Double Duty: Lex Liang Designs the Costumes and Sets for Emma

It seems that Lex Liang does everything: Not only the costumes and sets for Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Emma, but through his company, LDC Design, environments for theater, restaurants, boutiques and special events.

Lex Liang

“I don’t know about everything,” Liang says from his home in New York. “I would not put me on an organized sports team.”

LDC Design came out of Liang’s efforts to make a living in theater after graduate school. “You just come to the realization as a designer, particularly in our industry, that it is really difficult to make a living, just cobbling together shows and productions,” he says. “It very quickly became sort of an untenable schedule. It continues to be, but that, coupled with my own sort of ADHD, became clear — doing just theater was not going to be sustainable. I thought, ‘I work with some incredible production people, we should be branching out to do other things.’”

While the commercial work stemmed from his theater design, it feeds it as well. “I often have told colleagues and my students, and really anybody who wants to listen to me yammer, that you have to have a real life to feed your artistic life,” he says. “When you are immersed in theater and just do theater all the time, it can become a little staid, and things become less interesting when all you talk about are plays or musicals or whatnot. I have found that by having various agencies [with varying needs], you do get to experience a different creative need, creative aesthetic, and at the end of the day, it is all theater.”

As for the creative aesthetic of Emma, Liang conveys the mashup nature of playwright Hamill and director Meredith McDonough’s vision by turning the traditional proscenium arch askew. “It quite literally went into a frame,” he says. “The whole action is sort of surrounded by this really eccentric, sort of large portal. I took the inspiration from these beautiful 18th-century landscapes of the English countryside. But then everything is sort of jumbled up.”

The goal, he says, was to make an adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved, 200-year-old novel, that was both fun and relevant for contemporary audiences. “An important facet of what we did, or common denominator, which I think is very relevant in all disciplines, is that we shrank the historical gap and made it an extremely accessible production that is really, really fun,” Liang says.

“They really wanted to make a delightful piece that had many layers. It had to be framed in this sort of slightly wonderland-esque, picturesque story. It couldn’t be too fluffy, but it needed to be fluffy enough that we invited people in. Slam the doors right open.”

Hamill’s adaptation places particular focus on how the idleness forced on a wealthy, highly intelligent woman of the period could lead her to meddle in others’ lives. For Liang, that interpretation shows through in both costume and set designs, with an eye toward the rigid lines between social classes.

“While Emma has all of the status and all of the means that anybody in her station could possibly have, how do you showcase a woman with that much status and means who would likely change clothes multiple times a day? Even though this woman has access to all of the things, there are certain things that she does not have access to,” he says. “Why could she possibly be so bored? She’s got all these things to do, and she has all this money, but basic, fundamental things that men at the time take for granted weren’t there, so it doesn’t matter how much money or status or clothes you have, if you can’t own land, you really are sort of a decoration.”

April 5-May 5, 2024 • Wolf Theatre