Designing from the Inside Out: A Conversation with David Korins

by Howard Sherman
Cast on the set of Beetlejuice
Cast on the set of Beetlejuice

Set designer David Korins’s work has been seen on Broadway in, among others, Bridge and Tunnel, War Paint, Passing Strange, Chinglish, and Bring It On. His Off-Broadway credits include Here Lies Love, Oedipus at Palm Springs, Yellowface, Found and The Low Road. He spoke with Stage Directions about his biggest recent projects: The Hamilton Exhibition, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Beetlejuice


(Ed.Note-This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity; more of David’s conversation will be featured in the May issue.)

Tim Burton, who wrote and directed the film Beetlejuice, has such a distinctive vision. What has been the process of translating his work to the stage, because presumably it’s not just about copying what he did.
It’s funny because, with Alex Timbers, I have had an opportunity to translate Tim Burton before. We did Pee-Wee Herman on Broadway, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was his first movie. I think part of the challenge with Tim Burton is we forget how early on Beetlejuice was in his trajectory, and how much his iconography and his oeuvre have become an imprint on what his films look like.

I said to Alex, “I think we owe it to the Beetlejuice audience to give them ‘Burton’ almost before we give them Beetlejuice. So we open Beetlejuice in a graveyard, which is kind of The Nightmare Before Christmas. It was our way to say, “We know it too. We love it too. You’re in good hands.” And then we dip down the rabbit hole of Beetlejuice.

What was the most fun for you on designing the show, Burton-esque or Korins-esque, as it may be?
I think ‘fun’ is a tricky word. This show, more than any other show I’ve ever designed, is challenging from a technical point of view because every single piece of scenery is embedded with something. Either a light, access for a puppeteer, a magic trick, a poor theater trick, an illusion, a special effect, something. There isn’t anything that presents as it is. That is a huge technical challenge.

A major character in our show is this house. Alex’s first idea was, “I think these people have to go get trapped in a house. And we need to make a prison of this home.” One of the cool things that just making that choice affords us is, even though we are, in a way, relegated to a major physical presence on stage that tracks upstage and downstage, and there are some sort of interstitial scenes here and there, but that is a major square footage. That piece allows us to show the house in four different guises. Scenically, you don’t get that opportunity that frequently, including Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. More modern musicals are often spare, and kind of exist in an ethereal landscape of pretty metaphorical openness.

It’s interesting that you were brought on the project even before the writers.
When Alex Timbers calls you and he says, “Beetlejuice”, before he finishes the word you say, “Yes.” Period. I’m obviously someone who cares about aesthetics and visual vocabulary. Tim Burton is pretty holy ground when you’re thinking about what that is. And I think there’s a line that you have to tow with regard to what you said. Sort of the Burtonian world and the Korinsian world, and how do you make those two things match up in an interesting and dynamic way.

You have another project that’s going to open this month in Chicago, The Hamilton Exhibition. The rumbling is that in universe of Hamilton, this is one that’s been very driven by you. Is that fair to say?

It’s the truth. The idea of doing it was born out of the fact that Lin [Lin-Manuel Miranda] would get tweeted daily, “Hey, it’s John Laurens’ birthday.” “It’s the anniversary of Eliza and Alexander.” The show has become such a deep and profound portal into early American history, and to a conversation about who we are as Americans, and citizens of the world. Lin had to take a fair amount of artistic license, and put a lot of artistic compression into the story telling of making Hamilton because it’s a two-hour and 40-minute musical.
Korins

Jeffrey Seller [Hamilton’s lead producer] had a very profound experience growing up in Detroit, going to the museums and really kind of losing himself in the storytelling and the educational enrichment of those museums. I think the combination of those two experiences made us think, “What if we go deeper and wider? What would it be to explore all of these people, who are real people, who we owe a lot to? And think about what it means to be a framer of the country, what it means to be a person who is an immigrant or an early American. And what does it mean to think about ideas that we still bump into today?” The show, at its best moments, does that. It really, I think, ignites your civic duty. It really does make you think about yourself. Your smarter as an American, as a citizen.

I think this museum exhibition is a way, as Tommy Kail [Hamilton’s director] said it best early on when I was trying to frame what this experience would be: “We should do what only we can do.” What I do in my day job, when I’m not being a set designer, is I am a creative director, I am a storyteller for big brands, for large organizations, for individuals. I do pop concerts, and I do restaurants and hospitality. But I really do experiences, and so there isn’t a show director in that case. There is a kind of auteur world builder on behalf of a brand. I am the world builder of this. So as creative director of it, I’m not just sculpting the design. I am making the entire throughput of the consumer journey.

We definitely have collaborated on every piece of this. I am not a historian. So we had to get someone who could write, with museum rigor, a script and a text. Joanne Freeman, who is probably the world’s foremost Hamiltonian expert, at Yale, is our historian of record. Annette Gordon-Reed is the world’s foremost Jeffersonian historian at Harvard. They have combined to vet the script, and go through all the history, and go through all the facts. 

The one lesson that Joanne teaches, if you learn nothing else in her class, is that history is not inevitable. We all say, in the rearview mirror, “Of course, we won the war.”, and, “Of course, we united the States.”, and, “Of course, those things happened.” The truth is, it wasn’t just a long shot that we would win the war. It was an impossibility.

