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Not a Pipeline Problem, a Problem with the Pipeline

When it comes to reforming and reimagining the culture of theatrical design, education plays a key role. Most folx interested in a career in theatrical design have been told to seek out an elite school program for the faculty, teachers, and relationships. Having that degree can open a lot of doors that might not have existed otherwise. Teachers who are also established designers can provide recommendations for future employment. Students get built-in partnerships of co-designers, directors, and dramaturgs, spending an intense amount of time working, learning, and growing alongside their future collaborators.

But the university education system is not built for everyone.

In the design for performance industry, it’s not new information that there is a severe lack of Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), trans and gender-nonconforming folx, and disabled designers and technicians. No one can argue against the numbers or the optics. Many institutions and individuals wrestle with how to combat this, and the education system becomes the primary scapegoat. How many times has it been said that the diversity issue in the field is a pipeline problem?

Part of the issue with this assessment is that it implies there’s only one path into professional theatre, and that the reason there are not more folx of the global majority working is that they don’t exist, which is simply not true. It is true, though, that the traditional education system does not create a clear path to success for all designers who do not fit the mold of the dominant culture. And much of the education system reinforces the same systemic issues that have led to an inequitable field. It is simultaneously a symptom and a source.

Throughout COVID-19, American theatre has been challenged to change that reality, both in education institutions and across the field. Many designers spoke out and told their stories, demanding that the way we teach and make theatre change once we rise from the pandemic. However, change has been slow within many predominantly white institutions, including universities, and the lasting effects of these efforts are still to be seen. One long-term strategy must be analyzing and revising traditional theatre education. Just as there is not a one-size-fits-all method for how theatre is made, there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to education. There needs to be multiple acceptable paths for entry into a career in theatrical design, otherwise the industry will keep reinforcing the same prescriptive systems that have led to inequity and reinforced oppressive structures. We need to be an industry that accepts multiple experiences as valid.

We are professional theatrical designers and educators who survived the university system and came out the other end with MFAs. We each found it lacking based on our individual lived experiences and are working to fill in the gaps, pushing against the status quo both as designers and in the education system in our own ways, from creating training programs, to reforming from inside the university system, to uplifting the impact of mentorship as both an alternative to and alongside a traditional theatrical education.

We each have different strategies of subverting the system: Sherrice focuses on reform from inside the university system. Amber has created a training program, Blackout, to specifically serve Black youth who are interested in exploring lighting design and technology. Calvin is uplifting the impact of mentorship as both an alternative to and alongside a traditional theatrical education. By examining our own personal experiences and strategies in three parts, we hope to spark other designers—whether educators or artists—to reflect on their participation in the system.

The traditional education system does not create a clear path to success for all designers who do not fit the mold of the dominant culture. And much of the education system reinforces the same systemic issues that have led to an inequitable field.

Lights, COVID, Blackout
By Amber Whatley

When I encountered lighting design in college, I wished I had been equipped with the same knowledge my peers had received at a much earlier age. What someone experiences and witnesses in adolescence makes a huge impact on what they believe they can do later in life.

In most public-school systems in marginalized communities there aren’t theatre programs. I experienced a steep learning curve in design because of the area where I grew up and the color of my skin. I want to make sure that as many students as possible don’t have that same experience. How can we, theatrical artists and educators, lend our knowledge to the students of underserved communities so they are not at a disadvantage if they eventually decide to pursue a career in theatrical design?

Prior to the worldwide pandemic that brought us all to a halt, I began pondering how I could contribute to diversifying the lighting design and technology fields. From this came Blackout, a free two-week intro to lighting design and technology workshop for Black youth aged ten to eighteen that brings awareness of lighting design and technology to communities that have little to no exposure to theatre education. The hope was that participants with further interest in lighting would not enter their next level of education significantly behind students who received theatre training in their secondary schools.

Because of COVID-19, I had to shift the workshop from in-person to virtual. I created a series of introductory lighting and technology videos, which were then presented in classrooms with a focus on Black youth and marginalized communities across the United States. Moving to the digital series allowed over 1500 BIPOC youth to see me, a Black female designer, doing something they can do too.

Blackout is only one approach to increasing awareness of the lighting design field, showing the youth in the minority school districts that lighting design and technology are possible career paths.

In 2020 I created a survey asking Black designers if they believed it was their responsibility to bridge the diversity gap in our industry. Everyone said yes but didn’t feel they had the reach or capacity. Many designers might doubt they have the agency over the shape of the future of our field. We, as BIPOC designers, have put ourselves into prescribed boxes and listened to naysayers saying there is only one right way forward.

All designers have something to offer in this fight for a more equitable and diverse field. But the responsibility of bridging the diversity gap in our industry shouldn’t just fall on BIPOC designers. The more of us who fight for change, the harder it will be to deny the need for diversification.

Just as there is not a one-size-fits-all method for how theatre is made, there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to education.

Image of Black woman with afro sitting in front of a door.

Qualee Marshall as “Osha” in a MARCUS; OR THE SECRET OF SWEET. Lighting Design by Amber Whatley. Directed by Charles O. Anderson and Robert Ramirez. Scenic/Media design by Michael Bruner. Costume design by Lindsey Rae. Sound Design by Jessica Sell. Photo by Lawrence Peart, Courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin.

By Calvin Anderson

Starting from a young age, I was an outsider in the public-school system. I am queer and trans, and I wanted to do theatrical lighting for a living. I had to rely on rumors about what programs were out there to figure out what was possible for me, and I had no point of reference for any other trans people in the field. I would go so far as to say I knew very few trans adults at all.

