Go Deeper

Journey into Set Design with Mimi Lien

Posted July 23rd, 2009

In a room just off the 7200 square foot expanse where set construction of Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Welcome to Yuba City has begun, set designer Mimi Lien and director Quinn Bauriedel confer over the set’s model. The show takes place in a diner and the diner’s parking lot in Yuba City, a real town in the high desert of southern California, but for the purposes of Pig Iron, it’s become a mythic outpost of the American Southwest. Mimi and Quinn are trying to decide whether to put barren mountains in their background, or opt for more of a “big sky” desert approach, and they are curious how many cacti would work best in the scenery.

Though she lives in Brooklyn and comes from Connecticut, Mimi Lien has been a frequent visitor to Philadelphia over the past several years, creating sets for the Wilma Theater, Pig Iron, and the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has worked steadily and busily these past five years, building sets large and small for theater and dance; it’s a career that she hadn’t planned on, but happily slipped into.

Born in New Haven, Mimi spent her first twenty-one years there, even attending its famed university, Yale, which she graduated from with a B.A. in architecture. But by that time, she had become less excited about a career path in architecture and ready to explore her creative side a little more. A fellowship took her to Italy where she studied painting for a year. But despite the Florentine backdrop, the food, and the wine, painting didn’t feel quite right either. “It felt like I was always trying to convey three-dimensional ideas” in her painting. So Mimi began creating on three dimensional artworks and installation pieces.

Follow Mimi’s journey into set design after the jump.
About halfway through her fellowship, one of her teachers suggested that she consider a career in set design. She flirted with the idea of grad school in London, and though that didn’t pan out, on a visit to that fine city she saw Mnemonic by the theater company Complicite. The show and the artistic possibilities of set design. Mimi was struck by the transformative set, which involved “a wooden chair that became a stick figure that was then puppeted–aesthetically that really opened my eyes.”

Mimi moved to New York and began working in mostly low budget films. It was fun at first, but she realized that film sets are essentially made to be realistic, and didn’t leave much room for experimenting. “I didn’t want to be an interior designer, that wasn’t me; I really love building sets.” She turned to theater–the only problem was “I didn’t know anything about theater; I’d seen only a handful of plays.” Mimi saw grad school as a way “to learn quickly.” So she entered the MFA program in set design at New York University’s Tisch School of Performing Arts.

Since Tisch, she has done a fair a mount of traditional theater, but with the open-ended creative process of Pig Iron and with a huge set to play with, Mimi feels right at home. “I love working this way–it’s kind of my candy.” Mimi is quick to point out that it’s “not that I dislike working small,” but it clear that large scale projects where the set transforms the space into an all-encompassing environment fits into her “natural way of thinking.”

Larges sets and pushing the boundaries has been a constant in Mimi’s Philly productions. Her first job in our fair city was for the Wilma Theater’s production of Outrage by Itamar Moses (2005). It was the largest budget she’d had to play with, and the play moved between Renaissance Italy, Ancient Greece, present day, and 1930s Germany. This was the kind of mayhem that Mimi discovered she excelled in, and she won a Barrymore for her work. She has since worked with the Wilma on Cloud 9 (2006), A Number (2006), and The Life of Galileo (2007).

Mimi came into the Pig Iron fold in a round about way: she was traveling to China and wanted vacation tips and her friend put her in touch with Pig Iron’s co-artistic director Dan Rothenberg who had just been there. One vacation tip led to another led to the revelation that they both worked in theater, and pretty soon Mimi was designing the set for Love Unpunished, which debuted in 2006 (and was part of the Live Arts Festival later that year).

“Working with Pig Iron is really different from a play where the script exists,” explains Mimi. “The first thing I like to do is to go to the [performance] space and sit in it. More often than not a special idea will come from that.”

Her process starts with identifying an emotional impulse to the material and the physical surroundings of the performance space. She then conducts research by painting out ideas or making a collage. When she first saw the space for Yuba City at 5th and Fairmount, she was excited. “What I loved about this was that the proportions felt like a parking lot. That really informed the idea for this piece. I needed to create a set where characters could encounter each other and go on their way.”

From this, she asked herself, “How do I exploit this space?” Her solution was to create a space within a space. “I had a vision of walking in and seeing a huge empty space [as part of the set] and a building within the building.” The building became the diner and the empty space a parking lot that beater cars and pickups drive into during the performance. The diner’s walls are decorated with a mural of the Southwest (and a half a truck), but a behind the diner stretching from both sides to the end of the parking lot is another, larger painted landscape of Southwest. A road trip last summer out Route 66 from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree helped Mimi understand the immense desert landscapes.

A unique aspect of the Yuba City production process is that “traditionally you design it and then it’s done,” but with a relative abundance of time, Mimi can “devise pieces which left some room for more pieces to be created on sight, but still have the framework.” In this way, she is able to “fine tune the details” during the rehearsal period–a rare luxury for a set designer.

Despite her longtime residence in the city ninety miles northward, a lot of her most creative work has been here in Philadelphia. “Philly’s been a real artistic home. So much of what I really love from the body of my work happens to be in Philly. The [performance] community is very different, very multidisciplinary. New York people are much more focused on working in their own niche.”

Hmm, and the rents are so much cheaper here too. You can see Welcome to Yuba City and the Mimi’s final product beginning September 5 at the Live Arts Festival.

–Josh McIlvain, with additional reportage from Nicholas Gilewicz

See more of Mimi Lien’s work at

Model set of Outrage by Itamar Moses at the Wilma Theater, directed by Jiri Zizka, 2005; Carmina Burana, choreography by Matthew Neenan for Pennsylvania Ballet 2007; courtesy Mimi Lien; Love Unpunished, Pig Iron Theatre Co. at 2006 Live Arts Festival, directed by Dan Rothenberg. Image courtesy Mimi Lien.

Photo of Mimi Lien, photo of Mimi Lien, Quinn Bauriedal, and Alison Fair Peoples (production manager for Pig Iron), and set photo by Josh McIlvain.