- by Porsche McGovern
Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew is a New York based theatre designer in lighting and video for opera, theatre, dance, and installation. She is also a puppetry artist and has extensive experience with new works and adaptations in a collaborative setting.
As a designer she aims to create a visual environment that is organically integrated into the landscape and language of the production. Her design has been described as “contains the vibrant richness of a Caravaggio painted in neon” and seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Baryshnikov Arts Center, St. Ann's Warehouse, La Mama ETC, The Kitchen, Manhattan School of Music, and internationally at Havana, Prague, Lima, Edinburgh, Graz Austria and South Africa.
Through puppetry, Jeanette devises interdisciplinary productions that experiments with and challenges the notion of puppetry. Her recent production, Are They Edible?, was described as “bold” and “inventive”. Based on Homer’s Odyssey, it was an immersive production that combined culinary art with contemporary puppetry to ruminate on war, sacrifices, and our relationship with consumption. She was the recipient of the 2009-2011 NEA/TCG Career Development Program and the 2006 Gilbert Hemsley Jr. lighting intern. www.jeanetteyew.com
How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
I actually don’t know if there was ever a situation where people overlooked me because I’m a minority or a woman or both. I was born in Detroit, which makes me a US citizen, but I grew up in Hong Kong and speak with an accent, so some may consider me not “American.” Maybe that will have an impact on decision-making but I really don’t know, and probably will never know. I also don’t know if being a person of color has helped my career. I don’t want people to hire me purely because I’m a minority – as a token. Someone told me once that I should create a Chinese shadow puppetry class because I am Chinese, so I would have more legitimacy in teaching it. I was really put off by that. I don’t want to SELL my ethnicity or my gender. I want to sell myself as an artist.
How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
I grew up in Hong Kong where most everyone looked like me. One of the main differentiators was class; the British were in charge and were more privileged than the rest of us. There was not a spectrum of race consciousness like it is here. There were (and still are) larger issues around gender. My mother was a lawyer and the order of preference when choosing a lawyer in HK were: 1) a British man, 2) a Chinese man, 3) a British woman, and the last resort would be a Chinese woman. Otherwise, I never stopped to think of myself as person of color until coming to the US for college and was asked to go to a people of color conference during the first few weeks of classes. That was the first time I was aware of being a person of color.
Since then I feel that when someone like me walks into a room, we are representing a lot of things: 1) women, 2) people of color in general, and 3) specific bias or assumptions that comes with our ethnicity. For example, I have been called a “Dragon Lady” when in a leadership position. So our responsibility is huge, and we need to continue to push to be who we are and want to be, and to open the door wider for people coming up behind us. And I am CERTAINLY grateful for all who have done the same before us. The fact that we can have this conversation is because of that and is significant.
Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?
Chris Akerlind definitely is my role model, not just in lighting design but his whole being and POVs.
I am also grateful to Ms. Aurora Valentinetti who introduced me to the whole world of puppetry during my time at the University of Washington. Because of her I learned how “human” puppets can be. This helped to inspire me to go to CalArts, where I met Janie Geiser who is also a great role model to me. Through her, I am able to see and use and incorporate puppetry into my works that are ever expanding.
Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
I don’t really have one. I started this as a curiosity to see if I can do it – making it a living so to speak. I was lucky to try my hand at small theatres in Seattle. Then I went to CalArts to formalize it. I’m aware it’s a white-dominated field, and there’s underrepresentation, but (I guess sadly) it’s so ingrained in me I’m not even consciously aware that I am attracting all of the different biases or assumptions made toward a woman and person of color.
What lead you to your disciplines in the theatre field?
My grandparents were film directors and actors in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Growing up in Hong Kong my family was one of the few who held season tickets to the only repertory theatre in HK. I saw Waiting for Godot when I was 12! I had NO IDEA what it was that I saw but I LOVED the feeling of being there. Fast-forward to college, I dabbled in theatre classes while pursuing an accounting degree. (Because you know you cannot make a living in theatre!) I worked in corporate America but felt restless. I finally decided to satisfy my curiosity through the theatres in Seattle, then in CalArts. I was fortunate enough to receive the Hemsley internship – a big SHOUT OUT to Hemsley! – which brought me to NYC.
Please tell us a bit about how your lighting and puppetry work interact. Do you feel like you're using different parts of your artistic self?
With puppetry, you really think about storytelling, dramaturgy, directing, performance, and design all wrapped into one. This helps in my collaboration on any projects for which I am the lighting designer. I am able to approach it from a broader context. In this way puppetry has made me a better collaborator, which is so important in design.
Also, lighting design is ephemeral. I hate waste: in lighting we reuse the same tools, to make one thing do multiple and different things, actually not unlike in puppetry. In Are They Edible? (my most recent production) we made puppet meat and cooked it and served it to the audience.
As a lighting designer, a script or an idea is already on the table when you join the team. But with puppetry I can create my own work and pick scripts or subject matters I am interested in. Stylistically they are very contemporary and performance art like. For example my next project is based on the Book of Genesis and is asking the question: Can we build a city for the future if all we know is now?
What would you like people of color considering or in the early stages of a theatre career to know? Is there any advice you wish you'd be given?
I don’t know if I have any specific advice for people of color. I think theatre is a very hard field in general and perseverance is utmost. The fact that I am a person of color is something I have no control over hence dwelling on my ethnicity does not advance my career. However the best advice I’ve been given was when I was at CalArts. Chris Barreca said “this is a lifestyle, not a job” — advice I have been passing along. When I teach I tell my students: if after an exhausting day (or week) of working at another job, when you get to the rehearsal room or the design meeting you feel like you don’t want to be anywhere else in the world, then this is something for you.
I’ll also say this: This is a human business. It’s about the people, about making connections, about creating and challenging the notion of community. You do this because you care. You care about human connections. I used to think that I was a pessimist, but then I realized I am making theatre so I MUST BE an optimist.