Lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun is one of the industry’s rising stars, with three hugely acclaimed productions to her name in 2019. She talks to Ed Nightingale about facing sexism, the importance of collaboration and changing her style for latest show Rockets and Blue Lights at Manchester’s Royal Exchange
Paintings by JMW Turner inspired Rockets and Blue Lights, the major new show opening at Manchester’s Royal Exchange this week, and its lighting designer has drawn on the artist’s “beautiful yet ghostly” work to illuminate the production.
The play, by Winsome Pinnock, was inspired by Turner’s 1840 work The Slave Ship, which depicts the deaths of African slaves thrown overboard the British slave ship Zong in 1781, and takes its name from another work by the painter from the same year. Pinnock’s play jumps between two time periods, following a black sailor in Victorian England and an actor in modern-day London.
Its lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, who won an award for lighting design at the Offies for her work on Equus earlier this month, says: “I just read it and was like: ‘This is an amazing piece of work and the writing is phenomenal and I have no idea how it could be staged.’ And that’s what really fascinates me to do quite a lot of the shows I do, because I have no idea how you would do them. So I really want to get on board and develop it and work as a team.”
Ultimately she was drawn to the source inspiration for her lighting design. She says of Turner’s paintings: “I feel like I have a real conflict when I look at them. They’re really beautiful, but then there’s a real sadness and a real ghostliness to them.” She adds: “For me, it’s not that you literally need to make that painting on stage or you need to light it the way it looks in the painting. It’s more the feeling that you get from it.”
The powerful storytelling hooked Hung Han Yun as well as the need to tell untold stories. “Bringing stories alive I think is really important and that’s what theatre’s all about, it’s bringing really important stories to the theatre that people wouldn’t otherwise know about.”
It is the first time she has worked at the Royal Exchange and she is faced with an open stage in-the-round. “It’s not a black box, which makes it quite a challenge,” she says. “But in that case it’s about embracing the space. For me, as a lighting designer, it’s an inspiration to see what space you’re in and see how that can be taken into consideration when you design.”
As a lighting designer, it’s about embracing the space
Her designs lean towards abstraction, though she’s changed her style for this production. “It’s slightly more naturalistic than my style usually is, than all of my other pieces of theatre, which are always full of saturated colours that punch you in the face.” She shies away from naturalism in favour of a more contemporary approach. “I find colour really interesting because it’s such an amazing tool of lighting,” she says. “It can completely change your depth perception of a room.”
A major influence on her work is James Turrell, a light installation artist whose experimental work uses overwhelming colour to alter perceptions of space – what appears as a flat 2D plane is in fact an entire room you can enter.
The real key to Hung Han Yun’s work, though, is collaboration. In her view, lighting, sound, set and direction are all different characters on the stage that must work together. “We’re all helping to tell that story,” she says, “helping to solidify the story and the style on stage.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in Neuhaus, a chocolate shop, in King’s Cross. I don’t even like chocolate that much.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Tosca at the King’s Head Theatre in London in 2017.
What’s your next job?
The Last of the Pelican Daughters for Wardrobe Ensemble, which is on tour. And Level Up at the Bush Theatre in London.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To not be afraid. If you have a wild idea, just do it. If you fail, you fail at it. So what? You’ll have another try another day.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Paule Constable. I find her really inspirational, she’s an amazing lighting designer. Also James Turrell – his use of colour is out of this world.
If you hadn’t been a lighting designer, what would you have been?
Ballet dancer or a tattoo artist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really. Just have a gin and tonic, I guess…
That’s why the production team is a major factor in choosing projects. Speaking first with a director ensures a similarity in styles and artistic outlooks. From there, she relishes the opportunity to bounce ideas off other creatives.
Exploring a text together brings different views to the piece, which can be incorporated into the lighting design with – or in contrast to – the set, sound and direction. In this way, she’s both challenged and supported as a designer.
“That’s probably the most exciting thing: when you have that question mark and then you speak to someone else in the team and go: ‘Oh it all makes sense now, how did I not see it before?’,” she says.
Collaboration was a big part of her previous work on Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner at London’s Royal Court, one of the breakout shows of 2019. This play, too, had different lighting modes between reality and the digital world, with an elaborate tree-like set of fabric leaves.
“I really wanted to add saturated colour so you could go between the naturalistic room and the Twittersphere,” she says. “The difference for me was colour and the pace of how you change each lighting state. So me and Rajha [Shakiry, the show’s designer] had to work closely to find the right fabric.”
Collaboration has led her to work predominantly on new writing. “I do a lot more new writing and I really enjoy that because you can work so closely with the writer and really delve into their thought process,” she says. “I guess if it’s the right script and the right show and the right team then that’s what’ll make me do it.”
Yet her most notable production was the revival of Equus in 2019 at Theatre Royal Stratford East by English Touring Theatre, which transferred to Trafalgar Studios in the West End, for which she won a Knight of Illumination award.
Hung Han Yun describes winning as “quite weird” and unexpected. “When you get into doing all of this, you do it because you love it, because you love theatre, because you love lighting and designing,” she says. “All of the awards, if they come they come, but it’s not as important. It’s nice when it happens.”
The award is just the latest step of Hung Han Yun’s burgeoning career, with a particularly busy 2019 that also included Fairview at London’s Young Vic, as well as productions across the UK and at the English Theatre Frankfurt.
Her interest in lighting began thanks to a supportive theatre technician at school who introduced her to sound and lighting after she suffered from stage fright as an actor. “I loved lighting and thought there was something there. I don’t know what it was, it was just really fun,” she says.
After studying lighting design at Rose Bruford, she began crewing but was almost put off by the male-dominated teams. “They’d crack a lot of jokes about me being small and being a woman. It made me feel like I can’t do this job and I don’t know if I can be in an industry that treats females like this and judges you for the way you look and what gender you are.”
When I started out, there’d be jokes about me being small and a woman – it’s changing
Even working as a lighting designer there have been low moments when she was patronised for being a woman and technicians refused to take direction. “But I feel like it’s changing, people are becoming a lot more outspoken about it and a lot more aware of it,” she says. “The awareness is important.”
Yet this adversity is just another challenge she’s overcome. And she’s keen to try her hand at other forms of theatre in future, perhaps a musical or pantomime. In particular, she leans to contemporary dance and the creative ways of lighting a body in motion. “It’s really challenging and quite different because you tell a story through your movements. But also there doesn’t necessarily need to be a story, it can be conveying an emotion. I find that interesting, it’s theatre but it’s different.”
Born: Leytonstone, 1993
Training: Lighting design at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance
• Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, Royal Court, London (2019)
• Equus, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London (2019)
• Fairview, Young Vic, London (2019)
• Knight of Illumination award for Equus (2019)
Agent: Clare Vidal-Hall
Rockets and Blue Lights was running at Manchester’s Royal Exchange where programming has been suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak. Details: royalexchange.co.uk