Set Designer Mimi Lien, a 2015 recipient of the MacArthur ”genius” grant, has been designing for theater since 2003. Among her credits are Outrage, An Octoroon, and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. An Obie Award winner for sustained excellence in set design, Lien works with steel and creates smooth landscapes, taking an environmental approach to building sets for new works of theater.
She currently has two shows running: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play War at LCT3, as well as Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 moving to Broadway in October. Additionally, she is a co-founder of JACK, a performance space in Brooklyn, currently co-led by Alec Duffy and DeeArah Wright.
What makes for genius? A startling revelation again and again. But how does it happen? And how does a designer approach a work in a way that invites these revelations to occur and indeed recur? And what is the role of an artist towards her community? I recently spoke with Lien with about these questions.
Set design, by its nature, is an amalgam of many skills. Mimi Lien addresses aesthetic values and materials. She oxides metals, and recently created a lobby installation of a tree, made with 2 × 4s.
Lien explains, “I have a taste for industrial materials, and an honesty of materials. I like rusty things. Like the Barclays Center.”
“During my design process, I always go and sit in the space where the performance is going to be, here is where the event is going to be. What are the areas of interest in the space? What are the things that stick out? What is the overall vibe of the space?” says Lien. “It is an inevitable fact that we are in this space, so we should acknowledge it—what am I going to use? The question that I always ask is: what from the architecture is going to inform the design for the performance?”
Translating design for theater has a unique, complex dynamic. With the role of the spectator and presentation of the performer onstage, there is interplay of action/object. Dealing with stretched fabric and other materials, sculptural and architectural pieces can allow optimum movement. Dancers and actors can climb and scale the walls and platforms. Humans can appear dynamic within the context of the work. Finding the moment, supporting it with design, requires more than just visual sensitivity.
“I think I am calibrated to be sensitive to certain things [. . .] and I think one of the things that I happen to be very sensitive to is the relationship of people—meaning both actors and the audience—to the performance space,” explains Lien.
Take LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater, which opened in 2012 as a home for new plays by innovative, more emerging artists than Lincoln Center had previously been known to produce. The theater seemed to spring open when landscape architects installed a wavy, green space outside the Lincoln Center pavilion. Between the nature of the plays and the innovative feel of the space, this soon became a natural second home for Lien, who has now designed four sets for shows in the space, including Preludes, Stop Hitting Yourself, and Luck of the Irish.
Lien’s latest work at LTC3 is War, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz and written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a frequent collaborator. In the play, family members, Tate and Joanne, confront their demons while their mother is in a hospital room. This challenging drama deals with memories of the past, and relationships of the present.
War moves between the reality of the hospital room and the mind of the person in a coma. There is a conflict between two worlds. Lien has built an intensive care unit that looks like a machine. She also chose to set the play in a smooth, all white set: “It is a hothouse for the play. The main design element is the deployment of a large frame that moves and sneakily shifts the context through which you are seeing the play.” She considers further, “It’s about framing and containing these humans who are, sometimes, not humans.”
I ask Lien about the other elements of the production, and what it was like to collaborate with Director Lileana Blain-Cruz. Lien tells me that she asked a series of questions before creating the set for War. “How real is it? How theatrical is it? What is the landscape?” she says, explaining her typical process. “I don’t think those were questions that I had answers to. They were questions that we posed in the room, and we decided all together what we wanted to do.”
With the person as the object that we are always seeing, we are always making meaning. With an artist’s interpretation and perspective, we gain thought and sentiment as the drama progresses—and the meaning and message can shift. How to move people through the space is a special challenge. Translation into three dimensions is key.
Lien, who received her MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Greenwich Village, keeps the pulse of what’s going on downtown. This year, she is a board member at Soho Rep. “An Octoroon was the fourth show that I designed at Soho Rep, and it really started to feel like an artistic home to me.” Lien continued, “I have never been on a board before. I’m still learning all about it!”
I ask Lien about Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, the Broadway-bound new musical starring Josh Groban and Denée Benton with book, music, and lyrics by Dave Malloy. The show opened at Ars Nova in 2012 and has since been performed in the Meatpacking District, at ART in Cambridge, and in Midtown on 45th Street—Lien’s opulent design was already recognized by the American Theater Wing’s Hewes Design Award in 2013, and, though the show may have shifted over time, maintaining the original design concepts is incredibly important to both Lien and Chavkin.
