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My Boston History | Mi Historia En Boston

A lighting designer shines a spotlight on the lack of diversity backstage

As a theatrical professional and educator, I’m working to help make the industry more welcoming for the next generation.

Jorge Arroyo behind the scenes at the Booth Theatre at Boston University.jared charney/for the Boston Globe

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I am a unicorn — a rare example of a Puerto Rican theatrical designer working on the mainland. I’m fascinated by lighting design and its role in telling stories and communicating with audiences. When you come see one of my shows, I am subtly directing your attention to one part of the stage or the other. I’m setting a mood using color, intensity, direction of light — all to trigger an emotion within you connected to the action of the play. It’s like a partner dance, but one where you don’t realize that I’m the one leading you.

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I started working in the theater in the mid-’90s in Wisconsin, where I attended college. Unsurprised by the lack of diversity there, it was in graduate school at New York University where it really struck me: I could count on one hand the number of Puerto Rican designers working on major productions. When I did work with other BIPOC artists, it was usually at some small, fringe theater that rarely provided the income required to sustain a career. At regional theaters across the country, BIPOC voices were frequently relegated to a second or even third stage because the “audiences were smaller,” which was code for “we haven’t done the work that it takes to welcome and develop those audiences.” Smaller seating capacity on those secondary stages meant smaller show budgets, which carry lower fees for the artists involved, creating an inherent inequality in how the BIPOC artists were compensated for equal work. Our work was worth less. The subliminal message: You are not good enough to be on the big stage.

Historically, the American theater has largely ignored diversity in its productions. For every August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, or David Henry Hwang, the works of white, male playwrights — such as Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Albee, Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, O’Neill, and so many others — were reverently elevated around them. Occasionally, someone broke into the collective consciousness (I see you, Lin-Manuel Miranda), but those were few and far between. No one was telling our stories, and even when they were, productions were focused on the diversity of performers on stage rather than on the team behind it.

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Then the pandemic happened. Racial reckoning happened. BIPOC artists spoke loud and clear, demanding a seat at that table. As the lights came back on in theaters across the country, many companies listened, diversifying their programming. But it isn’t only about the stories they put on the stage, but who gets to tell them — and many theaters weren’t getting that. Grass-roots initiatives arose, aiming to increase the diversity of behind-the-scenes artists. Groups such as La Gente: The Latiné/x Theatre Production Network, Design Action, RISE Theatre Directory, MENA Theatre Makers Alliance, and many others have stepped up to advocate for BIPOC designers, technicians, directors, and managers. When I ask theater administrators why they aren’t hiring more diverse backstage artists, the “I don’t know any” reply doesn’t hold up anymore — we’re easier to find than ever before. But it still takes a willingness and effort on the theater’s part to change its habits, and many theaters haven’t responded.

Lately, the teams I’ve worked on are more diverse than those prior to the pandemic. It still feels strange — and amazing — to work on large productions with, as it has turned out, a herd of unicorns like me. Earlier this year, I was the lighting designer for Cambridge native Lenelle Moïse’s play K-I-S-S-I-N-G, co-produced by the Front Porch Arts Collective and Huntington Theatre Company. The design team was largely composed of BIPOC artists and the atmosphere in the room during rehearsals was intoxicating. Every artist was bringing themselves to the work and the results were evident onstage (the Globe review called it “visually sumptuous”). The show was nominated for eight Elliot Norton Awards, winning six, including one for Outstanding Lighting Design. Best of all, the play won the award for Outstanding Play in the large theater category, an achievement possible only by the collective of artists working both on the stage and behind it.

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As an experienced lighting designer and educator, who happens to be Latino, I am in a position to help make our industry a more welcoming environment for the next generation, and to unlock the full potential of my Boston University students as artists so they can eventually help continue this work. I’ll keep engaging theaters and other artists in conversations about representation on and behind the stage. After all, West Side Story has been on Broadway six times, with not a single Latino designer on any of them. It’s time that changed.


Read more from the My Boston History issue:


Jorge Arroyo is a freelance lighting designer and assistant professor of lighting design and co-chair of design and production at Boston University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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