Mimi Lien, an award-winning set designer whose work in theater, dance, and opera has been featured on American stages and across the world, is Fordham’s Denzel Washington Endowed Chair in Theatre at Fordham this fall. Lien is the winner of a 2017 Tony Award for her set design in the musical Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812, and the first set designer to earn a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, among other awards and honors. She is the second set designer to serve as a Denzel Washington Endowed Chair at Fordham since the program began in 2011. 

Lien recently spoke to Fordham News in Pope Auditorium—the same space where she designed a set for a Fordham production more than a decade ago—where she reflected on her career and the semester ahead.  

How did you get into set design? 

I studied architecture as an undergrad. At that time, I didn’t know much about theater, but I was interested in thinking about space in a more conceptual and sculptural way, and then applying that framework to an architectural context that exists in real space with real people. While exploring how architecture can tell a story, I stumbled into set design. 

What is it about set design that you’re passionate about?

Set design is really central to a theater production because it establishes a physical world. You can have this world that is like a laboratory for life. It can be completely surreal or fictional. It’s a way to create really complete worlds that might be something that you haven’t encountered before, something that’s a little strange—something that moves you. 

What’s something about set design that most people don’t know about? 

One of my favorite things about being a set designer is searching for materials that suit a performance’s design objective and intention. What kind of material can create this image or illusion within the needs and confines of a theatrical stage and performance? Most of the time, those materials are not designed for how I’m going to use them, so I get endlessly amused while looking for industrial materials that were made for a different purpose. For example, I might be looking for something that’s shiny but also lightweight, or something that looks like falling ash. One time, I created a huge pile of red sweeping compound for a production of Macbeth, which represented internal organs of the body. I wanted it to be red because, obviously, there are a lot of references to blood in Macbeth

What brought you to Fordham? 

I’ve actually worked here before. Sixteen years ago, I designed the set for a production of Top Girls, which was directed by Erica Schmidt. But it was May Adrales, the new head of the Fordham Theatre program, who brought me in as the Denzel Washington Chair. May and I have collaborated together on a number of projects in the past. One day, she emailed me and asked if I would do it, and I thought it sounded amazing. 

What are you most excited about doing here?

Fordham has really well-rounded and solid training in theater. I’ve met alumni who studied directing, design, and production, and everyone is really well-trained and grounded with a solid foundation in theater. I’m excited to challenge the notions of what theater and performance can be and really put design forward in that conversation. It’s something that I think a lot about in my own work, and I’m excited to share that with the Fordham community. 

I just had my first class today, and my students all seem amazing. Most of them are fourth-year students, so they have already been through foundational design training, and I have a good mix of students from different disciplines. I’m excited to have people with a range of experience because what I want to focus on in my class is not so much the nuts and bolts of set design, but the conceptual ideas behind design and how we can push the envelope. I have structured my course to focus on designing for performances through a more architectural lens because that’s my background and how I have approached design. I feel like the key components of thinking about space architecturally, like scale, volume, materials, light, and sequencing of spaces, are all things that you might learn in architecture school, but they’re also totally applicable to theater design. 

For their first project, my students need to find a site on campus and then conceive of a performance that might take place in that site. So I’m also training designers to think about being conceivers of an event, too, and not necessarily responding to a script. I want to treat design as more of a holistic theater-making discipline, as opposed to, here’s where I fit into it.

What professional projects are you working on? 

I just returned yesterday from opening an opera at the San Francisco Opera, which will run for the next few weeks. It’s a new John Adams opera, Antony and Cleopatra, using the Shakespeare play as the libretto, along with a few other sources. Now I’m in the midst of finalizing the design for a new revival of Sweeney Todd on Broadway, which has just been announced

How do you feel when you reflect on your life’s work? 

I feel incredibly blessed, lucky, and privileged to have been able to create projects on some of the scales that I have. Every project has a whole different set of circumstances, and therefore a whole new set of things to learn about and research. I’m excited to continue working in the avenues that I have worked in, as well as revisit my architectural roots and branch out into public art projects outside the theater. But mostly, I feel like this chair is such a gift and an opportunity to give back a little bit and to share some of what I’ve learned and encountered on my journey, even though there’s still a lot to learn. 

What advice do you have for the next generation of theater makers? 

What constitutes a performance? Space, event, and spectators, but that can happen anywhere … inside a theater, but also a street. As long as you have some action that’s happening and somebody who’s watching it, it could be defined as a form of theater. But what’s amazing about theater is that anything is possible. The reason that I transitioned from architecture to theater is that in the latter world, you have the magic of illusion. You can do things like figure out how to rig a piece of concrete so that it appears to be floating. So my advice to students is to be tenacious. Pursue the impossible, because in theater, anything is possible. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Taylor is a visual storytelling strategist in Fordham University's marketing and communications department, where she documents University life through photography and video. Since joining Fordham in 2018, she has served as a writer, photographer, videographer, and social media manager, dividing her time between University Marketing and Communications and the Office of the President. She earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from Stony Brook University's School of Communication and Journalism and her master's degree in public media from Fordham University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Her work has appeared on NPR, NBC New York, and amNewYork METRO.