Given the pace he maintained in the 2007-2008 theatre season, set designer David Korins earned a summer off. Off and on Broadway, he designed the musical Passing Strange, first at the Public, then at the Belasco. At the Public, he also designed David Henry Hwang's Pulitzer Prize finalist Yellow Face and A View from 151st Street. For the Manhattan Theatre Club, there was The Receptionist and Pumpgirl; at Playwrights Horizons, Drunken City. His mock megastore set the stage for the Off Broadway musical Walmartopia! at the Minetta Lane, and his concept of the Manhattan skyline as a collection of moving boxes for Primary Stages' Hunting and Gathering earned him a Drama Desk nomination.
But rather than rest on these laurels — the 31-year-old's office is matter-of-factly decorated with awards citations — Korins forged ahead. Hamlet, at the Public's Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, at least got him outside in May and June. Indoors, he designed a revival of Christopher Durang's 1985 The Marriage of Bette and Boo, a blackly comic tale Off Broadway at the Roundabout's Laura Pels through September 7. Inside and out, Korins' work is of remarkably consistent quality, and he told Live Design how he spent his summer on two uniquely different projects.
LD: This was the first time Hamlet had been staged at the Delacorte since 1975. No one reviewer, it seemed, knew what to make of the set. Opinions varied as to what you and the director, Public artistic director Oskar Eustis, were going for. It seemed the realization of a ship of state, the “rotten state” of Denmark.
DK: At times, it was meant to be a ship, a transformation that I thought was the most successful; at others, a prison. The overall idea was that the rock in the foreground represented the weathered, eroding Denmark. The big steel wall and floor was Oskar's notion of fortification, against a much larger invading army. The old castle is put in a world that's safer. The white washing was a nod to Marat/Sade and represents how the brand new king has painted the world white to make everything look okay. But this is a world where fathers set spies on their sons, and there is a watch that looks in as well as out. And we were also trying to recreate, in our own way, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Intellectually, it was an incredible experience. There were a lot of ideas at work. Our loose time frame was 1962, on the eve of the Kennedy assassination, which Oskar felt was, for him personally, a loss of innocence and the beginning of his own maturing. The eternal flame was the visual representation of Hamlet's father — the set seemed like a monument to him the first time we turned on the lights — and it's also part of the Kennedy-era concept. “It's so many things,” I told my wife, Carolyn, when she asked what it was, and while I wasn't offended by the question, I'm not sure that's the sign of a good design or not — that everyone took away different things from it.
We had a standing meeting with all the designers every Saturday morning, something that unfortunately never happens all that much, and we knew what we were trying to achieve. Then again, doing Hamlet in the park seemed crazy to me. In the park, you spend a lot of your energy, scenically, trying to embrace or work with the park, and Oskar wanted the biggest wall we could make to keep it out of view. The Delacorte was the Danish castle, and everything else — all those views you usually get — was outside.
LD: One idea that worked was the use of Basil Twist's large-scale puppets for the play-within-the-play. How did you work with that?
DK: Oskar said, “I want to do that scene with puppets, and the players to be a sort of bread and puppets troupe. Go.” [Laughs] Basil said what we needed was a background that was quiet, visually, that we had to fit into the aesthetic of this world and transform into the queen's chamber. It went through many permutations, but in the park, you want to have some moments of spectacle.
LD: Hamlet was almost the evil twin of the Passing Strange set (LD, May 2008). That had the light wall, with all that color; this one is just a little bit of light and a blood-red spatter at the end.
DK: It's funny you say that, as I worked at the Public four times last year, and I saw it as the bastard child of Yellow Face. That was a kind of floating deck, with a big wall in the back — they must have felt I could only do that one thing. [Laughs] I don't think I'm in a wall phase, but I do think that Passing Strange was trying to find some sort of background that could morph emotionally. Hamlet's was an emotional and physical backdrop that separates people, though, ironically, both opened for a similar psychological burst.
LD: How did the elements treat you?
DK: Hamlet is cold and rainy, and as it happens, we tech'd the show in the rain; we could see each other's breath. This was the earliest a show had been done in the park, and it was the first time I had designed a full production for outdoors, though I worked for years at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, from an intern all the way to running the scene shop. Every year, we did a free piece outdoors, so I was familiar with working outside. I never really wanted to design for outdoors, however. So much about theatre is about controlling the environment, and you just lose that — half the show is lit by God and the other half by the lighting designer. We had a white set that was covered in pollen and other crap that we had to squeegee off.
LD: Moving indoors, what considerations were there for Bette and Boo?
DK: It's a show with 33 scenes, from 10 seconds to five minutes long. Some of the scenes get wiped away; others are revealed, and others get set up and have certain buttons. The set allows that to happen. It's a series of sliding and iris panels set in a solid red floating box — red because of blood and blood ties that are so much a part of it. It floats because the character, Matt, is showing us his crazy, dysfunctional family, and he can walk on this promontory downstage of the panels to refer to his family album. The set only opens to the size the scene actually is. It opens to a small, narrow square, or to a full stage shot. It's literally a series of snapshots or vignettes. Upstage, there's a full iris panel, so we can create colorful squares with it as things move around. It's very simple.
But I worked on it for a year with the director, Walter Bobbie. We did fully realistic models and totally abstracted ones, and kept tearing away at it. It's a beautiful piece of writing, with a great cast, and we didn't want to mess that up. No big back wall opens up this time.
LD: These shows are revivals. Was there any thought given to how they looked before?
DK: I designed Godspell at the Paper Mill Playhouse two years ago, and we're taking it to Broadway. The first thing anyone wants to know is, “Does it have scaffolding?” And, fortunately or unfortunately, the answer is yes. It's more about how you conceive of it, and how you use it.
With Hamlet, everyone has a story about a production they've seen. We had to figure out the story we wanted to tell and how to bring it for the audience, as everything is in that play. I was not in New York for the original production of Bette and Boo, but it was so universally lauded that I did not ask anyone what it was, so as not to get influenced. I've now heard that it was a maroon-colored set, with sliding things and windows. Ours doesn't have windows, but I wonder if there are plays that are so strongly written that a certain design is what they always want.