Sherrice Mojgani: Design & Community

by Porsche McGovern
Sherrice Mojgani and Jonah keeping up to date on new technology. Photo Credit: Amanda Zieve.
Sherrice Mojgani and Jonah keeping up to date on new technology. Photo Credit: Amanda Zieve.

Sherrice Mojgani is an assistant professor in the School of Theatre at George Mason University. Before coming to GMU, Mrs. Mojgani was based in San Diego, CA. Sherrice and I have become friends through being two of the original four administrators for the Design and Production Diversity Working Group on Facebook for the last two years.

Sherrice has designed for The Old Globe, San Diego Repertory Theatre, MOXIE Theatre, and Diversionary Theatre and her design for Blue Door at MOXIE Theatre was nominated for a 2017 Craig Noel Award. Sherrice is a member of United Scenic Artists 829 and serves as Co-Chair on the Diversity Committee. She holds a BA in Theater Arts from UC Santa Cruz and an MFA in Lighting Design from UC San Diego.

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
It’s hard to say because we don’t live outside our bodies. We’re not in the conversations that we don’t hear. We’re not in the hiring rooms. The biggest thing is the mentoring issue.  There’s no one to look to, who is like you, when you’re coming up from the beginning. As an assistant, I’ve always worked with white men, and once a white women. There’s a question of is my voice valid, is there a place for me in this. I really woke up to the reality of our situation after looking at your study. How do I become one of those 75 or so women who are lighting designers in LORT theatres? 

Black Pearl Sings! (San Diego Repertory Theatre) Photo Credit: Sean Fanning. Written by Frank Higgins. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Sean Fanning (Scenic Design), Sherrice Mojgani (Lighting Design), Mary Larson (Costume Design), Matthew Lescault-Wood (Sound Design), Victoria Petrovich (Projection Design).
Black Pearl Sings! (San Diego Repertory Theatre) Photo Credit: Sean Fanning. Written by Frank Higgins. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Sean Fanning (Scenic Design), Sherrice Mojgani (Lighting Design), Mary Larson (Costume Design), Matthew Lescault-Wood (Sound Design), Victoria Petrovich (Projection Design).

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
There is a worry about being pigeonholed, only designing in February or only August Wilson plays. I’m actively trying to design other plays - I promise I can light white people. I want to be hired because I’m a good designer. I don’t want to be hired just because I’m brown.

The big thing for me was in undergrad at UC-Santa Cruz - I got involved in Rainbow Theatre, run by Don Williams, outside the theatre department. They did five productions (four one-act, one full length) in the fall. I came to them in sophomore year, saying I wanted to be their lighting designer, and they were like, thank goodness! They took me in whole heartedly. They were my home. I lit shows for them, directed when I was a senior. In the winter, there was African American Theatre Arts Troupe. That piece was toured to an African American community, Seaside. It was so much fun to go out with sets in a truck. 

They trusted me to do what I said I could do. There was no curve of sweeping the stage to master electrician to lighting designer. I wouldn’t have been part of these groups if I didn’t have this extra pigment. And they took me in and loved me for who I was right away. In the theatre department, I was a new plays festival assistant so I could get to design a show. 

Blue Door (Moxie Theatre) Photo Credit: Jim Carmody. Written by Tanya Barfield. Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. Victoria Petrovich (Scenic Designer), Shelly Willams (Costume Designer), Sherrice Mojgani (Lighting Designer), Angelica Ynfante (Props Designer), Emily Jankowski (Sound Designer).
Blue Door (Moxie Theatre) Photo Credit: Jim Carmody. Written by Tanya Barfield. Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. Victoria Petrovich (Scenic Designer), Shelly Willams (Costume Designer), Sherrice Mojgani (Lighting Designer), Angelica Ynfante (Props Designer), Emily Jankowski (Sound Designer).

