Artist to Artist: Alex Timbers Interviews David Korins About Creating the Here Lies Love Set

The director of Here Lies Love talks to his Tony-nominated scenic designer about the massive effort it took to build “a building inside of a building.”

Director Alex Timbers and scenic designer David Korins have been friends for a long time. They fondly recall seeing each other’s shows as they were coming up in the New York theater scene of the early 2000s, and have gotten to work together on a variety of productions ranging from The Pee-Wee Herman Show to Beetlejuice. But their most fruitful — or, at least, longest — collaboration, has been on Here Lies Love, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s disco opera about the rise and fall of controversial Filipino politician Imelda Marcos.

Here Lies Love began life as a concept album which was meant to be put on its feet. When Timbers got called to stage the project, he in turn dialed Korins, who felt like he won the lottery. Here Lies Love would eventually play Mass MoCA, the Public Theater, the National Theatre of London, and Seattle Rep. But their sights were always set on Broadway — even if it took until 2023, a full decade from when the show first debuted. Now-famously, Korins and his team gutted the Broadway Theatre to create a fully equipped discotheque, where spectators stood alongside the stage and moved around with the action, or sat in the mezzanine for a bird’s eye view, if that was their preference.

The Broadway run was short-lived, but it received four Tony nominations nonetheless, including one for Korins’s efforts. Here, as guided by director Timbers, Korins takes a walk down memory lane to discuss the creation of his most ambitious set to date.

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David Korins, Tony-nominated scenic designer of Here Lies Love
(© Tricia Baron)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Alex Timbers: Do you remember, this must have been back in 2009 or 2010, how you reacted to my phone call?

David Korins: I felt in that moment like I had won the lottery. One thing that people don’t realize, especially amid award season where everything kind of gets separated, is that the director drives what’s happening, or, at the very least, is the arbiter of taste. If a designer comes up with something, the director says yes or no. And I remember you said there was an idea you had, which was to have the audience inside the set and outside the set, and the thing is moving around. How are we actually going to do this? How could it ever actually happen?

Broadway Theatre
The Broadway Theatre under construction in April 2012. On the left, you can see the view from the newly constructed stage floor. On the right, the view of the proscenium arch from the mezzanine as the main truss is laid out.
(© David Gordon)
“This load is was four times longer than any other Broadway show and the surface area of the this scenic design was more than five Hamilton set designs.”
— David Korins

Alex: I’ve been lucky enough to do a number of shows with you, and my experience with almost all of them is that there are phases to the process as you build your design. There’s research, there are sketches and renderings, there’s a model. For some reason, on this show, you started with a model.

David: You’re absolutely right. “Normally,” you would do research and you’d find inspiration, and then you would maybe start working through a floor plan. This one was such a seemingly impossible thought that we had to start with the model. Once we sort of cracked the code, we went back and did all the research of the clubs in the Philippines and layered in the details.

It’s not unlike what happened as we built and loaded in the show on Broadway. The set is a 60,000-pound piece of steel that people would eventually sit on, stand inside, and sit under. The architecture had to lead.

The entire Mass MoCA experience, which was our first out-of-town run, was proving the concept that we could have platforms that performers were standing on, and audience members standing on the floor looking up at that. Half of the conversation we had was, “can we actually move this platform? How many people is too many people? How high does it need to be for sightlines?”

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“Our scenic design. Wrapped around the entire audience including all the way up and around the 500 seats in the mezzanine. While we loaded in the hundreds of feet of scenic projection material and thousands of feet of lighting, we cleaned and polished the house chandeliers.”
— David Korins

Alex: Let me ask you a question about the color palate for the show. It’s so contained, all gray and pink. Why aren’t there any other colors? What was your thinking behind that?

David: The short and lame answer is that we had no money. The platforms were going to be gray because the rental truss was gray, basically. We also had aspirations that much of the set was going to be a projection surface, so the gray was also based on that.

The pink came from two places. There was so much education that went into Here Lies Love. When you ask an actor to stand on a platform that’s going to be moving through a crowd of people standing up, we needed a version of a color that was like caution orange: step here, don’t step here.

Growing up, I had a skateboard, and I got a hot pink spray can and sprayed it bright pink. What if our version of caution orange was caution pink? It’s totally an ’80s color, and it was bright enough for people to know to watch out for it. The color palate was born out of that. We put our audience wranglers in the coolest bright pink jumpsuits with bright pink lighting batons to help teach the audience where to move.

