The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
What reveals the meaning behind the stages in the form of everyday apartment rooms? Interview with stage designer Toshie Tanaka
2nd potudo-ru production Uramimasu

Premiere: 1997 at Waseda Drama Kan
Written and directed by Daisuke Miura
Planning/Production: potudo-ru

Ai no Uzu
12th potudo-ru production ANIMAL

Premiere: 2004 at Mitaka City Arts Center
Written and directed by Daisuke Miura
Planning/Production: potudo-ru

Ai no Uzu
13th potudo-ru production Ai no Uzu

Premiere: 2005 at Shinjuku THEATER/TOPS
Written and directed by Daisuke Miura
Planning/Production: potudo-ru

Yume no Shiro
14th potudo-ru production Yume no Shiro

Premiere: 2006 at Shinjuku THEATER/TOPS
Written and directed by Daisuke Miura
Planning/Production: potudo-ru
What kind of set did you design for that production?
The setting for Uramimasu was a Japanese tatami room in an old apartment that would usually have two rooms with a small kitchen consisting on little more than a sink, a gas range and a cabinet. It was a one-act play based on just one situation. At the time I didn’t know if plays staged in everyday situations like that were beginning to be popular, but people from other companies who had seen Uramimasu would come to me after that and say that they wanted the kind of “real” set I had done for potudo-ru. And it has just continued that way until today.
In fact, at the time I felt an aversion for the kind of “real” single sets that I was being asked to do. It wasn’t that the sets weren’t interesting to make but that I wasn’t interested in those kinds of [one act situational] plays. I believed at the time that doing things like putting together found objects or a junked car and creating an abstract objet or taking a net and encircling the whole stage and audience space was more what stage art should be about.
It was a dilemma for me because as I worked I was thinking that “real” sets were something anyone could make. If you need a tatami room you can just bring the tatami from your home as it is. Where is the originality in that? So, when I did happen to get a request for an abstract set, I was determined to prove that I could do abstract sets too (laughs)!

When did you start to feel that that had become your style?
Looking back, I think it was the potudo-ru play Knight Club in 2000 that was probably the turning point. [potudo-ru’s] Miura-san will probably get angry at me for saying this, but that was the first of their plays that I really found interesting. Until then I had tried to imaging why Miura-san had chosen a particular place as the setting for a play, but it wasn’t until Knight Club that it finally all made sense to me. Until then I had only though about making the kind of place I saw described in the script and the footnotes, but with Knight Club I felt for the first time that there was this one and only space that was absolutely essential to the dramatic development of the play and that it was my job to create that space.

In potudo-ru’s Ai no Uzu (Whirlpool of Love) [see photo, see "Play of the Month"] and Yume no Shiro (Castle of Dreams) the stage sets are room spaces that also have very specific multi-functional aspects, like a condominium room with a loft or an apartment with a bath room in the middle of the stage.
It is not only with potudo-ru. Most of the productions I do sets for are performed in small spaces that don’t even have stage wings. Within that limited space you have to satisfy the numerous demands of the director. So, of necessity it becomes a multi-faceted space. It is a process of considering how many of the desired elements you can fit into the space and I begin by doing sketches while imagining the lines of movement of the actors.
For example, with Ai no Uzu Miura-san said he wanted a place off to the side with a counter like a waiting room at the entrance where a club employee would be stationed and a living room in the center where the clients would gather and a playroom off of that. And I was like “Wait a minute! You know the [small] width of the stage at THEATER/TOPS!” (laughs). But he also asked me what elements would be necessary from a stage art perspective, so I was able to give my own input as we decided what form the stage would finally take. Miura-san is the type who wants to fill every available space with something, to the point that people say he has an “open space phobia.” He would forever be bringing in things like posters he has found to paste on the walls or some little prop to place in any open space he might find. Lately he seems to been cured of the tendency, though. (laughs)
Since I have never done designs for really large theaters it is hard to make comparisons, but I believe that small-theater one-act play, if you fill up a space with objects to the degree that there are no possibilities for the “place” to shift in nuance depending on how it is used, then it loses a lot of the interest that it could otherwise have. That is why I design the limited space itself with as much potential as I can. When I show my blueprints to the carpenters they often say, “You are really pushing it!” I want to use every possible inch of the limited space so people will come away saying that they never knew how large that little theater actually was. So, in the end I am laying out the spaces not in terms of feet but in terms of fractions of an inch. [The basic unit of the traditional Japanese measuring system, the shaku, is still used in carpentry and is almost exactly the same as the English foot] If I don’t do that, I don’t feel that I am making full use of the theater. There is no “backyard” in a small theater, so I often make the stage directors cry for the lack of unused space. But I do my best to designate spaces that are large enough for people to pass through or spaces where a cart can be placed to hold props. Of course, besides working as much into the space as I can, I also go through the process of eliminating things that are not necessary as well ….

When we watch plays using sets that you have designed, we often feel that we are right there watching the plot developments, up close to the actors, as if we are peeking into their world.
It is the close proximity of the audience to the stage that gives small-theater plays their unique tension. So, you might even go so far as to say that that I have to pay attention even to the places and things the audience doesn’t see, and I want to be discerning about the details of everything the actors come in contact with on the stage. These are things I can’t compromise on. To achieve that level of attention to detail also requires technical skill, which is why I go to work part-time at the set-making companies from time to time and hang around while the construction work is going on to absorb as much as I can.
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