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Artist Profile: Mimi Lien Designs the Unexpected in Sets for ‘Gatsby’ and Beyond

Mimi Lien, Tony Award-winning scenic designer, works on A.R.T.'s "Moby-Dick."
Mimi Lien, Tony Award-winning scenic designer, works on A.R.T.'s "Moby-Dick." By Courtesy of American Repertory Theater
By Ria S. Cuellar-Koh, Crimson Staff Writer

Tony Award-Winning set designer Mimi Lien is returning to the American Repertory Theater for the highly anticipated new musical “Gatsby,” which premieres on May 23. Lien is no stranger to the A.R.T, having worked with them before on “Moby-Dick,” “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” and “The Communist Dracula Pageant.” On this upcoming project, Lien continues to challenge traditional notions of set design with the fascinating and surprising conceptual innovations that have defined her career.

Lien’s career beginnings were rooted in a series of surprises. As a child, Lien dreamt of being an architect. She enjoyed forcing her mother to drive around town so they could look at houses. While she had no inclination towards set design at the time, part of her delight came from trying to connect the relations between people’s lives to physical space, which she described as the “idea of narrative and space coinciding.” These instincts would eventually guide Lien in her scenic projects.

While studying architecture at Yale, she began exploring the visual arts. After graduating college, Lien attended a baccalaureate painting program in Italy, during which she had a key realization.

“I was still trying to paint three dimensional spatial subjects, but on a two dimensional medium — canvas,” Lien said.

This call to physical space led Lien to try out set design, at the recommendation of the program’s teacher. While Lien had not worked in scenic design before, she was no stranger to the performing arts. Her experiences playing piano and violin in youth orchestras proved relevant in her work with musical theater and opera.

In describing her design process, Lien mentioned looking for the “tempo” of a production: the pacing of changes in space and time. Distinct from the literal passage of narrative time, the tempo of the show indicates whether or not it needs a set with “static” representation or very literal shifts in physical location.

As opposed to the traditional conception of sets as being a “backdrop,” Lien’s sets operate with a very different function in mind.

“I often think of things as possibly being perpendicular to the piece and not parallel, necessarily. So to provide some sort of conflict or contrast, something for the performance to push against that creates a kind of vibration or tension with the performers, as opposed to just smoothly,” Lien said.

Lien attributes her unique approach to set design in part to her lack of traditional training. Instead of drawing from theater history, she draws from her background in architecture. As a result, one element of her job she particularly enjoys is the experience of being an “outsider, but in a useful way.”

Architecture isn’t Lien’s only aesthetic influence. “Gatsby,” like Lien’s other collaborations with Rachel Chavkin and the A.R.T., is based on a titan of the literary canon — “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in this case. Thus, Lien spoke of the importance of connecting with the original source material for her artistic process.

Lien’s process begins with reading the source material, which she described as “non-negotiable.” She avoids reading too much literary criticism about the text, choosing instead to prioritize her personal relationship with the material.

“I want to interface with the original piece and then have my own, allow myself to have an emotional response to the piece. And that would shape or guide how I might approach the visual and spatial design of it,” Lien said.

Whether audience or creator, Lien wishes for people to embrace the unexpected. Imagining the ideal reaction to her work, Lien wished for audiences to leave having watched “an unexpected alchemy” of performers and space. This statement harkens back to Lien’s theme of perpendicularity. Her work refuses to fade into the background, instead influencing the interpretation of a production by taking on its own character.

Simultaneously, Lien advised new creatives to “be open to change.” Whether this be a change in career plans as she made, or just a change in design, these unexpected shifts sometimes lead to the most profound outcomes. Because of theater’s “inherently ephemeral form,” looseness in the process can help create something more exciting with limited consequences.

As opposed to the immense bureaucracy of architecture and the necessity of the medium to last as long as possible, theater’s accidents don’t breed disasters. Instead, these unplanned moments are often the most beautiful — and Lien’s art thrives from this philosophy, as her unconventional artistic background empowers her to challenge the status quo in her scenic design today.

The A.R.T.’s production of “Gatsby” runs at the Loeb Drama Center from May 23 to August 3.

—Staff writer Ria S. Cuellar-Koh can be reached at

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