Yoshi Oida, born in 1933, is one of Japan’s most interesting actor-directors. Trained in the classical stage disciplines, particularly that of the Kyogen, Oida went to France in 1968, becoming a founding member of Peter Brook’s celebrated international theater company.
Since then he has appeared in a number of Brook’s productions including “The Tempest” and “The Mahabharata,” as well as various films including Masahiro Shinoda’s “Buraikan” and Peter Greenway’s “The Pillowbook.” He has also created his own stage presentations and is now as well-known as a director as he is as an actor.
In both roles he blends the Asian tradition of studied control with the Western concern to characterize and expose emotion. In so doing he examines the ways in which an actor can create life on the stage. This he has indicated in two prior volumes, “An Actor Adrift” and “The Invisible Actor.” This third volume completes the trilogy.
Basic to Oida’s teaching is that the actor should remain invisible while his or her performance is on full display. If an audience becomes too aware of an actor’s methods or too mindful of the necessary artistry, then the wonder of the performance dies.
An example to be emulated is that seen in the Bunraku puppet-drama. Watching real live actors, the audience feels “their self-consciousness, their fear, their need to be loved,” but this ought not be a part of their characterization. In the Bunraku, on the other hand, because the face is only a puppet, the performance has a certain purity. “The acting simply tells the story.”
Basic to this insistence is Oida’s belief that emotion can only follow action. “Physical imitation gives us some kind of understanding of the inside.” Further, “if you take a precise body position, the corresponding emotion will come.”
Here the actor-director would agree with psychologist William James. You do not cry because you are sad, you are sad because you cry. “Body and emotion are linked,” says Oida, “and words can be the trigger for these deeper connections.” In practice, “if you place your body in a neutral position, then say, ‘I am angry,’ somehow the language will transform your body.”
Giving examples from both the Noh and the Kabuki, Oida stresses that in this sense an actor is always acting, and that by definition we are all of us actors, creating a “personality” for an “audience” that is composed of the rest of the world.
Oida tells how after a performance he finds that he is still playing “Oida,” still embellishing a presentation. Preparing for bed, brushing his teeth, he looks into the bathroom mirror and “suddenly I have another question: Is this face in the mirror my real ‘self,’ or is it yet again another character?”
In order to control this ability and to utilize it on the stage, the actor or the director must prepare a guide (Oida calls it a map or an itinerary, the actor’s bag of “tricks”) that will mark the stages of the performance. “You rehearse in order to define the mise-en-scene, using the elements of space, character, action and thought. Then you follow this design from moment to moment as you perform.”
Using elements from the Noh and the Kyogen, mixing them with the assumptions of Western dramaturgy, Oida gives an insight into the particularities of acting. Their psychological (even philosophical) basis is then revealed in a series of eminently practical ways to achieve such goals.
Many of these insist upon a physical/mental identity. For example, from the Noh, the uses of the hara, that region between the navel and the top of the pubic bone. Or, another example, that of the anus, a “trick” learned from training in the Noh: “When an actor is shouting or angry or moving strongly, it is a good idea to tighten the anus . . . the two ends of the spine seem to be related and our energy passes between these two points.”
Oida’s meticulous blending of apprehensions concerning acting East and West considerably enlarges the field of instruction for any actor or director. The author has called this volume his last. One hopes not. This book and the two that preceded it have redefined the art of stage performance and made possible an apprehension of the possibilities of acting.
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