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Visiting Assistant Professor Maiko Matsushima on the Lessons of Theater

June 18, 2024

What can students learn from working in theater? Creative thinking, for one. Problem solving. Collaboration. Skills as flexible and beneficial to the student studying biology in Park as the one on stage in Goodhart.

“Costume, in particular, is a really good exercise to develop empathy,” says Maiko Matsushima. “Understanding the character and understanding how these clothes make them feel; how they make them stand, makes them talk.”

Hilma, costumes by Maiko Matsushima
A scene from Hilma, costumed by Maiko Matsushima. Photo by Johanna Austin.

Putting performers into someone else’s shoes is Matsushima’s specialty. She has been working in theatrical design for decades, and for the past 13 years has been sharing those skills with Bryn Mawr students as a visiting assistant professor in the theater department, teaching set and costume design.

It was a force of nature that set Matsushima on her path. Originally from Kobe, Japan, the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake devastated the city and stalled her studies. 

Maiko Matsushima

Continuing her education didn’t seem important in the aftermath, when she and many others were without homes. She worked for a while to rebuild her hometown, then learned of — and received — a scholarship for victims of natural disasters to Pace University.

“Since I didn't really speak English,” Matsushima says, “theater happened to be a thing for which I didn't need to speak, I could just do the work.”

An early production, a one-man show she worked on with Blue Man Group director Randall James, proved especially pivotal.

“Working on that show…I realized how much this work feeds me. I didn't eat, I didn't sleep, and I was still happy just kept working, working, working straight for three days,” Matsushima says.

She knew this was her life’s work.

Following graduate school at NYU, Matsushima became a full-time designer, working with more than a dozen regional theaters and on the costuming teams of Broadway hits including Wicked and Spring Awakening. She is a frequent collaborator at the Tony Award-winning Wilma Theater in Philadelphia where she has collaborated with artists such as James Ijames, and this June her costumes were onstage again in Hilma. The new opera is based on the life of painter and spiritualist Hilma af Klint, whose groundbreaking abstract art remained mostly unseen until the mid-1980s.

She says it's a tricky project—the costumes, set, and lights have to convey mysticism without feeling phony. The singers also dance, something Matsushima had to consider in her design choices.

Horse Woman at the Barnes
Horse Woman at the Barnes. Photo by Daniel Jackson, Embassy Interactive

Every production she approaches is different, but they all require research, talking with collaborators, feeling out what works for the performers. She gravitates toward projects that challenge tradition and carve new paths for theater. Recently, she has costumed productions of the opera Madame Butterfly that cast a critical eye on the work’s ingrained colonialism and orientalism. She collaborated with her husband, Headlong Dance Theater founder David Brick (who has taught dance composition at Bryn Mawr in the past) on Horse Woman, a site-specific piece at the Barnes inspired by artist Marie Laurencin.

“Unlike the progression in many performance works, where movement precedes costume design, Maiko Matsushima’s designs came first, fueling the individualized choreography of the dancer,” wrote Jonathan Stein in the ThinkingDance review of Horse Woman.

Philadelphia’s affordability and the almost-familial friendships with other local performers and designers have made the city an amazing place to live, Matsushima says. “We do have this great community of theater artists who can have a home, can have a family, raise kids while you're doing your artistic experiments.”

Working in Philadelphia’s innovative theater scene also allows her to connect her students with internship and work opportunities—sometimes they even assist her on projects—and bring her real-world experience into the classroom.

“The theater is constantly changing,” Matsushima says. “It's a live thing that as the culture shifts or COVID happens, we respond to the current situation and then we create work … that's the only way to keep everything current. It is all about the conversation of what's happening in our culture, in the world.”

A scene from Hilma.
A scene from Hilma. Photo by Johanna Austin.