Guest Speaker: Mimi Lien, set designer of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

March 17, 2017

Mimi Lien, the acclaimed set designer behind award-winning productions like Queens Boulevard, Outrage, Strange Devices from the Distant West, and the new-to-Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,  stopped by Theatre Projects’ Connecticut office in February as the latest edition to our guest speaker series. Mimi was here to talk about her career path, her design philosophy, her inspirations, and how—for better or worse—the design of performance spaces affects her work. With her input, our design team not only gained inspiration from her creative vision, but also gathered practical insight into how we can aid set designers, directors, and other members of the production team by giving them more adaptable canvases to work with and greater creative flexibility in their work.  

Originally a student of architecture, Mimi came to the visual arts late in her undergraduate studies. Mimi said she fell in love with painting and left her architectural studies to pursue that art form. While studying painting during a summer in Italy, she had a realization: “I was trying to convey three-dimensional ideas in two dimensions,” she said. Her creative interests then led her to sculpture and installations. But her career path would take its most important turn when a professor suggested she try her hand at set design.

“I wanted to convey what we experience in architecture—where a body walks through space and immediately internalizes and viscerally understands the space and their connection to it—and apply that to set design,” she said. “I wanted to bridge the gap between the artificiality of set design and the tangibility of architecture.”

“What I like to consider in design is not just the performance and how the audience interacts with the show, but also to ask ‘how do you design an entire event for the audience, from when they buy the tickets and enter the building, and every moment after that,” she said. “How do you create a visceral connection and make the audience feel like they’re implicit in the performance?” 

That desire to design not just the set, but the entire audience experience and dissolve the detachment between performer and spectator, has led Mimi to create dozens of innovative, immersive, and award-winning sets. She received a Barrymore Award for her design of Outrage, four Barrymore nominations and a Hewes Design Award nomination for her work on Queens Boulevard, and a Bay Area Critics Circle nomination for Strange Devices from the Distant West.

Her first step in designing a set, Mimi said, is to sit in the performance space and “commune” with the room. “I look for what I can use; what elements of the room I can incorporate,” she said. “I like responding to the space as much as possible, whether that means highlighting the frame or building out from it and fighting against it.”

One particularly successful design of Mimi’s was a Soho Rep production of An Octoroon at the Theatre Projects-designed Polonsky Shakespeare Center, home of Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA). The production involved creating two back walls upstage, both of which fall forward during the production in a dramatic and abrupt scene change. In designing the show, Mimi also took advantage of the theatre’s flexibility and raised the parterre seating section, lifting the audience up toward the gallery. 

The more flexible a space is, Mimi said, the more her work benefits. She said she gets frustrated with performance spaces that are built to be flexible, but ultimately aren’t. “I’m someone who likes to push the flexibility as much as possible—when I come into spaces that are designed to be flexible, it’s frustrating to find out that it’s too difficult or too costly to actually change the configuration.”

“I think that flexibility is where Theatre for a New Audience is really successful, because it seems like they’re really able to utilize the flexibility designed into the space.” In addition, she said, TFANA’s intimacy also achieves a contagious energy between the audience and performers. She was pleasantly surprised to see the energetic participation of audiences in TFANA’s gallery sections during the run of An Octoroon.

Through Mimi’s dialog with our staff, we discussed details of her designs, her creative process, some of the roadblocks and obstacles to fulfilling her creative vision, the adaptation of her sets for different venues, and the shortcomings of some of the theatres she’s designed it—lack of theatre equipment, short-sighted theatre design, and absence of audience/performer intimacy. One of her recurring gripes, she said, were theatres that are designed “like secret clubs”—obscured from public view and difficult to navigate—projecting distance and exclusivity.

Through Mimi’s creative insights, experience, and personal history, Theatre Projects’ team was able to better understand how flexible performance spaces inspire and aid creative flexibility. And we look to continue to design adaptable, versatile spaces that allow the work of people like Mimi to be even more imaginative and ambitious.  

Mimi is an artistic associate of the Pig Iron Theatre Company and The Civilians and a resident designer at BalletTech. She received a 2012 OBIE Award for Sustained Excellence in Set Design. Her works have appeared across the world in dozens of theatres for numerous theatre companies, operas, ballets, and in immersive, experimental productions. She was a semifinalist in the Ring Award competition for opera design in Graz, Austria and she was a recipient of the NAE/TCG Career Development Program. She is a MacDowell Colony fellow and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant.

Theatre Projects' speaker series invites accomplished performing arts professionals to share their insights, history, and philosophy with our team, engaging in a back-and-forth conversation to better understand the challenges artists face, the facilities they operate in, and the trajectory of the performing arts.

Guest Speaker: Mimi Lien, set designer of <i>Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 </i>
Credit: Theatre Projects
Guest Speaker: Mimi Lien, set designer of <i>Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 </i>
Credit: Theatre Projects