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What makes set designer Mimi Lien a genius? Take a look

What makes set designer Mimi Lien a genius? Take a look
"A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney" has a carpeted screening room/funeral parlor. Audience members enter the fictional space and take their places in Mimi Lien-designed seats that she calls church chairs. (Mimi Lien)

"What makes you a genius?" It's an obnoxious question for us to ask, but theatrical set designer Mimi Lien graciously answered the night she was announced as a 2015 MacArthur Fellow. The prize comes with a $625,000 grant and the instant pressure of the label "intellectual hero."

Amid the blitz of attention that followed, Lien took time to explain by email how set design is "no longer an 'interpretation' of the playwright's stage directions but a physical and metaphorical container for the performance."

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For "Zero Cost House," Lien designed a set that has simple plywood planes, which serve as wall, roof and ceiling. She often creates environments that "provide something for the performers to push up against, either spatially or tonally."
For "Zero Cost House," Lien designed a set that has simple plywood planes, which serve as wall, roof and ceiling. She often creates environments that "provide something for the performers to push up against, either spatially or tonally." (Mimi Lien)

"The first thing I think about is the spatial relationship with the audience — how are they situated in the space? Are they part of the event, or not? Should they feel inside the performance or outside of it?"

Lien tries to conceive more than a backdrop for the actors, she said. She's creating a physical experience for everyone in the room.

For "An Octoroon," Lien created walls that free-fall, sending cotton balls toward audience.
For "An Octoroon," Lien created walls that free-fall, sending cotton balls toward audience. (Mimi Lien)

"I'm interested in the three-dimensional space that the audience experiences, walks through, sits in — as well as what they are looking at," she said.

Here, Lien shares three examples of work that expresses her ambitions as an artist and designer.

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