Creative Visions: Theater set designer Jungah Han conjures new worlds from scratch
Jungah Han doesn’t try to copy a successful look from a previous production of a play, musical, or opera she is designing. She doesn’t look at photos or read about what other designers have done, and she tells her University of Michigan students to begin without preconceptions, too.
At times—more often when she’s designing in the United States than abroad—she’s been asked to reproduce what’s been done in other productions.
She’s not interested in those jobs.
Han, who joined the faculty at the U-M School of Music, Theatre, and Dance last fall, is a theater artist. She brings her own response to a play, in collaboration with the director’s vision and those of others on the design team.
Yet, Han didn’t even know what theater was when she enrolled in Kangwon National University in her native South Korea. There, she studied business. “Part of business is marketing and advertising. I was interested in the design part,” recalls Han, who moved to Honolulu to study desktop publishing at Hawaii Pacific University.
Then, a tidal change.
Han enrolled in an MFA program in scenic design and technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, remaining in the three-year program for two years.
At the 2004 conference of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, where designers from all over the country gather to investigate new ideas and equipment, she met Ming Cho Lee, who headed the design department at the Yale School of Drama.
“After I met him there, he invited me to attend the Kennedy Center Summer Intensive Class 2004 that was scheduled in July for two weeks," Han says. "After, Ming assisted me to transfer to San Diego State University for MFA program in set design.”
She earned that degree in 2007 and then taught at the University of California San Diego, University of California, Riverside, and Long Beach City College.
Not content with one MFA, Han headed East and earned a second at Yale.
By the time she finished that degree in 2015, she was working as an associate designer on and off Broadway, alongside such top-tier scenic designers as Riccardo Hernandez, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, and Michael Yeargan.
During COVID-19, she moved back to California to wait out the pandemic with her sister. As restrictions eased, she found herself at a crossroads about where to live and work.
“I am interested in film and TV design as well as theater,” says Han who has also been art director or assistant art director on several films. “At the same time, I realized I have to find a home.”
A university would make a good home, she knew, and Han received several offers from top universities. She chose the University of Michigan because, compared to the others, it's "really close to New York, where most of my work was happening.” That made her decision easy, and she also designs shows for theater and opera at U-M these days.
Director Linda Goodrich says she loved collaborating with Han on U-M’s Bernarda Alba: "She has a unique voice; brings passion, artistry, and a completely fresh and innovative approach to the work. I look forward to watching her career progress. I believe her contributions will be vivid.”
“This is the start of my third semester. I’ve made good friends,” Han says. She’s also designed at professional theaters (in Michigan, the Detroit Public Theatre) and other universities, including Yale, Julliard, and several California schools. Most recently, she did the scenic design for a Monteverdi opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, at Rice.
Jennifer Williams, who directed several shows that Han designed, including the Monteverdi opera, says Han “is a joy to collaborate with because of her poetic imagination. She is a bold and sophisticated artist who is not afraid to question traditions or venture beyond the expected.
“Jungah is also an artist known for her honesty, fairness, and compassion,” Williams adds, “so when Jungah is on your team, you know the bar will be raised in the room for both personal and artistic integrity.”
Han is excited about the work she’s lined up for the next season, particularly The Chinese Lady at Tipping Point Theatre in Northville, Michigan. She usually negotiates a fee before signing on to design a play but says, “I loved this play so much, I just agreed.”
She was also hired as an associate scenic designer for Waiting for Godot at Theatre for New Audiences in New York City, The Half-God of Rainfall for the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the musical, Lempicka, slated to open on Broadway in March 2024. She will be the scenic designer for A Little Night Music at U-M in 2024.
When Han gets a play, she reads it without an eye to how she will design it. “I get ideas but try not to focus on them,” she says. “Then I have first meeting with the director. Sometimes our meeting is about our life. Getting to know each other is important to me.” It’s also important to her to understand what the director “wants the audience to see and hear and feel. Then I start to research and doodle.”
Han brings her “doodles” to the creative team—the director and the other designers—who meet to discuss their initial visions of the play and opera. After that comes more research and preliminary sketches. She creates a 3D model with computer software.
But before any of that, Han visits the venue to get a sense of the space.
“Design is how much I can artfully create in the environment so the actors can do their work," she says. "The space is very important." Han, who just moved into a new apartment in Ann Arbor, compares assessing the space to imagining furnishing a new home.
“Jungah designs the whole theater, activating it into a vibrant, three-dimensional play space," Williams says. "Especially exciting is how she embraces the kinetic: her sets don’t politely sit still; they transfigure with the story, and it makes for exhilarating theater." Her visual language is distinctive and genuinely original, possessing an intriguing elegance that draws the viewer in.
The creative team meets two or three times after that, and Han thinks about what might be the best way to support the other designers. She does color renderings and, for musicals, a storyboard while developing 2-D designer’s drafts to share with the technical department. “I usually have a technical director who does the constructional drafting,” Han says.
That doesn’t mean the design is finished. Her ideas continue to evolve, and she revises a little or a lot.
“Sometimes at the last minute, we have to really simplify the design, so until the show opens to the audience, we have a lot of work to do—even during techs, even during previews," Han says. "Opening night is our biggest joy. We don’t have to do any more work unless the show is moving to another space or touring.”
All of this takes months of preparation. Plays can take six months. Operas usually take a year. “We follow almost exactly the same production schedule [at U-M]" as Broadway, Han says, "even though the budget is very low. We try our best to make student productions not much different than outside." She brought some of her students to New York to observe the process on Broadway.
Han didn’t expect to be spending her life in the theater, though she couldn’t be happier. She loves the way people relate and collaborate, and that the theater world is open to people of different ages and backgrounds. “Theater is a diverse community, one of the few places you can be open without bias. It’s inclusive and multicultural,” she says.
“Scenic design job itself is very attractive to do,” she says. "If you want to be creative, and you want to find a place for expressing what you have been thinking, a physical foundation for a vision in your head, it is a good thing to do.”
Davi Napoleon, a theater historian and freelance writer, holds a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.
Local audiences can next see Jungah Han’s scenic designs at Tipping Point Theatre in Northville ("The Chinese Lady," February 7-March 3, 2024) and the University of Michigan ("A Little Night Music," April 18-21, 2024).