Season 2, Episode 11: Exploring Study Focus in Contemporary Arts with Sophie Tang

January 10, 2024

Stacey Copeland: Welcome to FCAT after school, a podcast project from SFUs Faculty of Communication, art and technology. Here on the show we join student hosts in conversation with alumni as they explore career journeys since graduation and gather advice for the next generation. In this episode School of contemporary art student Zoe Braithwaite catches up with program alum and award winning lighting and set designer Sophie Tang. From the Stratford Festival to Vancouver opera, you'll find Sophie's lighting focused artistry and storytelling practice across theater, opera and dance. Sophie shares with us her experiences navigating school from SFU School of contemporary arts, changes in disciplines and approaches to education, all leading to a flourishing career in lighting focused artistry and storytelling. Here are FCAT's own Zoe Braithwaite and Sophie Tang.

Zoe Braithwaite: Hi, I'm Zoë Braithwaite, a current undergrad at the SCA. And today I had the pleasure of chatting with alumnus Sophie Tang, an award winning lighting and set designer working in theater, opera and dance. In this episode, we discussed the journey of navigating school with a lack of direction:

Sophie Tang: Because I didn't come into this program, thinking, I don't know what I was thinking, actually, I didn't know what what I was going to do.

Zoe Braithwaite: To the gratification, Sophie found building a career as a designer, telling stories through light.

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Zoe Braithwaite: All right. So Sophie, how are you doing?

Sophie Tang: Good. How are you?

Zoe Braithwaite: Good. Thank you. I'm excited to be talking with you today. So yeah, thank you again. So yeah, I was curious, just to get a little bit of background for our listeners; what were the steps you went through- like, kind of walk us through, like in the program at SFU during your undergrad to where you are now.

Sophie Tang: I actually started at SFU as a visual art major.

Zoe Braithwaite: Oh okay,

Sophie Tang: in first year, and then I took a theater class, because I don't know how it is now but back in the day, we all had to take one dance, one acting, one like visual art and one theater and one of everything;

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah

Sophie Tang: and I took one theater and I was like, oh, this is interesting. I didn't know this was a option for a job. And then and then I took another one because it's supposed to be easy credit, so they say, back in the day since there's no essay to write.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Sophie Tang: So I took another one. And then the professors talk to me and be like, we think you will be a good fit in the theater program. Why don't you consider like transferring over or doing a double major? I consider double major. But then, because they're all in the contemporary arts program, the class times are overlap with each other.

Zoe Braithwaite: Oh, yeah

Sophie Tang: so it would take like seven years to graduate because you also have to do double amount of the web. So I didn't do that. And then I was in like second year of visual art. But then I decided to transfer over to, um, to theater, because visual art is something you can practice on your own outside of school, but theater, you kind of need the equipment, and need the people to do it together. So that's why I decided to transfer to theater in the end.

Zoe Braithwaite: Right. So you graduate from SFU in theater production, and then you go on to do your masters right away?

Zoe Braithwaite: [laughs]

Sophie Tang: I did, I went to do my Masters right away, because I know it might be hard for me to be working for a while and then go do my Masters because that would mean to stop working; and at the moment of graduation, I felt I wasn't ready to be a full time theatre artists because I didn't build my my circle enough. So then, so that's why I decided to do my Masters right away.

Zoe Braithwaite: Right, and so yeah, you did your masters at UBC. There is the stereotype that like, yeah, SFU is the very like, contemporary program and UBC super traditional, like, what was that transition like, like changing gears and doing a more traditional program?

Sophie Tang: It was very interesting, because as if he doesn't have a fly house, yeah, and UBC's mainstage is a fly house. And my focus here at SFU was actually set and props but I did do a bit of lighting. And then when I went to UBC I also did double thesis in set and lighting. But my main focus was more on lighting because I didn't have the opportunity to learn about a fly house here.

Zoe Braithwaite: Right

Sophie Tang: And the experience is quite different. And until now, like in the same, my work is still separated into the SFU type of work and the UBC type of work. And I think it was very beneficial for me to see both sides of the world in theater.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah, so you did your masters at UBC, what came after that?

