A Conversation with Mimi Lien
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It’s hard to believe that Mimi Lien only just made her Broadway debut this past season with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Although Mimi cultivated her craft over the years in various off-Broadway and regional productions and at her performance venue, JACK, this MacArthur Fellow seems to be just getting started. I had the honor of sitting down with Mimi within the environment she created at the Imperial Theater, to discuss her most ambitiously-scaled project to date, her journey from architecture to scenic design, and her experience with being Chinese-American.
Michelle Tse: I must say first that as a designer who recently left architecture, I shed a tear when I walked through those double doors onto the set and into this house. Thank you for the inspiration. And do call me out if the questions get too nerdy.
Mimi Lien: [laughs] Thank you! And that’s quite alright — I, too, am nerdy!
MT: Perfect. For our readers who may not be completely familiar, what for you is the big concept idea of this design?
ML: The main thing about the design for me was that it functions as a delivery system: to deliver the actors to the audience. I say this — and I do feel this way, but others may disagree — that it’s not the usual spectacle, but it’s about creating the environment, creating the container, and orchestrating the way that people share space together within that.
MT: What is it like staying with a show through so many iterations and getting to scale up each time? Did the difference in the container of the show force you to make design choices that you wouldn’t have done and maybe then ended up getting incorporated?
ML: It has been heartbreak and ecstasy, because of the effort to maintain the essential DNA of the show and of the design. I feel really fortunate, and we as a team have been fortunate — and I don’t know that we would’ve known this from the outset — because we’ve had to design it in so many different places and tried to adapt that basic concept to a lot of different physical scenarios, we’ve gotten to prove to ourselves that somehow we got it right the first time.
The reason there’s red curtains everywhere is to create one envelope that everyone is in. It’s not just the stage is over there, and the audience goes over here. It’s enveloping the audience too. All of these same elements have been here since the beginning: the curtains, the paintings… so on the one hand, it’s a design that very much responses to each environment, but the thing that we’re trying to deploy is remarkably consistent.
I think there were moments of anxiety about when we first went from a black box to a proscenium. When we went from the tent to A.R.T. was probably the biggest moment of fear for me. We were very worried that we’d lose something that was essential to the show. I was pleasantly proven wrong.
MT: Was the proscenium covered in red curtain, like it is here?
ML: At A.R.T. we were actually able to remove the proscenium. That was a theater that was built in the ‘60s, so it was sort of modular, and they didn’t have the ornate frame like we do here, where we’ve covered the proscenium on all sides. At A.R.T. there wasn’t a real proscenium, per say, and there were these portals that we kind of were able to just remove.
MT: Well that’s nice! So now, making your Broadway debut… I mean, you got to revamp a Broadway theater! What’s that like? Was it another point of anxiety, or after all those iterations, it was more, “Nah, I got this!”
ML: [laughs] Well definitely I think the most anxiety came when we went to A.R.T.. Because that was completely redesigning it to fit a completely different space. The audience-actor relationship was going to be very different, dictated by the space. Once we did that, I knew it was going to work here. The one big difference here is there’s a mezzanine, a second level. We didn’t have that at A.R.T. — everyone was in the same room, everyone can see the same thing all the time. Here, there are things that happen down [in the orchestra] that people can’t see up [in the mezzanine], and vice versa. But I knew that it was doable.
I feel very fortunate to have the backing of producers who recognized the importance of the environment to the show, and supported that. It’s something that I think many producers would say no to. It’s too expensive. It’s too involved. For example, putting up the red curtains: it’s just a simple gesture that fulfills the concept of putting everyone in the same space, but there’s nothing to hang it on! There’s no drawings that existed of this space. Everything had to be measured. Now there’s a whole system of pipe structure behind the curtains that were really hard to put up.
MT: Did you work with a registered architect, then? Or was it all on the structural engineer?
ML: The shop that built it has a number of engineers on staff, so I worked with them. But also we got a permit of assembly, because we have to comply with building code, and be approved because the audience is occupying the same space as the actors. The entire set has to be code-worthy, so we did work with an architect because we needed all drawings stamped and submitted to the Department of Buildings. There was also a code consultant and expeditor. So, leaving architecture… [chuckles] I somehow found my way back through this show.