What would you like people of color considering or in the early stages of a theatre career to know?  Is there any advice you wish you'd be given?
At Rainbow Theatre, Don Williams’s whole thing was you had to uplift someone higher than yourself. You taught someone looking to learn, everything you know. You supported each other and took care of each other. The confidence in myself I owe that to Don.

I wish as an undergrad, that I had not been so afraid of my performance classes. I have a BA and I’m a strong believer in a well-rounded education. I was too focused on lighting design so I waited to take things like intro to dance. The more that you can invest in others, and get them interested in you, the more touchstones you can understand from the other disciplines, the better a collaborator you’ll be.  You want to be able to talk about the play and feelings, not just in percentages and color swatches. I wish I had invested more in the brilliant people around me earlier, but that I was scared of.   

To grad students, assisting is really important. Don’t be afraid to hunt down the people you want to work with, and see if you can observe or intern. And even if all you learn is how not to do something, you learned something valuable. Every theatre is completely different, so the more you can absorb different ways of doing things, the easier it will be to adapt to other methods.

Ballast (DiversionaryTheatre) Photo Credit: Simpatika. Written by Georgette Kelly. Directed by Matt M. Morrow. Ron Logan (Set Designer), Elisa Benzoni (Costume Designer), Sherrice Mojgani (Lighting Designer), Emily Jankowski (Sound Designer), Bonnie Durben (Props Designer), Tara Knight (Projection Designer).
Ballast (DiversionaryTheatre) Photo Credit: Simpatika. Written by Georgette Kelly. Directed by Matt M. Morrow. Ron Logan (Set Designer), Elisa Benzoni (Costume Designer), Sherrice Mojgani (Lighting Designer), Emily Jankowski (Sound Designer), Bonnie Durben (Props Designer), Tara Knight (Projection Designer).

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field? 
My two professors- David Lee Cuthbert at UC-Santa Cruz and Alan Burrett at UC-San Diego. Both of them would take me with them when they designed outside. David also went to UCSD, and designed some shows in San Diego when I moved there for grad school, so I assisted him and got my foot in the door.   

Howell Binkley really appreciated my work on Come From Away at La Jolla. He fought for me to stay with the show and gave me a lot of work on that. He raised me to associate level.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the retired founding AD of Moxie Theatre. She taught me to do the work you’re interested in and want to do. I hope in the future, I can have the freedom to make rules like that for myself.

Outside Mullingar (San Diego Repertory Theatre) Photo Credit: Darren Scott. Written by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Todd Salovey. Giulio Perrone (Scenic Designer), Anastasia Pautova (Costume Designer), Sherrice Mojgani (Lighting Designer), David Scott (Sound Design).
Outside Mullingar (San Diego Repertory Theatre) Photo Credit: Darren Scott. Written by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Todd Salovey. Giulio Perrone (Scenic Designer), Anastasia Pautova (Costume Designer), Sherrice Mojgani (Lighting Designer), David Scott (Sound Design).

You’ve recently relocated from the west coast to the east coast for an academic job.  Tell me about that.
When I was pregnant, I was looking at academic jobs in California.  I felt I could do these jobs well and be an asset to the community. As I started to apply, I began to get concerned that I would be giving up the ability to assist and be in the room with these amazing artists on incredible work. Being in good rooms, where everybody’s opinion means something, is really powerful and exciting. Making world class theatre is just one of the best feelings. I was heartbroken by the idea of giving that up.

I had my baby, went to Broadway with an amazing show, and then this job opened up at George Mason University. It’s a tenure track position with research involved, so I could continue working. I had been pigeonholed in San Diego as an assistant, but having moved was a way for me to be known first and primarily as a designer. With this position, I don’t have to take assistant work to fill gaps in my season.

Tell me about your work with the Design and Production Diversity Working Group on Facebook.
The great thing about this group is that it’s created a community for discussion and support. Especially for those of us outside of New York, it can feel very lonely. Having a community of people to check in with is incredibly useful. Seeing this group grow has been really lovely. Having people come in as allies is fantastic.