FATHER CRANE and ACTOR BOY
When the boy finished his hours of practice he went backstage to watch the old man in performance. His muscles were sore from standing still with legs bent and back straight, to strengthen his thighs and send the energy of his center, (the ‘chi,’) into the mask he'd been instructed to wear. All afternoon doubts chanted inside: "Will the audience see my mask come alive? Will my story be clear? Will my instructors applaud?” Today they had not. In a dusty, dark corner, he rubbed his legs to ease the soreness.
Crouching backstage in the shadows of the wings he could remain undiscovered. He watched the performance and listened to the musicians play drums and koto against the song of the choral chanter who told the story being danced by the actor, his Father.
It was tradition that Noh actors and musicians never rehearsed for performances together. Instead, each actor, musician, and choral chanter practiced the movements, songs, and dances alone and independent. It was in this way that the inspiration of each new performance was not dictated by any single artist but created in collaboration, established in the moment by all the performers together. It was magic. It was always new. For the boy, it seemed impossible.
The boy trained under the tutelage of senior members of the ensemble and was coached by his father. He began at age three and now he was still an apprentice. Therefore, he was required to practice many hours alone, and it had been this way since he was 10. Today, it felt as if there were no source left for him to draw patience or belief. For now he was 16, and after a disastrous morning class, it felt like there would never be another chance to become everything that he hoped for. He gazed down at the scratched floors of the wings. His stomach turned as his future defeat flew into his mind and kept his eyes in a blur.
In the last four months he had grown three inches . He felt like a stranger in his own skin, confused by bigger feet that needed larger shoes every 30 days. Thus, he kept losing his balance when he danced. Daily aches and pains pinched inside his muscles as they strained to stretch to stay connected to his growing bones.
Tonight, backstage in the darkness, he reached with his eyes, blinking away the stinging sweat, trying as he did every day to humbly sense the secrets his father commanded, secrets he imagined were the answers to this impossible journey which each sunrise became more exhausting.
Tonight, his father was dancing the role of the crane in a play he had written himself. He was one of the few master actors whose skill had reached such perfection and sophistication that he had earned the right of creating a few plays to add to the traditional repertory of stories retold each year for thousands of dedicated audience members his ancestors had performed in front of for over two hundred years. The crane was a new and exciting role, one he might inherit someday, as part of this illustrious family of distinguished actors in the Noh Theatre of Japan. It would be his greatest honor.
So, he struggled and learned, practiced and practiced, and, this week, more than not, he had failed. It drove him crazy, further distracting his balance. But time and again his fatherwould say:
“Two steps forward my son, and one step in retreat. You must learn to stumble backwards with gratitude. Then reflect and reach beyond what you cannot believe in your heart you can reach. This you must do as I have done. This is your heritage. This is your place.”
Inside his mind, he parroted his father’s words. He imagined his sarcastic tongue fully extended and his eyes crossed like a monkey jumping up and down to mimic his father in gleeful triumph, screaming:
“The blood of all of us who have graced this stage flows in your veins. Know your strength, even in despair and know that who you are is the reason you may succeed.”
Casting his eyes to the worn oak of the rehearsal floor he garbled unintelligibly to himself:
“Yes, yes, sure enough and blah-de-blah blah, and if only once I could see you stumble onstage. I would laugh and point, jeer and scold, and then razz you, old man!”
In the Noh Theatre, the skills of performance were passed down from Father to son, each move, each story practiced together again and again, until the son’s muscles and mind claimed their inheritance. Only a few were truly able to assimilate all until every nuance hat had delighted audiences for thousands of years. Each had a different road to discover the needed breathe of artful life to place into the characters and plays. Artistry was a hard fought inner warfare and not easily or always won.
In Dynasties past, the theatre was fully paid for by the Royal Courts. Now it was up to ticket receipts to pay salaries and costume cleaning – to keep alive this austere and cherished art for future generations. This was added pressure on the few families that spent their lifetimes and livelihood nurturing the young to continue the origin of a timeless art.
With the temptations of television fame and conventional acting careers it was increasingly difficult to keep teenage apprentices within the folds of tradition - and away from Hollywood and the trappings worldwide online and on the big screen.
Now the boy had reached this crooked stage of temptation. Nothing seemed right. Ever. No matter how hard he tried he was always at odds with himself. This made him wish that he were born a CEO’s son, or the son of a fisherman, or that he belonged to some New-Age Liberal Ma and Pa with a Western sense of chill. Guardians whose offspring were granted early independence. Anything, rather than being obligated to follow the impossible example of a Master, pressured by the mean ghosts of his ancestors who stood around whispering incessantly, obsessed with haunting his composure.
It was spring, and the world was fragrant and alive. He heard the shouts of other, regular l boys outside, running past the rehearsal hall and onto the fields to play ball. He felt like a sleeping caterpillar inside a green cocoon, encased and unable to join the world. He wanted more friends and he wanted to be free and he wanted to play and feel alive within his own skin. When he whined, his Father would say,
“Quiet. Breathe. Be content, my son, for you have a gift. If you can fully commit you will bring honor to your family and beauty to the world. Rewards are only found within, and you must trust this old man: yours will be substantial. Be patient. Stay the course of your training.”