Climbing The Ladder: Part II with David Korins

by Howard Sherman
Bridge and Tunnel (photo: Courtesy D. Korins)
Bridge and Tunnel (photo: Courtesy D. Korins)

 In the April issue of Stage Directions, set designer David Korins spoke about his biggest recent projects: The Hamilton Exhibition, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Beetlejuice. This month we conclude our conversation looking at his training and the development of his career leading up to those shows. (Ed.Note-This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity)

 

Is there a difference between designing for Broadway, off-Broadway or regional?
Obviously, there is more money at stake. When I was younger, I remember asking [set designer] Michael Yeargan, “What’s it like to design for The Met?” He said to me, “The challenges are exactly the same. Add three zeros to the end of every number.” By the way, Broadway shows aren’t the best funded things in the world. You always feel like you’re pulling these things together with contact lenses and dental floss. I think people think with Hamilton we must have had all the money in the world. Those turntables were stock turntables with a little added extra built-on because we needed a different diameter. We scrapped it together. Now, we’ve gone on to rebuild and re-engineer for the tour and other companies, but it wasn’t like, “Oh, look, a huge bag of cash.” The truth is, no show starts up as a smash hit. When you get hired to do it, no producer is going to say, “And this is a limitless budget.”

How did you get your first Broadway gig?
Bridge and Tunnel [Korins’s first Broadway show] happened accidentally. I didn’t even design it off-Broadway. I did not know [director] Tony Taccone. Later, I worked with Berkeley Rep a bunch, but I didn’t know Tony; I didn’t know Sarah Jones. I was producing and designing a show downtown at Edge Theatre Company with Caroline Cantor, the director. Producer Eric Falkenstein saw the show and said to me afterward, “Hey, we’re talking about a project.” I thought, well, people say that. He said, “I’m going to get you your first Broadway show.” I thought, “There’s no way.” No one just gives someone a Broadway show. Certainly not one that’s transferring from Off-Broadway. He made good on that; that was big. I was like 29 years old.

Did you go to graduate school?
No. I had a weird experience. I went to UMass Amherst as an undeclared person. I loved the theater. I love visual arts. My first semester, I took a course called Beginning Techniques in Design, in which you learn a little bit about lighting, costumes, sound, and scenery. And there was a graduate student there who was in the MFA program, and he said, “You’re pretty good at this. Do you want to assist me on a project?” and I did. I didn’t know how to draft, draw, anything. The professor of the department was Miguel Romero, who also encouraged me to continue working in design. By the end of my sophomore year in college, I had completed all of the design requirements to graduate with a BA in theater, but I had not declared a major. 

I was encouraged to apply for an internship at Williamstown Theatre Festival, which I did. I went there and, instantly, I fell in love with the culture of it. There I could see a line of how you could go from being an assistant to an associate to a designer. I got to meet all these designers, from Derek McLane to Allen Moyer, David Gallo, Neil Patel, John Lee Beatty, Jim Noone. All of these people were coming in and doing shows, and we were able to build stuff for them, and paint stuff for them. Really learn in 12 weeks how to put together regional theater size shows.

I kept on going back. I would see my deficiencies, which were huge. I would become aware of the things that I didn’t know how to do, I would go back to UMass Amherst and say, “I need to learn how to draft better. I need to learn how to build models better.” I worked really hard, and every year I returned to Williamstown a step up the ladder. By the end of four years, I was running the design department. Then I did what I thought one should do, which is apply to graduate school, but I only applied to one. I applied to Yale, and I didn’t get in. 

I was sad, but I moved to New York and I decided, I’m so young I’m going to take the jobs in this order, be a designer, be an associate, be an assistant, be a scenic artist, be a barista. In that order. If someone offered me a design job, I would take that. I got a full-time assisting position at Jim Noone’s studio because I knew him from Williamstown. I was his assistant on the first Fully Committed that Nicky Martin directed. But he knew my skill set, so I also painted Fully Committed. I was the assistant designer, but I also was the lead scenic artist. And on, and on.

