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Q&A with Set Designer Wilson Chin

Wilson Chin

Tiger Style! set designer Wilson Chin is known for his ability to design dramaturgically, meaning his sets compliment the action of the play organically. Whether designing for opera, classics, or new plays, Chin’s designs are repeatedly lauded as handsome, atmospheric, and efficient; his work on multi-location sets that must transform quickly have often been considered his best. Tiger Style! is a fast-paced comedy that spans the globe, so Chin is a perfect fit. Recently, he answered some questions for Director of New Work Lisa Timmel, about his experience as a designer and his work on Tiger Style!

Lisa Timmel: When you are asked to design a play, what do you look for in the project?

Wilson Chin: I love a play with big ideas that surprise and confuse me. As much as I love a kitchen sink drama, I truly love the challenge of a play that hops around multiple locales and explores untapped concepts and narratives.

LT: You’ve worked on classics, opera, and new plays. How do they differ?

WC: With classic plays and operas, part of the design process is acknowledging and filtering in the expectations and history the audience brings to the production. It’s impossible to watch Romeo and Juliet or La Bohème without subliminally contrasting it with previous productions or preconceived notions of what those stories are about. So part of designing a classic is about how to subvert and/or meet expectations, and how to use those expectations to create a meaningful and dramatically alive experience. For a new play, there are no expectations or guidelines, which is liberatingly scary and invigorating. We take something that has only existed on a page and deeply, deeply examine and dissect it to identify its heart and structure in order to create a world in which it can thrive and grow.

production photo

LT: What is the nature of the designer/director collaboration?

WC: Every collaboration is wildly different, depending on the director and the piece at hand. Some directors like to come in with concrete visual ideas and some have just emotional responses. I always try to begin with visual ideas of my own, but sometimes a piece is elusive enough that it takes a few deep conversations before anything visual arises.

LT: You designed the world premiere production of Tiger Style! at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. What kinds of discoveries did you make about the play from a design perspective in that production and how has it affected the design for this one?

WC: At the Alliance, we did the show in a much bigger theatre space and there was always the fear that the intimacy and comedy might get lost and diffused. So we took many unusual steps to push the acting space as close to the audience as possible. But even so, the show still felt perhaps a little epic. For the Huntington, the size of the auditorium and the stage/audience relationship feels perfect for this play, so I think the design will breathe and rest a little easier here. One of the subtle, but important, changes we are making for this production is the tone of Act 2. Previously, Act 2 had moments of flash and awe that were not unlike Disneyland or Las Vegas. But we discovered that the flash was overwhelming the darker, more serious undertones. So we are working on balancing the tone.

LT: Have you ever had the chance to design the same play for two different directors?

WC: Yes, I’ve actually done that before! And it was a surprisingly interesting, but perhaps melancholy, experience. A playwright and I worked on a premiere production that went exceptionally well and we were all proud of it. A few years later we were invited to do it again with a different director, cast, and company. In many ways, the new production was just as good, if not better, than the original production. But it was interesting observing new artists discovering and wrestling with scenes and moments that I knew by heart. In those moments of struggle, I felt like I had to bite my tongue so as to not be prescriptive. It was like watching a baby I raised moving on which, as the playwright later told me, is how it feels like every time a new play gets produced.

— LISA TIMMEL


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