At the beginning of every creative process, all that exists is an empty stage. Using craft, imagination, and theatre magic, theatre designers bring a production to life, transporting an audience to worlds near and far.
It’s a challenging feat for any one production, but for many designers, a life in the theatre involves reinventing the wheel again and again, remaining inspired through a vast career. We caught up with Tony-winning set designer Mimi Lien for our Portfolio Review series to unpack her approach to design, her creative process, and to explore her favorite theatre designs.
“The theatre is a civic space, and when you’re designing a performance, every person in that space needs to be thought about. The audience is not taken for granted. Who the audience is and where they sit is not a given. The physical relationship between the audience and the performers communicates something—whether it’s in a proscenium or alley configuration, in the round, or immersive,” Lien explains.
“At its best, theatre is an alchemical product of the audience, the performers, the space, and the material—whether that material is text, music, or movement. There’s an inexplicable and indescribable thing that happens to your body when you are there experiencing all of these elements of a performance together, and that is theatre.”
“As a designer, I’m obsessed with space, movement, event, and the interplay between them, and I strive to create a physical/visual container for the performance that elicits the maximum amount of ‘vibration’ between these elements. By that, I mean that I try to create an environment that has a kind of tension, or magnetic pull, with the performance material. In order to do so, I harness everything from architecture, popular culture, and our visual environment as well as spatial properties such as volume, material, and sequence.”
“Ultimately, though, our work in the theatre is about humans, their relationships, and their surroundings, and I think of my work—together with my collaborators on any given project—as designing events that unite people. These events ideally create a situation that produces an unexpected emotional, intellectual, or physical response in the audience, and shifts their perspective in some small (or big) way.”
From The Great Comet to An Octoroon, go inside Lien's process as she unpacks the designs of six of her favorite shows.