Jun Maeda Dies Of COVID-19: Obie Award-Winning Theater Set Designer Was 79

Jun Maeda, the Obie Award-winning designer and resident set designer at New York’s acclaimed La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club since 1970, died April 6 from COVID-19 at Mt. Sinai West Hospital in Manhattan. He was 79.

His death was announced today by Mia Yoo, La MaMa’s artistic director.

“Jun Maeda was a La MaMa treasure and one of the pioneers of experimental theater,” said Yoo. “He was a master artist whose vision was transcendent and essential to the unparalleled body of work that was being done in the early days of experimental theater. His singular work and creative spirit continued up to his death, as will his influence on generations of theater artists.”

In a career spanning 50 years, Maeda worked with such directors as Andrei Serban, Harvey Fierstein, Peter Brook, Joseph Chaikin and La Mama founder Ellen Stewart, among many others. A graduate of Nihon University, Maeda arrived in New York in 1970 as part of Japan’s experimental theater troupes the Tokyo Kid Brothers and Shuji Terayama.

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Maeda soon became a noted scenic designer in the Off Broadway world, beginning with productions directed by Serban (including Medea, Electra, The Trojan Women). He later designed the set of Fierstein’s 1987 Safe Sex, and Fritz Bennewitz’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Other notable projects at La Mama included Stewart’s Mythos Oedipus, Chaikin’s Lies and Secrets, John Caird’s Waiting For Godot, Linda Mussman’s The Birds and Jean Claude Van-Itallie’s Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Tempest. 

“Maeda was one of a kind,” said Serban. “Since he arrived at La Mama, soon after me, he seemed from the beginning a mystery man and somehow remained so and now took that mystery away with him. But no one was more dedicated, more modest, more unobtrusive. No one was more gifted…He could have been one of the anonymous genius craftsmen who built the Pyramids. Lived like a pilgrim or a monk always ready to serve the higher than himself. Never looking for rewards, never taken by usual egoistic wishes.”

In his later career, Maeda designed the Japanese comedy production Sambaso starring Mansaku Nomura, which was performed at the Avery Fisher pool at Lincoln Center. He also designed sets for The Talking Band and South African Roy Hart Voice Theater production of Furies at The Cathedral of St. John The Divine.

Maeda, who received the Village Voice Obie Award for Outstanding Work in the Theater in 1981, was a member of La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory. Just last December he designed the company’s revival of The Trojan Women. Some of Maeda’s work, including recent sculptures made from recycled and found materials, are on display at the La MaMa Archives in the East Village, which will be reopened to the public (by appointment) following the current stay-at-home restrictions.

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