Art Works Blog

From the Archives: Art Talk with Set Designer (and 2017 Tony Award winner) Mimi Lien

When asked if her house was elaborately staged for Halloween, Mimi Lien laughed, claiming her house was “decidedly un-designed.” “This is definitely a syndrome of doing it too much for work,” she said. “It's not something that I do for myself for pleasure at this point.”

We don’t blame her. A set designer for theater, opera, and dance, Lien seemingly keeps nothing in her creative reserve when designing a new production. Whether it’s a sumptuously elaborate Russian salon for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a living shadowbox for The Bald Soprano, or collapsing walls whose movement propels a floor full of cotton for An Octoroon, Lien’s sets consistently confound both spatial limitations and audience expectations.

Her talent has not gone unnoticed. In September, Lien was named a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow for her “bold, immersive designs [that] shape and extend a dramatic text’s narrative and emotional dynamics.” A few weeks after receiving the award, we chatted with Lien by phone about her creative process, the intersection of architecture and set design, and the tension between theater’s inherently fictional nature and her desire to have tangible impact. The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

NEA: In your MacArthur video, you said that as architecture students, you and your classmates thought of walking through buildings as “a series of theatrical events.” Could you describe what that means?

MIMI LIEN: I remember talking about [how] a window is an event. There's a choice to place the window in that particular spot, because of what it's framing outside, and also its location in the building. Maybe you come into the building and you go up a set of stairs—there's an ascent. Then you get to the top and you look down the length of the hallway and you see this window, which is framing this particular view. Something like that is essentially a series of experiences that are dramatic, which are being orchestrated by the architect.

Then in my studio component, where I was actually building models and designing, the most satisfying thing to me was holding that model up to a desk lamp. Depending on the angle that the light came through the openings—the windows or doors—it felt completely different. I just loved peering through these openings at this light playing into a space in a particular way. I really sensed the drama of the space, which I think about in theater all the time now. The lighting, the angle of the light, has a huge emotional impact. So I think all of those things feed into this theatrical experience of space.

NEA: And you still build models, correct?

LIEN: Oh yeah. It's the most important part of my process, and it's reaffirmed basically with every project. For me, where it all happens in the physical building of the model.

NEA: Aside from the models, what are some of the other steps in your creative process?

LIEN: The kick-off to my process is pretty much always a conversation with my collaborators. Theater is a highly collaborative medium and I think that's important to point out. I think that’s actually one of the reasons I derive so much pleasure from working this way. When I'm bouncing ideas off of a lot of different people and source materials, that's when I feel the most fed in a way.

Then I generally go off and do quite a bit of thinking and research on my own. Generally that involves going to the library. There's this one room in the Mid-Manhattan Library called the Picture Collection. I think it was a resource for a lot of people before Google Image search came out, but I still find it to be a really magical place. It's not a very large room—it's probably 30 feet by 30 feet—and it's filled with shelves and file folders with labels on them, all alphabetical. It really is like the analog version of Google Images. I find that it's a great place to go to just let my mind wander in a kind of tangential way, to be really focused and yet open. Whatever comes to mind, I can look for a picture of it. More often than not, there's some random picture in that folder, which might even be misfiled, that makes me think of another idea. Even just wandering the books in the stacks. I think the randomness of, "Oh this book catches my eye," and I take it off and I flip through it—I think that there's something about that that is still not quite the same as Googling something.

I also find it really important to go and physically sit in the space in which the performance is going to happen. I think a design that addresses the space that it's in and acknowledges it, whether in a major way or in a minor way, makes for a really different audience experience. The audience moving through space, and even their entry into the theater from the street, is something that can be orchestrated and designed.

Then I do a ton of research. Depending on the project, it can be historical, like I need to go to a primary source and see specifically this particular setting in Baton Rouge, or wherever the piece seems like it wants to be set. I like to go to the primary source and see what it is, and then feel totally free to depart from it.

Whatever the source material is, I read or listen to it several times. I often make my own parallel track. The first time I'm reading it, I’ll write down all of the lines that jumped out at me so that I have my own abbreviated script, my own map to the play. Part of the research can also involve textual research; sometimes reading criticism about the play is illuminating as well. From there, I try to leap into tangible space. I do a very small amount of sketching, and then I try to turn that immediately into a rough model and get into the cardboard as soon as possible.

NEA: You talked about considerations for the space and history. What about the people? How do your considerations for the audience differ from your consideration for the actors? Does one take primacy over the other?

LIEN: It’s huge. I actually think about the audience first, because it helps me determine what the nature of the event is, and the bigger picture. For example, I worked on this play called A Public Reading of an Unpublished Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney by a playwright named Lucas Hnath. The title itself implies that it's a public reading and you, the audience, are involved with this—you are the public. Based on that, I felt I needed to design the entire room. I ended up designing something that felt like a cross between a screening room, a funeral parlor, and a boardroom. But as soon as the audience enters the theater, there's carpet under their feet and the chairs they're sitting in are very specific chairs. Their whole visceral and spatial experience is curated and is part of the whole performance.