MT: Great, that’s exactly what I was about to get to! You’ve spoken before about buildings as “a series of theatrical events.” So how important was it, aesthetically and phenomenally, to design the choreography from 45th street, to the lobby bunker, to the interstitial threshold, then finally into the house, knowing it might not be registering in a theater patron’s mind what is happening?
ML: The path that the audience takes has been really important to me design-wise, and also dramaturgically to the show. We really wanted to draw the distinction between the outside and the inside. I mean, “There’s a war going on. Out there somewhere.” So although some people might not recognize what they’re going through when they’re coming into the show, I do think that by the time intermission comes around, they can wander back out and go, Ohh, right! I saw Andre going to war and walked out here into the hallway in which I entered, and that was a military bunker! So for me that was very important for the audience to walk through that “war outside”, before arriving “inside.” Certainly from a design and spatial standpoint, creating and extending this portion of the journey in order to make that moment of entry really be high contrast is something we’ve done since Ars Nova. We didn’t have any money to construct anything, but we took the audience through the basement, to the dressing rooms, where we turned off all the lights, and we had a boombox and sodium vapor on the floor, which was effective. The point is to disorient the audience spatially and by doing that, it triggers this questioning of where you are. I feel like when you walk into a normal theater lobby, it’s I know where I am, I’ll pick up my ticket and go to my seat. There’s no being thrusted into an unknown circumstance, and so by doing it physically, you’re essentially switching on the senses of the audience member, and I think that’s a great way to prime someone for this experience of watching the show.
MT: Then on top of that, having to negotiate between the audience’s path to their stage seating versus the rest of the house… what did that resolution look like?
ML: Originally I would’ve loved to have created that bunker hallway for all of [the audience], and there was talk of making the back [of the house] an aisle that I was going to encase like a tunnel, out of corrugated metal, so that you’d still walk through a hallway into these doors that would open into the aisles for the seats. But it was maybe the only thing they said no to. [laughs] We were even going to do the mezzanine lobby as a bunker. So there was a point where we just ran out of time, you know?
MT: Ah, yes. But this is nice, too.
ML: Yes, this is nice, too!
MT: I know the general idea is this is a supper club, cabaret room. Was there a particular way in which you decided what type of chairs went where in terms of the location of the stage seats? Did that change at all throughout the production?
ML: No, that was from the beginning, setting out to design a supper club at Ars Nova. When I thought of what kinds of chairs people sat on in supper clubs, it was, Well, there’s the banquets in the booths, there’s bar stools at the bars, and sometimes there are loose tables and chairs. It was just a matter of variegated… Akin to a family of seating.
MT: And I also imagine for this show, you maybe collaborated with the other designers more than any other production. Was there one designer you worked with more closely than another? We sat down with Paloma [Young, costume designer] recently, who said your set informed her designs a lot.
MT: Yes! And I noticed when I was at the show that when the actors are spinning around on the constructed aisles that the circumference of their dresses were literally the exact width of your aisles.
ML: I know! I don’t know whether it’s possible that Paloma went and calculated that, but I noticed that, too! Everytime I watch the hem of their skirts I worry that it was going to knock over something. [laughs] I mean, if Paloma has calculated that, she hasn’t told me, but I worship her. I feel like for me, a lot of the bunker is actually in response to the punk flavor of some of the ensemble costumes. We certainly talked about it in the beginning, about this being an anachronistic vision of Russia. We’re not being period specific. This is not what 19th-century Russia looks like, you know? This is maybe if you went to a nightclub in Moscow in the late ‘90s and their theme was Imperial Russia. Maybe that’s it. So that has a lot to do with the techno music that Dave [Malloy, creator and composer] composed. So it’s kind of a mashup of things.
For me also, growing up in the ‘80s, Russia was this very bifurcated thing. There’s the Cold War era Russia, and then there’s this imperial, lush, czarist era, and those are the two different versions of Russia that immediately come to mind.
MT: Right. So in terms of the collaboration —
ML: Right. So I think Paloma and I kind of collaborated in that way, where we sort of provided little inspiration launchpads for each other. Bradley King, the lighting designer and I had a more literal collaboration with the chandeliers. They are an object that both departments are completely responsible for. I literally had to draw the drawing of the chandelier, decide how many light bulbs looked good, send it to him, then he would tell me whether there was enough power to circuit that many lightbulbs. So there was this back and forth in that way, with the layout of the lightbulbs and how they’re hung. It was a complete hand in glove kind of [collaboration].
