Dahlia Al-Habieli: Undercover Advocate

by Porsche McGovern
Dahlia Al-Habieli
Dahlia Al-Habieli
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I met Dahlia Al-Habieli when we were both on a panel about gender equity in theatrical design at Wake Forest University, organized by Jyles Rodgers ’19. Dahlia Al-Habieli is an award-winning designer, visual artist, and educator currently teaching at Wake Forest University's Department of Theatre and Dance in Winston-Salem, NC. Upcoming projects include Native Gardens at Trinity Rep, and installation design for Consenses at MASS MOCA.

Humble Boy Publick Theatre Boston Direction: Diego Arciniegas Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli Lighting: Jeff Adelberg Costumes: Susanne Nitter Sound: John Doerschuk Music: Simon Slater Photo Credit: Dahlia Al-Habieli
Humble Boy at Publick Theatre Boston. Direction: Diego Arciniegas. Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli. Lighting: Jeff Adelberg. Costumes: Susanne Nitter. Sound: John Doerschuk. Music: Simon Slater. Photo Credit: Dahlia Al-Habieli.

Dahlia was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, a diverse, multicultural city that fostered her love for rich and varied traditions of storytelling. As an artist and collaborator, Dahlia is interested in exploring unlikely connections and using her work to build cultural bridges. Her work includes designs for Dallas Theater Center, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, New Repertory Theater, Actors Shakespeare Project, Company One, Central Square Theater, Publick Theatre Boston, and Wellesley Repertory (formerly Wellesley Summer Theater) among others.

In her spare time, Dahlia enjoys illustration projects, science fiction novels, studying linguistics and languages, and perfecting the ultimate guacamole recipe.

Collidescope 3.0      Ping Chong and Co. Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli Lighting: Kevin Fraizer Projections: Katherine Freer Sound: Stowe Nelson Photo Credit: Ken Bennett
Collidescope 3.0 at Ping Chong and Co. Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli. Lighting: Kevin Fraizer. Projections: Katherine Freer. Sound: Stowe Nelson. Photo Credit: Ken Bennett.

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
So much of my experience working in theatre has been colored by a combination of my race and gender. I grew up in the Emirates and moved to the States for college at eighteen. However, I’ve always had an American accent, and because I have a lot of my (white) mom’s coloring, I can insert myself into a primarily Caucasian space without really drawing attention to myself. I think that, in comparison to the other international students around me who were studying theater, my ability to “pass” served me in a lot of ways.  

I had never seen a play before coming to the States, and my studies of art, design, and theatre here in the US were from a Western, Eurocentric viewpoint. Although the arts scene has become more diverse over the past decade, the first plays and musicals I went to see in Boston were similar. My cultural identity and my artistic identity were separate for a long time.

I spent my childhood in the Middle East navigating intensely patriarchal spaces and finding ways to circumvent power structures, figuring out how to get what I wanted done without anyone realizing that I was talking any proactive steps. While I was attending Wellesley College, which is all women, gender wasn’t as big a question as it became later. For a while there, I was convinced that theatre was a place of gender equity. It wasn’t until a few years after entering the professional world, that I found myself falling back into some of the gendered patterns of behavior I thought I had moved on from.

The Plague In Venice Philip Chosky Theater Direction: Alexander Illiev Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli Lighting: Keith Truax Costumes: Marla Parker Sound: Michael Vultaggio Music: Sarah Pickett Photo Credit: Louis Stein
The Plague In Venice at Philip Chosky Theater. Direction: Alexander Illiev. Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli. Lighting: Keith Truax. Costumes: Marla Parker. Sound: Michael Vultaggio. Music: Sarah Pickett. Photo Credit: Louis Stein.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
As a woman of color, unless I mention it, race doesn’t always come up for me. In my current role as an educator, even if I can’t delve into non-Western theatre as much as I would love to, I am careful to acknowledge when we are looking at theatre through a specific lens.

