How Does Tony Winner David Zinn Solve His “Designer’s Block”?

Outside the Theatre   How Does Tony Winner David Zinn Solve His “Designer’s Block”?
 
The Humans set designer builds a rocket ship to Outer Space while juggling three other spring shows.
David Zinn
David Zinn Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Who: David Zinn
Outside: The Public Theater

David Zinn, who won the 2016 Tony Award for his scenic design of The Humans, is gearing up for a very busy spring. The set and costume designer has four projects under his perview this season: Present Laughter, Amélie, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, and The Outer Space—Ethan Lipton’s new musical now playing an extended engagement at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. The show, which transports the audience into another stratosphere, takes over the cabaret venue through April 9.

David Zinn
David Zinn Joseph Marzullo/WENN

How did you begin working on The Outer Space?
DZ: I know [director] Leigh Silverman—I’ve worked with her a bunch—and I also know Ethan Lipton. I’ve always loved his writing and love him. Leigh asked me to do this and I said: ‘Absolutely.’

You’re designing the set and costumes. What do you love about being able to do both?
It’s nice to be able to think about the world that the show happens in, as well as the people in it. Sometimes it’s nice not to have to think about [only] one of those elements, but when you do both, you can dream up the entire world and manifest it.

This show takes the audience into outer space. What can we expect?
Outer space is a big, vast space so that meant making a big, bold gesture that could transform and de-familiarize Joe’s Pub. In the show, Ethan doesn’t exactly travel to space in style, so there’s a sort of junky quality to his journey. The spirit of that is in the surrounds. There’s a big, wonderful outer space curtain that you might see at your prom if the theme was outer space; there’s a rocket ship with a few special effects; and there’s also a garden on the spaceship.

Talk to me about the challenges of staging this show at Joe’s Pub—which still has to remain a concert venue after the musical is performed.
We really wanted to remove that feeling of “a band doing a gig” and transform the space—because it’s a musical with a book. We wanted it to feel like a new environment, but the other challenge is that while we have a reasonable amount of time to set it up, it has to come down in 20 minutes.

What was the most enjoyable aspect of designing The Outer Space?
Thinking about rocket ships. My seven-year-old self was very satisfied. But really the most fun was just being in the room with Ethan, Leigh, and our lighting designer, Ben Stanton—they’re great collaborators.

Talk to me about your process of designing the set for a show.
I don’t sketch, I like working with a model. My first step is responding to the shape of the space, so I make a little box and start putting things in there.

What kinds of things do you do when you’re feeling stuck during a project?
I’ll try to dream a little bit. Allowing the mind to wander is so important and especially important for people who have to imagine things. I try to buy some tightly-organized, unstructured time so that I have that to dream on things and think about them. Sometimes you have to stick [the project] in the back of your mind and give yourself the freedom to stop thinking about it.

How are you juggling so many projects at once right now?
I have very patient collaborators, a lot of helpful assistants, and my metro card!

When you’re working on a few shows simultaneously like this, is each fulfilling in a different way?
Different collaborators want to utilize different parts of my brain—and parts of my brain that aren’t always employed—so that’s exciting. At this point in my life, I'm just in the room with a bunch of people who I really like. I'm not going to say it doesn't feel like work, because it does, but in a nice way.

Tickets to the world premiere of The Outer Space are available by calling (212) 967-7555, visiting PublicTheater.org, or in person at the Taub Box Office at The Public Theater, located at 425 Lafayette Street, New York.

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