The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Toshie Tanaka
Toshie Tanaka
Raised in Gunma Pref. In 1974, Toshie Tanaka entered the drama and theatre arts course of Meiji University in 1993. After participating in the drama club of Gunma Prefectural Maebashi Women’s High School, she was active in the “Katsugeki Kobo” theater club of Meiji University for two years. Having had a love of painting since childhood, Tanaka began working on stage art and set design along with acting. She continued activities with the university theater company “Doubutsu Denki” and her own theater unit until graduation and after graduation completed the correspondence course in Design from the Craft and Industrial Design Dept. of the Musashino Art Jr. College. In 1997 she did the stage design for the second production of the company potodo-ru titled Uramimasu, which started Tanaka on her self-taught career in stage design. Today, her services as a stage art designer and planner are in high demand as she handles about 30 productions a year primarily in the small theater genre.
an overview
Artist Interview Artist Interview
What reveals the meaning behind the stages in the form of everyday apartment rooms? Interview with stage designer Toshie Tanaka 
Toshie Tanaka (32) is in high demand today as the leading stage art designer for a group of the most prominent small-theater companies in Japan today, including potudo-ru, Ashitazukan, Gring, Niwagekidan Penino and Tokio Swica. The intricately constructed sets she creates to transform the stages of the small theaters where these groups perform into spaces like a room of a love hotel or one of the typical small apartments that today’s young people make their hang-outs, a waiting room for drivers or a small Western style restaurant, all serve to bring the audience up close and intimate, as if they are peeking into the lives of the characters on stage. We talked to Tanaka about how she has managed to bring a fresh element into the “interior plays” (plays consisting mainly of conversation in scenes from everyday life) that are the main fare of today’s small-theater drama in Japan.
(Interviewer: Eiko Tsuboike)

About how many theater companies are you doing stage art planning for today?
The companies I design and plan for on a regular basis are Doubutsu Denki, which I’ve been involved with since college, potodo-ru, the group that first got me involved seriously in stage design, and then there are Heartland, Gring, Ashitazukan, Niwagekidan Penino, Tokio Swica, Harahoro Shangrila, Otona no Mugicha, Theatre Gekidango and Tokyo Kandenchi. I think that most of these relationships are with a certain type of artist or director who are interested in exploring and depicting the things that are revealed in human relationships.

These companies you list are many of the young theater groups that are in the spotlight today. About how many productions do you work on a year?
I was doing about 20 a year, but that suddenly soared to about 30 from last year. And it looks like it is going to increase again this year. It would be OK if the jobs came at an even pace, but when you get several in the works at the same time I feel like it will kill me sometimes (laughs).

That is amazing. Many stage designers just do the initial plan and then hire someone to do the actual production work. What about you?
Most of the stages I do are for small theater productions that are on small budgets, so I do everything myself, from the set planning and drawing the blueprints to buying the materials and putting the sets together. It is hard for me to give up the joy of the actual making of the set, so go to the workshop and do the carpentry and I paint the backdrops myself. Even when I do outsource some of the work to a set-making company, there is never a large enough budget. So I sometimes go along and help with the work in order to cut the cost. In all, I guess I do about 70% of the work myself. Of course I don’t have the time to make the smaller props.

We hear that you are mostly self-taught. Could you tell us how you actually get started in stage design?
When I was in theater in high school our club made it to the national high school theater contest with a production of Koharu Kisaragi’s Moral. We all did the acting and the set making together, and when I look back on it now, I realize that even back then I enjoyed thinking about how to fill a space and I remember taking the lead when we would get together to build set components like an objet pieced together from sections of water pipe.
I went on to study in the drama and theatre arts course of the Literature Department of Meiji University. I went to college imagining that the students there would be doing really interesting plays, but when I got there I was disappointed to find then doing regular drama and comedy stuff. At the time, I thought theater was supposed to be artistic and conceptual, and in art as well, I preferred abstract works. Still, I wanted to find people to do theater with, so I spent two years in Katsugeki Kobo drama club, a group that seemed to be having the most fun doing theater of the various drama circles at our university.
In the club, everyone double-roled as actors and stage staff, and in my case I doubled by doing publicity art or set-building. After that, I helped out at the Doubutsu Denki company that my upperclassman Taishi Masaoka founded in 1993 and was also active with a theater unit of my own. Around the time I graduated from university I had the vague idea that I wanted to continue in theater but I didn’t know exactly what I should do. When returned home to Gunma I found that I had a desire to study design, so I took the correspondence course in Design from Musashino Art Jr. College. But, it’s not as if that is really helping me in stage design today. I had to teach myself almost everything I know about stage art, by learning how to draw blueprints and going to help out at professional design shops and such.
At the time I was taking the correspondence course, I happened to be asked to do the set design for potudo-ru’s second production Uramimasu in 1997 because one of my underclassmen in the Katsugeki Kobo club was a high school friend of potudo-ru’s Daisuke Miura. That was the first stage design job that I actually got paid for, even though it only amounted to my travel expenses to Tokyo.
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