Pacific Overtures Rehearsal Update: Unusual Props
January 28 2012
I was poking around backstage a few days ago and could help noticing the GIANT palanquin that the tech crew had built.
A palanquin features prominently during a key scene in Pacific Overtures and it illustrates just how detailed Sondheim and Wediman went in researching Tokugawa (1600-1868) Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate created an immense system of roads that lead to and from Edo (present day Tokyo) and two of these roads in particular: the Tokaido and Nakasedo were amongst the busiest roads in the world in their heyday. Palanquin’s of all sorts, not just the fancy kago we built, were used to transport almost everyone with means because wheels were forbidden on all roads in and out of Edo!
The Shogunate thought insurrection was around every corner and was convinced that if wheels were forbidden on roads it would help prevent unruly warlords from mobilizing troops, gaining momentum, and eventually mounting a coup. These wheel-less roads became even more vital when, late in Tokugawa period as samurai became more administrative personnel and less warrior, they became required to report to Edo for long periods of time, no matter where they lived. This meant that the roads were constantly packed with high-ranking officials and, in a class-obsessed society, this meant that an interesting hierarchy appeared around how one traveled. Samurai and higher class officials traveled by norimono, the ornate and large palanquin that we built for the show (and which the very important Lord Abe travels in). Commoners with means traveled by simpler palanquins, sometimes just a hammock suspended between two beams, and of course, most commoners just walked. Even if a commoner owned a horse, he was forbidden to ride it on the road- that being a right reserved for aristocrats and samurai. If you’re interested in more about palanquin hierarchies in Japan, there is a wonderful blog-post by an expat that I referred to heavily and you might like as well. The link is here!
I turned to my left and discovered puppets! Glorious, strange puppets mounted on lush pillows.
While not strictly traditional Bunraku the puppets employed in our show borrow heavily from its traditions. Bunraku is the oldest and most celebrated form of Japanese puppet theater. Unlike most puppet theater traditions, the Bunraku embraces the puppeteer and invites him to join in the illusion of the stage. Japanese theater, as a whole, is highly theatrical and highly presentational and the Bunraku is no exception. The puppeteers appear in full view and take on characteristics of their own. Traditional Bunraku puppets require three highly trained and different puppeteers to manipulate and, although our puppets are manipulated by one (very talented) puppeteer, we embrace the idea of kuroku, or as we like to call them: “stage ninjas”. These stage hands appear in all black and move with the stealthiness of ninjas to help the play move along smoothly in full view of the audience. This idea of the presentational stage-hand allows for the audience to expand upon the illusion of the stage and our puppets and puppeteers are no exception. We ask the audience not to be alarmed or feel cheated by these kuroku but rather to embrace them as part of the rich theatricality that Japanese theater offers. For more information on traditional Bunraku visit this great resource
Pacific Overtures runs weekends in February at the Shamblin Theater on the Lipscomb University campus. Tickets are on sale! Buy them here