Set/Costume Designer David Zinn Is Doing 4 Broadway Shows at Once | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Set/Costume Designer David Zinn Is Doing 4 Broadway Shows at Once

The two-time Tony winner is working on The Notebook, An Enemy of the People, Stereophonic, and Mother Play.

Graphic by Vi Dang

David Zinn is the costume designer for An Enemy of the People and the scenic designer for The Notebook (with Brett J. Banakis), Stereophonic, and Mother Play as well as the recently closed Jaja’s African Hair Braiding.

And that's just for the 2023–2024 Broadway season.

A two-time Tony winner for Best Scenic Design of a Play for The Humans (2016) and Best Scenic Design of a Musical for SpongeBob SquarePants (2018), the Broadway vet was also Tony-nominated for his scenic design of Fun Home and his costume designs for In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play; Airline Highway; A Doll's House, Part 2; and SpongeBob Square Pants.

Also the recipient of Drama Desk, Henry Hewes, and Obie awards, Zinn's numerous Broadway credits as a scenic and/or costume designer include Xanadu; A Tale of Two Cities; Good People; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; Other Desert Cities; Seminar; The Other Place; Picnic; Rocky; The Realistic Joneses; Violet; The Last Ship; The Real Thing; An Act of God; The Humans, Amélie, A New Musical; Present Laughter; The Boys in the Band; The Waverley Gallery; Torch Song; Choir Boy; Diana, the Musical; The Minutes; Funny Girl; Almost Famous; and Kimberly Akimbo.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Zinn reveals how he's managing to juggle so many productions this season and the night in drag that forever changed his life.

Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza in The Notebook Julieta Cervantes

Where did you train/study?
David Zinn: This is a long answer to a simple question, but I feel like I really began my study while I was in high school (in the Pacific Northwest) and my local community theatre, as well as some of the theatres in Seattle, gave me a place and community to start to study and learn what theatre design was all about. But, more formally, I came to NYU right after high school in 1987. At the time they had a (since-discontinued) program where you could be enrolled in the graduate design program as an undergraduate, and so I did that, not really knowing exactly what I was getting myself into. It was very hard, but I was surrounded by a ton of folks that continue to inspire me: Marsha Ginsberg, Paul Tazewell, Christine Jones, Constance Hoffman. Gregg Barnes and Kitty Leech were downstairs in the undergraduate costume shop, Moisés Kaufman directed at ETW [Experimental Theatre Wing]. It was a cool time to be there.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
I think it’s really my relationship with other students, that was mostly what helped me thrive at and survive NYU, that were most impactful/helpful. I certainly learned a lot of practical information there, especially from Sal Tagliarino and Carrie Robbins and Oliver Smith, whose classroom lessons really started to reverberate for me once I started working outside of school. 

But it was a weird and hard time for me; I came to NYU really hoping to find some kind of a mentor, but I ended up learning the most as I struggled against what I was being taught, as opposed to learning in harmony with it, if that makes sense. My peers really bolstered me, and challenged me, and inspired me.

Victoria Pedretti, Caleb Eberhardt, and Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People Emilio Madrid

You have an extremely busy season. How do you manage juggling four currently running new Broadway productions: The Notebook, An Enemy of the People, Stereophonic, Mother Play?
Busy, indeed. This whole year has been beyond what I could have hoped for, and I don’t take a second of it for granted—they’re all rich projects with great collaborators, and I know how rare that is. 

Helpfully, two of these shows have had other productions, which eases the load a little. The Notebook, which is a co-design with the amazing Brett Banakis, had its first go in Chicago a year-and-a-half ago, and the physical production is largely the same. And, Stereophonic just closed at [Off-Broadway's] Playwrights Horizons in December. While its physical production is changing a little bit to fit in its new home, we’re still reusing a lot of the architecture from Playwrights in its move to the Golden. So there are a few less new-things-to-solve for those two shows. 

But Enemy and Mother Play are brand new. For all of these projects, I have a small band of associates and assistants that help manage all the labor and keep my head on straight so that I can do the part that I’m good at, which is find the right visual/emotional home for these incredible plays and musicals and the characters in them.

Andrew R. Butler, Sarah Pidgeon, Chris Stack, and Juliana Canfield in the Off-Broadway production of Stereophonic Chelice Parry

Can you discuss the specific challenges for the scenic design of The Notebook and Stereophonic?
Sure, yeah, they’re such radically different projects with different needs. The needs of Stereophonic were in some ways so practical that it almost feels like the way it looked was an afterthought. We had to make, not a functioning recording studio, exactly, but an environment where the upstage “live” room (where the band makes music) is entirely soundproofed from the room downstage of it, as it would be in a real recording studio. The way that sound operates in that space, and its isolation from the control room (and from the audience), and the fact that you can only hear what’s happening up there if the mics are on and the speakers are turned on, is the most important physical aspect in the show. Its other challenge was how to capture the reality of the vibe and layout of a real sound studio in a convincing way, while still enlarging/abstracting it enough to make it all visually accessible to an audience beyond the “fourth wall.” Light (it was lit beautifully by Jiyoun Chang) in this world is really built into the architecture of the space, and while there is a location change in the course of the action of the play, the set doesn’t change to indicate that.

