Yi Zhao, born in Beijing, China, always assumed he’d have a career in mathematics or computer science — but a few coincidences led him to detour into the arts.
The 17-year-old ventured to the University of Chicago for an American liberal arts education, arriving in 2003. He hadn’t thought much about the performing arts. In fact, he says with a laugh, “I honestly had never even seen a play before I designed one.” But he fell in love with theatre through sheer happenstance.
One day on campus, he chanced upon a theatre group’s rehearsals. The troupe invited Zhao to stay; they became friends, and soon he found himself hooked on the technical side of staging productions. Programming the lights on the computer fascinated him. He learned the ropes of electrics and stage spaces, and his creative satisfaction grew with each project.
After college, Zhao moved to New York City, and started doing technical work at Performance Space 122, the legendary East Village arts center. He soon decided to apply to graduate schools, winding up at the Yale School of Drama. “Yale’s holistic approach was right for me,” he says, noting that the school also provided generous financial aid. Apprenticing with internationally renowned lighting designer Jennifer Tipton gave Zhao a structure, a philosophy, and “an inherent coherence” as a theatre artist.
Zhao has garnered acclaim for his thoughtful and subtle designs serving a wide variety of theatre productions and aesthetics. He has proven a key collaborator for some of the most ambitious U.S. productions in recent seasons. Among the highlights are an innovative 2014 staging of Plato’s Republic by the young company Hoi Polloi at JACK, a Brooklyn art center, where he devised dimmable, remote-controlled glowing columns that the actors could move around the white space.