Sophie Tang: Um, I was invited to design for a show it was called Titus Bouffonius, and that show won like, eight Jessies, I think. So it was a really a jumpstart of my career. I didn't really know what I was going into when I took that job but then that kind of became a starting point. And then I started designing for professional theatres, outside of school, kind of right out of the bat, I think I was still in school almost graduating when I took that job. And then I just been designing in places. And through the process, I decided that I like lighting more than set so I've been doing less set and more lighting, because just lighting has more freedom

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah

Sophie Tang: In the real world. Because set would have budgeting, or a vision, or just construction, just all kinds of obstacles, and lighting, if something doesn't work out, I can change where the light is, or use a different light. And there's always an easy enough solution for me to pivot. Whereas set, I always find the process a little bit backwards, because a lot of the information and inspiration will actually come out of rehearsal. But at that point, the set is already decided, and already being built, at least in a traditional way. But in a contemporary art, like school, like, like SFU, we sometimes do it simultaneously, like ideas come out and outside the set. But in the real world, it doesn't really work that way in at least in traditional theatre companies. So I find that a bit difficult.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah, yeah, that makes so much sense. Yeah, so like going back to that that project that really like jump started your career that you were doing;is there anything you think like, looking back at that show that, like, if you were to attribute the success of it, what do you think it came down to?

Sophie Tang: I don't know, I think it's a feeling. It was not a traditional show, per se, it was- it was, it was a special project. And for me, I actually use more of the SFU side of the brain,

Zoe Braithwaite: Right

Sophie Tang: for it. And it all comes down to a to a feeling because it was my first time working in a professional theatre. But then reading the script and looking at the costume and looking at the set it just all it comes down to a feeling like I feel like at this moment, the lighting should be like this. And that just went with my gut.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah

Sophie Tang: Just went with it.

Zoe Braithwaite: And so have you brought that into like your projects since? Is that, like, your focus- communicating the feeling with them? With lighting?

Sophie Tang: Yeah. Sometimes, like there's something I called- there's for example, a warm sadness and a cool sadness. Depending on the context of the show, and what is happening. It usually, this is the most direct example I can give a director of what a feeling is. And usually, we're on the same page, and they're able to feel my feeling.  So yeah.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah. So it's almost like a, like an empathy tool. Because most of us like that's, at our core, like, what we know how to navigate the world through is like the feelings we feel. So I think that's super cool to think of like a bridge instead of, like, trying to find like, what's the right vocabulary to talk about lightning to think of it on a basis of just human emotions? Yeah, um, and so, on another note, I was interested, like, you were saying that when you finished your undergrad, and you felt like you weren't ready to go into the real theater world and want to continue going back to school. And I mean, now like you've, you've have an extensive, like, Cv of all the projects you've worked on. How, like what helped you like making like connections and like networking, like how do you I'm assuming that's how you get a CV as extensive as yours, right?

Sophie Tang: I don't really go and social with people. And I don't really go through openings to social and things like that. I think I just let my work speak for itself. And when I work with someone, either they wanted to work to get the collaborate again, or they would recommend me to someone or actually some of my old professors from both SFU and UBC, recommended some stuff for me in the beginning. And then it kind of just built on from there. And then because there's not a lot of female lighting designers out there, at least in BC, so for some project people who are specifically looking for a female or a full female female team or something like that, and that kind of helped my career in the sense because just being one of not many, one of the not very many female and also bipoc, like, yeah, kind of fit into certain categories that people were looking for.

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Zoe Braithwaite: So switch gears for a minute. I know you've been working with Electric Theatre Company doing a show right now called An Undeveloped Sound. I'd love if you could tell me how that process has been going.

Sophie Tang: We've done a couple of workshops for it. Last year, we did a production workshop here, also in the Wong. I don't know if you heard but the door, the guillotine between the assembly space and the Wong came in and it got stuck.

Zoe Braithwaite: Oh -

Sophie Tang: Our show was supposed to start with the door in and then the door will go out and then reveal the stage.

