October 24, 2017
Costume design by Yao Chen of the play Ti-Jean and his Brothers, produced in 2013 at the University of South Florida

Yao Chen

When I recently interviewed Yao Chen, the Department of Theater’s new Assistant Professor of Costume Design, I asked her, “What show has been your favorite to costume design so far in your career?”

Her answer? “The next one.” Yao explained that she is always striving to make her next show better than her previous one, because she believes she can always improve and make her “next show [her] favorite show.”

It’s that forward-looking, ambitious attitude that makes Yao a great addition to the department. Yao is one of two new faculty members in the Department of Theater. Together, she and Assistant Professor of Scenic Design Anya Klepikov will give us a full complement of design faculty for the first time in several years, following the retirements of Miguel Romero and June Gaeke.

I wanted to interview Yao because I’m taking her Costume Design class and I am intrigued by her multicultural experiences in both costume design and fashion design. Now that she has been a part of the department for almost two months, I was curious about her initial impressions of the theater department and the university as a whole. I found that what she values here is very similar to what most of us cherish here in the department.

“I really appreciate the kind of, how to say — everyone gets the chance to put their words in, no matter if it’s a community meeting, or a faculty meeting, or a meeting with a student. I feel I am well appreciated when I give my recommendations, my suggestions, to this whole big environment. So that’s really great.”

Furthermore, she is appreciative of “the international diversity we’ve started to grow, because when it comes to graduate recruitment, we have students from all kinds of places right now – China, India, Iran, England. There’s never been such an international group…so I am very excited about it because bringing different cultures to the same table to talk and communicate is what my passion is…it’s going to be a very interesting playground for everyone.”

And, of course, Yao also loves “THE DINING HALL HERE!”, because it is the only university where Yao has found “so many Asian options.”           

Yao grew up in China and entered the field of costume design through the fashion industry, which has greatly shaped her costuming style. She received her first degree in fashion design from Dong Hua University in Shanghai. Through this major, she perfected her rendering skills, got experience in her own fashion studio, and was a dresser and swatcher backstage for fashion shows. However, after four years of attending school for fashion design, Yao discovered her love for fashion history, and devoted three more years to achieving her Masters Degree in fashion history. After completing this degree, she worked as a marketing supervisor for an estate company, which was “really fun because [she] got to talk with different kinds of people.” It was here that she realized she was at a major “pivot point” in her life, because she could either stay in China, or she could learn about the other half of the world. She chose the latter, and began to study English so she could attend an American university to study costume design, because she had realized that that was her true passion.

Yao arrived at the University of Texas, Austin, in 2010, excited to complete her three-year MFA program in Costume Design. From there, she accepted a teaching position at the University of Florida and then eventually came here, to UMass, Amherst. Yao was drawn to UMass because it has such a “complete education structure;” we offer excellent undergraduate and graduate courses in dramaturgy, tech, and performance.

Yao Chen's costume rendering
for the "Pick a Little" ladies in 
The Music Man, which she designed
for the Berkshire Theatre Group.

Though it is only her first semester here, Yao is already hard at work on multiple projects. She is costume designing Ifa Bayeza’s production of Infants of the Spring which performs next semester. Her research for this production has been “fascinating,” because she was not familiar with the Harlem Renaissance and this production serves as a perfect chance to explore this period in greater depth. In addition to this project, Yao is also advising the graduate costume students in their designs for the other plays in our season as well as some productions by the dance department. Furthermore, she is teaching the undergraduate costume design class and is working with the costume shops to retool the graduate and undergraduate student classes.

And that’s not all! Outside of UMass, Yao is costuming The Little Prince at a children’s theatre in Seattle. Yao has a passion for children’s theater: “I love, love children’s theater.” Yao says that back in graduate school, she thought she was “too serious” for children’s theater, but now that she has gotten the chance to work with some in both the U.S. and China, she loves it because “there is so much opportunity for imagination, and you always have to trust your audience’s imagination too. It’s just lovely, lovely.”

It was here that I asked Yao to delve into the differences between American and Chinese theater because she told me that she had never participated in theater in school, because theater is not a part of the middle or high school curriculum in China. Chinese theater is rooted in Russian theater, with Chinese theater focused on the director’s concept and expression rather than intimate story telling for the audience. Due to the abstraction and the subjective story telling, there is a time barrier between audience and the story. In part because of her past in fashion – a for-profit industry – Yao is drawn to American theater because it takes the audience into account. She believes that theater has to be “open to the people” and that it has to be “understandable,” or it is the fault of the production. However, Yao did highlight that “commercial theater is growing in China,” so there is hope for more “audience-friendly” shows in the future.

Yao is so excited to be working at UMass, and speaking as her student, I believe that the theater department is very lucky to have her. I cannot wait to see what she does in her next shows here!

An archival image of Yao Chen's
costume designs for Dr. Jekyll and
Mr. Hyde 
at the B. Iden Payne Theatre