Culture Trips

Jessica Hung Han Yun: a designer tripping the light fantastic | Stage

After Jessica Hung Han Yun’s first professional gig as a lighting designer, she seriously considered leaving the industry. It was Tosca at the King’s Head theatre in London in 2017. “I remember feeling like I hadn’t done this show justice but I couldn’t figure out why. At that point I wasn’t confident in myself so I wasn’t confident in my ideas. I wanted to try things but was too scared to try them so I went for a safer option.”

That taught her an important lesson: “to be brave in the way you design and the way you approach work.” If you fail, she adds, there is always another way of approaching lighting. “People always think of failure as negative. It’s not, it’s also positive because you learn from it.” Since that moment, Hung Han Yun has gone out of her way to take risks. At 27, she has already won huge acclaim for the imagination and beauty of her designs.

Zachary Hing and Gabby Wong in Pah-La at the Royal Court in 2019.
Zachary Hing and Gabby Wong in Pah-La at the Royal Court in 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

She discovered her love of lighting accidentally at school in Essex. “I decided to take GSCE drama because I thought it would be easy to pass and I wasn’t any good at other subjects. Then I did it and I thought: ‘Oh god I’ve got bad stage fright and I can’t act!’”

It was when a school technician, Pete, suggested she try her hand at sound or lighting that she felt an instant click: “I thought ‘Whoa, this is so much fun.’ I felt like I was painting with light. Until then, I had thought of lighting as functional. I didn’t think it could tell a story or evoke so much emotion. Pete really taught me how to appreciate it.”

She went on to Rose Bruford College and graduated with a degree in lighting design in 2014, followed by a couple of years of working in retail and then travelling before following her passion in earnest. Hung Han Yun, who is of Chinese Mauritian heritage, grew up in Essex where her father worked two jobs, seven days a week, while her mother raised four children. She was not taken to the theatre as a child and had no shortcuts into the industry.

Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse.
Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

“I was applying for arts jobs every day. It was hard to get into the industry because I wasn’t sure who to contact or how to let people know I was out there. Then I did a show called Nine Foot Nine at the Bunker theatre and it snowballed. It went to Edinburgh and round the same time I did an immersive circus piece at the Vaults.”

Excelling quickly, she worked on some of the most daring and politically charged shows of recent years including Fairview, Pah-La and Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. She draws inspiration from films and from installation artists such as James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson but her starting point is always her own emotional response to the script.

Amy Booth-Steel in Dick Whittington at the National Theatre.
Amy Booth-Steel in Dick Whittington at the National Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The pandemic temporarily halted Hung Han Yun’s work – and also brought anxieties on how to survive. She struggled to pay the rent, went on universal credit and began calculating how long her savings would last until she was forced to take a temporary job in another field. Then, she was asked to work on Blindness, at the Donmar Warehouse, arguably the most accomplished production of the pandemic, which was as much a light and sound installation as a play. “I was so grateful to be working and I put pressure on myself because I wanted to do it for everyone in the industry, to show we could come back and come back stronger.”

More recently, she designed the lighting for the Orange Tree’s show Inside, live-streamed from the venue under socially distanced conditions. It’s amazing to be back, she says, and has reminded her how much she loves the collaboration and camaraderie of it all.

Later this year, she will work on Anna X, a play by Joseph Charlton starring Emma Corrin, to be staged as part of the Re:Emerge season in the West End. “I’m really excited about the creative team and the narrative of the story. If I read something and think ‘I don’t know how you would stage this’, it’s like a mystery and I want to find out more, to explore it and see what I can do.”

From the CV

Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ethan Kai in Equus, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 2019.
Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ethan Kai in Equus, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 2019. Photograph: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

2021: Inside, Orange Tree theatre, London

2021: The Band Plays On, Sheffield Crucible

2020: Dick Whittington, National Theatre, London

2020: Blindness, Donmar Warehouse, London

2019: Fairview, Young Vic, London

2019: Equus, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

2019: Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, Royal Court, London

2019: Dear Elizabeth, Gate theatre, London

2019: Pah-La, Royal Court, London

2018: Hive City Legacy, Roundhouse, London

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