Few Broadway musicals have sets designed by the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” But few Broadway musicals have scenery quite like Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Instead of a traditional proscenium stage, the entire Imperial Theatre will become an integrated, inclusive performance space, courtesy of designer (and MacArthur Fellow) Mimi Lien.
While Lien is no stranger to the theatre, and has assisted in creating the sets for other shows, The Great Comet is the first Broadway show that she has created herself. “I really feel like this is my Broadway debut,” she said of the musical inspired by 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Her journey to Broadway began in the field of architecture. “When I started designing for the theatre, one thing that I missed was thinking about the three-dimensional space that an audience actually walks through,” she said. When architects create buildings, they must consider a person’s full experience within the space rather than simply what the structure will look like. “Often, you design something on a stage that’s removed from the audience and you’re only looking at it from one side,” she said of traditional set design. “The act of moving through space is actually a really powerful tool that can be used and harnessed for great dramatic potential,” she said.
While a traditional stage separates the audience from the performers, Lien is eager to blur that line. She considers the art she creates as an environment rather than scenery. “I want it to be a full envelope for an event to happen in, rather than a backdrop behind the actors. I’m interested in creating a total theatrical event for the audience,” she said. “If they’re surrounded by an environment, if they’re invited to participate in the piece in a more active way, then they’re engaging with the piece. And ultimately, the impact of going to the theatre is stronger.”
Creating the Comet
In finding the right environment for The Great Comet, Lien held onto a story the musical’s composer, librettist and lyricist, Dave Malloy, shared at an early meeting with the creative team. On a trip to Moscow to research the in-development musical, Malloy visited a bar with an “amazing atmosphere” that felt like a grand celebration. Seated a table of strangers, Malloy realized that the bar’s band was scattered around the room so that the music surrounded the guests. “That was the kind of experience he wanted to create,” Lien said. “Dave is not just a composer, he’s not just a writer. He thinks about creating an entire event. He thinks about how he wants the audience to experience the event. As he was writing the piece, he was also thinking about the environment it should be in.”
The team, Lien said, talked about the sense of “togetherness” that develops during wartime, especially for people determined to celebrate life before the danger gets too close. “There’s a great sense of romance and epic drama in this part of War & Peace,” Lien said. With that in mind, she sought to create an environment that would let the audience feel like they are experiencing all the drama together as it happens all around them.
Early productions of The Great Comet were held in a custom-designed tent that offered a wide range of options for the creative team. With no stage, scenes took place in between tables and banquets in what appeared to be an opulent supper club, with real food and drinks served. The orchestra was similarly scattered around the room, creating a truly immersive experience.
When the show was booked for the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lien jumped at the chance to adapt her original vision. “I love going into an existing space and seeing how certain elements can be utilized and exploited and other elements can be pushed against and subverted,” she said. At ART, the performance space was expanded beyond the proscenium, and the show reinvented the entire theatre.
Each production of the show has increased its performance space, forcing Lien to keep adapting her design. For Broadway, Lien removed several rows of seats from the front of the Imperial Theatre orchestra section and added platforms for performers in the audience. “We are also building two grand staircases that connect the stage to the mezzanine—and that’s something I’m most excited about for this Broadway production.”
As she prepares to make her debut as a Broadway set designer, Lien is also appreciative of the recognition the MacArthur fellowship has brought to her work. “One of the greatest honors of being named a MacArthur Fellow was acknowledging the art of design and the role of design within theatre,” she said. “I hope that through this acknowledgement, people will become more aware of the role of design.”
Bringing a Little Moscow to Bryant Park
Back in July, the cast of The Great Comet brought a taste of the show to the monthly Broadway in Bryant Park concert series. Check out the video below. It’s not quite the same as sitting in a sumptuous Moscow salon, but it’ll give you a great idea of the musical style and merriment of the show.