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Emmy Watch 2016: From “Hamilton” To “Grease Live!” – Production Designer David Korins

By: Marjorie Galas

It is a production designer’s job to take the structures described in a script and build them from the ground up.  For his Tony nominated work in “Hamilton”, scenic designer David Korins literally started from nothing.

“When I got the script there was no location,” said Korins.  “There was no blue print for where to go.  It was a huge responsibility just to show up.”

Being part of the ground-breaking, Tony winning musical that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton was, as Korins stated, “beyond imaginable.” The hip hop musical is a historically accurate portrait of Hamilton spanning a thirty year period.  Korins researched the period and decided on a design that weaved the architectural style of New York City in the 1770s with a sense of development and industry.  Recognizing a majority of carpenters at the time were shipbuilders, Korins incorporated pulleys and large, rough-hewn beams connected with joints and pegs true to the period.  These elements were integrated witha brick and lumber backdrop. The set is retractable, allowing the actors to remain the focal point at any given moment.

Korins’ ability to balance the needs of the story with establishing a sense of “place” where on display in the Fox Networks production of “Grease Live!” presented January 31st, 2016. While Korins began his career as a scenic designer for theater, he soon began jumped between stage and production design for screen.  Theater scenic design works within the confines of a stages dimensions, whereas production design provides greater reign in build outs and possibilities.  He saw “Grease Live” as a blend between the two disciplines.

“The skills are transferrable between the two mediums.  You’re using the same muscles, just flexing them in a different way,” said Korins.  “’Grease Live’ was a perfect combo.  We always focus on the narrative.”

Initially contemplating what he could bring creatively that would take the production to a new level, Korins engaged in a “dream big” phase.

“This gave me carte blanche to create and conceive,” said Korins.

Korins focused on the locations within the script and the Los Angeles based location – the Warner Brothers lot – where the production would be staged.  Cognizant of the physical parameters he was working within, he grabbed a pencil and paper and began drawing ideas.  Always looking towards the best way to tell the story, he thought about camera position and the flow of scenes between the different set ups.  After a month of conceptualizing the design, Korins brought his plans to the producing team and frequent collaborator, director Thomas Kall.

“They loved it.  They were really genuinely excited,” said Korins.  “I was energized by their reaction.  My creative vision was taken seriously and embraced.”

Prior to developing the sets, Korins met with choreographer Zachary Woodlee and director Alex Rudzinski who was overseeing all camera movement and placement.  Their collaboration was crucial to ensure the design was feasible and complacent to every visual element of the show.  Once the designs were finalized Korins began focusing on the palette.  The production maintained its 1958 storyline, ranging from the first to last day of senior high.    Keeping Rydell High’s school colors red and white, he used grey and greens – the opposites in the colors spectrum – in the background allowing characters wearing their school uniforms and jackets to pop.  The palette of each set, from the blues and creams of the diner and the pink and purple of Frenchy’s bedroom were carefully chosen to ensure the characters remained the focal point.

Korins had many conversations about color with the producers and camera staff throughout the process.  Recognizing theater tricks such as flying walls between scenes would appear on camera, Korins and his staff acknowledged the stage performance aspect of the special in the design.

“It was OK to look like a theater experience, “said Korins.  “We had real scene changes (taking place on camera), so why not show how a soundstage is made.”

Korins scenic works is showcased before a live audience consistently in the theater, and generally under a roof.  “Grease Live!” was performed outdoors.  The generally nice Los Angeles weather took a turn the day of the production.  There was a massive rain storm and winds gusting up to 50 mph.  Korins and his staff erected tents to keep mikes and actors dry between takes and did what they could to maintain the sets.  While there were a few redundancies of some material there was little flexibility in the overall production.  An hour before the show started Woodlee and the cast rehearsed some changes to ensure the actors would remain safe.  There was little they could do other keep actors dry in-between their scenes.

“It was choreographed within an inch of its life.  There was no way to switch gears,” said Korins.

Fortunately, the rain subsided before show time.  While every production is a learning experience where he gains new knowledge, Korins credits the scope of “Grease Live!” as a masterclass in live production.

“There are probably a thousand things I learned,” said Korins.  “I walk away from the performance with my head up. “