New York, USA - All types of people have existed, for as long as humanity has existed. That may seem like an obvious statement until you realize that the inequality in how people’s stories have been told (or not), and by who, throughout history, has had a direct and distorting impact on everything we learn, everything we think and on every story that we continue to tell ourselves today.
On a weekend in mid-January, at New York’s Park Avenue Armory more than 60 artists, intellectuals and designers from live entertainment participated in an interdisciplinary forum to discuss the role of race in the imaginative and symbolic spaces of live performance design.
For those presenting the various panels, and the more than 700-strong audience, the weekend delivered a thought provoking, refreshing, blind-spot-revealing conversation about how approaches to design in the live entertainment industry are evolving as industry players diversify in terms of race, culture, and gender.
So why does race matter in design? Because for many years the dominant demographic in Western live performance design has been white and male. There are many complex reasons for this, but the outcome is that it is those men who have, in the main, set the standard, created the artistic canon and been the arbiters of taste in the form of writers, directors and critics. Race in design matters to those people whose voices have been ignored or excluded from the conversation because of the color of their skin.
Panellists representing all aspects of theatre design bought a critical eye to the established, rarely questioned, some might say now limited visual and aural vocabulary of theatre design, particularly in the education setting. They highlighted how conventional hierarchies and habitual ways of ‘teaching or doing theatre’ contribute to the struggle stage design and backstage disciplines face when it comes to attracting, retaining, and promoting a more racially diverse workforce.
Co-organizers of the symposium - lighting designer and director for the Princeton University theatre programme, Jane Cox, alongside award-winning playwright, Park Avenue Armory board member and artist in residence, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, joined set designer Mimi Lien and sound designer and composer Mikaal Sulaiman, to introduce the audience to the topics that would span the two-day event. These included how to create a collaborative aesthetic over time, conversations between generations, the teaching of design and production through an anti-racist lens, black sound artist round table, discussions on the future of XR in theatre design, culturally specific design, Afro-futurism in design for live performance, costume design and darkness and light in lighting design. All can be accessed on the Park Avenue Armory YouTube.
Cox and Jacobs-Jenkins say that they were motivated to organize the symposium by the fast changing racial and cultural demographic of students entering their classrooms. The increase had exposed several racial biases in standard teaching practices.
Until recently it has been assumed that the design student and the performer on stage are white. For example, the standard to demonstrate the impact of color, light, angle etc in any situation was to light a pale-colored object in a dark space. However, as Cox’s student intake was bringing all skin tones to the classroom, this was no longer appropriate. Around the same time, the introduction of LED lighting to theatre spaces was found to be wanting on darker skins as Cox discovered when lighting Jennifer Hudson in The Color Purple on Broadway. She also found that 3D rendering design software did not offer options to include darker skin tones. All these issues and more concerned Cox, who wanted to collaborate to develop more inclusive practices.
Together with Jacobs-Jenkins, they investigated the assumptions and bias that have been baked into theatre design education. For many years, theatre lighting design has been referencing a string of famous European artists, who also mostly painted pale objects in dark spaces. These images directed attention to the subject of the image in a culturally specific way. Cox wanted to rethink lighting design and the materials she was referencing, alongside investigating more deeply how technology evolution intersects with that.
In a later panel entitled ‘Teaching Design and Production through an Anti-Racist Lens’, lighting designer, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew stated that there is no problem with the material you use but you must explain to your students why you are using it and who or what is missing from the story. You might use a particular painting to demonstrate scale or how sunlight might fall through a window onto costumes or fabric, but it is also important to clarify that this is just one way of looking at things.
Back to the opening conversation and Mimi Lin said that when she came into theatre design, via architecture, there was a daunting canon of well-known set designers that she felt she should get to know and yet chose not to. She felt that the advantage of not being steeped in that history gave her a creative freedom to believe that anything can be a theatre design.
The proliferation of successful playwriters, directors and actors, from all races and cultures are attracting a diverse demographic into stage design and tech. As a result, different questions are being asked of the presented material, across all design disciplines, and some innovative responses are being presented.
However, contributors to the symposium felt that there remain deeper questions that relate to the entire aesthetic of a show and how it’s likely to be interpreted differently depending on the race of the person designing it. However, to examine the tropes of theatre design and production with a truly critical eye poses a huge cultural and racial anthropological question.
Every panel made it clear that there is huge benefit to be harvested from the rich variety of style and approach that a racially diverse creative team can bring to a project. Not simply in terms of representation but because anything that brings different experiences, knowledge, training, perspectives, opinions, and skillsets to the team will enrich the story told.
Live performance designers juxtapose visual, sonic, tactile and spatial elements within a time-based structure. The elements chosen often convey significant cultural meaning and emotion. Design is as much about what is left out as it is about what’s included – inadvertently or on purpose. Design sculpts, curates, and manifests the narrative, atmosphere, environment, emotion, and nuance of a story. Until very recently, its vocabulary, culture, systems, and processes have been built by a small cross section of the population. In a modern, multicultural world this now feels limiting, assumptive, narrow minded and uncomfortable for many people.
There’s an agreed visual vocabulary that is relentlessly repeated in live performance. For example, the use of light and dark to convey mystery or evil, purity and freshness and yet there are many alternatives, equally effective in communicating the same themes and messages. Making things dark is a common way to communicate something frightening or scary but to other cultures their own life experience means that bright light and exposure can be much more frightening. Racially driven regimes have long been built on insidious visual systems that people take for granted in a passive way. The job of the designer, regardless of race, is to constantly question that.
Sulaiman says that historically, audio is the most contested space of racial reckoning and that racial stereotypes can exert frustrating pressure to deliver something obvious: “It’s important for me as an artist to know that I'm propagating an understanding of a story or performance piece. Rap might've been refreshing when it was first being used in theatre. The director or the sound designer was probably pursuing a certain propaganda by using it. While it’s important to have representation in projects, designers should be invited onto a project as their whole self as opposed to a cultural cliche.”
He went on to say that there are many versions of us all, and asked: “Is it possible to have an all-black show where the sonic or designed space does not feel typically black? Yet, at the same time it is black because it was all black folks that made it. How can we change the narrative and propagate a new one? The very notion of a black sound is ridiculous because blackness is so vast.”
The new generation of designer expect to have conversations at the highest level and much earlier in the creative process. The modernisation of education has a critical part to play. Course designers and syllabus creators needs to question long held tropes and broaden their perspective both in the way that it teaches, the current vocabulary and in the materials, technology and processes it uses to teach.
Although as individuals we have not always had agency over how we have been programmed by the society, education and the people that have directly influenced us, once we have seen injustice in our workplace, environment, and educational establishments, we cannot unsee it.
It is therefore incumbent upon us all to look beyond our own comfort zones and professional borders and question our own accepted processes and ways of doing and seeing things.
When artists from different backgrounds, cultures, gender, and races create and learn together the creative vocabulary expands exponentially. Conversations are enriched, restrictive processes exploded, and long-established, unhelpful hierarchies and power structures can be tumbled. The creative palette is expanded, and everyone can start to see the vast landscape of artistic possibilities ahead.
The Symposium demonstrated there are still many questions to answer and many ongoing conversations to be had. Everyone was keen to express that this gathering was the first of a vital and important ongoing conversation, aimed at delivering a more welcoming and democratic theatrical platform for all.