Pathetic Diegesis: From Noh training to experimental music-theatre, by Neil Luck

Neil Luck travelled to Kyoto for an intensive month-long workshop with leading Noh theatre actors – read more about how this experience has shaped his practice.


Neil Luck

Department of Music

University of York


I’m midway through a practice based PhD in music-theatre composition, and the term ‘diegesis’ keeps cropping up whenever I’m asked to talk about my creative work. I’m interested in the term firstly in it’s platonic meaning – that is a mode of narrator-driven storytelling that maintains a certain distance to the events themselves (as opposed to mimesis). However, diegesis is also a term used in film theory to discuss the relationship between the auditory and the visual. Much of my work is multimedia, and concerned with teasing apart that audio-visual contract as a way of opening up new expressive spaces.

As such, I’ve become fascinated in recent years by the tradition of Japanese Noh theatre — a sort of 15th century interdisciplinary Gesamtkunstwerk that fuses text, acting, dancing, chanting, instrumental music, and costume. In Noh these elements sit in relationships radically different to the conventions of western theatre. I was extremely excited and grateful, then, that last summer WRoCAH funded me via the large awards scheme to spend a month studying Noh theatre with several leading actors, in an intensive workshop in Kyoto.

Being immersed in the world of Noh was a wonderfully disorientating experience, throwing many of my learned assumptions about the nature of drama into question. Noh is an extremely slow, ritualised and highly aestheticised theatrical language. Performances today remain, to all intents and purposes, exactly as they would been historically; movement, gesture, words and music are all learnt by rote, actors and musicians internalise fixed patterns or ‘kata’ which are executed on stage in often highly abstracted and quasi-mimetic forms. The result of this is that the space for ‘interpretation’ within a role becomes very small and exceptionally refined. The performer’s personality and ego is almost not present at all, further emphasised by the lead actors’ wearing of masks. Storytelling and music then, sits somewhere between mimetic and diegetic approaches, the relationship between actor and character is a somewhat distanced one, the connection between sound and gesture errs towards the symbolic.

Photo credit: Kyoto Arts Centre


Some of these ideas began to bleed into my recent music-theatre piece, Live Guy, Dead Guy. LGDG is a piece in two radically different acts that explores ideas of the diegetic gap between sound and visible action, as well between live actor and embodied character.

The first act tells the story of a son returning home to introduce his fiancé to his parents. The fiancé is in fact a digital avatar, and it soon becomes apparent that the son intends to abandon his physical form to join her in matrimony. All the dialogue is prerecorded, and the performers onstage merely gesticulate at a table filled with crockery, sonifying their movements in an alienating parody of a kitchen sink drama. The movements are not realistic or in time; sloppy gestures that make them look like badly operated marionettes. The violence and pathos in the narrative plays out onstage through the polite destruction of the set.

Photo credit: Dimitri Djuric

The second act is cast as a conversation between a medium and the spirit of a deceased marketing executive. This spirit is never seen, but is given voice through a spatially dispersed blend of a singer, two string players, prerecorded sounds, and a video of gesticulating ‘dead hands’. In a reversal of the first act the performers never move on stage (the only visible performer plays an inert corpse lying on a table), but only produce sound, the narrative playing out as an disembodied dialogue. At the end of the work, however the onstage corpse is dramatically reanimated as the ‘son’ character from the first act.

Photo credit: Dimitri Djuric


The work seeks to confuse, layer up and collapse the typical ideas of onstage diegesis in multimedia performance. Below are some edited clips from the premiere.

The Noh training  had an unexpected impact on my own work, serving as a dramatic question mark in my research, unsettling my practice and skewing it in new directions. I intend to push these ideas further in several practical projects over the next year or so, so do stay tuned!