All in the Details: Tony-Nominated Set Designers on Getting It Right

All in the Details: Tony-Nominated Set Designers on Getting It Right

What are all those buttons for?

That’s one of the many questions David Zinn is frequently asked about the sound console that spans nearly the length of the set he designed for “Stereophonic,” David Adjmi’s backstage drama about a band’s discordant recording sessions in the 1970s.

I think that,” he said, laughing. “What are all those buttons?”

A music studio, a Harlem hair salon, a church sanctuary: These were a few of the worlds that Broadway audiences were whisked away to this season courtesy of the Tony Award nominees for best scenic design of a play. Zinn received two nominations, for “Stereophonic” and “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding.” Derek McLane was nominated for the revival of “Purlie Victorious.”

In its second year working on Broadway, the design collective dots (Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, Andrew Moerdyk and Kimie Nishikawa) was nominated twice, for “Appropriate” and “An Enemy of the People.”

Ahead of the Tony Awards on Sunday, the nominees talked about the inspirations and challenges of playmaking with make believe.

It’s a cliché to say a house is a character in a play. But that is eerily the case in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s dark comedy about the racist legacies of a white family and a grand plantation home that feels alive and haunted. Lived in too, but by a dark spirit with the power to make sure a photo album of lynching victims finds its way into the family’s hands.

Design-wise, the devil is in the details. Picture frame wall molding doesn’t jut out; it’s inset into the paneling — a big ask with nearly imperceptible results that Moerdyk said he and his fellow designers fought for.

“It pushed the cost of the walls up to have the panel moldings be recessed instead of surface-applied,” he said. “We had to make cuts elsewhere to keep them, and we’re glad that we did. It adds to the realistic feeling of the house, the made-of-woodness.”

For most of the play, which opened at the Helen Hayes Theater before transferring to the Belasco, the house is still, despite its inhabitants’ verbal and physical sparring. It’s in the final stretch, in an eye-popping coup de théâtre, that dots makes a shocking horror-movie-like splash with a reveal involving a tree. (To elaborate would spoil the surprise.)

Moerdyk said that while looking into what happens when plants grow in an unnatural environment, he and his colleagues found research about a tree that had grown inside a house — a “long, skinny, unhealthy looking thing,” he said, that seemed to stretch and yearn for light. The same qualities define dots’s fake tree, a many-layered wire structure made of foam, plaster, moss and an aluminum pipe, among other materials.

There’s drama in it, too. “We didn’t want it to feel romantic or cute,” Moerdyk said of the tree. “We wanted it to carry the heft of the moment.”

A small Norwegian town in the late 19th century: That’s the setting of Ibsen’s 1883 drama, and Amy Herzog’s new adaptation, which centers on a doctor at tragic odds with his neighbors over what to do about a contaminated spa.

For their set, the dots designers consulted several visual sources: a photo book called “Living in Norway”; photographs taken by the show’s director, Sam Gold, during a trip to Norway; and the work of Harriet Backer, a 19th-century Norwegian artist whose figurative paintings “had a social realist point of view and captured the light in really beautiful ways,” Moerdyk said during an interview with his two colleagues.

The Circle in the Square stage is configured in the round, leaving nowhere to hide. “Everything is very visible,” Orjuela-Laverde said. “People are very close.”

Gold didn’t want the actors miked, so dots inconspicuously placed microphones in ceiling corners. Speakers hide behind slits in columns. Blue floral motifs done in rosemaling, a style of Norwegian decorative painting, are sprinkled around the set.

In Ibsen’s original play, the windows of the doctor’s home are broken in an attack. But without walls or doors on this set, the doctor, played by Jeremy Strong, instead has copious amounts of ice cubes dumped on his body — a chilly allusion to shattered glass that, for dots and the props team, came with singular concerns.

“Ice melts,” Nishikawa said. “That was a big thing — how do we keep the floor from warping?”

The solution was water-resistant marine plywood for flooring, with seams that were painstakingly sealed with epoxy adhesive. Crew members use a wet-dry vacuum after every performance to ensure no moisture remains.

Rehearsing with so much ice called for razor-sharp time management.

“When the ice order arrived, we had to start a timer to see how long it would take to melt,” Orjuela-Laverde said. “We had to learn the timing of ice.”

Zinn apologized for crying as the first tear fell.

“There’s Irish in me,” he said, “I start to cry all the time, so forgive me.”

Zinn was talking about his work on Jocelyn Bioh’s comedy, which takes place over the course of one day at a braiding salon in Harlem. (The Manhattan Theater Club production closed in November at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater.)