To this day, I often get a reaction of confusion or surprise when I mention I am a lighting designer for theatre. People outside our industry don’t realize this can be a career-long profession. This feeling of being alone is what ultimately inspired me to become a college educator and mentor, to provide that base reflection for the younger queer and trans folx who may not have seen “a real-life trans adult” working as a lighting or projection designer.

My time in academia has shown that I am only able to engage deeply with a few hungry students who seek me out. Even if every faculty member did this, the student numbers disproportionately outweigh the faculty who can offer that deeper level of support. On top of that, asking global majority or non-dominant culture faculty to do this extra lift shows the white supremacy baked into predominantly white institutions. All of this means that students who do not mirror the dominant culture—cis, white, male culture—are facing an uphill challenge.

Mentorship outside of the traditional education system can serve as one solution to the pipeline problem, offering what academia is severely lacking: individualized learning and solidarity.

One example of what this can look like is the Wingspace Mentorship Program, which pairs two mentors of each design discipline (and directing) with a mentee for the duration of a full year. The mentees share their wants and goals for the year, while the mentors act as facilitators, catalysts, and points of access. Monthly meetings are held as a full cohort to discuss the insider baseball that artists typically only have access to when fully seated in the community. After a year, the mentees not only have each other as a cohort, but they also have the six to twelve additional mentors and continued access points to our industry. The cohort gives mentees a peer group to continue to work with, to recommend, and to grow with. The number of mentors is probably double the number of access points granted in a more traditional educational program.

Another example that approaches mentorship from a different yet equally important angle is the United States Institute for Theatre Technology Gateway Mentorship Program. One of their tenets is to pair up mentees from underrepresented populations with mentors of similar backgrounds and career paths. This program gives early-career folx the deeply needed chance to not only see representation and reflection, but to also build long-lasting relationships with those very people. The initial engagement is an in-person meeting the week of the annual USITT national convention, and the cohorts return year after year in various configurations, granting new mentees access to peers and previous mentors.

These programs still only serve a limited number of folx. The more programs that exist, the more likely someone will find a path that meets their needs. And everyone benefits from it.

Mentorship has allowed me to form deeply meaningful relationships with the next generation of designers and theatremakers. As I continue to work and age, I feel called to continue these relationships. They keep me attuned to what the younger generation is pushing for and what the shifting landscape and priorities look like, as well as help me figure out how to keep up. By building these connections, we theatremakers build a web of diversity at every level of production, and in doing so, take care of one another and grow in the process.

We each found it lacking based on our individual lived experiences and are working to fill in the gaps, pushing against the status quo both as designers and in the education system in our own ways.

Photo of seven people holding each other posing for a photo in a line.

Left to right: Jax Jackson, Azure D. Osborne-Lee, Sulu LeoNimm, Mel Ng, Regina Victor, Calvin Anderson, Abarham Marlett. Photo by Edward Morris

Examining Bias When Teaching Design Students
By Sherrice Mojgani

In the origin story of many famous designers, there was a moment when a mentor said to them, “You should try design, I think you will be good at it.” As a mentor and educator myself, I recognize that I am a potential gatekeeper and am responsible for identifying promising young design students and helping them thrive.

At the George Mason School of Theater, where I teach, we offer both BA and BFA degrees. Our incoming majors are primarily interested in acting, however we offer lower-division design and tech classes in the hopes of encouraging performance students to explore design. I understand this to be a common way for designers to come into the field.

In the past, when organizing my classes, I would think back to how I learned something and try to reverse engineer that process. Now, I am learning to make my craft and knowledge accessible to students who learn best in a different way than I do. Say it with me: “The student who grows up to be a professor is not a typical student.”

At a design mentorship event earlier this year, one of the prizes was a copy of The Dramatic Imagination by Robert Edmond Jones. I had never read it myself, so I ordered a copy. I recognized many ideas from my own design education, but I kept coming up against language that was paternalistic and ableist. I couldn’t recommend this text from the 1940s to undergraduate students in 2021. And it made me wonder how much of the way I identify gifted students is based on what Jones outlines as ideal traits for the designer: “Stage designers, like musicians, are born and not made. One is aware of atmospheres or one isn't, just as one has a musical ear or one hasn't.”

I cannot imagine how harmful this statement has been. It is easy to spot an observant student, with good reading comprehension and artistic talent, who has already been nurtured and say to that student, “Perhaps you would like to be a scenic designer.” But observational skills can be taught, script analysis can be taught, and artistic eyes and ears can be nurtured and encouraged. To insist that a design student have all these things limits the number of students and the diversity of students who are welcomed into programs.

I am working on seeing and encouraging potential in other ways. While I am not sure how this is best accomplished, I know the work begins with examining the reason behind the choices I am making now.

What are the entry points into design work, and how can educators and mentors expand them? Do I need a student to stand on a ladder, lift fifty pounds, or use a table saw before they are considered worthy of mentorship? Or will a student with an experienced hand at drawing, photography, or collage work be the one who catches my eye? I believe I should also be drawing out the student who has not had the privilege of experience to hone artistic or craft skills before arriving in my classroom, so that I can say to them: “There is a place for you in design as well. Your perspective is needed.”

Three people working on stage wearing masks.

(Left to Right) Venus Gulbranson, Sherrice Mojgani, Tyrell Stanley

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Thoughts from the curators

What would it mean to have a culture of justice in theatrical design? This week, we are uplifting the work of the design community, both on stage and off. This series aims to build a deeper understanding of what work is being done and engage in discussions around the impact of structural oppression on our communities, the social position of designers in the larger theatre industrial complex, the interconnectedness of artistry and advocacy, and strategies for co-creating a roadmap into the future. There’s a lot to cover. We’re not going to get to everything or everyone this time around. Luckily, this is only the beginning.

Design (in a Time of Reckoning)


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