But with theater, we can do whatever we want.

An Interview with Set Designer Rachel Hauck, Costume Design x3: Catherine Zuber, Emily Rebholz, and Kaye Voyce, An Interview with Set Designer Christine Jones. I realized that I had some trouble seeing some of the actors. All of the other chandeliers that are all over the room are similar. But the different configurations of stairs would have a huge impact, and dictate the rhythm of the piece. Basically, I’ve just been improving on that as we’ve gone along.

I was sitting in kind of a far corner. 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? She doesn’t know what to do, but it’s all quite beautiful.

Swarovski donated all those crystals. The model is just one of the steps that set designer Mimi Lien took to create the set for The Great Comet of 1812, the musical by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin that is loosely based on a passage of War and Peace. There’s the troika drivers, who were lowly peasants, and then all the way up to the aristocrats.

We visited Mimi at her studio and asked her to walk us through her process for creating the set. When I was watching them on that lowest level and I had trouble seeing them, I thought, “It would be nice if they were raised up a little bit.

Whatever the source material is, I read or listen to it several times.

I really sensed the drama of the space, which I think about in theater all the time now.

We ended up having these curving pathways, many of which were behind audience members at Ars Nova, and then they had staircases that led down to the center. [The Ars Nova space is] long and narrow and it’s already set up a little bit like a cabaret. Nothing is period, and the materials are all found objects, but she puts them together in a really amazing way.”. The lighting, the angle of the light, has a huge emotional impact. Now, we’re basically just trying to do the same thing that we did at Ars Nova but in a Broadway space.

How do your considerations for the audience differ from your consideration for the actors? This feeling of a warm, lush, opulent cocoon-like space was really important to us, and so we have hung onto that every step of the way. It was a big, big discovery for me, how much theatrical drama can be harnessed just by the orientation of a staircase. That was another key ingredient. I try to think about a space that's not going to be totally congruent.

And Other Concerns. I could not do what I do without a knife and cardboard and glue. There are a lot of interiors of opera houses and scenes from theatre. I actually think about the audience first, because it helps me determine what the nature of the event is, and the bigger picture.

I know that Paloma had free rein to kind of pick and choose.

Certainly the space that the performers are in is the next consideration.

I pretty much always carry a knife in my bag.

Much of Lien's education is centered around architecture, which contributes to the large scale of her set designs. For me, it didn’t actually get to the point where I was like, “Oh, my god.

So I would say we always kind of knew.

Lien combines training in set design and architecture with an innate dramaturgical insight, and she is adept at configuring a performance space Then when they come up close to you, you can see all the pieces of it. It's my hope that in a larger context, art can really have an impact on society. 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.

I think there's always value in a kind of free zone between the space—it gives the actors something to push against.

Do you start to hallucinate?

I just loved peering through these openings at this light playing into a space in a particular way.

It turns out you can buy sheets of this stuff. We’ll have them move up and down during the opera, and who knows? The very first time we made it, I bought off-the-shelf lamp parts from Canal Street and brass tubes and lamps and just made it myself, and Bradley wired it.

Then, as it comes around near the proscenium, it’s things that refer to the theatre and the opera. Education I think that’s actually one of the reasons I derive so much pleasure from working this way. Then we turned the staircase around and had them come towards the audience.

NEA: Do you have a common goal with your projects, or is there some sort of larger mission that flows through them? Then around the corner, we happen to have a lot of portraits of people reading, so there’s this reading nook. Then there’s multiple portraits of Tolstoy.

I think Tolstoy did write about people in different levels of society. They went in there with a spinning laser and did a 3D scan, essentially, of the whole theatre. It’s basically been one room. 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.

I was doing this play Copenhagen and it was all about perfection, and I was interested in finding a material that does that. 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. I think the other big practical challenge that led to that was there were also no proper drawings of anything beyond the stage. In my mind, there wasn’t ever too much of a question [about style]. Similarly, when you walk through a subway tunnel and the ceiling is seven feet, you really feel that compression. And then I layered on the Soviet space, as in the ‘90s, [when] the Soviet Union dissolved and Russia became its own thing, and there’s another vision of Moscow in the ‘90s and the Millennium, which has to do with the oligarchs and a lot of money and wealth.

The plastic on the surface of the picture is in a zigzag pattern, so it's lensing it in a particular way.

What was interesting about that particular project is that we knew it was probably going to be a play with no words. For me, where it all happens in the physical building of the model.

There are certain paintings that are printed on scrim that are not on wood. Often in those banquettes, there’s a surface behind that supports the shape of the booth.

We’ve gone in that direction too. Maybe the audience wants to be looking in through windows. What about the people?

On early inspirations and visual research: I would say that for this piece I didn’t do a lot of image research. 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. 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. That’s something that he came up with at Ars Nova, and that we’ve tried to keep the whole time. Betsy Wolfe is Absolutely Fine.

There’s a few different levels. There’s so many options of what it could be.” It was kind of like, “We know what it’s going to be, but it’s just going to be bigger and better.” I guess the big thing about the shift to Broadway in terms of the chandeliers was that we got a sponsorship through Swarovski crystals, so we were able to really bling up the chandeliers. I feel like he really just set out to meet this challenge, and so there wasn’t a whole lot of him calling me up and asking to adjust things. LIEN: I once used this lens material—it's called a lenticular plastic.

There were actually no traditional theatre [lighting] instruments. I also find it really important to go and physically sit in the space in which the performance is going to happen.

Her talent has not gone unnoticed.

The space exists for the audience to enter the event, but there’s no formal things about the set that are derived from a location or a particular form that Tolstoy takes. In a room off to the right of the living room in Mimi Lien’s Brooklyn apartment, there is a model of the Imperial Theatre on 45th Street, complete with miniature chairs, paintings on the walls, and a tiny piano. You’ve passed through this bunker lobby space.

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