The Notebook, by contrast, is a collage. Like many musicals, it has a fluid relationship with location, mood, and (especially in this story) time, all floating on the rhythms of Ingrid [Michaelson]’s beautiful score. So the challenge that my co-designer, Brett Banakis, and I had in diving into it was how to keep it moving, how to incorporate memory and shifting locations and multiple realities happening at once in a suggestive enough way that could evoke the worlds inhabited, but in a fluid and shifting enough way to let them all play out in palimpsest. Evocative, but also ever-changing. It’s also a story about lightness and dark (and water!) and, like Stereophonic, light is also built into the architecture of the set but in a more poetic or “abstract” way. Brett and I proposed these “light sticks” as a kind of modern fluid element inside our world—suggestive at first of the cold light fixtures you’d find in a memory care facility or hospital, but that quickly explode and evolve and help tell the story of time and location in an unconventional way, through their movement and appearance. Our great lighting designer, Ben Stanton, took on this challenge and has created a whole additional storytelling vocabulary in how they move and change and dance.

Both are essentially boxes to tell a story inside, but each one requires such different rules to help support such differently told stories.

Zinn's design for the Sam Pinkleton-directed production of The Wizard of Oz David Zinn

If someone were to ask you to choose one set and/or costume design from any production to put in a time capsule that is representative of your work, which would you pick and why?
While I’m really good at picking things—it’s basically what I do for a living, these kind of questions about my own work are super hard for me. Much of my work features a lot of one thing (a lot of color like SpongeBob, or a lot of banality like The Humans), and I’d be inclined to try and pick a project where those worlds smashed-up against each other in the same show. Which, sometimes I’m lucky enough to have happen. 

I guess Here We Are at the Shed [Off-Broadway] did some of that. But the first project that leaps to mind is the Wizard of Oz that I did with super-genius Sam Pinkleton last summer in San Francisco, where the beautiful and the banal and the super queer and the funny and the sad were all present all the time, and combined a sense of history and grace and wit and community and required reinvention and boldness at every choice. I’d maybe put that in the time capsule. It was magical and lasted only for a little while, and I wish more people could have seen it because it’s rare when all of one’s heart and guts gets to explode on stage, in all their colors. 

Not every project can or probably should be like that, but the rareness of that experience makes me want to preserve its memory even more.

What made you decide to become a set/costume designer? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
There are a few things. In 1980, the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle reopened as a house for touring theatre productions, and my parents bought season tickets, [and we saw] all of those national tours in the early '80s (I was in sixth grade, I think, when that all started): Annie, Evita, A Chorus Line, Oklahoma!, On Your Toes…

Annie, especially—since I remember it as the first one I saw—just exploded my brain. My parents also subscribed to a magazine called Theatre Crafts for me as they saw my interest grow, and all of those pictures and behind-the-scenes articles and images also set my imagination on fire.

The last thing that’s important to mention happened after I came to New York and saw, in 1988 I think, The Wooster Group do Frank Dell's Temptation of St. Anthony at The Performing Garage. Again, my mind just lit on absolute fire, and it became my mission to try and find a way to help make events that touched at the smarts and spectacle and detail and totally mystery of all those events—events that could combine the control and beauty of moments when the stage lights are on, and the equal, or even surpassing, beauty of the moments that the stage lights are off and everything is in work-light. And the liminal moments in between.

Did you originally set out to be both a costume and set designer?
Yep, totally. Both interests flowered early in me—strongly and together.

Cheyenne Jackson and Kerry Butler in the original Broadway production of Xanadu Photo by Peter Lueders/Paul Kolnik Studio

How did you get your first job in the theatre?
My first actually paid job was as a light walker for a guy that was the boyfriend of my sister’s horseback riding coach—he did lights for the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society. And Betsy, the coach, taking note of my burgeoning interest in theatre, thought I might like to spend the day walking the set for Scott as he focused the lights and wrote cues. I was 10, maybe? 

And, Betsy was correct—I loved it. It was also the same theatre that would later house the Intiman for many years—a place I worked a lot in the decades that followed, so I was able to kind of commune with my younger, eager ghost self a bit whenever I returned there. Betsy was actually a big influence, not just on my sister but on me, too. Because the following year (I’m now 11) she convinced my parents that it was OK for me to go see the Rocky Horror Picture Show with a bunch of theatre friends because it was just a “crazy rock 'n' roll movie.” I went in drag. Forever changed. Thank you, Betsy!

What do you consider your big break?
I love this question because I feel like a “big break” is so relative to where you are in your career… Every time someone trusts you—believes that you can do something based on their faith in you and not because you’ve done that exact thing before—that is a big, amazing break. There are so many of those inflection points in a career, and each one is as valuable as the next.

When Chris Ashley asked me to do the clothes for Xanadu (which became my first Broadway show) in 2007 is as much an important break as when Edie Whitsett asked me (still in high school) to help her with props for a play at the New City Theater in Seattle in 1985, is as important as David Herskovits asking me to design costumes for Titus Andronicus for his new company Target Margin in 1991, is as important as Sam Gold asking me to design Circle Mirror Transformation [at New York Theatre Workshop] in 2009. 

All those things were massive acts of generosity that changed my life completely. And there are more instances.… And thinking about this question offers a real moment for me to reflect on the incredible generosity shown me over the course of my life, and question whether I’ve been as generous, and to always challenge myself to try to grant that break for someone else.

Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
I’m answering this question by not answering this question because there are so many. And I want to go on public record as saying that there are too many to list here, and all for so many reasons. I really love designers. I admire them, I treasure their company, I grow from their intelligence and hearts and activism, and they help me understand the world. I’m honored to be in community with them when I can be, honored to be in a theatre working with them when I’m lucky enough to do that. I love drinking wine and having dinner with them. I love laughing with them. I f-ing love designers, and I’m grateful to be in their company.

Look back at Zinn's scenic design for Jaja's African Hair Braiding earlier this season in the gallery below

Check Out Photos of Broadway's Jaja’s African Hair Braiding

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