Today we’d like to introduce you to Yijun Yang.
So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Originally from Shanghai, China, I came to the states to pursue my MFA in scenic design at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama and started my career as a freelance scenic designer in New York City. As far as I can remember, I have always loved drawing and art. My mother used to joke that I had the “serious artist” mindset down pat when I was four. There is something about picking up a pencil, and drawing is a meditative process for me. I find that creating art helps me discover both more about the world around me and my experience in it and also introspectively about the deep feelings that sometimes are inexplicable. My mother loves opera and live performances, so growing up, I think that rubbed off me.
I was initially focused on fine art and exhibition design and started to pursue that in undergrad. I was drawn to theatre and specifically scenic design because, in exhibition design, I missed the live connection and power of storytelling. I want to create work that activates the audience’s imagination and focuses on stories of empowerment, especially those for marginalized groups. My time at Carnegie Mellon solidified my excitement for scenic design and working in such a collaborative art form. I feel grateful that I am able to create impactful performances and work with so many other artists.
Has it been a smooth road?
As Sondheim accurately put it in “Sunday in the Park with George” – “art isn’t easy.” I think for most artists, the journey is never really over, and that is the exciting part of continually evolving. The Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, as the first degree-granting drama institution in the United States of America, is focusing on teaching students to study and create theater and performance work that is constantly connected to an ever-evolving world. I remember in my first year of grad school having to rethink how I approach the work because the design for the theatre is so much more than merely creating a pleasing visual. My professors mentored me to dive deeper into the world of the play and build the world from the ground up. They would often talk about the difference between illustrations and creating the environment where the story can take place. It is very hard to learn how to give the audience what is needed to understand the world and set the action of the play in motion without being too heavy-handed and illustrating what is going to happen. The turning point for me came when I started to think of scenic design as not just creating a visual, but creating a visual over time. It is that element of time that makes theatre exciting. Like the production created by some famous alumni like Wicked by Eugene Lee, the emerald curtain opened a story from two unlikely friends has become the second-highest-grossing musical in Broadway. Once you target the core of the story, it is all about supporting the action of the play and helping the audience to discover the story along the way.
I’m continually reading more plays and seeing more theatre, and I think the more you have in your creative Rolodex to draw upon when you are approaching the next project, the better. The challenge often in scenic design is finding a unique approach that balances the audience’s experiences without rehashing what has been previously done. Scenic design is a fascinating puzzle and while there are moments when I start a project, and I think that I have no idea how to approach designing this-it is always so rewarding as you begin to piece the world together and eventually see the audience discover and react to it in performance.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am a freelance scenic designer based in New York City. I seek to design new plays and new productions of classic works that shed light on the world around us. I’m proud of my multi-cultural background upbringing and feel that I bring a unique perspective to the productions I design. One of my proudest productions was working with Kym Moore on Detroit’ 67, where I brought my vision of this historically inspired African- American story to the stage. Model making is a big part of my artistic process. I have worked for Anna Louizos (School of Rock, Cinderella, In the Heights ), and her company, which I was remaking all the Boardway show models and made them sizeable souvenirs and selling them to the theater fans and introduce more people to the art that designers created behind the curtain. I love the tactile way of figuring out what the design wants to be. I combine physical scale models, collage, and computer rendering to fully explore the design. My current works for The Bushwick Starr and Superhero Clubhouse, Big Green Theater: The Movie! had a dramatic change. It was originally written as two plays, to be performed live in April 2020 at The Bushwick Starr, and the scripts were turned into two movies, rehearsed and filmed remotely while in quarantine during the COVID-19 crisis using s variety of online tools and technology. And I have to stay true to the ethos of Big Green Theater, so all the design elements were created with found, repurposed, and household materials. It was a huge challenge od my model making skills and working remotely yet closely with my team to make the student playwrights vision fulfilled in the movies. The premiere is on May 29th on YouTube. I hope since we are posting them online so more people can watch this to enjoy two interesting stories and see the resilience that theater artists can do in this crisis when the theaters have to close.
Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
Living in New York City is amazing because there are so many art exhibitions and performances to experience. You can find inspiration in sometimes that most unlikely of places. I have found as I am waiting for the subway wishing that it would run on time that often.
- Website: www.yijuny.com
- Instagram: strangeduet
Yijun Yang, Louis Stein