As a boy on Bainbridge Island, across Elliott Bay from Seattle, David Zinn dreamed of becoming an actor. “I liked the idea of a stage and I thought I’d like to be on it,” he said the other day, as a rehearsal of Sarah Ruhl’s How To Transcend a Happy Marriage, for which he has done the set design, was going on in LCT’s ballet room.
It wasn’t long before he moved behind the scene – or, rather, made it. “In 8th grade, I had a teacher to whom I voiced my interest in designing, and she set me on my path.” As a high-school student, Zinn was already working in community theater, and attending plays at professional houses. “It was the flowering of the regional theater scene in Seattle,” he said, “and I was fortunate to be in such a learning environment.”
To continue his education, Zinn moved to New York and entered a special program at NYU’s graduate theater department, which afforded him an enhanced BFA degree. His undergraduate years gave him a direct introduction to the work at the NYU-proximate Wooster Group. “The genius of their designs, led by Jim Clayburgh, are under-sung,” he said. “Those stage environments meant everything to me.”
As for his own aesthetic, Zinn said, “I’m not sure I’m the best judge of that. But I would say that I strive for a balance between lyrical finesse alongside a very strong central idea.” Sometimes, Zinn designs both sets and costumes; other times, one or the other. “Generally speaking, more of the set design work takes place before tech rehearsals than does the costume design. But neither happens during tech as much as lighting or sound – those designers’ work is more exposed to other people.”
Over the past few seasons, Zinn has provided some of the most striking designs on Broadway: the sets and costumes for The Last Ship and Fun Home (Tony nomination), and the set design for The Humans, for which he won a Tony this past June. Zinn was also Tony-nominated, for the costumes, for a previous Ruhl piece produced at LCT: In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).
As for the set design of How To Transcend, the current Ruhl project, Zinn said, “We all felt from the beginning” – Ruhl, the director Rebecca Taichman, and Zinn – “that there were two ideas at work: a protected island of bourgeois behavior, where dinner parties could take place, and a more outdoor world. We had to have both domesticity and nature.” He added: “The way that the characters are brought into the woods to learn about themselves is almost Shakespearean.”
Asked to describe the Newhouse space, in which he has worked before (the costumes forOther Desert Cities), Zinn said, “It’s very intimate. There’s a temptation, on the part of actors and designers and directors, to work too hard in it. That’s a mistake. The audience is RIGHT THERE with you.”
On March 9, two weeks after How To Transcend starts previews, the musical Amelie, for which Zinn has done sets and costumes, begins performances on Broadway. Less than a month later, A Doll’s House, Part 2, for which he has done costumes, also arrives there. Whatever the style or scale of a project, Zinn said, “Sets are always an abstraction to a certain extent. The question you always have to ask is: what’s the balance between the real and the theatrical?”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com