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The “Hamilton” Set Designer Has Good Advice For How Not To Suck At Your Craft

David Korins made a name for himself by imagining the unimaginable on stage. He says the secret to success is a finely tuned “audience barometer.”

When David Korins was designing the sets for Dear Evan Hansen a few years ago, he didn’t think the story was especially hard to follow. The musical, which went on to win six Tonys and was the biggest Broadway smash of 2016, is a sweet tale about an awkward high school senior who tells a small lie, becomes a social media sensation, and ultimately learns important life lessons about honesty and intimacy.

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But Korins’s father, who is hard of hearing, had a very different interpretation of the show after seeing one of its final numbers, “Words Fail.” That’s when Evan—bathed in dreamy white light from above—says he’s sorry for assuming the identity of his classmate who had committed suicide. Korins says his dad came away believing that Evan himself had committed suicide.

[Photo: Jonah Rosenberg]
“He thought in that moment that Evan ascended into heaven,” Korins recalls. “If I didn’t have a conversation with him to right the wrongs of what he’d seen, he would’ve thought that Dear Evan Hansen is a show about a kid who kills himself, which it’s not.”

Speaking at an event last week as part of the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Korins used that anecdote to illustrate the importance of what he calls the “audience barometer.” The idea, he says, is that people in creative disciplines need to be able to view their own work with raw objectivity, to put themselves 100% in the position of the audience. In his father’s case, removing just one element—being able to clearly hear all the lyrics—changed the entire meaning of a show. Korins says the mark of a good artist is one who can deconstruct her own creations and imagine how she might be interpreted under different contingencies.

“You really have to pull back and be unbelievably critical of every single piece,” Korins says. “Don’t take anything for granted. The audience barometer is this idea of—is the story you’re telling actually the thing the audience is seeing and understanding to be true?”

It’s hard to argue that Korins’s audience barometer has not served him well over the years. At 41, he is one of the most sought-after set builders in the New York theater world and beyond, with credits ranging from the Broadway phenomena Hamilton to TV projects like Fox’s Grease Live and HBO’s production of Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking. His firm, David Korins Design, has also created concert pieces for the likes of Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Mariah Carey—not to mention operas, restaurants, movies, commercials, and awards ceremonies.

[Photo: Jonah Rosenberg]
It’s an eclectic body of work, but one through-line is Korins’s skill for using three-dimensional spaces to imagine the unimaginable. In Dear Evan Hansen, for instance, he won praise for his multimedia installations that pull the audience into social media worlds of the young characters. Giant monitors strewn throughout the stage project online conversations, YouTube videos, and Facebook postings, a device used to brilliant effect at the end of the first act when a speech Evan gives is posted online and goes viral.

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With Hamilton, Korins faced a different but no less daunting task of imagining an arena versatile enough to give life to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hip-hop epic, which is set in countless locations and takes place over a three-decade period of American history. Such an undertaking could have fallen flat in a lesser hands, but then Korins says his willingness to embrace challenging projects is precisely what his collaborators appreciate about him.

“If you want a kitchen-sink set, there are other guys who do it better than me,” he says. “People come to me because they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s like an impossible thing—it’s submerged in water and it bursts into flames. David, he’ll be the guy.'”

[Photo: Jonah Rosenberg]

Take Your Collaborators To Task

Korins’s knack for outside-the-box thinking will become apparent to anyone who spends more than a few minutes with him. I met him at his office in midtown Manhattan last Thursday, along with about 33 other festival attendees, who showed up to see an hourlong presentation he was supposed to give about set design and the importance of collaboration.

But rather than spend the full hour lecturing us with top-down edicts about the design process, Korins decided he wanted us to experience a condensed version of what real-life set designers actually go through. He divided us up into three teams, handed us an assortment of random objects—a paint brush, a clothes pin, a ball of rubber bands, and so forth—and gave us about 10 minutes to collaborate with each other, use the objects we were given, and construct a mini stage set for a faux production of Red Riding Hood.

My team failed miserably. We used a yellow balloon for our Big Bad Wolf, but after we blew the thing up, the wolf face we’d sketched out with a Sharpie contorted into an unrecognizable scribble. When it was time to display our creation, no one in the room, including Korins, got what we were going for. Still, I got the feeling that our failure was good fortune for Korins, because he made an example of us several times during his follow-up talk and said our shoddy wolf balloon perfectly illustrated the importance of having a good audience barometer. Had we looked at our creation objectively, he said, we might have realized how sorely a revision was needed.

[Photo: Jonah Rosenberg]
“If you really put yourself through that harsh filter, and you hold your collaborators to task, it helps the overall production and lifts them up,” he says. “Somebody has to be the one who says, ‘Hang on a second. Hang on a second. What if people don’t get that the balloon is supposed to be the wolf?'”

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As a set designer, Korins says he is in an almost unique position to be the arbiter of objective analysis in a production, because the other creatives involved—the director, the choreographer, the playwright—are often too close to the work to judge it as the audience would. “They’re drinking their own Kool Aid,” he says. “If you ever want to find a playwright in a theater, during a show, just follow the person who’s laughing the hardest.”

I asked Korins if the audience barometer is something you’re born with or something that can be honed over time. It’s a little of both, he says. For instance, while some artists do have a natural gift for being able to separate themselves—and their own egos—from their work, a little data collection goes a long way, too. He says artists should take note of those moments when the audience’s response to something was different than what they’d expected. Use that information to fine-tune your barometer for next time.

[Photo: Jonah Rosenberg]
Later, he got to talking about what he believes is the hardest part of being a set designer—learning to not taking criticism personally. In the highly collaborative world of theater, criticism goes part and parcel with the gig, and that criticism can be brutal. But getting up the next day, starting over and reinvesting no matter what, is imperative. “It hurts,” Korins says. “If you take it personally, it hurts.”

Then he turns to me with a smile. “Like, I hope you don’t go away thinking I dissed you about the balloon thing,” he adds. “But that was terrible.”

About the author

Christopher Zara is a news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine.

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