Mimi Lien on the Set of Great Comet

DEC 7, 2015

'Great Comet' set designer Mimi Lien wins 2015 MacArthur

Mimi Lien, set designer for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, is a winner of the 2015 MacArthur Genius Grant for her work designing innovative and immersive theatrical spaces. She has designed sets for shows such as An Octoroon at Soho Rep, Lost in the Meadow with People’s Light and Longwood Gardens, and The Whale at Playwrights Horizons. She focuses her designs around the interactions between audiences and their environments. 

The design for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 places the audience inside a Russian supper club. What inspired you to put the audience at the center of the event? 

Because of my background in architecture, I always think about the audience’s experience in three-dimensional space. When you’re designing in the traditional proscenium arch, the audience is sitting back in their seats, facing forward, and looking in one direction; the design is only seen from one side. When we designed Great Comet, I looked at a research picture of a supper club, and there was a counter-level surface behind the banquet. I immediately thought that it would be a great playing space. An actor could walk behind an audience member. I loved the idea of an audience member having to turn around, or sense a physical presence walking behind them. It makes for a much more active theatrical experience.

What research did you do for this project? 

At the very beginning I did a lot of period research. I researched Russia in the time of War and Peace; I looked at salons and rooms full of paintings. I like to go to the source first and then totally depart from it. At the same time, we were talking about supper clubs, which are not something that existed in Tsarist-era Russia. We decided to embrace both a contemporary and a period feeling through all aspects of the design, and particularly in the costumes. I very quickly had an impulse for a lot of curving lines. Some of that came from looking at visual motifs of Russian paintings and designs from nineteenth-century Russia, but I also just had an impulse for the way the piece flows.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 focuses on the “Peace” elements of Tolstoy’s novel. Are there any elements of your design that foreshadow the “War” to come? 

There’s a door which is used when Andrey goes off to war. You’re in a red velvet lined room, but within that there’s one big, metal door which feels like the door to a bunker. Andrey, at the very beginning of the piece, leaves through that door and goes off to war. What you see through that door, when it’s open, is smoke and light. It feels, literally, like there’s war out there. In the middle of the piece, there’s also an entrance made through that door. The entrance foreshadows that some of what’s outside is entering the world of the play.

Could you describe your design for this production in terms of volume, color, and texture? 

Frank Lloyd Wright often designed a series of spaces where you’d enter through a dark hallway with very low ceilings until you emerge into a high-ceilinged living room full of light. There’s power in contrasts; in going from a space that’s cramped and tunnel-like into a luxurious and open space. So, in all of our iterations, we’ve designed a journey for the audience from the street into the performance space. We’ve designed it to feel like you’re walking through an abandoned bunker from the 1980’s; concrete and cool tones. Greenish, grayish, with punk rock posters and graffiti on the walls. Then, you emerge into this luxurious, red performance space. I wanted it to feel very warm; I think I said at one point that I wanted the audience to feel as if they’d entered into a velvet-lined Fabergé egg.

Interview by Tessa Nelson, a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. 

This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater in conjunction with A.R.T.’s production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

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