People | 20 QUESTIONS

Jonah Salz: What's life without the drama?

by Andrew Eglinton

Contributing Writer

Name: Jonah Salz
Age: 63
Nationality: American
Occupation: Theater scholar and director
Likes: Seasons, travel, steak
Dislikes: Crowds, noise, hearing “You’ll never understand, you’re an American”


1. You are from Buffalo, New York, what was it like growing up there? Cold. We had deep snow from November to March. My first paying job was shoveling old people’s sidewalks. It was wealthy once, so it has a great art museum, symphony orchestra and studio theater.

2. What do you miss about the United States? Bagels, used bookstores, driving along the coast and Thanksgiving.

3. Why did you come to Japan? I happened to buy a half-price ticket for Ichikawa Ennosuke III’s kabuki on Broadway and was thrilled by the combination of song, dance and drama. Intrigued to see more, I came for three months to teach English to businessmen, but found Japan so fascinating I kept extending my stay.

4. You’ve written extensively on Samuel Beckett and noh theater, particularly kyogen (comedy plays). How do these traditions intersect? Both noh and Beckett use a bare stage, symbolic properties, rhythmic monodrama, silence and sudden passion, masks/mask-like faces, and dynamic presence to express profound feelings and memories. Beckett’s plays can be adapted to kyogen’s simplicity, clarity and clever bantering.

5. What’s one of your favorite lines from a Beckett play? “(Pause.)”

6. How does Beckett’s work resonate with you today? One of his early plays, “Act Without Words II,” features two men emerging one after the other from large sacks. A is sleepy and takes pills, chews on an unappetizing carrot and moves a little down the path, carrying both sacks. B is energetic, does calisthenics, dresses carefully, combs his hair, and enjoys the same carrot, before carrying the sacks down the path. In 1982 when I first directed this play, I identified with B; recently, I’m closer to A.

7. What is great about kyogen? Kyogen’s vocalization is crisp and clear, creating an almost hypnotic wave that draws audiences in. The gestures and movements are easy to understand even from a distance. The stories possess a simple folk humor, describing the confusions and tricks between masters and servants, wives and husbands, and competing passersby.

8. What’s the best way for a beginner to enjoy kyogen? Go to an all-kyogen program such as Shimin Kyogen-kai in Kyoto.

9. You direct for the Kyoto-based Noho Theatre Group, which bridges East and West performance traditions. What interests you about intercultural theater? Working with traditional performers who share an ambition to go beyond boundaries and create something authentic but experimental. With Noho, I have directed 50 plays from Beckett to Yeats, in Japan and abroad. This has helped introduce Japanese audiences to these authors, and Western actors and scholars to the potential of noh and kyogen.

10. What comes to mind when you think of Kyoto? Tourists. Temples. Tea.

11. Can you recommend a Kyoto hidden gem? The Teramachi shopping arcade south of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. It has centuries-old tea, woodblock print and tea utensil shops.

12. You also teach, what do you find rewarding about that? Watching students become adults and hoping to open them to the beauty and meaning of contemporary arts of all kinds. It’s exciting to teach first-year students through to their graduation thesis, or even graduate school.

13. What challenges do you face as a teacher? Students have too many classes and assignments to dig deeper into specific fields of study, even if they wanted to. With so much information available online, few want to do so. However, when I see university theater or dance club productions I am always amazed: Why can’t they show such dedication and energy in class?

14. When you edited “A History of Japanese Theatre” (Cambridge University Press, 2016), what challenges did you face? We wanted expert scholars, but this meant waiting on their busy schedules. We wanted Japanese scholars, but this meant translating and adapting their often jargon-filled writing. We wanted to include popular and contemporary theater, so we had to make judgments about who and what to include in that “history.”

15. What are some historical landmark moments in Japanese theater? When “temple beggars,” sarugaku actors led by Kanami, received patronage from the shogun in the late 1300s; the stylization of Okuni’s sexy dance by male performers in kabuki in the early 1600s; and (the) Gekidan Shiki (company) studying and performing its first musical in the mid-1960s.

16. Have any theater groups caught your attention recently? Niwa Gekidan Penino. I’ve seen four of its plays. Each has been moving on an instinctual level and continues to resonate with me today.

17. What’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase?Gensoku toshite” (“as a rule”), since it leaves open the possibility for irregularities.

18. What song best describes your work ethic? “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

19. Do you have a favorite Japanese food? Chawanmushi: custard with seasonal vegetables and fish.

20. What life lesson would you impart to others? Listen more, talk less, travel while you’re young, follow your dreams.

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