Interview with Project Y designer, Chen-Wei Liao By: Mikayla Becker

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Chen-Wei – Above all, Chen-Wei Liao’s designs are dynamic. Whether it is a larger-than-life record coming to life onstage (THE DROWSY CHAPERONE), a tribunal of Angels (NEW CREATION), or a stripped down southern living room (GLASS MENAGERIE), Liao has a real understanding of visual storytelling and the power great design has on audiences’ imagination.

Originally hailing from Taiwan, Liao tested her skill working at prestigious institutions such as the Taipei National Museum of Art, Tiachung Open Ensemble, and Min-hua Yuan Theatre, before coming stateside in pursuit of her master’s degree at the renowned Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama.

Since her arrival in New York, Liao has emerged as a bold innovative designer. Apart from working under multi-Tony award winning designer, Michael Yeargan, and Broadway Designer Narelle Sissons, Liao’s work recently at Project Y Theatre (THREE MUSKETEERS 1941, SLEEPING BEAUTY, sort of) establishes her as a designer to watch. Her ability to create a multi-locational world and visual language for these world premiere new plays is laudable. Further, Liao’s recent promotional work for Coca-Cola and Regal Theaters for leaves us excited to see what’s next.

Project Y Designer - Chen-Wei Liao

Project Y Designer – Chen-Wei Liao

Project Y Theatre emerges as a new influential voice in new play development. With a singular mission of focusing on one project at a time and allowing the play’s needs to inform all the creative and producing choices, Project Y’s artistic directors, Michole Biancosino and Andrew W. Smith are venturing into previously uncharted territory. With the development of the play at the forefront, Project Y is an incubator of bold thought-provoking work. Originally founded in Washington D.C. in 1999, Project Y has been celebrating their 15 years producing with their 4th Annual Women in Theatre Festival. The 2019 festival took place at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (53rd Street and 10th Avenue) and featured five new plays by five influential female playwrights. Interestingly, two of these new works shared a commonality. Both Megan Monaghan Rivas’ THE THREE MUSKETEERS 1941 and Amina Henry’s SLEEPING BEAUTY were designed by Chen-Wei Liao. We caught up with designer Chen-Wei Liao and interviewed her on her experience designing these two very different new works for Project Y.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

What got you into designing for theater specifically? 

I’ve always been attracted to the arts. Theatre drew me in because it is truly an amalgam of the different arts – you have dance, you have music, you have visual art in the design, you also have a level of technology with the implementation of the production. I’ve always liked design because it is like a puzzle. Each production I design is a creative puzzle. As you put together the pieces of the production seeing if they fit together, a cohesive image emerges. I love the collaborative art of theatre as well. Theatre is one of the few arts where you are truly always working as part of an artistic team and I have great respect and admiration for the artists I’ve had the chance to work with.

Growing up in Taiwan were there elements of your visual experience that stimulated your interest in design?

I think the biggest influence growing up was looking at architecture. The contrast of the old traditional architecture such as the temples against the modern skyscrapers in Taipei fascinates me. This duality between tradition and modern innovation resonates in my work.

What brought you to New York?

I knew that New York was the place for me when I was finishing up my M.F.A. in Scenic Design at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. I am excited by the opportunity to design new plays and NYC is certainly the go-to place for new plays.

Is there any specific style or aesthetic that you tend to look for in the work that you choose to design?

I’m excited by the non-literal. I want to activate audiences’ imaginations and use the design and storytelling to transport them. Whether it is a fantasy or a period-piece, I am drawn to the details that create a world.

Last week I saw “SLEEPING BEAUTY, sort of” which you created a beautiful set for. You also designed “THREE MUSKETEERS 1941” – Tell me, how did you arrive at these two looks?

Three Musketeers: 1941 (Project Y) – Chen-Wei Liao

Working on new plays is exciting. The work is constantly shifting and as a designer that can be intimidating. Commonly, I’m hired on a project and working with a director prior to other artists coming on board. My experience with both THREE MUSKETEERS 1941 and SLEEPING BEAUTY was refreshing because the whole team was actively collaborating while the script was still influx. I would attend rehearsal and discover new ideas that would influence the design. It wasn’t really until toward the end of the rehearsal process that the design fully materialized. Both these plays had multiple locations and required a fluid transition between those locations. In many ways, my task on both projects was to work with the playwrights and directors to create clear worlds in which these stories could play out. I am really happy with the end result and see a future for both of these new plays. 

Sleeping Beauty - Chen-Wei Liao

Sleeping Beauty – Chen-Wei Liao

What was your experience like working with Project Y?

Project Y is such a great company. I felt like a welcome and vital member of the team. I really enjoy the new play process and look forward to working more with Project Y in the future. 

What is on the horizon – any current exciting projects?

I am currently working in Michael Yeargan’s studio getting the set for the national tour of MY FAIR LADY ready to tour around the country. There are also a few other projects in the works that are exciting, but I can’t tell you much about them until contracts are solidified. Stay tuned.

In an ideal world, is there any show you would love to work on?

Something that I’m not comfortable with.  It’s fun to be thrown curve balls. I have always been partial to comedies. Classics are always interesting with the history that they bring to the table and I always jump at the chance to work on Shakespeare.  Then again, “West Side Story” would be a blast to work on.

For more information about Chen-Wei Liao visit:

And for more information about Project Y Theatre and the 4th Annual Women in Theatre Festival visit:

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