“Take off your clothes.” For a moment, I wasn’t sure whether I had signed up for kabuki or for a low-budget porno. This was our first rehearsal and they were already asking me to get undressed? That’s more of a second- or third-rehearsal kind of thing, isn’t it?
Fortunately, we only had to strip to our undies, and it was just for the purpose of putting us into costume—no funny business. The five of us were dressed in colorful new kimonos, embroidered in gold. Everyone else had powerful, masculine patterns on theirs, like dragons, lions and waves. I had a rooster.
Three weeks prior, I had been invited, along with four other native-speaking English teachers, to join an amateur kabuki production. Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theater, spoken in an exaggerated, cantering rhythm. There are stylized movements to accompany the fancy costumes, and live shamisen (a Japanese string instrument similar to a guitar) music on a simple stage with limited props and decoration. I have always professed to have an interest in getting involved with the community, so, thespian shortcomings notwithstanding, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
We were enlisted to perform the opening act prior to the main performance. Our sketch was taken from a folktale about a band of criminals, and I was chosen for the part of Akaboshi, the handsome charmer. The director was very excited to have us in her play: it was the only public kabuki performance to have an act performed entirely by non-Japanese actors. Announcements even went out in the local newspapers, which is not actually that impressive when you live in a small farming town where nothing else interesting happens.
On the day of our first meeting, we walked down through a catacomb of doors and hallways into the bowels of one of the community center buildings and finally to a small, windowless room with two sinks and a line of mirrors. The group was practicing their lines with a guest director who had apparently come all the way up from Tokyo. He looked pompous, or at least preposterous, with his brown beret billowing like a mushroom-cloud from where his brain used to be, and his small, tinted artsy spectacles hanging precariously at the end of his nose. He was a large man with a shuttered face that squinted more than his eyes, and he wore a wide, flowing smock with giant orange Halloween spiders printed on it. Whenever he spoke, he seemed to be speaking in a soliloquy to which everyone else was merely an audience, doubtless a habit developed from too many years in the theater business, or too high an opinion of his own thoughts.
At our first rehearsal, it was obvious that none of us had any acting experience. On the bright side, they gave us all swords—and not just plastic prop swords, real metal swords with semi-sharp blades. When I was young, I had a closet full of those cheap plastic samurai swords, the kind that snap in half if you ever try to hit anything with them. Upon receiving a real one, I was nearly giddy; it was as if I had regressed a decade and a half and was running around the backyard as a kid again, pretending to be a ninja. But we were in a small room, and I had my feet crammed rather uncomfortably into old-fashioned wooden block-sandals that were not conducive to running with long, sharp, metal objects.
Our guest director—the same one from Tokyo that we encountered at our first meeting—was less ridiculously dressed this time, wearing a simple kimono and something that resembled a yarmulke. He was not, however, any less muddled in his direction, which seemed to leap from here to there and twirl around with little regard for continuity in the things he was telling us to do.