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Set Points

With Passing Strange and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, designer David Korins continues his streak of surprising, often-amazing sets. logo
David Korins
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
"Surprising but inevitable" is an apt way to describe the work of set designer David Korins. In fact, that's the phrase Korins himself uses when talking about his set for the current Broadway musical Passing Strange. "You see the band there on stage and you think, how the hell are we going to watch a show like this? Then when they are lowered, it's kind of surprising but it's inevitable," he says. "In the same way when you see a curtain on stage, you know there is something going on behind, but what it reveals is surprising." In this instance, it's a dazzling wall of light (co-designed by two-time Tony Award winner Kevin Adams) that's exposed when the curtain moves.

In the past 12 months, Korins, who turns 32 next month, has been responsible for no fewer than eight productions in this city -- each with their own distinct style. In addition to Passing Strange, which originated last summer at the Public Theater, there were Brooke Berman's Hunting and Gathering (for which he earned his fifth Drama Desk Award nomination), David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face, Adam Bock's Drunken City and The Receptionist, the musical Walmartopia, Bob Glaudini's A View from 151st Street, the Public's Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet, and the Roundabout Theater's current revival of Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo at the Laura Pels.

And he shows no signs of slowing down. Still to come are the Broadway revival of Godspell, due to open this fall at the Barrymore Theater, a revival of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the new John Patrick Shanley-Henry Krieger musical Romantic Poetry at Manhattan Theater Club, and a reconceived production of Rent in Tokyo. "I feel like at the end of this journey, I'm going to have designed 6,225 productions and then die," he jokes. "But I try never to over extend myself in such a way that it is detrimental to the piece. And I pride myself on being able to do everything from hyper-realism to magical realism to complete abstraction and everything in between," he adds.

"You have to tell yourself, 'let's not do the cool thing, but let's do the thing that's going to illuminate the piece and the text," Korins continues. After working for a year on The Marriage of Bette and Boo, the designer says he pared away an ultra-realistic design down to a very spare set to best serve the show's 33 short scenes, "It's a little strange because you get to work at the Roundabout finally and you want to do something splashy but this is just not the play to do it," he notes. "The real star of that play is Chris Durang and the amazing cast." Similarly, Gosdpell will boast anything but a "look at me" type of set, despite a Broadway budget. "It's a run-down theater environment," Korins explains. "Part of the conceit is that the performers come in and find a costume rack and put on clothes. It's a valentine to the theater."

The light wall for Passing Strange
(© David Korins Design)
For Passing Strange, Korins notes that the show's director, Annie Dorsen, had envisioned "one level of music, one level of theater and one level of dance laid on top of each other. So we knew that the band that actually wrote and created the show couldn't be stuck in the orchestra pit or stashed all the way upstage, but that takes up a lot of space on stage. I finally said let's give them all individual pods, these mini orchestra pits in which we could place them prominently on the stage so that they could all see each other -- that's very important for a band -- but without lumping them together. It was our way to unlock the play."

Early in the discussions, Adams referred them to the Emmy Award-winning 1972 television special Liza with a Z, which used a novel concept where the lighting devices were revealed midway through the show. "I said, let's put up a huge wall and load it up with modern day instruments and there it is -- you would be able to move seamlessly the way light does, and it would be an emotional barometer for the story. Kevin chose all the colors and I laid out the entire wall. It was one of those beautiful collaborations that happen in the theater."

The designer first dazzled many theatergoers by creating a thrilling illusion of an actor swimming across the rear wall of the stage in Swimming in the Shallows, Bock's whimsical tale about a boy who falls in love with a shark. "It was the simplest trick in the book," Korins explains. "We created a specially rigged dolly [for Logan Marshall-Green, who played the shark] and you only see the reflection in an angled mirror, with this wavy blue light."

Korins was running track at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, when he discovered his aptitude for design. After a summer internship at the Williamstown Theater Festival he realized his true calling. Over five summers there he worked his way up from intern to head of the Festival's design department. In 1999 he moved to New York, where he started assisting other designers. In 2001, he co-founded the Edge Theater Company with director Carolyn Cantor, who became his wife the following year. (They have a daughter who is now nearly three years old.) "We wanted to produce new plays with no readings or workshops at Edge, and we've made a career out of producing plays that other theater companies passed on," says Korins.

For Adam Rapp's two-hander Blackbird, which Edge produced in 2004 in a 39-seat space at the Blue Heron Arts Center, Korins created a squalid tenement apartment set whose toxicity practically oozed out of the walls. The following year, he completely transformed a small space at Theater for the New City into an elegant pinewood amphitheater for Cantor's production of Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water. Having neither home nor subscriber base gives Edge yet another advantage, Korins explains, adding that the company is not planning a production this year. "If you don't find a good play you want to produce, you don't have to. We wanted to always have a really potent and special experience."

As for his other long-term goals, Korins has a rather simple one. "I want to keep working with my peers -- you get to grow up and build a body of work together," he says. "You also want to work with those people who are so accomplished, who are way ahead of you, so you always feel like you're learning."

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