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Mimi Lien accepting the 2017 Tony Award for Scenic Design.

Setting the Stage: The Future is Female

While Tony Award–winning scenic designer Mimi Lien was preparing for this season’s Broadway revival of True West, Sam Shepard’s blazing account of fraternal warfare, she drew inspiration from a photo of two boys boxing “in a very pristine room, with fragile objects on the shelves. It struck me as an image that could be telling in the story of this play, where these two brothers are wrestling with themselves and each other in their mother’s house — in this space that I see as a female fortress, in a way.”

A number of other female set designers are bringing their distinctive sensibilities to Broadway this spring. Miriam Buether is following her work on Aaron Sorkin’s hit adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird with a gender-bending King Lear starring Glenda Jackson in the title role. Rachel Hauck’s work will be featured in a pair of acclaimed Off-Broadway transfers, the musical Hadestown and What the Constitution Means to Me. Another celebrated transfer, director Daniel Fish’s reimagined Oklahoma!, features scenery by Laura Jellinek. And Chloe Lamford is designing playwright Lucas Hnath’s much anticipated Hillary and Clinton.

Though all are still relatively young — Lien, who ties Buether for the most Broadway credits to date (five each), has 13-month-old twins — these women share extensive experience, ranging from regional and international theater to opera and dance, as well as a strong sense of fellowship. Jellinek “worked for Mimi Lien a little bit right after school,” she points out, adding, “Rachel Hauck has become crucial to me, as someone I can always talk to.” Lamford, who is British, notes, “In the U.K., all the top designers are women, and they are really dynamic leaders of the field. I am so lucky to work in the same field as Es Devlin, or Miriam Buether, who are always challenging the form.”

Lien cites the prolific two-time Tony Award winner Christine Jones, whose current projects include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two, and The Cher Show, “for the path she’s forged as both a designer and a mother. She’s always been a beacon to me. And I look to the other women I’ve worked with, from assistants to playwrights and directors.” Rachel Chavkin, for instance, helmed Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which earned Lien her own Tony. (Chavkin has also worked with Jellinek, and is teaming with Hauck this spring on Hadestown.)

Indeed, such collaborators have also provided encouragement, and key opportunities, to Lien’s colleagues. Jellinek, who has worked extensively with Lila Neugebauer and Anne Kauffman — the latter staged Jellinek’s 2017 Broadway debut, Marvin’s Room — notes that prior to Oklahoma!, “every time I’ve taken a next big step in my career, it’s been with female directors. I’ve worked with great male directors as well, but my first big show at the Public, my first opera, were with women, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

Hauck, who made her Broadway bow with a male playwright and director in John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons, says she never considered gender a major factor “until somebody pointed it out to me once. A male director asked me who I had worked with, and I listed five or six people, and he looked at me and said, ‘Do you ever work with men?’” While Oregon Shakespeare Festival director Bill Rauch was “one of my early champions,” Hauck allows, “it’s certainly true that women directors were far more interested in bringing me on, for a long time.”

For Lamford, first represented on Broadway two years ago with 1984, gender and age have both proven complicating factors at times. “Being a youngish woman making large-scale scenery in some European countries definitely can lead to some scenarios where I have encountered sexism,” she says. “I suppose in nonprofit subsidized theater, where I have made the majority of my work, I feel very free to challenge theater form, and have a robust conversation about how design works. It’s definitely enabled me to make mistakes and learn how to push boundaries wherever I can.”

Other women account for broader, if still incomplete, progress, and feel empowered by it — and by their own growth. “It’s still a male-dominated field,” Hauck says. “At some point your confidence changes, though, and your ability to have important conversations changes, and I feel like I don’t have to push back as hard these days. You’ve seen so many people taking such great chances in the past five years, and you can see the number of women designing in different ways.”

Lien notes that her last Broadway outing, The Lifespan of a Fact, which opened last fall, “was the first Broadway production to have an all-female design team. It’s kind of crazy that that hasn’t happened before, but it feels like a notable sign of progress. I do have this gut feeling of optimism, of more parity being achieved.”