I was designing in between. Because I had done all those years at Williamstown, I could build, and paint, and prop. I just decided to stack up design after design after design. There is a thing when you’re used to working, and willing your own shows into existence, that you learn how to actually engineer and really create work. Not theoretically, where act one is blue and act two is red, and you have no idea how it goes from one to the other. You better figure out how things are going to fly, and store, and track, and pivot, and open.

You were also producing theater early on as well, weren’t you?
At Williamstown, I met Carolyn Cantor, who was a very talented director. She and I were collaborators, and we decided to join forces and create Edge Theatre Company based on the idea of no readings, no workshops. All of these theater companies were commissioning plays, and doing all these readings, and softening the edges of the quirks that made these plays really great.

We had a good friend named Adam Rapp, who was an unknown playwright, and all of his plays were really quirky, and kind of hard to imagine being produced. He was having a bunch of softened edge productions at ART and other places where they would kind of take the thing that was magic out of the play in order to give it to a subscription audience. We thought, “We could probably raise some money, and produce this ourselves.” And I’m already building, and painting, and propping, and production managing. And she’s already director and casting. Let’s join forces. We did, and we were successful pretty quickly.

We produced six plays. We didn’t just produce Adam Rapp plays. We kind of discovered Ann Marie Healey, who is a great playwright, as well. We produced all of these plays, and they were both financially successful and artistically successful. And it was one of these things where we decided we would put the money into the production. So once or twice a year, we would have a thing that would showcase our work, and kept us in New York. And as our individual careers rose, we realized that we either had to double-down on raising money for that company, or we would lay dormant. We chose the latter, not the former. And here we are.

Outside of the shows that we’ve already talked about, are there two or three shows that had particular solutions that you are proud of?
I think about Passing Strange, which was my first Broadway musical. It was a show where the visual world was really a departure, in that how do you tell an emotional story really with no scenery? Annie Dorsen [director], who I think is a genius, and I sat down and tried to storyboard that show 10 times; we couldn’t get past the opening number. Then in a meeting with her, I had this thought. I just said, “I’m going to throw a crazy dart at the wall. What if the band could sink into the floor?”
Passing Strange (photo: courtesy D. Korins)At that time, I don’t even think I had used a motor in my life to move a band member. And I just, literally, pulled it so far out of wherever and said, “Put the band members at 12, 6, 3, and 9 on the clock. Raise them up when we want them. Then lower them down.” And it was such a crazy idea, she said, “Let’s go with it.” Then we had to go beg for motors. But it was that moment where we were able to crack the code, and then it felt so inevitable. It was like, “Oh, wow. There that is.”

Another one is an Off-Broadway show that I produced and Carolyn directed. We did Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water, which we did at a little, tiny theater downtown. We had rented a space on Theater Row, The Acorn Theater. A big, wide theater. We workshopped the show and we discovered it’d be so interesting to stage this thing kind of in the round. So once you sort of see that, you can’t unsee it. So I drew up the plans in order to deck over the entire theater, and put the audience on the stage, looking at each other like that. And the day before rehearsal was supposed to begin, we couldn’t get our fire permit.

I remember, as producers, Carolyn and I said, “We have two choices. We either postpone,” which felt like killing ourselves, “or we do the show with proscenium seating,” We stuck to our guns. The reason why Edge Theatre Company exists is so that we can present the play in exactly the way that we thought we needed it to work. So Carolyn and I called up every one of the actors, every one of the designers – “I know we’re supposed to start work tomorrow. We’re going to postpone.” And every single person on the team said, “We believe in this presentation. We believe in you guys.” We waited six months, and we produced it in a tiny theater downtown. 
Orange Flower Water (photo: S. McGee)

I remember that the New York Times reviewer showed up and thought that this set was the building, because we had wrapped the entire theater in this beautiful wooden surround. She wrote a whole review about this building – “Wow, did that theater look amazing.” Then the press person on the show said, “You know, that’s the design.” So, she wrote an article in one of those Friday “Closer Look” articles in the Times that said, “Oh my god, I had it wrong. This is actually David Korins’ set.” That was a big deal.