Interview with Hamilton designer David Korins

Designer David Korins is one of Broadway's most sought after creative team members, with a string of hit shows under his belt. His design studio, founded in 2004, provides design elements for a wide variety of projects ranging from Broadway productions to galleries, music concerts, corporate advertising and restaurants.

Having already made a splash this season in New York with acclaimed designs for show such as Misery and the behemoth that is Hamilton, his work has recently been enjoyed in the West End both at the National Theatre with the incredibly immersive Here Lies Love and the hit London transfer of Motown the Musical which opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre to strong reviews last month.

Following on from his triumphant work on TV with Grease Live, we spoke to David in the middle of tech rehearsal for an exciting new musical by Pasek and Paul, Dear Evan Hansen which opens off-Broadway on 1 May 2016. Eager to hear about his work in both London and New York, we asked David about the challenges of designing and of course, about the upcoming London production of Hamilton.

DK: Very much so – I have a wonderful UK associate called Andrew Edwards who has a lot of experience putting Broadway shows onto the West End so he kept me abreast every step of the way and it was really wonderful. I'm happy with how the show is being received there – it's great to hear it's a strong hit. The UK in particular was such a lynchpin location for Motown and its history, we always knew when we were making the show, and Berry Gordy always said, that the trajectory of the company would be about bringing the show to London and I'm so pleased it's happened.

DOH: Does designing for London pose any different challenges to designing on Broadway?

DK: I don't know if it's specifically different, I think that every theatre is its own little snowflake with it's own beauty and challenges. Motown was on Broadway for two years and then when we closed the show we went on tour and redesigned the show and retooled it. We had a lot of experience refiguring it for different venues so going to London was about refitting it and was an exercise I'm very familiar with.

DOH: Something you're doing right now with the Hamilton roll-out...

DK: Champagne problems, right! Having a show happen in one place then having the ability or the luxury to have it go to other places. For everyone else in the design team like the costume design for example who can just pack up the costumes and reuse them, it's more simple. For set designers it's all in their head trying to work out how it'll work in all these different venues. With Hamilton right now I've just finished working on plans for the first non New York production in Chicago, and the theatre happens to be six feet narrower of an opening than the Richard Rodgers which is a huge amount. It doesn't sound like a lot but it really took a lot of work to figure out how to squish it all down.

DOH: And is that retooling a difficult process for each city?

DK: Motown was a bit different because we didn't have an out of town try-out, we just put it up. When we had the ability to look at it again for the tour we did change a few things, not a huge amount, but I don't think anyone really hit the bullseye on the first time. With Hamilton we had a first pass at it Downtown at the Public, and we're quite happy with how it looks and feels on Broadway, so the challenge as we roll it out around the country and across the globe – we have plans to come to London in a year from now – is how to figure out within the parameters of all the different spaces that we can actually get the same look and feel and quality of the show. That's not to say that we won't re-look at certain moments and make some new discoveries – but we're quite happy with it.

DOH: Now Hamilton. Where to even start. Did you ever consider it would be the smash-hit that it is? I can't even think of the correct word to describe it...

DK: I go back to it even before the Public. I've worked with Lin and Andy (the director) and Tommy (the choreographer) on many many projects, so I got an early draft of the show. You can never predict this – this is like an out of this world, unprecedented thing that has certainly in my lifetime never happened. I don't know how you'd ever be able to predict that. I think the only barometer you can use is one about how I felt about it personally when I read it and I heard the music and I knew that it was special. I loved it, I was compelled by the story – it makes you feel smart, patriotic, it's totally groundbreaking. I didn't think that it would become the world's greatest show and all that comes along with that, because so many things have to happen. First of all the work has to be good then it has to be received critically. I think what has happened to it is it's centre of the conversation – it's put theatre and live arts back in the centre of the conversation.

DOH: What would you say it is about the show that just connects with people?

DK: It touches on so many different genres. There are so many different 'on ramps' for how people get attached to it, whether it's the style of music, whether it's politics, whether it's the great love story, whether it's history. Everyone from the literati to pop stars to politicians – everyone has sort of seen it and adopted it as their own. It's become such an unbelievably profound experience to be part of. Every person on the team has been so selfless and has been enjoyable to work with – it's such a wonderful community to be part of and that makes it all the more sweeter. I could have never possibly imagined it being this big, because I don't think anyone can consider what it has become. I did know it was going to be a big deal but I didn't know it was going to be the biggest deal...