MT: And the sound? Cause I noticed the vents on the stairs as well — those are speakers, correct?
ML: Yep! Those are speakers! Because of the way the show works with it’s 360 degree experience, we needed the sound to come from everywhere. Because the performers go everywhere, the sound needs to follow. When they’re singing, it needs to sound like the sound itself is coming from that particular spot in the theater.
There are also surround speakers — some of the paintings are printed on a scrim, so that sound can penetrate. Again, I drew my painting elevation, and then I sent it to him, and he’d put a layer of speakers on. Sometimes it wouldn’t land behind a painting, so I’d have to ask if I can move it, and if it’d be okay.
MT: Phenomenal. So let’s move on a bit to your personal journey. I’m incredibly interested in knowing how supportive your parents were about you going into the arts. I know you started in architecture.
ML: They’ve definitely been supportive. They never said no. I actually knew I wanted to be an architect since I was 8 or 9. I had a brief foray into science and biology, which coincided with when I was applying for college, after my 10th grade biology class. I was like, I’m going to be a genetic engineer! So I actually applied to college as a biology major, which I think they were happy about. But after my first semester of college, I was like, this is not for me. So I immediately went back to architecture.
I think during my time in college, it was a gradual becoming or recognizing that I wanted to be an artist. So I don’t feel like there was a moment where I felt like I was making a big decision. I was taking more and more art classes as I was going through college, just through my mindset — or maybe I wasn’t even aware of it. My memory is that it was kind of this gradual journey. But I guess there was a moment when I graduated from college where I thought I was going to grad school for architecture. But then I was like, you know what? That’s a long road. You know — three years of grad school and then working [to fulfill NCARB requirements]. I had just taken my first painting class my senior year of college, and I’d been having this artistic awakening, I guess, so I said, I’m going to take a year and do something for myself before I go to grad school. So that fateful year I was in Italy and it was while I was there that this teacher suggested, Have you ever thought about set design? I guess that out of everything was the moment of Oh, maybe I’m going to do this instead. Then I actually applied to a graduate program in set design in London. Then I ended up not going to London because I thought I needed to figure out what this thing is and to work for a little bit first, so then I ended up moving to New York and started trying to look for a job doing set design. But they were very supportive.
MT: That’s amazing. Are they first generation?
ML: Yeah. They came to the US in the mid ‘60s for graduate school, so they were in their early 20s. My mom studied computer science and my dad studied linguistics. I always say that I feel like my mom has this soul of an artist. There are some people in my dad’s family, like a couple of my cousins [are artistic]. One of them is a musician, a pianist, and another one is an architect actually, and another is a fashion designer.
MT: Oh wow. Amazing.
ML: Yeah! So his side of the family… though no one was an artist out right, I feel like there’s an appreciation. My uncle, my dad’s brother, became a graphic designer. So I feel like there’s some, but there’s definitely a cultural bias where it was a luxury, you know?
ML: Like it was indulgent. But they never really brought that up or made a case about that…. Yeah, it is amazing. I don’t think I appreciated it at the time. I guess also in my undergrad architecture class of 20, 10 were female, 10 were male—
ML: Yeah I know. So of the males, one of them was Asian, and of the females, nine were Asian and one was white. [laughs] It was very weird.
MT: Okay we need to do some sort of analysis about that.
ML: [laughs] So a lot of those classmates, I feel like our parents probably had similar journeys, and so somehow architecture was okay, because it was still a well respected profession. So maybe that’s the way I inadvertently ended up easing [my parents] into it. [laughs]
MT: So do you think your varied background aided in your varied lenses of work now? Specifically with your installation work —
ML: Yeah, most designers — at least the ones I know — do work in ballets and operas and dance pieces [like me]. But yes, installations. I have always felt that because I didn’t have an undergraduate theater education, I’ve always somehow found it to be helpful. On the one hand there’s a lot of things that I don’t know, and I was never really taught the cannon, but I think that it maybe has been helpful in some way because I don’t think that there’s only one way you’re suppose to do things. By the same token, coming from that background, I still feel very inspired by architecture and the dialogue within that community. So I kind of try to keep up with that. I feel like it feeds me as an artist in general, to not just be having a dialogue in one community. I do feel the more you can be exposed to different things and different kinds of people, it’s just going to lead to a more complex and diverse understanding and way of working. So the short answer is yes.