Zoe Braithwaite: Okay

Sophie Tang: But they came in after cue to cue before the tech run, and then it stuck. And then we had to pivot. It was supposed to be like 100 audience or something per show. We had to put people on the other side of the wall, which is inside assembly space sitting against the Wong. It became a very immersive experience for the audience. But it was a fun experience. Because it's that's not something you would go through every day. But the team really pulled together. And now that we're doing it again, this year, it feels both like something new, but also something very familiar, because we've actually never seen the show, at least last year as how it's supposed to be presented sitting in audience. So this time, we we had first preview last night and it was the first time I think maybe 100/200 audience saw it together. And it was a really good feeling. And I think we're yeah, definitely in the refinement stage.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah, yeah. So um, that must be super rewarding. Yeah, I can only imagine how insane that must have been to have to like totally re navigate where the audience is.

Sophie Tang: It was a moment of panic because we had projection and lighting. And the door come in all of the front of house position was cut off and the projector was on the other side. So we had to rehang some lights and rehang the projectors and recalibrate in time to have a show so we can get some feedback on it. Yeah, so it was a moment of panic, but it's all good now.

Zoe Braithwaite: Wow. Yeah, I feel like that. That's the thing that that is nice about, like, the theatre worlds that are so much collaboration, and it is, like, super satisfying when everything comes together. But it can also, yeah, bring so much havoc because you are dealing with so much unknown. Do you ever feel like you have to, like, compromise your work for the sake of collaboration?

Sophie Tang: Um, I wouldn't say compromise because it's more like everyone has an idea and which idea is the best fit for the show in the end? So I wouldn't say compromise but more like pivoting sometimes, you might have an idea in your head, but combining with the other elements of the show may not have worked out. And it's okay to pivot and find a new direction. 

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Sophie Tang: Yeah. Yeah, because in the end, it's, um, like, for example, a set is built a certain way and once lighting is in, it can look totally different. And, and if you have a specific idea, we I want blue light here, but then if the color of the set clashes or if the costume color clashes, then it's time to pivot

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah,

Sophie Tang: to- just for it to be cohesive in the end.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah, totally. Yeah, and speaking of pivoting when COVID Like first started and everyone went into, like, lock down, like, how did that affect like the work you were doing?

Sophie Tang: I was in a queue to queue when it shut down. And there was like, a three stage shutdown it It's like, oh, we're gonna go through to dress rehearsal, we're going to film it, and now we're going to solve. And then next day is like, we're just gonna Cue to Cue it and we'll stop. And then next day is like, actually, we're stopping now everybody go home, because it was changing so fast. And then we just shut down. And then I was home for, like, 10 months, like everybody else when everything absolutely shut down. And then things started to happen. We did some zoom stuff, some pre filmed stuff. And then I became very busy with all the pre filmed stuff. And I find it's a new world for me, because lighting for camera versus lighting for audience is very different. So I learned new things like lighting green screen, and lighting for camera and lighting for like, live stream and pre film that's also different. But I did a lot of those. And still to this day, some productions are still filmed. So we will have two versions, one version for live audience, and then we would have a different version for film, or live streamed versions. [music transition]

Zoe Braithwaite: It's so easy to take lighting for granted. It's like lights are on or lights are off. And like, sometimes I've read a script that says like "mood lighting" but like, what is that? Like? There's no vocabulary around how we talk about lighting. And so I'm super interested like how, like, what's your process for using lighting as storytelling?

Sophie Tang: So actually, one of my actor friend that when I was in school here, he dragged me into a talk with Mary Overlie about viewpoints, the six viewpoints. And then I was like, oh, this is interesting. This is an acting thing. But I'm listening. And I'm like, oh, but I think it could apply to design. Because the six viewpoints space, shape, time and motion movement and story? 