The musical makes you want to drink Stoli with your friends, write letters, love, cry, and whirl until you see the Great Comet. The design, according to Lien, looks like “a Moscow punk club in an abandoned bunker.”
But how did that get translated for the stage? As an overall production design, there will be lots of curves, and music all around. The Costume Designer is Paloma Young, Lighting Designer is Bradley King, and Sound Designer is Nicholas Pope. Choreography is by Sam Pinkleton. For the Set Design, Lien has decided that the seating be replaced with a circular platform for musicians. The orchestra pit will feel like a bar with Josh Groban in the center. Seating is also onstage. There are red curtains, a vanity, and a “glittering canopy” overhead. “It has the epic scope of War and Peace,” describes Lien. “A lot of the costumes are a combination of punk, gypsy, period—it’s kind of a mash-up, and the paintings on the walls also pull from 19th-century portraits and landscapes to constructivism to pictures of Pussy Riot in an Orthodox cathedral.”
“Rachel Chavkin and Sam Pinkleton are sort of masterful users and orchestrators of people in space,” she explains, “and they have maximized the shape of the platforms that I have designed through the way that they have deployed people on them. It is a kind of mesmerizing swirl of people and skirts [. . .] all of the elements working together to create this baroque rhythm—both visually and physically.”
With every piece in place, Lien welcomes the success of her first Broadway show.
I ask Lien about founding JACK. She explains how she and her husband and co-founder, Alec Duffy, were both recipients of the 2007 – 2009 NEA/TCG Career Development grant and attendees of the annual conference where theaters talk about the problems they are having.
“The idea for founding JACK was born out of these conversations that were happening at the TCG conference, which was so much about outreach and about audience,” she explains. “The initial idea was about access and having an arts space in a neighborhood which felt like it was connecting to the people who actually live in the neighborhood. And putting on performances where audiences could relate to what they were seeing [. . .] where the people on stage look like the diverse populations of Brooklyn. That was, in short, the beginning idea of an idea.”
Amina Henry’s co-produced show, The Animals, opening at JACK on June 30, is a satire that takes place in a teacher’s lounge. It deals with “all the little dramas in your life that occur in September and end in June,” according to Henry, a Brooklyn College MFA playwriting grad. The play originated after Henry was a Teaching Artist, working with public school teachers in Brooklyn.
“In Brooklyn, I am talking to the community that I’d like to be talking to more often with my work,” Henry tells me, while shedding light on JACK’s outreach. “They have been in talks with local Brooklyn teachers, who have been invited to come to our final dress rehearsal for free. I think that they are attempting to build relationships with the surrounding community.”
Realizing an artistic vision takes time; new ideas have complications. Appreciating your roots—and building up and out—is as important as maintaining your stance.
When Mimi Lien looks ahead, she sees new possibilities. Over a five-year period, MacArthur Fellowship gives some flexibility to create more architectural exhibits and new environmental design.
To branch out, and return to where you started, is important.
“I came from architecture. I’m working in theater,” Lien considers. “I still think a lot about architecture
[. . .] I still think about working in a wide range of spaces and scales.”
War, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, runs May 21 – July 3 at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater (150 W. 65th Street). Set design by Mimi Lien; Costumes by Montana Blanco; Lighting by Matt Frey; Sound by Bray Poor. For further information and tickets, visit www.lct3.org.
Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, book, music and lyrics by Dave Malloy, directed by Rachel Chavkin,will open at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre (249 West 45th Street) October 18, 2016. Set Design by Mimi Lien; Costume Design by Paloma Young; Lighting Design by Bradley King; Sound Design by Nicholas Pope; Choreography by Sam Pinkleton. For further information, visit http://www.greatcometbroadway.com/.
The Animals by Amina Henry, directed by Gretchen Van Lente, runs June 30 – July 9 at JACK (505 1/2 Waverly Avenue, Brooklyn). For further information, visit http://www.jackny.org/.
MARCINA ZACCARIA is published in the NewCrit section of HowlRound and has written monologues, published in "InterJACtions: Monologues from the Heart of Human Nature (Vol.II)," available on Amazon. She is a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women and holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her clips can be found at @ZaccariaMarcina.