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David Korins
David Korins

Stage Presence

Designer David Korins reveals the inspiration, details, and big ideas behind his set for the Broadway production of Hamilton.

On the afternoon of the 2016 Tony Awards, David Korins ’99 sat on the dark set that he designed for the Broadway musical Hamilton and took a slow look around. The set is deceptively simple—essentially a brick structure hung with catwalks and scaffolding. And like the play’s music, the look of Hamilton is now familiar even to those who haven’t seen the show. The loops of the ropes, the grain of the floorboards—Korins had envisioned every detail of the iconic set, down to considering 33 different shades of brick for the walls.

The visit to the Richard Rodgers Theatre was a rare, quiet interlude for the charismatic Korins, nominated for a Tony for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for Hamilton. The previous weeks had been a whirl of parties, receptions, interviews, congratulations from his scores of theater friends, and—as has been the norm for Korins since his arrival in New York immediately after graduating from UMass Amherst—plenty of hard work.

Although he says he has pared down his workload in the wake of Hamilton’s success, moderation is not in Korins’s nature. His 13-person company, David Korins Design, has 20 projects underway. Those jobs include scenic design for three more Broadway-bound musicals: Dear Evan Hansen, a bittersweet story of a high school misfit; War Paint, starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as makeup moguls Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden; and The Bandstand, a show set in 1945 about veterans turned big-band musicians.

Korins’s current endeavors also include a couple of “can’t talk about them” jobs for Google, and designing a restaurant on West 46th Street across from the theater that houses Hamilton. Korins has long taken on other types of projects to support his theater habit: He has designed sets for operas and a few films and for Mariah Carey, Bruno Mars, and Kanye West concerts. His first major foray into television, the sets for Fox’s 2016 telecast of Grease: Live!, which drew 14 million viewers, earned him an Emmy award for Outstanding Production Design.

Reflecting on the jobs he selects, Korins says: “In the end, there are 6,224 things you are going to do in your life and then die. How much are you enjoying the things you choose to do? Who are the people you choose to be with? For me, it’s about the process and not the product.”

That was true for his work on Hamilton, the megahit about the Founding Fathers that put Broadway back in the center of the cultural conversation with its mix of hip-hop, rap, and show tunes, politics, and a love story. When Korins read Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play and listened to the music, he knew he wanted to be part of Hamilton. “I was struck by the story,” Korins says. “Of course I didn’t know it was going to be the juggernaut it’s become.”

At age 39, Korins had already established himself in New York theater as the set designer for close to 20 Broadway shows, among them Annie, Misery, Motown: The Musical, Lombardi, and Godspell. He had worked with members of Hamilton’s creative team, yet he prepared for the interview to become the show's scenic designer as if he were new to Broadway. “I usually don’t bring in drawings, but I did,” he recalls. “I did a lot of thinking, and I went into the meeting and said ‘I feel like we are the young Founding Fathers of our generation in the theater.’”

Working on Hamilton, he says, “has been an unbelievably blissful experience, not just because the show was so successful, but because it was such a cohesive production. The creative team worked in lockstep—the lighting, the sound, the set, the choreography, the costumes—the whole thing is in service to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s unbelievable score. It’s a work of genius.”

For his part, Korins realized that, given the vast number of words in the Hamilton score, there wouldn’t be time for scene changes as the 30-year epic unfolds over multiple locations. “I went to some of the actual places, such as Hamilton’s home in New York, and looked at others, like Washington’s tent, in books and on the Internet. I hung pictures on my wall, and, after a lot of sketching and a lot of conversation, came up with a theatrical metaphor,” he recalls.

The result, reminiscent of a ship or a construction site, serves as a launching pad for the people who built the framework of our country. “It’s an aspirational place,” Korins says. As America evolves, so does the set: Not many theatergoers notice that the brick walls actually ascend eight feet between the first and second acts of the show. Additionally, the few carefully selected props on the stage change from rifles and buckets to maps and books.

Hamilton’s stage floor features double turntables that rotate the actors and build the show’s momentum. Korins had used turntables in other productions, including Misery, and felt that the cyclical nature of Hamilton, with scenes such as a swirling hurricane and the storied duel, was well suited to that theatrical device. “The turntables became intrinsic to the storytelling,” he explains.