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Sophie Tang: I would apply it to my design, use one or two of them and use it kind of as a guideline for my choices for lighting. And most directors do know, the viewpoints. Yeah, it's, it's an easier way of communicating with them. So they have an idea what I'm talking about. And so for example, if I pick time for a play, I read the script, and then decide like one or two of them, for example, one of the shows I did, I used time as a guideline, and the lighting was always changing. There are some like over 30 minute lighting cues, that's just always changing, we never stopped. And it was very effective. It's not like traditionally, now here's a cue. And now here's the cue. I think that was a very successful use of the viewpoints and the way to communicate with the director.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah, it's beautiful. I think it comes back to like this idea of interdisciplinary, whether it's as an artist, switching between modes of creating theater, making visual art, etc, which SCA just puts a big emphasis on, but also like the styles within certain disciplines, like what we've mentioned, with your experience in theater production within SFU, versus UBC to have that vocabulary of both brings this ability to translate between and merge the two. It's so successful as a creator and a collaborator. And I think it totally shows up in your work and proven to be really successful.

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Zoe Braithwaite: Again, on another note, yeah, what's been your, like, favorite project you've worked on?

Sophie Tang: Oh, I don't know if there's really a favorite project. But I guess any project I'm working on and having a good time is my favorite project. So my favorite project at the moment is An Undeveloped Sound.

Zoe Braithwaite: Oh, that's so awesome. So you do you ever feel like when you're working on a project that you just hate it?

Sophie Tang: Um, I don't think so. I don't think there's any project I absolutely hated. But there are like challenging moments sometimes. But in the end, I wouldn't say there's a project that I hated. No.

Zoe Braithwaite: That's fantastic. I think that's something a lot of people strive for, especially in a creative industry to be able to say, like, I don't hate the projects I work on. I think that's really inspiring.

Sophie Tang: I think I'm good at finding like something for myself, like or some some kind of insight challenges for myself. Some sometimes I do some design that even audience might not even notice, but for me, it's a feeling and if you're the feeling then I believe some audience will feel it too. Even if it's not everybody, maybe it's a 5% intensity change. People don't even know. But it's a feeling and some people will feel it.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah, yeah, um, one of my professors the other day, she was saying that she had a friend who was telling her that like, if you can't get out of it, you got to get into it. Like always trying to find a way to appreciate or enjoy like what you're doing and even, yeah, if it's something that no one else can tell or like, not a part of like the evident bigger picture if there's something for you to find to get into it, like it'll like radically change, like the way you work and make it so much more enjoyable. So I think that's like super cool to hear. Like you do it, like doing it in real life and actually working. So yeah, that's, that's really awesome.

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Zoe Braithwaite: Sophie, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It's been such a pleasure. I definitely want to stay up to date with everything you do. So let us know where can we find you next.

Sophie Tang: So after An Undeveloped Sound, I'm working on Midsummer Night's Dream, the Opera. So that's my next project. And then in- and then have some other projects with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. And then I have a show at the Arts Club called The Legend of Georgia McBride. Then I'll be heading off to Shaw Festival this summer working on The Apple Cart. And then I'll be returning to Bard this summer. I think that's far enough.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah, okay, well, yeah, thank you so much. For everyone listening, go check all that out. You make beautiful work. So I'm super excited to go see An Undeveloped Sound tomorrow. And yeah, looking forward to checking out more. So thank you so much.

Sophie Tang: Thank you.

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Stacey Copeland: Interested in learning more about the FCAT community? Check out all our past episodes from seasons one and two in your podcast feed. And stay tuned for a new season to kick off the new school year this fall. A big thanks to Sophie Tang for joining us here on the show. You'll find links to resources mentioned and more info on Sophie and the SFU School of contemporary arts. In the show notes. Our host for this episode was Zoe Braithwaite, production by Zoe and me Stacey Copeland. FCAT After School respectfully acknowledges the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Qayqayt, Kwantlen, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen peoples on whose unceded traditional territories our three campuses reside, and where many of the stories shared in our series take place. Make sure to rate and subscribe to FCAT After School in your podcast app of choice, so you don't miss any of our upcoming episodes. You can follow us on social media at FCAT @ SFU. That's f c a t at SFU on Twitter and Instagram. See you next time!