One Small Voice: Yo Shao Ann

Published on 6 June 2016

How does one tell a story with lights? Theatre bright spark and lighting designer Yo Shao Ann shares more about his role.


When I came back from the United States after training as a lighting designer, a friend of mine said I should try marketing myself as a problem-solver.

It was interesting advice, and it’s true. But how does a lighting designer create solutions with the aid of lighting?

When starting work on a show, the first major problem is collaboration. You have an idea of what you want, but there’s also the director’s vision. I tend to be a bit more passive in the beginning as I try to get a sense of where everyone is coming from. Later, when I feel strongly about something, I’ll fight for it. But generally, I like to be a team player.

With some directors, you need to ask the right questions to get the information you need about their ideas. Sometimes, on opening night, I read their notes in the programme and think, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?’ With others, it’s intuitive. When I lit Reminiscing the Moon for the Singapore Dance Theatre, the Indonesian choreographer, Boi Sakti, spoke little English and we hardly talked. But he trusted me. When we turned on the lights, it just came together and it was quite magical.

Then comes the problem of how to tell a story with lights. Sometimes, I’ll put up pictures or images: things that inspire me or say something about the text. Often, I sit at Bedok pool with the script; I just sit in the sun and read. The more you know the story, the less you have to rely on the script. And then you’re able to visualise or imagine it better. I see my canvas, but it’s not a white sheet of paper. It’s a blank space, a grey space.

Inspiration achieved, the next problem is how to design smart. I’m wowed by designers who can speak an ocean with a single light source.

One of the shows I’m proudest of having worked on was Mobile 2: Flat Cities by The Necessary Stage (TNS). It was held at the TNS Black Box, with a small lights inventory. The best compliment I received was from another lighting designer who saw that I didn’t use anything from the theatre’s set-up, but told me it looked like there were a million lights up there.

Then you take your design into the theatre, and the biggest problem is time. The tricky thing about lighting is that you have such a short amount of time to get it right.

The lighting designer only gets to do a first draft at full-dress rehearsal, and you’ve got to nail it because you’ve got to open the following day. And this is especially tough in Singapore, where very often, we try to tech a musical in two days. With some shows, the minute they get into the venue, they’re already two days behind schedule! My teachers used to tell me: aim for 90 per cent of what you want to achieve, and if you get 70 per cent, that’s really not bad.

And after all this, sometimes taxi drivers ask me what I do, and when I tell them I’m a lighting designer, they think all I do is go into the theatre and flip a giant switch!

YO SHAO ANN is a 2006 recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Technical Theatre. He also received a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre from the University of California, San Diego. Recent lighting designs include Beauty World (Singapore Street Festival, 2015); Yusof (Pesta Raya 2015); A Singaporean in Paris (Sing’Theatre, 2014) and Mobile 2: Flat Cities (The Necessary Stage, 2013). He is currently a production manager with The Esplanade Co Ltd.

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