A professional design colleague once joked that I was an “Undercover Advocate.” My perceived whiteness means that I am privy to conversations that I might otherwise not be if I, for example, looked more like my bedouin father or wore a hijab; my white-passing privilege puts me in a position to be a POC voice in a room.

On the flipside, gender bias and youth bias have occasionally worked together against me - I’ve always looked about ten years younger than I am. I acknowledge that I am partly to blame for perpetuating these power dynamics. When I talk to members of a production team and see the role they’ve mentally cast me in, I find fulfilling that role and those expectations to be the path of least resistance. I focus on how to get things done while maintaining egos, making sure no one feels threatened, to the point where it is all instinctual and I do not always realize I am doing it.

The Brothers Size Rauh Theater Direction: Priscila García-Jacquier Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli Lighting: David Arterberry Costumes: Jamie Gross Photo Credit: Louis Stein
The Brothers Size at Rauh Theater. Direction: Priscila García-Jacquier. Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli. Lighting: David Arterberry. Costumes: Jamie Gross. Photo Credit: Louis Stein.

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?
Find ways to engage in spaces you’re uncomfortable with, because they may not come to you. You have to accept that if you’re walking into a space where you’re different from everyone else, you may feel ill at ease. Engage in kind confrontation. Be open to pleasant surprises.

Fool For Love      Rauh Theater Direction: Ian J. Williams Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli Lighting: Daniel Bergher Costumes: Eunjin Lee Sound: Dan Miele Photo Credit: Louis Stein
Fool For Love at Rauh Theater. Direction: Ian J. Williams. Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli. Lighting: Daniel Bergher. Costumes: Eunjin Lee. Sound: Dan Miele. Photo Credit: Louis Stein.

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?
Janie Howland is a design professor at Wellesley - she was my female design mentor. She balances an incredible artistic career with her family life, and helped me find female-friendly, welcoming, challenging spaces to work.

Matt and Ben   Central Square Theater Direction: Bevin O’Gara Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli Lighting : Aaron Sherklow Costumes: Miranda Giurleo Sound: Nathan Leigh Photo Credit: Dahlia Al-Habieli
Matt and Ben at Central Square Theater. Direction: Bevin O’Gara. Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli. Lighting : Aaron Sherklow. Costumes: Miranda Giurleo. Sound: Nathan Leigh. Photo Credit: Dahlia Al-Habieli.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
There are two people - the artistic director of the sadly now gone Publick Theatre Boston, Diego Arciniegas, and my mom. Diego was my acting teacher at Wellesley, and I eventually spent three years designing scenery for the Publick. He’s a person of color who does phenomenal work in Boston and at Wellesley, and his sensibilities as an insider and outsider inform his art. He’s unafraid to make choices that are outside of expectations- to make strong choices that will inspire strong reactions.

My mom has the opposite journey of me - a blonde, blue-eyed girl from New Jersey who moved to Cairo at nineteen. Needless to say, she stuck out. Growing up, I watched her navigate spaces that weren’t hers, but still manage to become part of those spaces. Her ability to assimilate and not appropriate was really instructive to me.

Bengal Tiger At the Baghdad Zoo Company One Direction: Shawn La Count Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli Lighting: Jen Rock Costumes: La De Bruijn Sound: Edward Young Photo Credit: Liz Voll Photography
Bengal Tiger At the Baghdad Zoo at Company One. Direction: Shawn La Count. Sets: Dahlia Al-Habieli. Lighting: Jen Rock. Costumes: Lara De Bruijn. Sound: Edward Young. Photo Credit: Liz Voll Photography.

Given that we met on a panel about gender equity in theatrical design, what do you see as the biggest barrier?  The greatest hope?
Because theatre is so much of “who do you want to spend sixteen hours in a room with for no money?” your social circle and professional circle are pretty much identical. We bring so much of ourselves as people into our vocation, so for the professional environment to change, the way we interact with people has to change in our personal lives as well. We need to continue to work on how we interact people different from ourselves and engage across not just race and gender, but across so many lines. I have hope that the American theatre is continuing to move towards this.