Tony Award-winning set designer David Zinn’s interest in theater began in the way it does for most kids who get bit by the acting bug. While he says being on stage seemed like fun, it was other elements of theater — set design and costume design — that quickly caught his attention.
“At a young age, I had a real curiosity for the items of design without really knowing how it all went together,” Zinn recalls in a recent phone conversation from outside the stage door at New York’s Palace Theatre where he continues to tinker with the complex set design for the musical “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Zinn is also spending time in Chicago as the set designer for Tracy Letts’ newest play “The Minutes,” now on stage at Steppenwolf Theatre.
When: To Dec. 31
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
In junior high, a teacher recognized Zinn’s expanding interest in design and helped guide him in that direction. By high school, he was interning at theaters around Seattle where he grew up across the bay on Bainbridge Island. “By the end of high school, I knew I loved theater and I knew I didn’t want to be an actor. I really wanted to be a designer,” Zinn says.
Today, at 48, Zinn is among the new breed of designers working on Broadway and in regional theaters across the country. Zinn’s Broadway credits include “Fun Home,” “A Doll’s House Part 2 (Tony nomination) and “The Humans” for which he won a 2017 Tony Award. (“The Humans” runs Jan. 30-Feb. 11 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.)
For Steppenwolf, he also created the scenic design for “Visiting Edna” and costumes for “Airline Highway.”
“David has an exquisite visual sense, like most great designers, but it goes beyond just the picture with him,” says “The Minutes” director Anna Shapiro. “His sensitivity to tone and his understanding of what the theater is capable of is simply extraordinary and his ability to communicate that understanding is why he is such a special collaborator.”
Letts’ highly-anticipated new comedy is about small town politics. As city council members plan a town celebration, a question arises: Should they acknowledge the town’s true history or continue to perpetuate false local lore? The cast includes Steppenwolf ensemble members Kevin Anderson, Ian Barford, Francis Guinan, James Vincent Meredith, Sally Murphy and William Peterson.
So, where does one start when creating a set for a new play with no previous scenic history? For “The Minutes,” Letts sets his story in a very specific place — a city council chamber. Zinn suspects the playwright was picturing “one of those anonymous and slightly depressing basements in a modern city hall.”
Zinn perused Paul Shambroom’s “Meetings,” a book of photographs taken at city council meetings around the country, and consulted YouTube videos of council meetings. At one point, Letts mentioned that Peoria was the size of the town he was imagining. Zinn thought “I can connect those dots” and his research turned in another direction to find just the right room.
“The Peoria city hall is a very, very beautiful classic 19th century building that had a very different vibe than most of the rooms we were looking at,” Zinn explains. “It felt like the place where you go to instill the spirit of the American dream and democracy in action. And that felt like a good background for the events of the play.”
After studying costume and set design at New York University, Zinn found work in costume design at regional theaters. It wasn’t until he got “a big break” at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera, where he designed costumes and several large sets,” that theaters began to take notice of his scenic design talents.
“Suddenly people realized I understood the vocabulary of big spaces,” Zinn recalls. “So breaking into set design wasn’t possible until it was.”
The bearded, tattooed Zinn readily admits (with a laugh) to being “a lot of personality and not the easiest person to control.” However, he says he does like “a strong leader” something he’s found in both Shapiro and her fellow Steppenwolf ensemble member, Tina Landau, director of “SpongeBob.”
“With both Anna and Tina you know who is driving the boat,” he says. “The kind of confidence they have is both reassuring and inspiring.”
While Zinn only occasionally gets to see theater in Chicago (blame his busy schedule), he does understand the ethos of the local scene. It’s much like the one he was part of back in those aforementioned Seattle high school days.
“It was so exciting. Just like Chicago, there were large-scale regional theaters and a zillion other wonderful experimental companies. With my parents encouragement, I stepped into the middle of all that. I would say I was very lucky.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.