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Mimi Lien on 'Superterranean'

05 Sep, 2019    added by : Paul Hansen
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English

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The world premiere of Superterranean opens this week in Philadelphia. This new work of visual theater is by Tony Award winner and MacArthur Fellow Mimi Lien and explores her fascination with urban infrastructure and how it interacts with the human body. Lien has been quoted as stating, “When I see a huge refinery, with its vast and intricate system of metal pipes, tanks, catwalks, I feel inexplicably emotional. Why do these structures evoke in my body such a deep-seated feeling of pleasure and despair?”

In addition to a Tony for her set designs for the Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Lien has received many other awards including an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award, a Barrymore Award and two Drama Desk nominations. Lien has a background in architecture and in 2015 was the first set designer to be named a MacArthur Fellow.

The press release for Superterranean describes the production as taking place on the outskirts of an unknown city where “massive structures emerge from the murk. Here, nine performers embody our hunger for permanence, our dreams of utopia, and the melancholy contemplation of our skin, our organs, and our deepest urges.”

Directed by Dan Rothenberg, Superterranean will perform September 5-15 as part of the Philly Fringe Festival at 2300 Arena (2300 South Swanson Street).

I recently posed some questions to Mimi Lien about the production.

What was the impetus behind the creation of Superterranean and what issues is the work exploring?

Mimi Lien: Superterranean is an experiment in authorship – we wanted to see what would happen if an original work of performance was created with a design environment as a catalyst instead of a script. What would that process be like? The work is concerned with the relationship between humans and the large, complex, infrastructures we build that inspire both awe and dread. Of particular interest is our visceral and corporeal response to these spaces and structures.

Photo Credit: Emma Pratte

What innovative and non-traditional theatrical techniques are being utilized in Superterranean and why were those techniques employed? 

Lien: There are a number of effects that we wanted to create, which fall somewhere between puppetry and a physics experiment. We ended up creating these effects because we were at liberty to create a work of purely visual theater, as opposed to a theater that is serving a text.

Is there a particular philosophy which guides you when you are creating the sets for a production? 

Lien: I look for a combination of resonance and tension between the different elements of a performance. If I am working with a script, I try to hone in on the lines that move me in some way; simultaneously I think about how the spatial container of the piece could be something the performers can play against. Also, the first question I ask is: What is the nature of the event? This starts to define the relationship between the performance and the audience, the style of performance, how the visual cues in the world work.

Are there set designers or theater artists from the past that have particularly inspired you?

Lien: Mostly inspired by non-theater artists such as sculptors and architects – Diller & Scofidio, Zaha Hadid, Donald Judd, Olafur Eliasson. Josef Svoboda and George Tsypin have been inspirations from the set design world.

Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about Superterranean? What thoughts do you hope they will take away from the work?

Lien: I don’t think this is a theater piece that will make sense in a traditional way – mostly, I hope that audiences walk away feeling it in their gut.

Would you like to tell us what your future projects are?

Lien: Currently working on Moby-Dick, which will be at A.R.T. in December,
Lucas Hnath’s The Thin Place at Playwrights Horizons, and Don Giovanni at Glimmerglass Opera next summer.

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