Chop to the top

"Chop to the top"

Designer David Zinn gives it all he's got

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Gavin Lee tap dances with four legs as Squidward Tentacles in SpongeBob SquarePants, with scenic and costume designs by David Zinn.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

BY RYAN LEEDS

BROADWAY SCENIC and costume designer David Zinn is a multifaceted wizard. With his burly beard and bushy handlebar moustache, he even resembles a crafty oracle who might hold the key to life’s biggest mysteries. What he holds in reality are two Tony Awards for his scenic designs — one in 2016 for The Humans and another for his majestic underwater world of Bikini Bottom in last year’s SpongeBob SquarePants.

In his 2018 Tony acceptance speech, Zinn said, “If you asked me whether or not I’d be fortunate enough to work in the same room as Tina Landau, I’d have definitely said impossible.” Yet Landau defied the impossible in 2014 when she picked up the phone to gauge the Seattle native’s interest in collaborating on a musical based on a sponge “who lives in a pineapple under the sea.”

The two had never met but held deep admiration for each other’s work. Eventually, the show would include original tunes by some of the finest talent in contemporary music, but when Landau first spoke to Zinn, there was neither a book nor score. “Still, you don’t pass up an opportunity to work with Tina,” Zinn told Dramatics. Landau not only offered him the chance to design the set but also invited him to design the costumes, for which he received a Tony nomination.

Costume design is where Zinn’s career began. Although he studied both set and costume design at New York University, his first job out of college was designing costumes for Target Margin, a Brooklyn theatre “founded on the principle that works of art return us to real truths more powerfully by their divergence from a strict illustration of reality.” It seemed a perfect fit for Zinn, whose naturally rebellious instincts have heavily influenced his creative eye.

Flexibility and flair

Paradoxically, Zinn’s illustration of the SpongeBob aesthetic diverged toward somewhat stricter realism, at least in terms of costume design. Zinn’s costuming evoked, rather than replicated, the aquatic cartoon, perhaps most subtly with the title character, whose square-ness is more figurative than physical in the Broadway adaptation. Often, cartoon characters who become “humanized” fall victim to large, bulky costumes, inhibitive to movement.

“When Tina and I started working together, we knew immediately that this was not the direction we wanted to go in,” he said. “These would not be the kind of costumes you’d see at an amusement park. Given the fact that most of these characters would be in motion every time they were onstage, the costumes needed to give them the freedom to execute the physically demanding choreography.”

Squidward sketch

Despite this streamlining, the overall integration of his dual costume and set design was hardly minimalistic. In fact, Zinn created nearly 200 eye-popping costumes for SpongeBob — and to listen to him, you’d think he’d never even broken a sweat. “Oh, that’s nothing,” he remarked, “The Cher Show has over 600, so we’re pretty small in comparison.” Small by Cher Show standards perhaps, but just as mighty. Zinn succeeded in making the well-known, two-dimensional cartoon characters spring to life.

In the opening number, he adorned his ensemble in materials made from what he calls “a 99-cent store explosion.” Plastic tubes, bungee cords, hair-decoration necklaces, caution tape, plastic utensils, earplugs, and jersey mesh were a few of the materials incorporated into each costume. Zinn has explained that nearly every object, both on his creatures and on the set, was meant to be an item that had floated to the bottom of the sea.

One of the more difficult costumes to design was for Gavin Lee, the Tony-nominated actor decked out in Zinn’s jewel-studded, sea-green tailcoat as Squidward Tentacles. After participating in a panel discussion at BroadwayCon in New York City’s Hilton Hotel, Lee spoke briefly to Dramatics about his elaborate ensemble. As a multi-limbed cephalopod, Lee faced his share of challenges.

“The main discomfort was around my hips and waist, where I had all the straps, buckles, and Velcro snug. It was a similar feeling when I tap-danced upside down on the proscenium arch both in the West End and on Broadway in Mary Poppins. I had a big old harness on, and all that tight pressure was in exactly the same place. As Squidward, I also had extra shoes behind me, attached to my own shoes. Those were filled with wooden feet, which had buckles on the wooden ankles, which connected to the false legs.”

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Zinn won his first Tony Award for Scenic Design in 2016 for The Humans, featuring Reed Birney, Sarah Steele, Jayne Houdyshell, and Arian Moayed. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Basic mobility presented new obstacles. “When I wore those legs, it was hard to navigate stairs. I had to turn my own feet out so that the fake feet were parallel. Otherwise, the fake feet would stick out and hit the sides of the stairwell. But once I got used to it, it was fine.”

During rehearsals, Lee was given a lighter foam, simply to get used to the idea of dancing with four legs. Closer to show time, however, Lee was more particular about the fit. “I really wanted the final product to be symmetrical so that, when I bent my knees, they would be in the exact spot as my own knee. I wanted them to look as real as my own leg. I spent a lot of time with David’s assistant staring at myself with these foam legs on. It took an awfully long time. Even throughout the run of the show, I realized that the wear and tear of the ‘joints’ on the false legs were molding the foam into different shapes. We’d have to go back to the shop and adjust things.”