There might be another play where the audience wants to be totally outside of it, where you're an unseen observer on a hyper-realistic thing. Maybe the audience wants to be looking in through windows. Those are the projects that tend to interest me the most—I love working in flexible pieces where I can determine the audience seating and configuration in relationship to the play.

Certainly the space that the performers are in is the next consideration. I try to think about a space that's not going to be totally congruent. I think there's always value in a kind of free zone between the space—it gives the actors something to push against. I have a subconscious feeling of the temperature of the play—the vibe or the tone I guess. I don't necessarily want to match it exactly; I want to find something that is just the right amount of counterpoints to it.

Then of course, there are the needs of the play. Do we need to be in a million different locations or are we in one room the whole time? Here's where the collaborators come in. The director and I can decide, well, it's a play, it's not real, we don't have to transport the audience to all of these different locations, we can evoke those locations but do the whole play in one spatial container. That is what I love about theater. Often, film is much more hewed to reality. But with theater, we can do whatever we want. I tend to like seeing plays that don't feel real. It's why we go to the theater—to see something we don't see in reality.

NEA: What’s the strangest material you’ve ever used to design a set?

LIEN: I once used this lens material—it's called a lenticular plastic. Remember when you used to get prizes in a Cracker Jack box, and you'd look at it from one side and it looked like one picture, and you looked at it from the other side and it's another picture? The plastic on the surface of the picture is in a zigzag pattern, so it's lensing it in a particular way. I was doing this play Copenhagen and it was all about perfection, and I was interested in finding a material that does that. It turns out you can buy sheets of this stuff.

NEA: Do you have a proudest set design moment?

LIEN: There's one that stands out for me, and was really pivotal in the way that I approach design. It was in 2006 and it was the first time I worked with Pig Iron Theatre Company. They’re an ensemble company based in Philadelphia and they create work that is devised by the whole company altogether. So it's not starting with a script; it's starting with an idea, and all of the different members of the company improvise around that idea.

It was the first time that I'd worked with a company that worked in that fashion, and it was really eye-opening for me. Basically, I was called upon to be the designer for a play that didn't exist yet. What was interesting about that particular project is that we knew it was probably going to be a play with no words. It was almost like a dance piece, and was very much about physical movement. It's a play called Love Unpunished, and it was a response to 9/11. The idea was, what does it feel like to go down 80 flights of stairs? What state of mind does that put you in if you're trying to escape from the World Trade Center and you're going down 80 flights of stairs? Do you start to hallucinate? Does reality start to shift?

So we knew that we wanted to do the whole thing on a set of stairs. But the different configurations of stairs would have a huge impact, and dictate the rhythm of the piece. If it was a short run of stairs and then a long landing and then another short run of stairs, that would have a totally different rhythm from something that was just stair, stair, stair, stair in a more vertiginous thing. It became clear to me that the design was a huge part of writing the piece. I was really excited by that.

We did a lot of workshops. We had this stock staircase unit, and we had the actors do exercises when the staircase is facing away from us, when they're going up the stairs, away from us—how does that feel? Then we turned the staircase around and had them come towards the audience. It was a hugely different emotional impact. It was a big, big discovery for me, how much theatrical drama can be harnessed just by the orientation of a staircase. That was a huge day for me.

NEA: Do you have a common goal with your projects, or is there some sort of larger mission that flows through them? For instance, a certain aesthetic or emotion you typically aim for?

LIEN: This may sound naïve, but I think my mission is to get the audience to feel something real. I didn't grow up doing theater; it wasn't something that I went to college for. I always feel a little bit like an outsider because I came to this form very late. Prior to that, I had a real skepticism about the theater; I think I felt dissatisfied with it because it felt fake. It's always been my mission to make it feel real in a way.

That can happen in a lot of different ways, but I always try to employ some strategy that feels like an intervention, or breaks the proscenium, and makes the audience more aware of the space that they're in, as opposed to, "That's the set for the play and it's behind this proscenium frame and it's this other world and I'm here sitting here in the audience watching it." It seems a little passive, or maybe the audience is allowed to be a little bit complacent. It's always been my great hope that people can actually be affected by the things they're going to see, and carry what they've experienced out into the world with them, and not just walk out of the door of the theater and forget about it. It's my hope that in a larger context, art can really have an impact on society. In some way, that’s always informing what I'm doing—to try to affect the audience physically as much as possible in the hopes that that will catalyze something mentally.

It’s sort of this Sisyphean effort. The thing that I struggle with for theater is that I always feel like it's fake, and I want to try to make it real. But then the reason I started doing theater instead of architecture is precisely because it's not real. So there's this kind of strange dialectic that I feel I'm in the middle of.

NEA: Is it painful to see your sets dismantled at the end of a production?

LIEN: It used to be. I think I've gotten used to it. There's actually something that I now embrace about it—it's the very fact that its ephemeral that allows us to do these things. That's exactly why it's not architecture.

NEA: What are three tools that you could not live without that are very important to your toolbox?

LIEN: I do have a physical tool that I can't live without—it's a box cutter. I pretty much always carry a knife in my bag. Unfortunately sometimes I forget about it and bring it to the airport. It goes back to building models. I could not do what I do without a knife and cardboard and glue. Maybe those are the three things.

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