News & Articles

David Zinn: A Scenic Designer's Notebook

by Patrick Zakem

Tony Award-winning designer David Zinn shares some insight into the development of the scenic design for The Minutes and walks through several versions of scenic models. 

Edited by Audience Engagment Coordinator Patrick Zakem. 

Since The Minutes calls for -- and I think is best supported by -- a "realistic" environment onstage, most of my research and early conversation with director Anna D. Shapiro were about very practical questions: What kind of room is this; what's the scale? What's the size of the city of Big Cherry? Is it a modern room? Not modern? Repurposed from some other space not intended for meetings? Formal? Not formal? What does this "public" room look like when the public isn't there?So we started by looking at a bunch of City Council meetings of various scales. I knew this wonderful book Meetings by Paul Shambroom, which is a richly detailed collection of photos of City and Town Council meetings and the minutes of those meetings which I sent to Anna as a starting point. I started this process imagining that the space would be kind of small and banal, but in looking at all this research together what world started to feel a little... not right, I guess, for the material. There's a lot of great City Council meeting research on the internet ( in fact, most of those meetings are filmed and put on YouTube) so I started Googling cities that were roughly the population we thought Big Cherry was, and started sampling what their city council meetings were like and where they took place. I tried to find as many places from around the country as I could, to try to get as broad a sense as possible of these rooms. And while we didn't end up drawing a lot from these rooms literally, we learned a lot from the "dressing" of them. At some point, author Tracy Letts suggested Peoria as a cirt that was perhaps a similar size as Big Cherry, so I took a look at their City Council meetings which are held in their beautiful historic City Hall, which has a very different flavor than most of our other research. It's an early 20th century building that has a Neo-Classical vibe inside -- a big arches coffered ceiling, a mural at the back. There's also a wonderful city hall in Massachusetts I found that had a similar vibe. The formality of those spaces -- the idealism of it, the suggestion of history, and the potential for the wonderful collision of a "period" room with contemporary furniture: it all felt like the kind of world in which we wanted this play to be set. Once we agreed on that, I made a series of models that show how we could fit the scale of the city council room into Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre. We also started to grapple with questions of where and how people sit in the space -- Formal desks? Informal tables with a permanent Mayor's desk? All informal seating? What are the other rooms? How do you get to the bathroom? How do you get into the room from the outside? And since there is a transformation of a kind in this play -- how do you hide the things you need for the transformation in a room that should look utterly un-transformable?