On the Sunday evening of my recent sojourn to the Island of Ireland, Liz Weir took me to see her storytelling mentee Masako Cary presenting an evening of Japanese folktales to a full house at Belfast’s (very aptly named) Black Box venue.
As a Japanese emigree, Masako was awarded a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Minority Ethnic Artists Mentoring Programme . This award meant that, in addition to Liz’s mentoring, Masako was able to benefit from support from the very highly regarded teller Daniel Morden as she developed this, her first in-person, performance as a storyteller.
In keeping with the traditional nature of the stories that she told, Masako wore the Japanese kimono, obi (belt) and geta (wooden sandals). The form of this clothing (the drapery of the kimono, the tightness of the obi and rigidity of the geta) meant that Masako’s range of movement was restricted and that, for the most part, she spoke from the centre of the stage, rarely leaving that spot. This should, however, not be read as criticism, but simply observation that interested me as a teller who normally performs barefoot, and expects to use much of the space available. The obi, in particular, meant that her posture tended to the erect which (in conjunction with her maintaining a central position on the stage) helped to create a strong sense of rootedness in Masako performance. Although gesturally constrained, Masako was still able to enhance her verbal expression through minimal movement (changes in breath and tension and (significantly) the strategic use of gaze), conveying emotion and helping the audience see the story space.
Mention of her voice brings me to a particularly notable part of Masako’s performance, that being her use of song. Masako’s singing voice is strong, expressive and resonant and when, between tales, she portrayed a mother singing a traditional lullaby to her baby, this intermission was spellbinding. When the lullaby returned, incorporated into the story that followed, the appreciation of the audience was palpable.
I was astonished that this was Masako’s first live public performance. Even the way that she handled initial problems with the sound equipment suggested a much more experienced performer. Masako’s confidence clearly grew throughout the performance, and as she became more expressive and energised this helped her connection with the audience to become more secure and responsive. Confirmation of this developing relationship of the audience came in her encore telling of the rakugo (traditional Japanese humorous tale) story Jugemu - a ‘shaggy dog story where a child is given an improbably long name - her performance of which is the best that I have seen.
Needless to say, I look forward to the next time that I can be in the audience for one of Masako’s storytelling sets.