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The Here Lies Love audience wranglers in their pink jumpsuits on opening night
(© Jenny Anderson)

Alex: There are certain things I would never have thought about when I’m experiencing this show but have impacted the design. You ended up interacting with so many people beyond the normal types that you would on a conventional theater show, like Mitchell Kurtz, the architect, and the McLaren steel people.

David: And you and I have done my most ambitious shows together on Broadway. Beetlejuice was by far the most complex thing I’d ever done on Broadway until Here Lies Love, because we were building a piece of architecture. This was a building inside of a building, with all the ramifications that came with that.

You need to make a seating plan where you have enough space for audience members to pass back and forth in case of an emergency, but also have a sightline that will allow them to lean forward. Every single railing had to have running lights on it. Every single leg that holds up that 60,000-pound piece of steel went through the floor into the theater, and we worked with McLaren on that. We had to repurpose the stage door. We had to make new fire exits.

Thank God for Mitchell Kurtz, who we spent thousands of hours with over a decade. Every single time we moved a platform and closed off a section of the audience, other platforms had to open to create an audience egress. Every one of those floor plans had to be individually permitted with the City of New York. The ramifications, legally and engineering-wise, are just insane.

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“As the load in progressed, we can see the mother truss that spans the stage space and the old audience space getting increasingly filled with video, audio, and lighting gear. We had fans on board for a helicopter effect that was able to push air towards every audience member in the room. You can see the side platform connecting to the catwalk that would marry to the mezzanine. This catwalk really made the front row of the mezzanine become the new front row of the theater.”
— David Korins

Alex: When we first did the show at the Public in 2013, we had people knocking on our door at hourly intervals saying they wanted to move the show. There was a lot of talk about how it wouldn’t work on Broadway. We looked at movie theaters, we looked at tents, we looked at a ballroom. It felt impossible. And then in 2016, we did the Seattle production, which gave you the steppingstone of how to do it in a Broadway theater. What was the revelation?

David: Connecting to the balcony was the big thing. We’re trying to put this big rectangle in a theater, with people sitting on either side. If we connect to the balcony, we get access to all those theater seats. I was nervous to say this to you because I felt it would compromise the true “in the round” quality to it. But you said we should try it.

In Seattle, we went from having people on the floor and on the two sides, to having a huge balcony where people were sitting looking into this box. All of a sudden, Broadway became feasible because you could look a producer in the eye and say, “It’s not gonna be 500 people, it’s going to be 1,000 or more.”

The genius of getting to connect to the balcony was that we could build a catwalk, which made the mezzanine the front row. In tech, when we finally got to “Why Don’t You Love Me?,” we had actors hundreds of feet away from each other. We had someone on stage, someone on the catwalk, someone on a satellite stage, and they were playing this triangulation. I’d never seen performers sing to each other hundreds of feet away, over people’s heads, and it felt so dramatic. I had never experienced anything like that. The hairs on my arms are standing up just talking about it.

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“A good look at one side seating gallery. We worked for years to perfect the proper viewing angle so that we could both accommodate fire egress and life safety issues, while also delivering premium viewing positions. The gap in the projection surfaces opened up when we were running fire tests (or in case of emergency) and then were restored for show time.”
— David Korins

Alex: On Broadway, we got to have a mural on the back all, a light up floor, things like that. As you were considering the short list of things we could afford to add, what was worth fighting for?

David: The one thing I’m proudest of, and this is not layered onto the concept, but it’s built into supporting the narrative, is that we blurred the lines between audience and performer. The cast and audience are people at a funeral, people at a wedding, in a club, at a riot, in a real way.

The moment at the end, where we all come together in a silent and peaceful protest, to have that huge mural of actual Filipino street art on the back wall was extraordinary. We all became a community in this unexpected and stunning way. We went through what they call the “value engineering” (and we call “cutting”) phases of design, but every single thing that we added was in support of the narrative.

I feel remarkably proud of our team. We maintained our entire creative team and all our associates through the entire process. Every single person, every single department. We never could have mounted this show on Broadway without them. I’m really proud.

The performance-ready Here Lies Love set at the Broadway Theatre
(© Billy Bustamante/Matthew Murphy/Evan Zimmerman)


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