In the end, he says, “What makes the set special is how it serves the show.”

Korins’s Hamilton set embodies everything that makes him a great designer, according to his former teacher and mentor Miguel Romero, retired UMass Amherst professor of scenic design. “The set transforms itself and is there supporting the live performer without distracting the audience in any way,” says Romero. “The ultimate compliment is that it is supportive of the piece and not just a pretty picture that calls attention to itself. David is a master of the technical side of our profession, but he is also a born storyteller, which is something you can’t teach.”

Korins came to UMass from Mansfield, Massachusetts, without declaring a major, following his two sisters, Robyn (Korins) Stewart ’94 and Karyn Korins-Boyd ’97. He’d been an avid basketball player in high school as well as an actor and musician.

A failed high school audition—he wanted the lead role as Billy Bigelow in Carousel but got the part of the bad guy, Jigger Craigin—led a drama teacher to encourage Korins to help out backstage. “When I got to UMass,” Korins says, “I knew I wanted to continue working with the arts and I knew I didn’t ever want to be an actor.”

He enrolled in a theater course that covered all aspects of theater design—lighting, scenery, sound design, and costumes—and by the end of his sophomore year, he had run through the entire undergraduate theater design curriculum. Romero encouraged Korins to assist him and to enroll in graduate-level design courses.

“David was ambitious in the best possible sense,” says Romero. “It was clear that he was planning on turning this into his profession. He had a great understanding of the collaborative process, force of personality, and, of course, talent.”

Photo by Matt Furman

Korins built puppets for Aristophanes’ The Birds and was an assistant set designer for The Importance of Being Earnest. The first set he designed himself was for Antigone, presented at the Hampden Theater in Southwest. “The power went out and we ran the show for 35 minutes without lights,” Korins recalled. “It was an inauspicious beginning to my career.”

Korins worked with lighting designer Ben Stanton ’99 on Antigone. In an authentication of the UMass Department of Theater’s prowess, Stanton was one of two other alumni nominated for a 2016 Tony, for Spring Awakening. Justin Townsend ’97 received two 2016 nominations, Best Lighting Design of a Musical for American Psycho and Best Lighting Design of a Play for The Humans.

After Antigone, Korins went on to Tales of the Lost Formicans, by Constance Congdon ’82G, turning the Curtain Theater into an installation art piece. He replaced the seating with salvaged lawn chairs and sofas, crammed the stage with street signs, a birdhouse, and a working fountain, and blew in scents of freshly cut grass and burnt toast.

“It was a very visceral experience,” Korins recalls. “I learned about immersive theater by doing. Later, I used that experience in Blackbird.”

Congdon, now a prominent playwright, has seen Tales of the Lost Formicans performed hundreds of times around the world. Nearly two decades later, she remembers the UMass production vividly. “David’s set made it really special,” she says. “He created a whole world that was sui generis; you were in the world of this play.”

Romero recommended Korins for an internship at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where he quickly built connections and skills. He returned to Williamstown for three summers. When he went to New York City after graduation (with honors), he founded Edge Theatre Company with Carolyn Cantor. He and Cantor have two daughters, Stella, age 11, and Vivian, age 7.

Korins says, “I figured out really early the bare minimum amount I needed to get by on the Lower East Side—for rent, cell phone, food, my college loan. I assisted designers and painted sets—to earn the money I needed to live. The rest I invested in shows.

“I worked seven days a week, and I believed that good work begets more work.”

The toil has more than paid off professionally. Although the UMass grad didn’t take home a Tony for his restrained Hamilton set, he did take the stage with Lin-Manuel Miranda and others when their collective work won Best Musical. Tony recognition and his 2016 Emmy for Grease: Live! have put Korins, already well-known as a versatile, collaborative designer who can ace challenging projects, in even greater demand both inside and outside the theater world.

Says Korins, “I am excited about several upcoming projects—Dear Evan Hansen, War Paint, and our new restaurant among others—but the greatest career challenge I am facing right now is navigating new business opportunities and developing interesting ways to tell stories and create memorable experiences.” Characteristically, he adds, “I’m not done. This is just the beginning.”