MT: Jumping a little bit here, but I’m curious about your process for designing Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness. How did you research that? I’m originally from Hong Kong so I assume I know that area a tiny bit more than a Chinese-American would, and your design was so authentic and familiar to me, from what I’ve experienced myself when I go north of the border.
ML: Oh good, I’m glad to hear that. I think a lot of it started with the playwright. I do feel like when I read that play for the first time, I did feel a sense of shock. Because the language that was used was so Oh! I don’t normally see Chinese people being portrayed this way, swear, saying “fuck”…
MT: And people gasping at the just born baby girl being thrown into the trash in the opening scene—
ML: But that wasn’t as shocking to me.
MT: Right. We know.
ML: I feel like the stereotype of Chinese people and the way they feel about girls, I knew about. So, I do speak Chinese, but I don’t actually read Chinese. I did at one point when I was younger, but then I just lost it. But I do speak to my relatives [in Chinese] and I do have a basic vocabulary. My accent is pretty good so I pass pretty well, but I don’t know any swear words in Chinese! My chinese is limited to how I communicate with my grandparents, so maybe it was shocking to me to hear these Chinese people swearing, and then it was transposed to English, my primary language, but then the whole thing is this culture that I feel like I know very well, but I also haven’t spent any time there because I was born here, so…
MT: …have you been since?
ML: I have. I have visited China twice. I’ve been to Hong Kong three times. But all those were brief visits. And I definitely absorbed that and I think a lot of that I drew upon for that design. It was just a feeling. When I look at a photo [for reference], I knew what felt right. I recognized as being true.
MT: Epigenetics, maybe. Finally, a question we love to ask everyone: any advice for up and coming artist in your field?
ML: I’ve definitely felt that a certain amount of tenacity is necessary. On the one hand theater is a place where you can do anything. The stage is your laboratory and it doesn’t have to be like life — which is why I initially made the shift from architecture. I don’t have to adhere to building code — of course now I do, but — or gravity, or permanence. On the other hand, theater can oddly be low-tech when compared to architecture. I can’t even tell you how many times people have told me I can’t span unsupported a distance of 20 feet.
MT: But yes you can! Just a way more expensive I-beam.
ML: Exactly. They say it as if it is impossible. Look at the Barclays Center! There’s a giant cantilever! So I think it’s just the economics and time. In theater, often those aspects are taken as unchangeable things. Literally people have said, You can’t do that. And then I have had to be like Well actually, yes you can. There are other ways to do that. So I do feel like I’m always having that conversation. But then when people get excited about something it’s really helpful, because then everyone wants to make it happen and you put your heads together and figure it out.
So I feel like that tenacity to be able to want to try new things and get these new ideas accomplished is one thing. And it is exhausting a little bit the lifestyle and the schedule — 10 projects a year — compared to architecture, it’s like one building might take two years—
ML: Or seven! The turnover is so fast; it’s a lot of adrenaline. So sticking with it is the advice I have.
MT: Wonderful. Thank you so much for sitting down with me.
Mimi Lien is a designer of sets/environments for theater, dance, and opera. Arriving at set design from a background in architecture, her work often focuses on the interaction between audience/environment and object/performer. She hails from New Haven, CT and is based in Brooklyn, NY.
She was recently named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow, and is the first set designer ever to achieve this distinction. Selected work includes Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 (Broadway, Lortel Award, 2013 Hewes Design Award), John (Signature Theatre, 2016 Hewes Design Award), Appropriate (Mark Taper Forum, LA Drama Critics Circle Award), Preludes, The Oldest Boy (Lincoln Center), An Octoroon (Soho Rep/TFANA, Drama Desk and Lortel nominations), Black Mountain Songs (BAM Next Wave). Her stage designs have been exhibited in the Prague Quadrennial in 2011 and 2015, and her sculptures were featured in the exhibition, LANDSCAPES OF QUARANTINE, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Her designs for theater, dance, and opera have been seen around the U.S. at such venues as Lincoln Center Theater, Signature Theatre, Playwright’s Horizons, the Public Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Joyce Theater, Goodman Theatre, Soho Rep, and internationally at Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre (Russia), Intradans (Netherlands), National Theatre (Taiwan), among many others. Mimi Lien received a B.A. in Architecture from Yale University (1997) and an M.F.A. in Stage Design from New York University (2003).