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
12th Gring production Pirates

Premiere: 2005 at The Suzunari
Written and directed by Go Aoki
Planning/Production: Gring

Turtles and Jellyfish on the Beach
Kishibe no Kame to Kurage
(Turtles and Jellyfish on the Beach)

Premiere: 2006 at Shinjuku THEATER/TOPS
Written and directed by Akihiro Makita
Planning/Production: Ashitazukan
Turtles and Jellyfish on the Beach

Premiere: 2005 at Mitaka City Arts Center
Written and directed by Akihiro Makita
Planning/Production: Ashitazukan
Do you go out in search of materials to use for those set details?
Sometimes I do. For example, when I was working on potudo-ru’s ANIMAL I made a set that included a wall under a bridge full of graffiti (see photo). I thought that I had better take the opportunity to study the technique of the guys who do graffiti in places like Shibuya, so I went to copy some of their work. And in everyday life I am always noticing details. Like if there is a particularly interesting stain [on a wall] I study it until I realize how it was made. Or, I find myself studying the details of the finish on the pillars in a building or thinking about what material I could use if I had to make a one-legged chair. I am constantly thinking about such things unconsciously. Often it’s more a process of just constantly noticing these kinds of details as I walk the streets, rather than specifically going out to look for details for a specific work. People often tell me that that habit of focusing on details is my occupational obsession.

People often describe your style of set design as “real sets” but it seems to me that that expression is somewhat off target.
I agree. It is true that I do bring together real materials and objects into a kind of collage, but the point is not that the final set look just like the real thing but that I create a realistic but fictional set that takes the real thing as a point of departure to create a performance space. For example, the layout of the rooms of a condominium will have a certain order with regard to the location of the entrance hall and the kitchen, etc., and I try to stick to the basic rules as much as I can. But when I have to deviate from those patterns I want to do it in an artful way that makes it look believable, even though it is a layout that a condo would never have in reality.
My aim is always to create stages that have no dead spaces, stages where the space is full of clues and possibilities. I want to create such spaces and then breathe life into them. Of course that is not something that is done just with the set alone. It only reaches completion when the actors stand in that space and bring out its potential.

Even if the aim of making the fullest possible use of the stage space is the same, the taste involved in what you fill the space with must be different for the different theater companies that come to you for designs, isn’t it?
Of course it is different. For example, the spaces three spaces I create for potudo-ru, Gring and Ashitazukan are completely different in my mind.
Potudo-ru is the company for which I have to pay the most attention to the details, so I use a lot of deforme. For example, if there is something in the set that has a shiny surface I will make that surface extremely shiny, or if there is a pock-marked concrete wall I will make it almost excessively pock-marked and if something is going to be dirty I will accentuate the dirtiness. It will look “real” but I also use a sense of deforme to make it something that could never really exist.
In contrast, the Ashitazukan company does the most natural dramas (although this may be a misleading expression) of any company I work with, so I want to create a more conventional sense of realism for their stages. For example, I don’t want too much white wall space because I want the room to have a sense of actually having been lived in. If I use too much deforme I will destroy the naturalness of the world they want to create on stage. So, I want to create spaces that are closest to actual daily life. Akihiro Makita’s works deal with people’s animosity and with those disagreeable but somehow endearing negative aspects of people, so there is no need to make the stage spaces unnecessarily bizarre or unnecessarily bright. So, I want to give a feeling of nonchalance to the spaces.
With Gring, I make stage plans that are more abstract than with the other two companies. I don’t want to fill up the space with hard-set forms but to leave spaces where breezes can drift through naturally. The company’s writer and director, Go Aoki, starts talking about a work before it is completely written. What is interesting is that he decides what characters/actors will be in the play and then writes the script while thinking about how he will bring each character in and out of the play. Each day he comes in before everyone and makes correction from the previous day and adds the next section. At the start there is only a rough outline, then as the script begins to take form the items of the set that will be necessary for the actors actions are added. Of course the demands are different for each work and it is difficult to make generalizations, but Aoki-san is the kind of writer for whom the elements of dramatic distance, such as conversation between characters across a table, and the positions on the stage become very important. I want to use my stage design to help Aoki-san create the world he is seeking.
I don’t really know what people are expecting when they ask me to do a stage design, but I certainly want to create something that will help communicate that concepts and messages that each of the directors have. That is what I believe my job to be.

You are now working with many important young writers and directors. From your perspective in stage art, what do you see as the main trends in Japan’s small-theater scene today?
With regard to the companies that come to me for stage designs, there definitely seem to be a lot of requests for daily-life spaces, like rooms of the condominiums and apartments people life in. I used to think simply that it was because writing about those types of situations was easier for the playwrights, but recently I feel that it may be because people need a place of their own in order to express themselves. Perhaps, to some extent, in order to act they need a place with a lot of clues that tell them this is their space, a space where they belong. And there are also times when I want to say, “Why don’t you try acting in a more abstract space?”
When I was doing theater with our circle in college we practiced with a lot of physical movement, but today I don’t see many companies that begin rehearsals with voice exercises and running physical training anymore. It may be that I am just not there at the right to see those kinds of exercises, but I also notice that they will use microphones on small-theater stages now. I guess it is because they simply choose to use microphones rather than building up a stage voice.

Is it that actors have a reluctance to developing the kind of stage voice that is out of place in normal life? In the past people thought that it was that very difference from normal life that was the attraction of small-theater drama.
I used to feel that way, too, but now I find myself accepting these plays based on the everyday with almost no resistance at all. (laughs)

The plays are introspective, the greatest focus of interest is human interaction and relations and people are really only interested in themselves ….
Yes, perhaps. We may be living in a time where expressing yourself is the biggest form of social protest or problem-raising that people engage in.
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