If she builds it

Mimi Lien PHOTO: MacArthur FoundationSet designer Mimi Lien talks about her path from architecture to set design, the flow of space and the art of making drama "real." 

By Olivia Munk '16

As an undergraduate at Yale University, Mimi Lien studied architecture, culminating in a thesis in which she designed a cemetery. For graduate school at New York University, she pursued an MFA. in set design, drawn by the extemporaneous nature of theater. Lien, a 2015 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, gave the annual Spencer Lecture in Drama on April 20 at Harvard. She spoke to a crowd of students and professors about her decision to move from architecture to theatrical set design.

Lien said that she often found herself operating “in the middle” between architecture and set design. Both mediums, she explained, have a “narrative of use,” orchestrated by a flow of space. For Mimi Lien PHOTO: MacArthur Foundationexample, there is a natural dramatic arc to walking into a building: Walking through its doors, entry way, stairs and finally arriving at your destination can be a story. Architecture is "inherently theatrical in this sense," she said. While both architecture and set design seek to organize a community around a place in a city or a place of entertainment, one crucial difference is the temporary nature of theater, which allows for “one to embrace the happy accident.” In this way, creativity can be inspired by the things that don’t quite go as anticipated, whereas architecture is based on highly specific planning.

Lien led the audience through the inspiration and process behind designs in several of her works, such as the rock opera Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which was recently in residency at the American Repertory Theater and will premiere on Broadway this fall. The fluid set design, which allows actors to perform around the entire theater rather than exclusively onstage, was inspired by a trip that composer and librettist Dave Malloy took to Moscow. During his research there, he was led down a dark hallway to an “unmarked room” that was suddenly filled with warmth, vodka and dumplings. His description inspired Lien to create a “360-degree experience” with no separation between the audience and the action.

For her set design of the 2015 Soho Rep production of An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lien was inspired by black performance art. In approaching the design through performance art, rather than typical theatrical design, she sought to create a “sense of danger and fear" and that "anything could happen in the room.” Further inspired by a performance she attended by the artist Ann Liv Young, in which Young asked the audience provocative questions, Lien sought to “galvanize” the Mimi Lien PHOTO: MacArthur Foundationaudience in its experience of the play through her set design. As a result, one of the most compelling moments of the play occurs when the back wall of the set falls, sending cotton balls flying into the audience. The combination of a falling wall, gusts of air and cascading cotton created a tactile and visual – not to mention architectural – experience for audience members.

In addition to specific designs, Lien spoke about the influence of materials on her work. Though theatrical sets are often made out of wood and foam, and are often “painted to look like other things,” Lien believes that the best effects are achieved when pieces are constructed the way they would be in real life. For a production of Our Town at the Actors Theater of Louisville, Lien designed a set made out of medium density fiberboard – “the cardboard of the building industry” – to serve the concept that everything was a representation of something else, underscored by a model of the town left onstage. The only outlier from this concept, however, was a 16-foot model moon that appeared from the backstage loading dock.

Bridging the line between “performance and architecture dissolves the line between the real, and the not real, in a way that enhances both,” said Lien. One only has to taste the dumplings passed out by the performers to every audience member in Comet, or feel the cotton balls blown by the falling wall in An Octoroon, to understand how Lien’s set designs successfully heighten a theatrical experience through architecturally-inspired immersive experiences.