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American Wood

DEC 4, 2019

An interview with Moby-Dick scenic designer Mimi Lien

In her most recent A.R.T. production, scenic designer Mimi Lien transformed the Loeb Drama Center into a Russian supper club for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Now, this MacArthur Fellowship recipient and Tony Award-winning artist takes on Herman Melville’s American epic. Here, she shares her process for bringing the voyage of the Pequod to life onstage.

What interested you as a designer in telling this story now?

Moby-Dick is one of the greatest American novels of all time, and I feel like right now, at this moment, we really need to be talking about America, to put it quite bluntly. Dave has written the piece in a way that allows us to grapple with that subject in a multifaceted and multivalent way.

Melville’s novel is massive in scale; with its legendary digressions and meditations, Moby-Dick seems to orbit madness. How is your design in conversation with the formal structure of the book?

The set has a monolithic quality, but it is also variegated and broken. We’re using a single material: wood.  But the wood becomes a few different things. The floor swoops up into a back wall and then curves around to become the ceiling; and then there’s another piece that forms a canopy over the audience. The structure functions as the inside of a ship, but also as the belly of a whale, and also as an ocean wave about to crash. It’s monolithic, but there are cracks and openings that start to evoke the feelings of violence and brokenness present in America today.

How does the structure of the set change over the course of the piece?

I would say that there isn’t a huge spatial transformation, but there are a lot of things that make appearances—one might say tricks that happen, things that open up, things that come out of holes. Different things emerge: puppets, whale boats, lights.

What can you share about how the design involves the audience?

Initially, we threw around a lot of different ideas about how the audience would occupy the space. We wanted everyone to feel enveloped by the environment of the show, but it also felt important to construct a back wall as a way to create epic stage imagery.

The show is divided into four parts, with each part told in a very different stylistic way. In one of the parts—the most contemporary—we do invite some audience members to participate. It’s the whaling section of the show, and we’re telling the story of how sailors actually harpooned whales, cut them up, brought the blubber on board, and started boiling down the sperm. In a playful and contemporary way, we invite the audience to join some of these mechanical activities: board some whale boats, squeeze some spermaceti, and things like that.

What research have you drawn on in your creative process?

We’ve cast a wide net, so to speak. I’ve looked at everything from first-person accounts of whaling ships to nautical diagrams to imagery of the different communities represented by the sailors on the ship. The thrust configuration of the stage, with audience on three sides, was informed by Quaker meeting houses. They create a strong sense of being together in a room, and Melville tells us that many whalers were in fact Quaker.

How do you hope people will respond to the space? What do you hope people take away?

I really hope that people feel like something happened here that has changed us and that has changed the space. I think there’s going to be quite a lot of detritus. We start out with this relatively… I won’t say clean, but… untrodden space, and I think it will be quite littered by the end of the show. So I hope that there will be a general feeling of “something happened here.”


Interview by Joel Zayac, A.R.T. Senior Graphic Designer and Robert Duffley, A.R.T. Editor and Assistant Dramaturg

Scenic Designer Mimi Lien discussing the Moby-Dick set model with artisans at the A.R.T. Scene Shop.

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