David Korins’ choice of set design as a career did not grow out of a childhood spent tinkering with Erector sets or drawing fanciful scenes. In fact, he was the athlete in his family, and it was one of his sisters who spent all her time drawing — a bit of an irony, given that today his sister is a stay-at-home mother and home schooler and he makes his living as what he likes to term “a sculptor of space.” “What I do is create environments that people move through,” he says, “whether on a sound stage, a reality TV stage, in the theater, or in their own living rooms.”
Korins is the set designer for McCarter’s production of “She Stoops to Conquer,” which is in previews and opens on Friday, October 16. Korins and the show’s director, Nicholas Martin, met in 1997 when both worked at the Williamstown Theater Festival, and they have collaborated on many shows over the last four years. “The trademark of our work is a magical realism that has wonderful scene changes,” says Korins. “I’m not going for hyperrealism or plain realism. I’m not saying, ‘This is what it was at the time.’ I’m saying, ‘This is representative of what it was at the time, but I’m taking poetic license to further define and support the story.’”
Each set Korins creates is based on the characteristics of the particular play. “Every show I do has extreme requirements,” he says. “Unlike in other design mediums, what you are dealing with is a play, a playwright, and spoken words. With whatever you do, you have to serve the story as best you can.”
Take, for example, a recent set he designed for a new Christopher Durang play at the Public Theater in New York. “The set was seven different locations, dictated by the playwright, and we had to serve each in a different way,” says Korins. “So we used a turntable, where the scenery was revolving to reveal itself.”
In “She Stoops to Conquer,” says Korins, the set is fairly classical, but the scene changes add a bit of whimsy. “It is in an old manor house, so it has wonderful old period details, but then doors open up and foliage slides through the doors or a table will pop out of the ground when you go to the bar scene.”
When he approaches a new assignment, Korins begins, naturally, by reading the play. “I let it wash over me,” he says. “I don’t try to figure out the scenery the first time.”
Yet he always comes at the play from a designer’s perspective. “When I read a script, I am a designer, so everything I do is filtered through my design sensibility,” he says. “I automatically think of physical structures and the special relationship between performers and the environment.”
Korins’ second reading is a bit more mechanical, he says, and produces the scene breakdown — determining what bare necessities are needed for each scene. If, for example, two people are seated in a room and one gets up and throws a telephone out the window, Korins knows he must create two places to sit and a window.
Any play set in the past also requires extensive research into the time period — what people looked like and wore and where they lived and worked. For “She Stoops to Conquer” Korins uses his research to evoke the 18th-century with rich detail.
Also critical to designing a play’s setting is penetrating its psychology — who the people are, how they got where they are, what they are doing there, and whether they own a setting or are foreign to it. In “She Stoops to Conquer” issues of identity confusion are central. Kate Hardcastle, an upper-class young woman, poses as a barmaid to capture the affections of Charles Marlow, the man her father wants her to marry. When Marlow and his friend are on their way to visit the Hardcastles, Tony Lumpkin, Mrs. Hardcastle’s son, plays a practical joke by convincing the two men that the Hardcastles’ home is actually an inn.
These two incidents of mistaken identity drive the plot, and director Martin and designer Korins decided to incorporate mirrors into the play’s otherwise realistic settings as a visual allusion to this theme.
Finally Korins is ready to pull together all the research and planning so that he can actually begin to make sketches and build models. “I take the scene breakdown, the director’s concepts, my own ideas about what the play should look like, the text, the physical needs of the production, and the research about the time — and filter it through my own artistic sensibility,” he says.
Many sketches and models follow, as Korins continues to refine his ideas in collaboration with the director. “The director is really the arbiter of taste,” he says. “I have to propose ideas. Sometimes he says, ‘That’s fabulous,” and sometimes, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about — you have to find a new idea.’”
In the final stages of the design process Korins must also take into account the size of the stage and the breadth of the theater. “You have to make what you create able to be read from the back row,” says Korins. “I constantly challenge myself to understand not just what the setting is like to the artists on stage and how it relates to their work but also how the audience is relating to the experience.”
Korins grew up in Mansfield, Massachusetts. His mother just retired as a teacher and his father is a retired podiatrist.
Korins attributes his first foray into design to his failure to get the part of Billy Bigelow in a high-school production of “Carousel.” Even though he did get another part, he says, “I was feeling dejected. I wanted to add more to the production, so I started to help make scenery.”
When he got to college at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Korins already knew in his heart of hearts that he didn’t want to be an actor — but he did want to stay in the business. The drafting teacher for his intro course in design techniques, Miguel Romero, recognized his talent in design and invited Korins to assist in one of his classes the following semester. He also encouraged Korins to get some professional experience through a summer internship with the Williamstown Theater Festival.
Korins graduated in December, 1998, with an honors degree in theater with a focus on design, but it was his work at the Williams Theater Festival from 1997 to 2001 as well as three other summers that exposed him to professional set designers and opened up a whole new world for him. “I could see the destination, and I was at the point of origin,” he recalls of that first summer. “I went back to school with a whole bunch of fire, or wind in my sails.”
In 2001, after assisting on a number of shows in New York, he co-founded the Edge Theater Company in New York with his wife, director Carolyn Cantor. The couple also lives in Manhattan. “We started it so that we could choose the plays we wanted to work on and with the people we wanted to work with,” writes Korins in an E-mail. “We wanted to be able to support certain artists and we had seen too many plays get workshopped to death by other theater companies — our company does no readings, no workshops.”
Korins has also done design work on Broadway; in other New York theaters like Ars Nova and the New York Theater Workshop; regionally in places like New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Berkeley, and New Orleans; and internationally at the Soho Theater in London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In the last several years Korins has widened his design activities beyond theater. At one point Cantor said to him, “Everything in the world gets designed — why don’t you think about designing things that are not just theater.” He took her advice and has since branched out into film, television, corporate events, other special events, gardens, and home renovations through his company, David Korins Design, which he started almost five years ago.
Korins will soon be designing the sets for a play based on the film “Little Miss Sunshine” — where a family takes a Volkswagen bus across the country so that the daughter can take part in a beauty pageant. He expects it to present a unique set of challenges. “The trick whenever you are turning a TV show or movie into a theatrical event,” says Korins, “is how to give the patrons the experience they are expecting to see — the same markings of things they fell in love with in the movie — and how you exploit that doing theater.”
At the same time theater opens up imaginative opportunities not necessarily available in a movie. For example, a director might break the bus open, have a dream ballet scene, and then return to the bus. “You have to honor the original piece but don’t want to let it suffocate you in trying to reimagine it for the stage,” he says.
Korins does not necessarily prefer one venue over another but he acknowledges that theater offers a wider range of creative possibility. “I feel like on some level theater is the most complete as far as the world we get to create,” he says. The only type of design that might offer more creative rein, he suggests, is opera. This summer he will debut with the Santa Fe Opera Company for the world premiere of an opera. “Opera would be a pinnacle,” he says, “because it is a marriage of theater and music. And being in a different language, it helps people detach and invest in the pure creativity of it all.”
For now Korins is happy to be back at McCarter Theater, because it has been a lucky place for him and his family. His older daughter, now four, was born two weeks before the opening of his first McCarter show, “Miss Witherspoon,” which opened in September, 2005. His second daughter was just born on September 24, 2009, and the show began previews on Tuesday, October 13.
"She Stoops to Conquer," McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, October 14 and 15; opening night Friday, October 16. Comedy about mistaken identities by Oliver Goldsmith. Through Sunday, November 1. $20 to $55. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.