Akiko Nishijima Rotch’s journey to become a set designer began with a musician bursting through a screen. At the time, she was a 17-year-old high school student in Japan, at a concert of B’z, a Japanese rock band she loved.
“It was kind of cheesy but very dramatic,” Rotch said.
That moment got her thinking about sets. Now, she’s been an active set designer and scenic painter in Juneau as well as across the U.S. for many years, having worked on more than 40 shows and even some film sets. Currently she is working in New York City as a scenic painter for Broadway’s production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” She’ll return to Juneau to continue her work on Perseverance Theatre’s “William, Inc,” set to have its world premiere in January, as well as design the set for Juneau’s “Wearable Arts 2018: Molten.”
Becoming a set designer wasn’t easy. She had to attend an art college, and since there were only five major art colleges in Japan, getting admitted was highly competitive, she said. She went to art prep school Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. for three years as she tried to get into Musashino Art University in Tokyo, which she eventually did on the third attempt. She graduated in 1999 with her B.A. in scenography design.
During a summer break in 1997, she took a two month Greyhound bus trip from L.A. to New York City. She truly fell in love with set design when she saw the Broadway musical “The Life,” she said.
“I thought ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ I want to do something like this,” she said. It was her first musical.
The Japanese theatre world is tiny, so opportunities are limited and highly competitive. Graduates typically act as an assistant to the current set designer, a period which can last 15-20 years, and many set designers choose to not retire, which creates even fewer job openings. To top it off, it’s a still a male-dominated field.
“It’s hard as a woman to be a set designer. It’s really tough,” she said.
Since she loved her time in the U.S., she decided to study in Manhattan at the Parsons School of Design, earning an M.A. in lighting design for architecture and interior in 2001 after — again — applying three different times. She spent three years studying English before she got her M.F.A. in design for stage and film from New York University, Tisch School of The Arts in 2007, where she also received the J.S. Siedman Award. To be a set designer, which means designing for a wide variety of plays, she needed to be to be able to understand English at the level of Shakespeare. At NYU, she met and married Art Rotch. A week after their wedding, he was offered the spot of Artistic Director for Perseverance Theatre, she said, so they packed their bags and headed north.
Rotch designs five to six plays on average per season, and she starts designing anywhere between a year to six months in advance. It’s a lot of work, especially because not only does she take on the set design job but she also does most of the painting at Perseverance.
The process of set design comes in several steps. First she reads the play. She doesn’t analyze it, but just enjoys it for what it is. On her second read through, she makes a chart, what she calls “a scene breakdown.” She asks herself a series of logistical questions, like whether a scene takes place inside or outside. Then she assesses how she feels about the play, a practice her time at NYU taught her.
“This scene makes me feel warm. But what kind of warm?” she asked rhetorically. “How do I feel from my gut?”
That gut feeling helps her create a set that communicates the right emotional responses in the audience. Set designers “use vision as a communication tool,” she said.
Her next step is researching, so that whatever she produces will accurately reflect the play. This involves searching for images of what the stage might need, she said. Then she creates a miniature set model for the director and cast which shows the layout of the stage, where props will be located, etc. This allows the rest of the theatre company to rehearse despite the set not being finished yet, as well as make changes as necessary to the final set. She creates a blueprint and submits it to the technical director for a safety and budget check.
One set she’s particularly proud is the one for “Not Medea” at Perseverance. She was given a limited budget of $1,000, which is a several thousand less than the average budget for a production, which can typically range upwards of $3,000; then she had to split that budget in half since Perseverance was producing the same play in Anchorage.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is impossible.’ But I am the official set designer so I have to do it,” she said. “We used a bunch of paper to create three dimensional shapes. …Now I’m known for design with a very tight budget. Whenever they have very tight budget theatre, they call me.”
Just the same, it’s hard to make a living as a set designer. Rotch joined the Scenic Artist Union a few years ago as a way to find work as a scenic painter, someone who paints the actual sets. Scenic paintings pay the bills, though designing sets is her passion.
A nice perk about working as a scenic painter is that she gets to see other set designers’ models and learn from them.
To others interested in becoming a set designer, she warns of the strange hours and difficulty of making a living, recommending jobs in theatre like hers only to those have a passion for it.
“If you can do any other thing, do (the) other thing, because set design, to make a living, (is) extremely hard. Sometimes even I hate what I’m doing. But still I kind of feel the passion. This is the only industry I can live. But if you can be any other thing, just do it. …If you have extreme passion, yes, but if there are other things, just try other things.”
• Clara Miller is the Capital City Weekly’s staff writer.