Fabric artist clothes Tokyo’s expat thespians with creativity and magic

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Today’s younger generation may be more used to getting their entertainment from the Internet or other high-tech sources than from the stage, but nothing can perhaps replace the magic of a live theater performance. Since 1974, the Tokyo Theatre for Children has been enchanting families with its productions and motto of “English-language theater for the young, and the young at heart.”

After enjoying some of TTFC’s performances with her two daughters, Australian Linda Polgar offered to help out with costumes for seven years and was pulled headfirst into the world of community theater. A trained architect and textile artist, she saw it as an opportunity to combine her love of design with fabrics and put her skills to good use.

“I got in touch with the woman who had been sewing their costumes for years, offering my services. She then told me she was leaving Japan and said, ‘Do you want my job?’ ” Polgar said. There was no looking back.

Like many of her contemporaries, Polgar originally left her native Sydney to teach English in this country but found much that spoke to her artist’s soul.

“Design in Japan in the 1980s was stunning, whether it was robotics or plastic vacuum cleaners,” she recalls with a smile. “I fell in love with how things work, too. It was completely opposite to Australia. It was cool to be earnest about your work, and also to realize that you didn’t know it all.”

During her second stay in Japan a few years later, Polgar’s fascination with textiles led her to study the art of yuzen (kimono dyeing), which involves painting dye on fabric in an intricate process. After a subsequent move to California so her American husband could attend law school, she ran her own textile design and printing business from home.

Polgar has never had formal training in costuming, although her mother was a dress designer. “I suppose I must have picked up some things by watching her. I really just taught myself to sew during our travels around the world,” she said.

Her husband’s work brought Polgar back to Japan for a third time in 1997, along with their toddler daughter. The family welcomed another girl into the world after settling in Tokyo and have remained here ever since.

TTFC was started by three mothers from the American School in Japan who wanted their children to experience live theater in English. “They used to do a fully staged show in the fall, as well as a spring traveling show that went round the international schools,” Polgar explains.

However, as with any group that relies on the efforts and goodwill of volunteers, finances were always an issue. The traveling shows stopped when fewer schools were willing or able to pay for a TTFC visit, while rental space to store costumes and props also ate into the budget. “Raising the prices of tickets to their shows has been discussed, but we want to continue to make it affordable for families,” she said.

While TTFC is concentrating its efforts on the annual stage shows in the fall, Polgar would welcome a return to school visits if the opportunity arose and the logistics made it feasible. “A traveling show is at audience level, unlike a show performed on a stage,” she said. “You don’t have the lights, either. In a sense, it brings the performance closer to the audience, engaging them in a different way.”

Since 2006, Polgar has designed and made the costumes for every TTFC production, receiving help along the way when others had the time and energy to assist her. She has learned to be both thrifty and inventive when sourcing materials. “I go often to the international church bazaars and recycle shops. Costumes for children’s theater need to be rich and vivid.”

Last fall marked her director’s debut with TTFC’s autumn production of “Sharnoozle . . . It’s Magic!”

The musical, described as “a whimsical romp through history,” has its roots in Tokyo and was created for children’s theater here by two Canadians, Robert Tsonos and Mike Wiskar. It also brings Polgar full circle, being the very first TTFC production she costumed when it was presented as one of the traveling shows.

The play was very well received the first time and Polgar notes that TTFC had always planned to revive it in some shape or form. “For a first time director who isn’t an actor, it could have a daunting prospect to take on the play. But since I had costumed it the first time round, I had some idea of how I might go about it.”

This latest production was a success, delighting both audiences and company. It isn’t just children who love the shows, either. “These days we find we have many Japanese adults (in the audience) who enjoy the music, jokes and a chance to see something in English.”

TTFC isn’t the only community theater group benefitting from Polgar’s skills. She has also helped out with the Tokyo International Players, which at 115 years old is the granddaddy of English community theater in Japan.

“TTFC is theater for children performed by grown-ups, while TIP is theater for adults by adults,” she explains. “However, some of TIP’s shows have included children and teenagers in the supporting cast, especially the big musicals performed in the spring.”

Polgar costumed “Pirates of Penzance” for TIP in 2007, followed by “Oliver” three years ago. The latter included 30 youngsters in the chorus. “We could see what a wonderful thing it was for kids to have the chance to be on the stage, and we realized there was interest in acting classes in English for children.”

While it took time and energy to organize something formally, the seeds that were sewn back with “Oliver” eventually blossomed into TIP Youth. No prizes for guessing that Polgar is also very involved with this newest group, and her experience with TTFC and TIP dovetails perfectly with this latest venture.

Participants sign up for an 18-week program of paid theater classes, culminating in a musical production at the end of the session. Courses are offered for two age groups, 8 to 12 and 13 to 17, and are led by members of TIP. “We strive to make it as close as possible to a regular TIP production.”

Polgar and the other leaders have been thrilled to see the children’s confidence and skills grow throughout the courses.

“It’s not always even about being talented; it’s about being part of a team. They learn to pull together and to see what can be achieved. We have those shy children who say, ‘Oh, I can’t,’ and then they get up there and find they can do it! It’s a wonderful thing,” she said.

Besides improved confidence, close friendships among the young performers are another legacy from each session.

Now going into its third season, TIP Youth will be presenting two well-loved musicals this spring: “Thoroughly Modern Millie Junior” and “The Music Man Junior,” both of which Polgar is coproducing. The shows will run April 25-28 at the Theater Momo in Nakano.

Information about the next session for TIP Youth classes will be on the website from September and online enrollment will begin in October, with the younger children gathering on Saturdays and the teenage group on Sundays. Polgar will also be keeping busy with costuming the next TTFC production, “The Nutcracker,” coming this fall.

While Polgar doesn’t see herself slowing down any time in the near future, she expresses hope that a new generation of volunteers will join TTFC.

“Most of us in the core production team now have older children, so it would be great to have some ‘new blood’ — maybe some parents of younger kids,” she says. Volunteers are welcome in any shape or form, and no skills or previous experience are necessary. “Everyone pitches and helps each other. You learn as you go.”

“With community theater, although you might join in one capacity, you end up doing so much more,” Polgar says. In addition to costumes, props and directing, she recently branched out into updating the website — an area she admits knowing little about. “I’m picking it up bit by bit!” she says, undaunted.

The one outstanding area that she hasn’t yet tried is actually appearing on stage as a performer. Polgar shakes her head at the suggestion of an imminent acting debut.

“Hmm, maybe if I was allowed to wear a mask?” she muses. “No, I don’t think I could be one of the actors on the stage. But I’ll certainly dress them!”

Information about Tokyo Theater for Children can be found at tokyotheatreforchildren.wordpress.com/, while more about Tokyo International Players and TIP Youth is available at www.tokyoplayers.org.