Spend any amount of time chatting with Nick Ishimaru, and you will hear the passion in his voice when it comes to the art form he shares with others. Ishimaru is a theatre maker, a young man of 34, and spends his time directing plays. Yet the plays and the style he directs is ancient, spanning more than 600 years.
Ishimaru is the artistic director of San Francisco’s Theatre of Yugen (yu meaning profound and tranquil, gen meaning mysterious). Focusing on the ancient art forms of Kyogen satire and traditional Noh drama (derived from nō meaning talent or skill), they have been in business for 38 years, founded by internationally renowned instructor Yuriko Doi.
As an experimental company, Yugen has worked with many other companies that delve into the non-traditional avant-garde. For the holidays, in a region where the casting for Scrooges are plentiful, this company is fusing one of civilizations oldest art forms with a ubiquitous holiday tradition.
“A Noh Christmas Carol” is the classic telling of the Charles Dickens story but with a distinct spin. The timeframe is shared with the original story, but is set during the Meiji era in Japan. The show, adapted by Doi and Cianna Stewart and originally produced in 1993, not only incorporates Noh and Kyogen, but also the dance drama Kabuki and the ancient dance form Butoh.
The time was right for Ishimaru to take on Doi’s seminal work for the company, which was last produced in 2002, and his new production’s inspiration is based in community principles. While there is a feeling of being led by Christianity in the original source material, Ishimaru felt that placing citizens in a shared experience would translate better for his company’s purposes.
“What it does is that it refocuses the story on how we coexist,” said Ishimaru. “While the Dickens story reminds us about one man being charitable and to think of the less fortunate, ours is more about reminding ourselves that we have to coexist, no matter how much we think of ourselves in isolation. We have to think of ourselves as part of a whole, a single member in a much larger community rather than one person existing in relation to a faceless other.”
Ishimaru has high regard for his company’s history, and certainly wanted to honor aspects of Doi’s original work. But it was also important for him to carve out his own vision for the show while holding onto the essence of the company’s traditional forms, which are internationally known. Critical aspects of those forms, even the direction of the bridgeways on the stage have to be perfect.
“I relied on Yuriko’s advice as to how to put the show together but the vision is uniquely mine,” said Ishimaru. “We wanted to keep a vaguely similar look and aesthetic to the original, but with that said, when Yuriko came to opening night, she was pleased at how unique the production was and how it was very much my vision, not just restaging her work.”
Ishimaru is thrilled to be a gatekeeper for keeping traditional Japanese work alive. He understands that in order for ancient work to continue, it takes multiple generations to make that happen. Despite being the company’s artistic director for only a year-and-a-half, he is crystal clear that his goals go further than just running a theatre.
“I grew up a half Japanese person in Colorado and a fourth generation American, but I have found certain connection and solace in who I am when I am studying traditional Japanese art. We don’t always think about traditional arts as being wildly popular because we don’t think of them as relevant. But we have to teach which parts of a show are relevant to us. Even though a story may be 700 years old, it still can be just as relevant to our modern lives.”
Sharing ancient Japanese forms with a famous ancient holiday is a recipe for success. And while a play like this may not have folks dancing in the aisles, Ishimaru believes there is a higher purpose to his company’s work.
“Our audiences are always surprised by a number of things, but I often hear that they feel transported,” said Ishimaru. “When the audiences come, they are able to grasp the show on a deep level and are engaged in a way that isn’t about slapstick comedy and not like musical theatre entertaining.
“It’s different being entertained and being satisfied. Once people leave Theatre of Yugen, audiences are often feeling both.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Theatre of Yugen presents “A Noh Christmas Carol”
Adapted by Yuriko Doi and Cianna Stewart
Directed by Nick Ishimaru
2840 Mariposa Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Through Dec. 24th
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission, no late seating
Tickets range from $20 to $50
For tickets, call (415) 621-0507 or visit www.theatreofyugen.org