm

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