You're sitting there, and it's incredibly frustrating. It's maddening. You've been sitting there for hours, filling in those little tiny circles with your No. 2 pencil—this is a standardized test. You look up, half-erased chalkboard, you can see that perfectly written cursive alphabet, the pull-down maps, you can hear, tick, tick, tick, ticking on the wall, that industrial clock. But most importantly, you can feel that oppressive fluorescent light, that death ray over your head. Bzzzzzz. And you can't take it anymore, but you don't have to, because Miss Darling says, "OK, boys and girls, you're done." So you jump up—I mean, there is nothing left of you but a vapor trail. You move so quickly, you slam that little molded plastic chair, and you sprint down the hallway; you go past the Lysol smell and the BO smell and the cubbies, and you push the door—
and finally, you're outside. Oh, you can feel the wind on your face, then the sun on your skin and most importantly, the big blue sky.
That is a revelation of space. Making revelations of space is what I do; I'm a designer and creative director, and that's what I do for a living. I do it for all sorts of people in all kinds of different ways, and it might seem complicated, but it's not. And over the next couple of minutes, I'm going to give you three ways that I think you can move through your world so that you, too, can make revelations of space, or at least reveal them.
Step one: therapy. I know, I know, I know: blah, blah, blah, New Yorker, blah, blah, blah, therapy. But seriously, therapy—you have to know why you're doing these things, right? When I got the job of designing "Hamilton," I sat with Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer, Tommy Kail, director, and I said, "Why are we telling this 246-year-old story? What is it about the story that you want to say, and what do you want people to feel like when they experience the show?" It's important. When we get that, we move into step two: the design phase. And I'll give you some little tricks about that, but the design phase is important because we get to make these cool toys. I reach into Lin's brain, he reaches into mine, this monologue becomes a dialogue. And I make these cool toys, and I say, "Does this world look like the world that you think could be a place where we could house your show?" If the answer is yes—and when the answer is yes—we move into what I think is the most terrifying part, which is the execution phase. The execution phase is when we get to build this thing, and when this conversation goes from a few people to a few hundred people now translating this idea. We put it in this beautiful little thing, put it in the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" super-sizer machine and blow it up full-scale, and we never know if we did it right until we show up onstage and go, "Is it OK? Is it OK?"
Here's the thing: you don't have to be Lin, you don't have to have a book that you want to turn into a show in order to do this in your real life. You're already starring in a show, by the way. It's called your life. Congratulations.
But seriously, Shakespeare said it: "All the world's a stage." He nailed that part. What he screwed up royally was that part where he said, "And we are merely players." It's ridiculous. We're not merely players. We are the costume designers and the lighting designers and the makeup artists in our own world, and I want to get you to think about being the set designer in your world. Because I think you can leave here if you do these three steps and a couple of little tricks, as I said, I'm going to tell you, and you can begin to change the world the way you want to. You want to do it? OK. Everybody write a show.
No. Just kidding.
OK. Step one: therapy. Right? How are you feeling? That's what the therapist says: "How are you feeling today?" It's important to remember that, because when we design the world for you, the therapy is important. It tells you that emotion is going to become light and color. A good example of that light and color is a show I designed called "Dear Evan Hansen."
"Dear Evan Hansen" exists—oh my God—"Dear Evan Hansen" exists in a world of almost all light and color. So I chose a color: inky-black darkness.
Inky-black darkness is a color the way that sadness is an emotion. And this show transforms people, but not before it wrecks people. I bet you're wondering, "How expensive could the set possibly be to transform you if you sit for two hours and 20 minutes in inky-black darkness?" The answer is: cheap! Inky-black darkness, turn the lights on at the right time. Seriously, think about leaving Miss Darling's class. Inky-black darkness gives way at the right moment, we fly away that wall and reveal a beautiful blue sky. It blows people away and it transports them, and it makes them feel hopeful. And we know this because color is emotion, and when you paint with color, you're painting with feelings.
