La Esquinita is a series that serves as a production notebook for Latinx designers and artisans working on stages across the nation. In La Esquinita, designers and artisans share their process and production work, plus overall thoughts on dynamic collaboration. This series will provide glimpses of the off-stage world where you will find these master artisans, technicians, and designers remembering and retelling their experiences in creating the evocative theatrical landscapes we see today. Welcome to our corner!

actor and puppet on stage
Climbing with Tigers directed by Andra Harbold at Salt Lake Acting Company. Set Design: Thomas George; Animation: Jarom Neuman; Sound Design: Adam Day; Costume Design: Rodney Cuellar; and Lighting Design: Jesse Portillo. Photo by Caitlin Blue.

I was always more interested in the equipment and mechanics of what made the lighting and scenery work. When I enrolled at the University of Utah, however, I planned to major in biology. I ended up studying anthropology and sociology, and graduating with a degree in theater. I had the privilege of studying with and working for Theresa Martinez, a professor of sociology, as a teaching and research assistant in the Sociology Department. The courses in sociology set me on the path of questioning the storyteller and interrogating the breadth, limitations, and validity of their perspective. I immersed myself in the study of race, class, gender, sexuality, and intersectionality as I started to define myself as a gay Latinx man. That experience was profoundly influential in defining the way that I think about the nature of theater, the stories we tell, and the way we chose to tell them.

As theatremakers, some of us are aware of the stories we are not telling, and the voices that are not heard. The field has made strides towards diversity, equity, and inclusion, but there is much to be gained by focusing more attention on the voices and the work of designers and technicians. Designers often work in isolation, and for members of marginalized and underrepresented communities, the world of professional theatre can be a daunting and difficult environment. I was very fortunate to have been awarded two lighting design fellowships at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the designers and staff helped me start to figure out who I am as a designer and to navigate the industry. Since then, I have been active in United States Institute for Theatre Technology’s (USITT) efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive and equitable industry. I am proud to have been part of the group of people that created the Gateway Program, which connects young professionals from underrepresented populations with a professional mentor to help them navigate the industry. It offers assistance that I could have used as a student, and I get to witness how the program has helped to change lives and the industry.

I have experience in designing for musicals, opera, and dance, but the majority of my professional work has been designing new plays. Whatever the schedule and technical needs are, I always try to make sure that the lighting is responding to the moment on stage. If there is a dramaturg on the production, they become a valuable resource for me. The moment on stage may point to a different meaning than I had previously considered, but lighting that is unintentionally out of sync with the performance can detract from the story. I try to be flexible and responsive to the needs of my collaborators and I spend as much time in the rehearsal room as my schedule allows. This provides me with a richer understanding of the production’s creative and critical approaches to storytelling.

actor on stage
The Kreutzer Sonata directed by Jerry Rapier at Plan-B Theatre Company. Set Design: Randy Rasmussen; Costume Design: Phil Lowe; Sound Design: Cheryl Cluff; and Lighting Design: Jesse Portillo. Photo by Rick Pollock.

As I was completing my undergraduate studies, I realized that I could graduate with a BFA in Theatre, or stay in school for another year and finish my studies in Anthropology and Sociology. I did not have a clear plan about what to do after graduation, so against some very good advice, I decided to go directly to graduate school for an MFA in Lighting Design. After I completed my MFA, I moved back to Utah for family reasons, and I was fortunate that work slowly started to materialize.

Early one morning in the fall of 2007, I woke up to a phone call from Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah. Their resident lighting designer had been injured and required immediate surgery. They asked if I could take over as lighting designer on their production, which meant attending a designer run that afternoon and loading in the next day. I was nervous about agreeing to light a new play on such short notice, but I accepted the challenge. Since then I have been fortunate to have an artistic home at two theatre companies. I have designed thirty productions for Plan-B and have been their Resident Lighting Designer since 2011, and I recently completed my sixteenth production for the Salt Lake Acting Company.

Plan-B primarily performs in a rehearsal studio that has been converted into a black box theatre with minimal lighting equipment. The first couple of productions I designed in that space were challenging and terrifying for me. Yet, my design process benefitted as I learned to develop and embrace a way of thinking about light that’s centered on what equipment is necessary for the production, instead of how much equipment would make the design process easier for me. I found that I was spending more time in rehearsal, and when possible, working during rehearsals before the tech process started. That small revision in my process provided a better sense of how less can be more in lighting design. My work with Plan-B has shifted away from a standard tech process; I typically work during rehearsals for a week or so, slowly integrating lighting into the process. I have a continuous dialogue with the director and the stage manager as the cue structure develops, and the limited equipment allows the light plot to evolve on a day to day basis. While I enjoy working this way, I design an equal number of productions outside of that context on a more typical production schedule, and on a larger scale.

two actors on stage
Streetlight Woodpecker directed by Richie Call at Salt Lake Acting Company. Set Design: Dennis Hassan; Costume Design: Nancy Hills; Sound Design: Jennifer Jackson; and Lighting Design: Jesse Portillo. Photo by Dav.D Photography.

I jokingly tell people that I started lighting when I was in high school, and no one has told me to stop. I have designed scenery, sound, costumes, and projections. I have worked as a technical director and as a production manager, and my lighting work has also included opera, dance, and architecture. It took me a number of years to realize that I am happiest when I am lighting a performance. I am fortunate to have an artistic home at two theatre companies, and a schedule that allows me to freelance and work with new artistic collaborators.