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ROSEN’S REVIEW: David Zinn is Broadway’s sharpest eye

The Brooklyn-based designer is one of the best scenic minds in the business, and he has a hat-trick of shows currently on Broadway to prove it

November 17, 2022 Evan Rosen
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David Zinn seems to be everywhere. The Tony Award-winning costume and scenic designer has work on display in three active Broadway musicals – Funny Girl, Almost Famous and Kimberly Akimbo. At the time of our interview, he was in Philadelphia with his husband. He splits time there and in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he’s working on a new production of The Wizard of Oz for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. He’s also begun work on another big production – one that he says will “have a lot of interest around it.” And when he’s not doing all of that, he’s creating masterful sidewalk art in Ann Arbor, MI.

Ok, that last part isn’t true. That’s a different David Zinn, a successful chalk artist who occasionally gets confused with our David Zinn. Even still, it’s a testament to the ubiquitous nature of David Zinn, the inevitable artistry, the natural proliferation, maybe, of “David Zinn,” as a concept. 

David Zinn is scenic designer for Kimberly Akimbo. Photo: Polk & CO

But he’s not a concept. Our David Zinn, the one we’re talking about, is a very real person who has been making a name for himself and himself alone, on the biggest stage for the last several decades. With over 32 Broadway credits, 80 Off-Broadway credits and 2 Tony Awards for his scenic design, it should come as no surprise that many producers are in want of his services.

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What may come as a surprise, for those going to see Lea Michele in Funny Girl, is that the real romance can often be found in the backdrop behind her, or the emptiness of the space she inhabits. It may be the lone dressing-room-mirror she sits at, looking out into the audience, or the brick wall that rotates to morph into the glamorous world of show-biz, or even still, the enormous ‘Versailles-sized’ window of her mansion through which we witness the seasons of her life come and go. 

All of these elements were orchestrated by Zinn, in conjunction with the show’s lighting designer – his close friend and collaborator Kevin Adams. The two would text constantly during pandemic-induced Zoom rehearsals, having conversations about how best to combine their powers to maximum effect.

David Zinn is Scenic Designer for Funny Girl. Photo: Polk and Co

“Scenery is the thing that the light hits,” Zinn tells me. “I like to make opportunities for light to transform a space.” 

For Zinn, collaboration is a big part of what he does. He’s worked with the same scenic associate, fellow Brooklynite Tim McMath, for a decade-plus. On every project, Zinn must maneuver through a crowded cluster of creatives – directors, dramaturgs, choreographers, playwrights etc. – balancing his own sensibilities with the group’s.

“There are kinds of stories I like telling, but I don’t make my living telling those,” he explains. “As long as the story is resonating and ringing a bell in some way, that’s my way in. An important thing to ask is, ‘Is it going to allow me to show some part of my best self or my best work?”’

What are the kinds of stories David Zinn likes telling? “Weird conceptual experimental, queer perfromance stories,” he says. But, “queer in the way that can mean when the rules are bent.” 

It’s a sensibility that comes from a life spent in the theatre. Back on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle Washington, he first began designing for the stage as early as middle school. Some time later, after feeling encouraged from internships in the Seattle theatre scene during high school, Zinn packed his bags and moved across the country to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he would go on to receive his MFA in Design for Stage and Film. 

“I loved Seattle and growing up there. I sort of always assumed I would come back and then I didn’t.” Part of that, Zinn says, was finding a home in Brooklyn. He credits his classmate and fellow designer, the late Lenore Doxsee, with finding his current residence – an apartment on 7th street in Park Slope – in the same building he still calls home, over 30 years later. He also mentions Excelsior, a gay bar that closed in 2019 after 20 years of business, as well as Purity Diner (still kicking) as some of his favorite early haunts. “You start to build your own kind of Sesame Street, and Brooklyn really affords that kind of low key neighborhood.” 

David Zinn is scenic designer for Kimberly Akimbo. Photo: Polk & CO

He found his artistic home in New York at the Target Margin Theater. And while many of his big breaks occurred outside of New York City in regional theaters across the U.S, he recalls one production at the Manhattan Theatre Club – a play called The Four of Us, written by Itamar Moses – which was a pivotal moment. “That was a big turning point,” Zinn says. “I did that and people were like ‘Oh, who’s this guy?’ That was sort of the start of what I think of as my New York career.”

The experience bolstered Zinn towards working with other future stars like playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold, both of whom also lived in Park Slope when the group teamed up for Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons in 2009. The production won two Obie Awards and featured Zinn’s costume and scenic designs – both of which were nominated for Hewes Awards that year. 

Nowadays, it seems Zinn is either one or the other, depending on who’s asking. He served as scenic designer for Funny Girl and Kimberly Akimbo, but costume designer for Almost Famous. His two Tony Awards have come for his scenic design work – one for The Humans (2016) and the other for the Spongebob Squarepants musical (2018) – but he’s also been nominated for his costume design. When I ask him about the difference between the two, he posits that ultimately, they are “two variations of the same muscle.”

“There’s a lot of thinking about color and shape that goes into it. But there’s also a lot of painterliness – looking at that box and thinking about how to make it ‘sit right.’ This composition is changing and shifting.”

Zinn imagines himself as both optometrist and patient, looking through different lenses, asking himself if the objects in front of him look better or worse with each decision he makes. “The ‘art’ part of it becomes this compositional balance. And it’s kind of the same for scenic and costume design. Getting both of them in balance is the trick.”

Another trick, Zinn explains, is taking the time to step away from the work. “You have to daydream and have time where you’re not actually thinking about the project, but the ideas are swirling around in your brain – time when you ‘cook your soup,’” as he calls it. He finds this in the time he spends with his husband, Mikael Eliasen, who currently serves as Artistic Advisor at Opera Philadelphia and who teaches him about classical music. He finds it also in the simple moments like watching his cat, Tyger, fall asleep – which can be “just about as nourishing as anything else,” Zinn explains. 

And so, the compositional balance of his life outside of the theatre begins to come into focus; despite being one of the busiest designers in one of the busiest cities in the world, David Zinn is able to make time for the smaller, quieter moments – it turns out they’re essential. As for the legacy he is creating for himself, Zinn feels the inevitability, but also the luck of it all. 

David Zinn is Scenic Designer for Funny Girl. Photo: Polk and Co

“To actually be a part of the fabric of a place and the culture of a place, is really nice. It’s like you left a footprint and it didnt get washed away by the ocean. A lot of times you feel like you’re in this city and you don’t know how to enter the myth of it, but if you stay long enough, you sort of end up being part of the myth or the history of it.”

Thus, like a mighty oak, David Zinn has grown into one of Broadway’s biggest and strongest designers. By planting his seeds in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on the whim of his friend, Lenore Doxsee, he’s been able to reach great heights and expand outward into countless productions and countless places. By staying put for over 30 years, Zinn has actually gone everywhere – leaving more than just footprints, but accolades and admiration in his wake. “You don’t know how profound those decisions are going to be,” he tells me, referring to the decision to let Lenore handle the apartment search. “I feel so lucky we ended up in a place like this.” 

Interested in seeing more of David Zinn’s work? Check out his website at http://www.mrdavidzinn.work/

Evan Rosen is a culture writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle covering film, theatre and other art with ties to Brooklyn. 


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