So think about that emotion, the one I had you file away in your mental Rolodex. What color is it? Where in your wardrobe does it exist, and where in your home does it exist? When we design the show for you, we're going to use that color to tell you how you feel in certain times. But also, you know this exists because you put the hero in white, you put the lead character in red, you put the villain in all black. It's typecasting. You know that. So think about it. But there's also something else that happens in the world that helps us move through the world in a safe way. They're called architectural standards. They make us not fall down and go boom. Doorknobs are all at the same height. Light switches are all at the same height. Toilet bowls are always—thank God—at the same height, because no one ever misses the toilet bowl. But seriously, what would happen if we started to tweak those architectural standards to get what we wanted?
It reminds me of the stairs I made for Pee-Wee Herman. Pee-Wee Herman is a child, and his entire world is created so that we perceive Pee-Wee as a child. The architecture and the furniture and everything come to life, but nothing more important than those stairs. Those stairs are 12 inches high, so when Pee-Wee clomps up and down those stairs, he interacts with them like a kid. You can't fake that kind of interaction, and that's the exact opposite of what we ask people in opera to do. In opera, we shrink those stairs so that our main characters can glide up and down effortlessly without ever breaking their voice. You could never put an opera singer in Pee-Wee's Playhouse, or they wouldn't be able to do their job.
But you couldn't put Pee-Wee in an opera set. He couldn't climb up and down those stairs. There'd be no Pee-Wee. He'd be like James Bond slinking elegantly up and down the stairs. It wouldn't work.
Now think of your set, your home, what you exist in every single day. If you're anything like me, the trash can is just too small for the amount of takeout that you buy every night, right? And I find myself jamming like I'm kneading dough at a pizza place, I'm jamming it in because I don't understand. Or, maybe the light switch in your foyer is just stashed behind too many precariously placed coats, and so you don't even go for it. Therefore, day after day, you wind up walking in and out of a chasm of darkness.
It's true. But what would happen if the space revealed something about yourself that you didn't even know?
Kanye never told me specifically that he wanted to be God. But—when we started working together, we were sending images back and forth, and he sent me a picture of the aurora borealis with lightning strikes through it. And he sent me pictures from a mountaintop looking down at a smoke-filled canyon, or smoke underneath the surface of water—like, epic stuff. So the first set I designed for him was a huge light box with the name of his record label. He would stand triumphantly in front of it, and it would flash lights like a lightning bolt. And it was epic, but, like, starter-kit epic. We moved on to a large swath of sky with a tear down the middle, and through the tear, you could see deep parts of the cosmos. Getting closer. We evolved to standing on top of an obelisk, standing on top of a mountainside, standing on top of boxes. You know, he was evolving as an artist through space, and it was my job to try and keep up. When we did Coachella, there he was, standing in front of an 80-foot-wide by 40-foot-tall ancient artifact, literally handed down from God to man. He was evolving, and we were all witness to it. And in his last show, which I didn't design but I witnessed, he had self-actualized. He was literally standing on a floating plexiglass deck over his adoring fans, who had no choice but to praise to Yeezus up above.
He had deified himself. You can't become Yeezus in your living room. The space told him who he was about himself, and then he delivered that to us.
When I was 20 years old, I was driving through a parking lot, and I saw a puddle. I thought, "I'm going to veer to the left. No—I'm going through it." And I hit the puddle, and—ffftt!—all the water underneath my car, and instantly, I have an aha moment. Light bulb goes off. Everything in the world needs to be designed. I mean, I'm sure I was thinking, "The drainage needs to be designed in this parking lot." But then I was like, "Everything in the world needs to be designed." And it's true: left to its own devices, Mother Nature isn't going to carve an interesting or necessarily helpful path for you.
I've spent my career reaching into people's minds and creating worlds out here that we can all interact with. And yeah, you might not get to do this with fancy collaborators, but I think if you leave here, those three easy steps—therapy, who do I want to be, why do I do the things that I do; design, create a plan and try and follow through with it, what can I do; execute it—I think if you add that with a little color theory—
some cool design choices and a general disrespect for architectural standards, you can go out and create the world that you want to live in, and I am going to go home and buy a new trash can.