A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Yu-Hsuan Chen ‘16
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
I’ve been working on projects in theater, film and exhibition. I production designed my first feature film I Was In Your Blood this summer, and just finished a national tour for What To Send Up When It Goes Down. Right now I’m working as an associate designer on the Broadway show Six, as well as designing a few plays with New York off-Broadway theaters and regional theater companies. I believe we need more diverse voices and perspectives in the industry, therefore, I’m particularly proud of working on some pretty progressive projects/topics that tell story of our times, try to make a change, and comfort those who need to heal.
You graduated in 2016 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
I don’t know if I consider myself being “successful”, but I have been very fortunate to have the support from my family, my partner and the people around me. The biggest secret, principle, and the thing I am still practicing every day is time management. As designer, we are working and living in such crazy unstable conditions. I find myself needing to be organized in other parts of my life to keep the fire in my heart growing. How to distribute time for work, time for personal health(both physical and mental), time for family and relationships....Once I feel balance between all things is the time I feel happy, and then I believe I can create good work. Be kind to others and have an open heart to all opportunities. You never know what project or which relationship you build will lead you to the next exciting things. I also try to always make decisions on working on projects that matter to me, with people whose values I share.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
I still have a few friends who are from Taiwan that are currently in the department. I am involved by attending the design show every year and supporting graduating talents through being available to answer questions about the field and hiring them as collaborators. I’d love to do more with current students through teaching and sharing my experience, especially with the international students about O1 visa application and life in the US.
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
I have worked with many alumni and had wonderful experiences. Honestly, some “NYU gang” productions have been my favorite collaborations that I had in my career. Many thanks to Kimie Nishikawa ‘15 and Vita Tzykun ‘05 for hiring me on regional theater projects; they are both role models as a female/immigrant designer working in the industry. I also get to collaborate with the current students (now alums) in the school production Beaux Strat with Keegan Butler ‘19 and Barbara Erin Delo ’19. I have worked on many theater productions with my own classmates Oona Curly ‘16 and Andy Jean ‘16, and Adrienne Carlile ’16, who is now an art director, has hooked me up with jobs in TV shows. I’m very grateful that we have such strong family and community.
Do you have an anecdote that you think current students and faculty would find amusing or learn from?
My birthday is in December and is always the week before final presentation. I would spend the whole night in the studio, working with everyone, on my birthday. One of my classmates is real sweet and they took out a bottle of whisky and played The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” right at midnight. And after the song and a glass, we would go back to work. I would say sometimes all you need is a little whiskey before the finals.
Trace your entry into your fields from graduate school to your current pursuits.
After I graduated, I accepted all kind of offers… set design for theater, production design for short films and commercials, space design for …. For one thing, I really enjoy meeting people from different worlds and learned from them. I enjoy having long periods of time to make art in the theater. I also have a lot of friends from the film department who I continue to work with after I graduated. Now I am focusing more on theater design and would also love to get my foot in the bigger film and TV show industry.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of your process and how do you resolve it?
Communication is part of the art of making theater. Since English is not my mother tongue, using the most precise words to translate a vision sometimes can be difficult. Plus, there’s might be some cultural reference that I am not that familiar with. Therefore, I often like to use more than language to communicate an idea: any sketches, visual research, a clip of a video or music…any way that can help me and the collaborators to be on the same page.
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
The making of What to Send Up When It Goes Down is one of those magical collaborations and a piece I am very proud of. It is a play created to honor the Black lives which have been lost in racial violence. We have been through quite a journey to get to a place where everyone feels right for this ritual. It is special because I feel so much love during the process and the importance of telling the story of our times for those who need to heal.
When did you get interested in theater or film design and how?
I loved painting and all kinds of arts and crafts when I was a kid. I thought I would become a painter, wearing a red beret and painting on the side of the Seine. I carried that dream for most of my childhood and it started to shake when I met a teacher in high school who got me into literature and films. Troubled with which department I should apply to college, theater design came to me as it is a perfect middle ground which combines both of my passions - art and literature. I studied theater and drama in college and fell in love with live performance and it was at that time I first considered “set designer” as a profession I wanted to pursue. After I graduated from college my teacher urged me to study abroad and now I am very happy I ended up in New York City and not Paris.
What or who were your influences?
All of my NYU teachers influenced me in different ways. Susan Hilferty has always been an inspiring figure for me, and actually it’s because of her I decided to study at NYU. I also admire Ang Lee, the Oscar winning film director. He was born and raised in Taiwan and has directed so many different genres of films across the world. To me, he transformed himself to find the best way to tell the story and not just showing off his personal skills. It becomes the principle for my work, a good design is invisible in a way that always put the story first. He has been hosting Golden Horse- the biggest Chinese Film Festival for years now and I admire how he uses his influence to help the community.
What are some of your other interests in life?
I have become a runner and have run a couple half marathon races. Running is to live in the moment, be present and listen to every heartbeat. It is a way to keep my mind clear. I am very happy that I have this different side of life and enjoy making sure to take care of my body physically and mentally in order to continue my career.
Any final thoughts?
Thank you for letting me share some of my journey. I especially would like to encourage people like me in this field. As an immigrant / female set designer, many times I do feel like the door is shut because of my gender or because where I am from (sometimes pervasively and sometimes more subtlety). Yet I believe that career and life are like a marathon, I was always taught to keep my head down and keep on working, and I believe when you keep moving forward no one can stop you.