Greater Clements, written by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Davis McCallum, begins far underground, in a mine, with the character Joe giving a tour. Yi Zhao, the production’s lighting designer, explained to me why that scene is illuminated with nothing but the headlamp on Joe’s helmet and a small lighter. “Sam had a strong instinct that Davis and I wanted to honor: headlamp on, headlamp off, lighter on – and we finally see Joe’s face, when he lets us see it. When we tried it on stage and it worked so well, we thought: maybe staying true to that dynamic in the second mine scene could work too.”

Such technique is very different from Zhao’s last assignment in the Newhouse, three years ago, for Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline. “Space is used in a very different way this time,” Zhao said. “Pipeline was much more about breaking the fourth wall and having a conversation about the social issues at stake. Clements requires us to go inside the intimate world of the characters.” He added: “With Clements, we didn’t light the audience nearly so much because they aren’t addressed in the story.” Further: “Pipeline was about a public-school teacher teaching, so sometimes lighting the audience was appropriate.”

Zhao’s own education was international. “I was born in Beijing, and Mandarin Chinese is my first language. I grew up partly in Paris, so French is my second language. Then I came to the U.S. for college and for graduate school (M.F.A. at Yale).” English, that is, is his third language.

Zhao is now based in Berlin and is learning German. He says he moved to Berlin “in part because my wife and I both grew up in Europe” – his wife is a Berliner – “and longed to return, and in part because as two working artists we just couldn’t afford to live comfortably in New York. We chose Berlin because we were drawn to the cultural specificity and openness of the city, and the remarkable theatrical history of Germany at large.”

Zhao works primarily in theater, with some opera and dance. “I’m about to embark on a three-month-long process of creating a contemporary dance piece in Berlin, for the Sasha Waltz company. I’ll be working with the artist Andrew Schneider.”

Zhao’s most frequent collaborator has been Lileana Blain-Cruz, with whom he worked on the LCT Pipeline. “Her aesthetic,” Zhao said, “is very different from Davis’s. It is decidedly not naturalistic and is often full of color. But even when I’m working on a production that uses a lot of color, I try to get away with as little of it as possible.”

For Greater Clements, most of the bright color is with the costumes, not the set. “It’s in part a mining museum,” Zhao said. “Bright colors wouldn’t have been right.” As the play begins, the museum is being packed up. “We needed to reflect a sense of closing-down. There are a lot of shadows in the production.”

Zhao said the set must suggest a variety spaces. “We had to have a conflation of indoor and outdoor lighting. Most of that is by necessity because we don’t have the outer walls of the house. The set feels neither primarily interior nor exterior and becomes more of a psychological landscape. It was a fascinating challenge to create the moods for the story and the characters.”

But back to that miner’s headlamp. Zhao said that he and Davis decided that staying true to the opening scene’s dynamic – faces in darkness, faces in light – could work when the lamp returns toward the end of the play. “That later scene is staged so that Joe lights Kel” – a 14-year-old with a fascination for a catastrophe in the mine’s past – “with his helmet headlamp.” Zhao said he finds the effect “so beautiful, so sensitive, and so self-effacing.”

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com