David Korins on the Art of Set Decoration

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Photo Source: Joan Marcus

Tony-nominated scenic designer David Korins (“Hamilton”) conjured the glamorous world of makeup mavens in Broadway’s “War Paint,” starring stage legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole.

Scenic designers are credited with everything but the actors.
“If you ripped the ceiling off of the theater and dumped the building upside down, everything that falls out that isn’t an actor is the work that I make. I create the environment for a show or an experience and I sort of conjure up the entire world.”

READ: 3 Ways to Bring Your Character to Unique Life

‘War Paint’ posed decades-long challenges.
“The world we’re depicting is one that was high-style, decadent, [and] incredibly design-forward. The challenge was [that] it takes place over several years and many locations: in [the protagonists’] personal homes, in their laboratories. Part of the trick was bringing the audience on the ride of each of these two women’s stories and giving them visual cues into which world you’re inhabiting at the time of the play.”

Collaboration with actors is give and take.
“I welcome collaboration with performers. It’s such an interesting conversation to have when someone says, ‘I know why you chose this lamp, but here’s why it throws me off.’ I might push back, [but] that give and take is where the magic of theatricality happens. There might be a tiny detail on the back of a phone or something only the actor sees, but that detail does inform their performance, and the audience feels it.”

Actors get to know the set better than he does.
“Inevitably, I throw a dart at the dartboard a year before we build this thing, and then on the first day of rehearsal I say to [the actors], ‘Here’s what I did,’ and they have to bend their performances around the physical space I’ve created. The nuances and the ‘eyelashes,’ as opposed to the ‘jawbones,’ are things they’re in control of. I’m happy to have them be in control, because by the end of the experience, they will know so much more about the physical space than I ever will…. Probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten in this business is someone saying to me, ‘When I walk onto your stage, I don’t need to do any character development work because I know exactly who I am and who I’m playing.’ ”

He puts life onstage—but bigger.
“Set design is a master class in humanity and in psychology. Really, set designers are visual storytellers, and it’s a really cool, challenging, interesting life to live. I think some advice [for getting into set design] is see as many pieces of theater as you can, read as many books as you can, see as many movies, and watch as many television shows as you can. Immerse yourself in culture in general. What we do is put life onstage, but bigger. To become a designer is to become a consummate and professional storyteller. I think the people who tell the stories best are the ones who listen to stories the best.”

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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