Dawn Chiang – Lighting Designer (2002)

Being part of a design team in theater, for me, has always been a color-blind, gender- blind experience. I design the lighting for productions of Shakespeare, David Henry Hwang, Moliere, August Wilson, Edward Albee, Lorraine Hansberry and many others.

I value that in the day-to-day work, questions of race, color, culture, age, gender, disability and sexual orientation are not an issue. The theater community feels more open and supportive of people of all backgrounds than the world as a whole. Some of the plays that are produced address these very issues of exclusion, prejudices conscious or unconscious, and the willingness to grow and learn.

Among my most memorable experiences in theater was the audience member who knocked on the lighting control booth window after a preview of Master Harold and the Boys. Being closest to the door, I opened it. “Are you with the production?” inquired the audience member. “Yes, I am,” I replied. “I just wanted you all to know how much this play meant to me. I didn’t know that I would feel this way when I came in this evening. Thank you for doing this play. Could you please let the rest of the company know?” he said. “Yes, I will be glad to pass your thoughts along to everyone”, I answered.

This is one of the reasons why I do theater.

We touch people. We connect with people. We offer new possibilities. We consider a different perspective on old questions. Paraphrasing Robert Henri, a painter who taught at the Art Students League in New York — while most people are trying to close the book on life, artists continually show that new pages are possible. (From his wonderful book, The Art Spirit.)

That is what we do — show that new pages are possible.

While I have the opportunity to work on productions derived from many different sources, I also see directors, writers and actors of color who still do not have such a breadth of work offered to them on an ongoing basis. I recently witnessed an African American guest director with whom I work try to assure a regional theater that he does indeed direct other types of plays than those offered during Black History month, which indeed he does at many other theaters.

I have also heard actors speak about how ten years ago at their repertory company, there almost were not enough resident actors from which to cast one August Wilson play. Now, they are happy to see that their ranks have grown so that in any season, they can cast many different plays with actors of color.

I have seen student-audiences remark positively in a post-show discussion about how wonderful it was to see an Asian assistant milliner and a Hispanic Barnaby in a production of The Matchmaker. They delighted in seeing an Asian with a sense of humor and a Hispanic who had some romantic touches, and were enthusiastic in seeing these characters and actors in a new light beyond their usual stereotypes.

I sometimes find myself as a momentary role model or mentor to some early career Asian designers. They often come from families where the emphasis on a traditional, “honored” profession (law, medicine or engineering) is especially strong. Sometimes it is reassuring to them to speak with a designer who has followed their own passion into the arts and firmly, proudly yet lovingly taken a stand in the face of their own family values and pressures.

In the theater community, the core of existence is imagination, vision, creativity and the ability to connect with others across the footlights, and in the close teamwork behind the scenes. Whatever questions and issues that we as a theater community face, I ultimately trust in our ability to draw upon these resources that we nurture daily in our work. The challenge, as always, is to keep our focus on what is important.

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