Zinn was sensitive to the needs of the performers and worked closely with them to ensure the best costume representative of their characters. Lee had a lot of input into his squid garb, especially during Squidward’s show-stopping number “I’m Not a Loser,” in which he goes from a dowdy ne’er-do-well clad in a plain orange, zippered polo shirt to a fabulous, bedazzled song-and-dance man in mere seconds.

“They could not have thrown more glitter, tinsel, beads, or crystal on that outfit. I mean, it was so Broadway and it was such a quick change,” Lee said. “I had to change costumes mid-song, onstage, in three or four seconds. Though comprised of a separate shirt, bowtie, vest, and tailcoat, it was adapted into a one-piece costume held together by strong magnets that snapped it into place. Because of that, it was quite a heavy jacket to dance in. Plus, I was trying to lift 20 pounds of extra legs and tap shoes. It was a five-minute number that kind of killed me — but it was nice to know that I was getting a real aerobic workout each night without having to go to the gym.”

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Zinn received a Tony nomination in 2015 for his scenic design of the musical Fun Home. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In the middle of the song, Squidward is flanked by an ensemble of sea anemones clad in hot-pink sequined vests with matching pink plumage and added plastic eyeballs on the headdress, hands, and feet of each dancer. Was there an occasional stray hairball from an anemone’s pink fur? Surprisingly not. “They were so well made that it wasn’t an issue. There was, however, a humorous ocular problem. Lee explained, “There were a total of 10 eyeballs on each anemone costume. Every so often, an eyeball would fall off and go rolling across the stage. You’d tread on it, thinking, ‘Oh, God! A fish has died!’”

Zinn’s inspiration for these costumes first hit in the unlikeliest of places. “I had done the scenic design for a production of Hamlet at the Public Theater in 2017. One night, I was sitting in the back of the theatre, and my mind just started to wander. I opened my iPad and began sketching costumes for SpongeBob then and there.” That early framework provided the basis for his finished products, thanks in large part to a Shakespearean daydream.

Fortune favors the bold

In Zinn’s early New York days, when he wasn’t checking out the experimental Wooster Group and other “downtown” theatre groups or getting involved with the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, Zinn was busy honing his crafts. Shortly after college, he was asked to make costumes for an 18th-century play and then was asked to do set design as well after the set designer abruptly quit. The next decade of his life was spent mostly on costume design, and he became known as “the guy who does 18th-century clothing really well.”

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Zinn's costume design received a Tony nod in 2017 for A Doll's House, Part 2, starring Chris Cooper and Laurie Metcalf. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

All these years later, it’s hard to imagine pigeonholing Zinn into a specific genre or style. “There’s something really exciting about being in the same room with Laurie Metcalf and fitting her for her dress [in A Doll’s House, Part 2] and then turning around to create a completely different world with SpongeBob,” Zinn admitted. And through it all, Zinn maintains humility, crediting his success to “a series of lucky breaks.”

Lucky breaks are hardly a sure-fire recipe to being nominated for seven Tony Awards and clinching two. During our conversation, Zinn revealed useful tips to help aspiring designers. As he climbed the ranks toward Broadway, Zinn was well aware of his blind spots. “I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who were happy to help me,” Zinn said. “Plus, if I didn’t know something, I just learned it!” He honed his craft working on small projects in lesser-known theatres, and once his work got recognized, other successful artists tapped him to collaborate on projects.

Above all, Zinn urged a can-do attitude. He isn’t afraid to dive headfirst into most projects and approaches all of them with eager confidence. “Nobody wants to work with someone who will say that a certain thing can’t be done. People want solution-oriented collaborators, someone who will just figure it out.” That industrious mindset may explain why his list of Broadway credits keeps growing. “This might sound a little obnoxious,” he said, “but my first two Broadway credits were for the musicals Xanadu [2007] and A Tale of Two Cities [2008]. My first nomination came in 2010 for the play In the Next Room. Now, I look back and see that I have more than 20 Broadway credits under my belt and ask myself how it all happened,” Zinn said, a tone of genuine disbelief in his voice.

This past Broadway season, his scenic designs were represented in Torch Song and The Waverly Gallery. He constructed both the sets and costumes for The Boys in the Band and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy. The day after his Dramatics interview, he headed to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater to create costumes and sets for Pam MacKinnon’s production of Edward Albee’s Seascape. Later this spring, his work will be seen in Ms. Blakk for President at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where he’ll be reunited with SpongeBob director Tina Landau and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.

SpongeBob’s lead producer, Nickelodeon, has announced intentions to grant licensing rights to schools and youth theatres. For these and other groups, Zinn suggests against imitating what’s been done on Broadway, simply due to economic restraints. “One of the nicer things about working on a commercial project is that you have a bigger budget. I had five assistants on this project,” Zinn said, urging subsequent designers to respect their own budgets — and creative interpretations. “We used so many everyday objects for these costumes. Make the costume that you think would be the best representation of the character.”

Like Zinn’s own career trajectory — and the underwater world of Bikini Bottom — there is freedom and fluidity in carving one’s path.

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