The chance to experiment is what draws designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew to theatre. It’s not the kind of experimentation that can be found in a scientist’s lab but the kind that must be shared on any given night among 200, 500, or more people. The results, Yew said, are based on the energy in the room.
“Without the audience, you never know if your experimentation is going to work or not,” Yew said. “Particularly for new work. I find it super exciting that it’s such an alive way of doing experimentation: finding out what moves human beings in the present. It is never past-tense, it is always in the present.”
Yew, a lighting, projection, and puppetry designer based in New York, wasn’t always the theatrical scientist she is now. Born in Detroit, Yew was raised in Hong Kong. She recalled seeing her first live performance at 12 years old: a production of Waiting for Godot.
“I had no idea what it was about,” Yew said. “I just remember the energy of a collective group of people in the room was really interesting. That left an imprint on me. At the same time I never thought this was something that I would personally do.”
In fact, when Yew moved back to the United States for college at the University of Washington, she double majored in business and theatre. After finishing her business degree, she was offered a job and she took it, leaving with a year of her theatre credits left unfinished.
But she wasn’t done with the theatre. Seattle, she reasoned, had a vibrant enough theatre scene that she could always volunteer and keep her hand in. So Yew dabbled behind the scenes in theatre as a kind of hobby, which is how she discovered a special affinity for lighting design.
“Eventually, one day, I just decided that I don’t want to live life with regrets,” Yew explained. “I decided that I should go to grad school and see if I can be a professional lighting designer.”
It was at California Institute of the Arts where HERE producing director Meredith Lynsey Schade first encountered Yew, who was pursuing her masters degree. While they didn’t work together at CalArts, Schade said, she brought Yew in as one of the designers on Erik Ehn’s Soulographie, a 17-play cycle on human rights issues that was performed at La MaMa in 2012.
“I quickly realized that she was probably the hardest-working lighting designer that I’ve ever met,” Schade said. “She is in it for the work, and she’s in it for the joy of creation and collaboration.”
On top of that, Schade effused, Yew has become an important mentor to young designers, providing them with opportunities and introducing them to the industry. Yew currently teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts as the head of lighting design training in the production and design studio.
Yew, who received 2018 Lortel and Drama Desk award nominations for her lighting design for KPOP, recently joined director Diane Paulus on the new play Gloria: A Life. Based on the life of Gloria Steinem and written by Emily Mann, Gloria: A Life is currently running at Off-Broadway’s Daryl Roth Theatre. Raved Paulus of Yew, “She has a deep understanding of collaboration. She is a real team player, and brings a wonderful positive energy into the room.”
Looking forward, Yew said she’s not seeking any specific type of work. From lighting to projection to puppetry, she said she enjoys the variety she’s been able to find.
“I don’t want to lock myself into saying that these are the kinds of work that I really like to do,” she said. “I just think it takes us doing all variety of work to access the human experience.” Experimenting, you might say.
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