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Putting the Pageant Cart Before the Plague

Date: Feb 23, 2018

Tony-winning designer David Zinn creates a playful medieval world for The Amateurs


David Zinn created an underwater extravaganza by designing the sets and costumes for the splashy Broadway musical SpongeBob SquarePants. But for his latest assignment, Jordan Harrison's The Amateurs at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre, he's working on a decidedly smaller, but no less imaginative, scale. The play follows a hapless 14th-century traveling theatrical troupe presenting the story of Noah's Ark at towns and encampments as they make their way to their patron nobleman, whom they hope will provide refuge from the Black Death.

Harrison and the design team decided that Gregory, the play's almost-mute scenery maker, was way ahead of his time. "So we sort of borrowed liberally from both the idea of a medieval pageant wagon and the theatre of our last few centuries, and smooshed it together to make Gregory's vision," Zinn explains.

Zinn says the hardest part of the design was getting the inside of the wagon just right, since it serves as the small stage for the troupe's medieval pageant. The members tow it from town to town, and it holds their props. Working within the limitations of the Vineyard Theatre's resources, the cast and creatives discovered "how beautiful the cart can be when it's open by really leaning on how small it can be when it's closed up," says Zinn. There are majestic stage moments late in the play, when "it's like the cart kind of blows up in scale to take on the whole theatre."


Zinn was attracted to the play's "kind of ye olde theatricality" and the stage magic at its core. "The roughness of the landscape that these medieval players are in, smashed up against the kind of sweet and stupid theatrical magic that is in their little cart, just seemed like a really sweet, sweet spot for me," he says.

In trying to conceive how the set would look, Zinn took inspiration from the spare aesthetic of Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film The Seventh Seal, a historical fantasy set during the Black Death in which a chess game is played between a knight and Death. "I love those big, bleak landscapes," he says.

The Amateurs also provided Zinn with the chance to work with fellow Washingtonian Jordan Harrison after many years of trying. Harrison and Zinn, though 10 years apart in age, attended the same school on Bainbridge Island and had some of the same teachers. Plus the play addresses themes important to Zinn, "a bunch of the preoccupations that I came to New York with, as someone who was politicized by AIDS and the AIDS crisis, and my weird coming out issues. The work was really beautiful and spoke to this bizarre communal experience."

Although Zinn won a Tony for his set for The Humans on Broadway, he's no stranger to small-scale design. He crafted a child's view of the cosmos with reflective pasted ceiling stars and dangling toy spaceships for Ethan Lipton's The Outer Space at Joe's Pub last year, and a center-stage table set for The Big Meal at Playwrights Horizons in 2012. Though he admits to being a downtown guy at heart, he enjoys a broad range of work experiences. "I like a tiny space, but they're just different muscles; I like exercising all of them."

To read about a student's experience at The Amateurs, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.


Follow Martha Wade Steketee at @MSteketee. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer Kim, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Kyle Beltran in The Amateurs. Photos by Carol Rosegg.

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