Stage and PerformanceFlow of Plays


Because no bell or anything is used as a signal, you may not realize when a Noh performance has begun or ended. A first-time viewer of Noh may also find it hard to understand who is doing what. In fact, Noh performances follow a general pattern. Let’s take a look at how a Noh play comprised of a first half and a second half unfolds, taking the example of Mugen Noh, a type of fantasy or dream Noh in which a ghost appears and recollects the past.

Flow of Mugen Noh

Example: “Izutsu (The Well Curb)”

0Empty stage

There is no one and no objects placed on the stage.

1The sound of instruments signals the beginning of the play

The audience will hear the sound of instruments from behind the agemaku (curtain). The sound of instrument tuning by hayashi musicians in the Kagami no ma (mirror room) signals the beginning of the play.

2Performers, including singers and instrumentalists, appear

First the hayashi musicians appear from behind the curtain, followed by members of the chorus known as “jiutai” from a small side door at the rear right of the stage. They all sit in their assigned areas.

3Stage props are brought in

For plays requiring simple stage props called “tsukurimono,” stage assistants known as “koken,” who will support the staging of the play, bring in and set up the props. The performance is now ready to begin.

4The actor playing opposite the main actor appears

When the hayashi performance begins, the actor playing opposite the main actor known as “waki” enters from behind the curtain. He is not wearing a mask. Depending on the play, others accompanying the waki also enter the stage at this time.

5The waki gives a self-introduction

The waki tells the audience who he is, and elaborates on his journey and explains that he has arrived at a certain destination. His long journey is represented by taking a few steps forward or backward.

6The main actor appears

The main actor of the first half known as “mae-shite” who is wearing a mask and a beautiful costume appears from behind the curtain. A mae-shite is often a ghost or deity who has taken the form of a human. While responding to questions from the waki, the mae-shite begins to tell a story that is associated with that place, and implies that he is the central character in the story.

7The first half finishes

The mae-shite exits the stage, which brings the first half to an end. In some plays and performances, the mae-shite goes inside a prop placed on the stage.

8A Kyogen performers explains the story

A Kyogen performers interacts with the waki, and describes the historical events and incidents that have occurred in that place. This form of Kyogen in which its performers appears as a part of Noh is known as ai-kyogen (comic interludes) or ai.

9The main actor dances and exits the stage

The main actor reenters the stage as “nochi-shite,” taking on a different appearance from the first half, and the second half of the play begins. The nochi-shite, who is a ghost or deity, appears as its true self. He chants and dances recalling more flamboyant times, and exits the stage at the break of dawn. It turns out everything that had happened was all dreamt by the waki.

10Other performers exit the stage

The waki exits the stage. The props are put away, and the hayashi musicians and the jiutai chorus also exit the stage. This brings the play to an end.

11Empty stage

The stage becomes an empty space again.

January 17, 2014
National Noh Theatre
“Izutsu (The Well Curb),” Kanze School

Characters and Performers

Village Woman (mae-shite): Umewaka Gensho II
Ghost of the Daughter of Ki no Aritsune (nochi-shite): Umewaka Gensho II
Traveling Priest (waki): Hosho Kan
Villager (ai): Yamamoto Tojiro IV
Koken (stage assistant): Kanze Yoshimasa, Odagiri Yasuharu

[Hayashi musicians]

Flute player: Fujita Rokurobyoe XI
Shoulder drum player: Okura Genjiro
Hip drum player: Yamamoto Tetsuya

[Jiutai chorus]

Rear row: Katayama Yusetsu, Mikata Shizuka, Katayama Kuroemon X, Yamazaki Masamichi
Front row: Kawaguchi Kohei, Matsuyama Takayuki, Hashimoto Tadaki, Kakuto Naotaka