At the top of the show, using an off-center revolve, Zinn’s set came into view: A salon bathed in pink and filled with shelves of beauty products and photos of various hairstyles, along with crimson upholstered chairs where customers got their hair done. The reveal regularly received entrance applause.

Zinn’s eyes welled as he talked about how moved he was to watch Black audience members react not to the salon, but to an onstage preshow curtain he designed featuring a collage of Black women’s faces and hairstyles.

“When women walked into the theater the first time, and reacted the way I’m talking about it, that for me was, like, done,” said Zinn, his voice breaking. “I let all these women see something they didn’t think they were going to see when they walked into a Broadway theater. The fact that I was a vehicle for that is the nicest thing in the world.”

Zinn said he sourced the curtain images from hundreds of photographs, including from “every Yelp review of every braiding salon in the tristate area.” It’s custom for these salons to reuse the same photos, he said, as if “there was some magical photo shoot from like 2003.”

Before he started working on the show, he had never been to a braiding salon. (“I’m not a hair person, I don’t have hair,” he said.) But he said he made “a scary promise” to Bioh and Whitney White, the show’s director, that he would get the look and feel of a Black braiding salon right.

“That’s not my sacred space,” he said. “But I’m a queer person, a person who has sacred spaces, and I understand how important they are to get right.”

Ossie Davis’s 1961 comedy about Purlie, a Black traveling preacher returning to Georgia, takes place on a cotton plantation in the 1950s. One location is Purlie’s plantation house, a “threadbare but warmhearted, shabby but clean” place, as the script describes it. There are also a commissary and a church.

The set designer Derek McLane said he and the show’s director, Kenny Leon, wanted the play’s first Broadway revival to have a contemporary sensibility that wasn’t weighed down by sentimentality.

“It’s a play that nobody was really familiar with,” McLane, a two-time Tony Award winner, said in a phone interview. “It had been over 60 years since it was on Broadway, and hadn’t been revived since. We wanted to present it like a new play as much as we could.” (The play, which had a limited run, closed at the Music Box Theater in February.)

To that end, Leon created a prologue in which the cast, led by Leslie Odom Jr. and Kara Young, walk onto a plain wooden box of a set that was empty save for a rack of costumes, which the actors put on before walls come into the space.

“It said, this is going to be about the power of the words and argument and theater,” McLane said.

As written, the play ends with Purlie welcoming congregants to his new church. To make it appear as if the church had been there all along, the furniture slides off the stage and the ceiling recedes to reveal peaked rafters. A cross flew in upstage, and a church was made.

“It was a moment of triumph for Purlie, and that was my goal: to come up with a scenic gesture that felt like what he had achieved,” McLane said.

The set was made almost entirely out of raw rough cut wood with little ornament. Doors and windows were plain, as was the pulpit. McLane said the spareness let Purlie’s “spirituality and his belief in God and in the Constitution” shine through.

“The play is full of idealism, and that’s one of the things I love about it,” McLane said. “It’s about love of law and the ability of reason to help improve our lives. I find that very inspiring.”

Thank Dave Grohl for all those buttons.

In 2013, the Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer released “Sound City,” a documentary about the renowned Los Angeles recording studio where Nirvana recorded “Nevermind” on a revered Neve mixing console (named after its inventor, Rupert Neve).

Unable to visit recording studios during the pandemic, Zinn, who has been attached to the play since 2017, used the documentary as one of his primary sources — technical manuals were another — in designing the sound board that dominates the downstage half of his naturalistic set.

“I literally freeze framed the film,” Zinn, a two-time Tony winner, said during an interview at the John Golden Theater, where the show is running through Jan. 5. “With the right camera angles, I pieced it together.” (Zinn’s is one of the play’s 13 Tony nominations, making it the most-nominated play in Tonys history.)

Zinn eventually visited Mission Sound Recording, a studio in Brooklyn, to see its vintage Neve board and ask questions: How did you make the walls? How do you build a soundproof environment? How do you make the room not feel claustrophobic?

With years of observation and research, and in collaboration with the show’s sound designer, Ryan Rumery, Zinn created the realistic-looking recording studio, including the upstage, soundproof music room where the actors play instruments and sing songs composed by Will Butler, also a Tony nominee.

Zinn said his set is sturdy and carefully pieced together, one reason it doesn’t move when, in the play’s final section, the action shifts from a studio in Sausalito, Calif., to one in Los Angeles.

As for Easter eggs, Zinn said there are stickers and a menu from the ’70s on the set to give it an extra layer of era-appropriate naturalism. Eagle-eyed hippies might spot a crack in the verisimilitude.

“There’s a chair from Urban Outfitters up there,” he said. “I’ll leave you to decide which one.”

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