DOH: Is Hamilton the work you're most proud of?

DK: To me other than the profound work of genius that is the writing - and I think anything that Lin gets by way of awards or recognition is absolutely deserved - but the thing about Hamilton that I'm perhaps most proud of is that every single design element is so cohesive and in lock-step with each other. It is one of the rare shows where every single element is in perfect unison with the other, and that's a huge testimony to our director, but also what you're watching is a whole bunch of people working at the the top of their game bringing the best work they've ever brought. In a way people don't understand when they see the show just how cohesive it really is – it's impossible to see where the choreography leaves off and where the scenery begins, because the use of the turntables and the immersion in that world, they basically feel like one of the same and that's very very rare when all the elements are working completely in sync with each other, and I'm very proud of that. I think people don't get it – when they see the show they think it's really good, but good in the way that when you hear a perfectly tuned orchestra you don't really pick out one instrument – they're all playing in lock-step with each other. That's part of what makes the most beautiful music.

DOH: Do you think audiences are becoming more aware of how scenography and design work and what they have the capability to show?

DK: People don't really know what set designers do. People don't really know what theatre artists do in general. A scenographer makes hard and real things so people can point to it and appreciate it. They certainly don't know what a lighting designer does, they certainly don't know what a sound designer does or what a director does for the most part. With Dear Evan Hansen essentially it's a big black box with lots of flying panels and very few actual hard surfaces, but the world really comes to life in such a nuanced and textured way with these projection screens and the lighting, that when they see it it's hard to see where one design element ends and the other begins. We had the same with Here Lies Love, we went to the awards season and every single design element won every single award except for the scenery, which I thought was interesting as the entire theatre was the scenery, all the audience, the platforms for the audience. In a way that's how I knew I'd done my job because the scenery went unrecognised. That's pretty interesting when people think that's not the scenery, it's the theatre, and audiences just don't see it. Of course they then recognise the projections – it's fascinating what people get and what they don't get.

DOH: Do you find the nature of your work constantly changing?

DK: There are many many changes in my work because I feel the technology is changing. I'm in the middle of a tech rehearsal right now for a new musical which has a lot of projections and moving scenery and moving lights. I thought to myself twenty years ago we could have done this show but it would have just been so so different. It's a whirlwind of activity that you're immersed in. Design in general is changing because I'd say technology is changing. I think people are more aware of it and it's interesting with a show like Hamilton.

DOH: What do you look for when deciding on which projects to take on?

DK: Usually I look at things a couple of different ways. What room do you want to be in – forget even about the story. Who are the people you're telling the story with. Who will your collaborators be, and who will you be spending your day with. That's number one. Number two, I look at the piece. I don't actually take them based on whether or not my design contribution is going to be a profound one or not, one of the things I pride myself most on in my career I don't go into telling a story with a preconcieved notion about how I want to do it. People look at my design work and it's incredibly varied – everything from hyper realism and naturalistic work to complete abstraction, magical realism – I'm not a set designer where people say this is someone who does 'one' thing. To me I look at what's the story that we're telling, and how can I help tell that story. I think that keeps us fresh – it's always about the story that we're telling.

DOH: Where did that come from in you, what drew you to design?

DK: I came late to design professionally. When I really think back, I was one of three children and we were all fortunate enough to have our own room. Our parents basically bought us furniture for our room and we were allowed to decorate it how we want it, and I remember that I would rearrange the furniture in my room and shift the ground plan. I can really trace my figuring out plans and how people move through space to my childhood room. It wasn't like I saw a show early on that made me want to be a set designer. I took a course in college that taught you a bit about each of the areas and I had a propensity for scenic design because I liked the idea of being able to conceive a whole world. I was really smitten when I took this course and I continued in that vein. I worked at a regional theatre where I saw the whole process from beginning to end and I guess I caught the bug.

DOH: Is that why your work is so varied and takes in so many different mediums?

DK: I do have this sort of blessing and a curse where I realised pretty early on that everything in the world needed to be designed. Even if it was a bad design or a boring one – everything from a parking lot to drainage facility – and I quickly decided to go out on a whim and try and design all sorts of things. I did some television and movies, and restaurants and rock concerts and I just kept branching out – always pushing myself out of my comfort zone but always returning to the theatre. It's the same, from designing a movie or an award or a pillow or a gala – I find it so wonderful and freeing and beautiful that all these things in the world need to be designed and created and my skills transfer to lots of different disciplines.

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