Our opening gallery is where Lin explains to you history is not inevitable, and neither is making a show: “Come with us on this journey. I’ll be in your ear guiding you.” And we go through a portal into Saint Croix, and we don’t come back out of that portal until we’re in 2019. We follow the life and times of Alexander Hamilton and all the people he bumped into, all the locations, his entire life. But it exists on a very, very elevated, metaphor-driven, sculptural-driven, 360-degree panoramic canvas. Parts of it are selfie heaven. Parts of it are intellectually stimulating. There is a whole new orchestrated score by Alex Lacamoire in every single gallery.

Hamilton itself is not a show in which things are constantly flying on, rolling on, changing in the way you talked about Beetlejuice changing its look. What was the process of deciding what the space for the telling of Hamilton needed to be?
They showed up with 51 songs, 26,000 words, 30 years of history, and I knew that we could not stop for scene changes. It wasn’t the way they were thinking about conceiving it. Lin sat on my couch and said, “I don’t know what this looks like. I don’t know what this feels like.” We talked a lot about are they in modern dress? Are they in powdered wigs, but leather jackets? Where are we? Does the set want to match the aesthetic of the music?” We agreed that the modernity of the show would be delivered through the music. But also, frankly, through the look of the people. Hamilton

We decided that from the neck up, modern day, and from the neck down, we were going to try and do something that people would recognize as period costuming. The set needed to be a kind of tapestry of early American architecture that would not go through a million different changes. Because there’s no way you can go from Washington’s tent, realistically, to the battlefield, realistically, to the Schuyler mansion.

In my interview with Tommy, I said to him, “I think there’s a turntable in this show.” He said, “Why do you think that?” I said something about the swirling nature of the conversation, the cyclical nature of the Burr-Hamilton cat-and-mouse game that plays out over years. But also: hurricane. But also: passage of time. It’s a good way to show sweeping, epic movements. He said, “I don’t love that idea. We’ll put that away.”

We designed the entire set of the show. The idea that we like to talk about is, we are not telling the story of the people who founded the country. We are telling the story of the people who built the foundation from which the country was created. So the set is like a new structure being built, with wooden scaffolding that leads up to it. It is made of ship building technology and methodology because all of the carpenters were ship builders of the time.

I was storyboarding the show in preparation for a meeting with Tommy and Andy [Blankenbuehler, Hamilton’s choreographer]. My associate of 20 years, who I was an intern with at Williamstown Theater Festival, said to me, “How are you going get this stuff on stage? I know we’re not in Washington’s tent, but how do we get that desk there? Is Andy going to bring all this stuff on?” And he said, “What about that turntable idea that you had?”

I said to Andy and Tommy, “Guys, what about the turntable?” Neither of them had ever done a show with a turntable. I had pitched the donut, and they said, “If you can come up with 10 moments in the show where we would use that thing, we’ll think about it.” So I sat down and I drew what we call the Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk. When the Schuylers meet. Aaron Burr. Greatest city in the world. We did the duel. I did a series of moments. Mariah Reynolds. “Satisfied.” Rewinding the set. All those things, I drew them all out. I said, “Here’s 10.” They went, “Oh, actually, that’s pretty good.” You give Tommy and Andy Lincoln Logs, you expect to get a log cabin. They brought back a rocket ship, which was pretty damn good. And that’s how we got there.

Along with Hamilton, the other sensation of a show right now is Dear Evan Hansen. Its look is so radically different than Hamilton. After all, it’s not shipbuilding technology on that stage.
People like to ask me, “How can the Academy Awards look so different from Hamilton, look so different from Dear Evan Hansen? I like to say, “If Dear Evan Hansen looked like Hamilton, we’d be in trouble.” I really try and think of the essence of what the show and the story that we’re trying to tell needs to be. There’s a lot of tricks I could have done to Hamilton that probably would have gotten me, personally, a lot more recognition. I always just think, in the end, story, story, story, story, story, story.
Dear Evan Hansen

I went and saw a very early reading of Dear Evan Hansen. [Producer] Stacy Mindich called me and said, “Listen, I’m doing this thing. We’re going to ask Michael Greif to direct it. I want someone who can deliver a warm world, but that knows about the Internet, and social media, and technology.” I had worked on Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and Annie, and done some other warm worlds. It’s about a family. Family is that show. But it’s also about isolation.

When I watched that reading of Evan Hansen, I took an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper with me, and I folded it up into 16ths. They were little, tiny squares. I watched this little unknown guy – Ben Platt – sing this track in the show. I did little sketches. I flipped it over and did another little sketch, and I flipped it over, I did a little sketch, and I folded the paper over, did another sketch. At the end of it, I had 16 little thumbnail sketches. That was, let’s say, on a Wednesday, and I was meeting with Michael Greif on a Friday. I opened up the piece of paper, and I said, “These are my 16 artist responses to this show.” He put his finger right down on one of them and said, “That’s our show.” That picture was a little, tiny circular disc with a bed, and floating over it were like 9 or 11 monitors, and all different sizes, and all different trim heights. He said, “That’s it. It’s a warm, perfect little room in a cacophony of cyber voices.” That became our Rosetta stone.

The trickier thing, I think, was getting Pasek and Paul, and Steven Levenson, to understand that this was not a black on black on black world, that the technology could deliver color, and emotion, and voices, and community, and go away, and change in an instant and give you slices of architecture, and things like that. We had set up, again, an immovable object. Nothing’s better than a revelation of space. At the end, when we go to this orchard, we can let all that air come into the theater. It’s such a huge visual and storytelling relief that people are changed when that sky shows up, and those trees show up. Everything is kind of rectilinear and man-made up to that point, and when you bring those little saplings up at the end of the show, people lose it.