ConeXion! 2018 Carnaval of Latinx Works - The Designers Cohort

by Porsche McGovern

The 2018 Latinx Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latinx Work, hosted at The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, IL, in July was a showcase for six new plays by Latinx playwrights and for Latinx theatre artists, including directors, dramaturgs, actors, and artists. This year, 12 Latinx designers were invited to participate in both the new play development process and all the events of the convening, as the first featured designers cohort. They were set designers Efren Delgadillo, Jr., Tara A. Houston, and Mariana Sanchez; costume designers Raquel Barreto, Courtney Flores, and Carolyn Mazuca; lighting designers Mextly Almeda, Tom Ontiveros, and Pablo Santiago; and sound designers Corinne Carrillo, Luis Guerra, and David R. Molina. After they attended the Carnaval, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the designers as well as Abigail Vega, the Latinx Theatre Commons producer.

How did the involvement of designers in the Latinx Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latinx Work 2018 come about?
Abigail Vega: There was a collaborative process and team behind having designers present at Carnaval 2018. Georgina Escobar had the initial idea for this depth of involvement for designers. The designer cohort was curated by Christopher Acebo, the associate artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival and scenic and costume designer. They were mentored by Regina Garcia, the new head of scenic design at DePaul University, who also designed the lobby display. Lisa Portes also worked with the designers.

We were really looking for a diversity of gender and of experience among the designers, ranging from early to mid-career. We mixed the teams generationally, and everyone was on equal footing. They all knew that they, along with the directors and dramaturgs, were there in service of the play.  

How did the role of designers in the Latinx Theatre Commons, and this Carnaval specifically, evolve?
Vega: The LTC has had designers present in our gatherings, in our community, and on our steering committee since the very beginning. Regina Garcia has been on since the beginning and Courtney Flores joined a few years ago. The two of them have really spoken up for designers and technicians being represented. For a long time, the answer was everyone can come to events, but it wasn’t the most successful because the conversation didn’t seem to really include designers and they didn’t feel seen. 

We looked at what we learned from the last Carnaval, made some big changes to the budget and how things would work after examining our priorities. In those early discussions, Georgina suggested we add designers from the beginning. 

Immediately following each reading (that had no technical elements at all), the dramaturg talked with the playwright in front of the audience. Then, the director talked with the designers about the dream design for the play. It showed people in the room what to look for in a design presentation. Every team showed research, preliminary sketches, sound clips. The designers all functioned as a collaborative team in doing the dream design. Every designer was on two teams, so their range was showcased.

Monday, the designers joined rehearsals, to ask questions and collaborate as equals. We asked the designers to read the play before they arrived, but not to do any pre-work, to wait until they arrived. They had five days together and they came up with amazing designs. There was no pressure for this work to be finished, so I think people felt free to pursue ideas and questions.   

When you were at Carnaval in this room full of Latinx creators, how did it feel?
Pablo Santiago: It was unusual for me. Even when all the actors may be Latinx, I’m usually the only one on the design team. It is rare to have that room. Realizing how many people in the U.S. are doing theatre who are of Latinx descent and how few I knew. It was nice to see how many people are doing theatre and how hard they’re all working, towards inclusion.

Luis Guerra: The room felt different than most of the rooms I’m in. When I am in a room, it’s never all Latinx. Just the fact that this conference was so diverse was mind blowing. I don’t get to experience that and I need to seek it out. I did feel with this group of people, there was solidarity, which I haven’t experienced a lot in my work. I want to work with these people. I’m going to be a part of the change. And this conference was part of the change.

David R. Molina: I was excited, but didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was going to be different.  I felt comfortable and at ease. It was really beautiful, but it really sucks that it doesn’t happen often.

Courtney Flores: When we were sitting in the room discussing the plays with only designers, I thought about when is the next time I’m going to be able to work on a play with all designers of color? Usually, there’s me and that’s it.  

Mextly Almeda: Joyful, super exciting to be in a room all these designers whose careers I’ve admired from afar, being able to talk to them about their trajectory. Having so many people of Latinx culture was super cool and comforting. It’s so new and I’ve never been a part of a process like that, where you come up with a concept together but don’t have to execute it. Having that shared space to work together was sweet.

Christopher Acebo said in the opening ceremony, “How do we or how do the politics of who we are inform the aesthetic in our art form?” I wondered about this question in relationship to our processes.
Carolyn Mazuca: I feel like I notice in my process, that I make a research pool and then I think about the characters for real. For Latinx plays, how do I make the characters as visceral and raw and true as possible? I use my culture and experience to tell a good story.

Efren Delgadillo, Jr.: My culture has embedded in me a crazy strong work ethic. Both my parents had multiple jobs when I was growing up. I’m not afraid of work. My culture gives me a lot of passion for what I’m working on. My favorite show is the one I’m working on.

Mariana Sanchez: I feel that my culture is part of me, so it is impossible for me to detach who I am having grown up in Mexico from my education in theater in the U.S. I bring my Mexican heritage with me to every play I design. I think I can see it reflected in my aesthetic. I grew up with a context that looks at certain artists and aesthetics, and I bring that with me. Contrasting colors, minimal, proportions I think is part of my cultural background.

Molina: It’s in my work ethic. My family are immigrants from El Salvador, and all they know to do is work. I work all the time. I’m a perfectionist. If I really connect to a story, I’ll work so hard, especially for social justice or underrepresented communities here in America.  

Santiago: My father is a civil rights activist. Coming from the point of view that everyone deserves the same respect and the same treatment, I’m really careful in my lighting design to make sure the same amount of light is on everyone on stage. If they’re on stage, they matter. It’s important to me to elevate everyone as people.

Guerra: I think that’s a really profound statement. I think about this a lot. There is a great joy about the diversity in the room we shared. I’m usually the only Latinx one on a project. I do feel that the older I get, the more I feel it’s my responsibility. My political thinking, the way I interact with society on a daily basis, is really starting to affect the decisions I make, the people I work with, the projects and art I work on. We are profoundly affected by the systems we live in. The politics of who we are and where we get to exist impacts our work — how can it not?

What was your favorite moment or thing about being a part of Carnaval?
Corinne Carrillo: There’s something really special about meeting other designers in your discipline, getting to see their work, and getting to see their processes. I like to see how other people make their work. It was a joy to be able to be there from the beginning. That’s so rare.

Mazuca: It was really incredible to see other people approach their work and how they talk about it. Being a part of that cohort, it’s not every day you get to be with eleven other Latinx designers. There was so much passion in hearing these new plays and how we celebrate our Latinx culture through theatre.

Molina: There were too many. This was a joy from the beginning. Getting to see people I haven’t seen in ten, fifteen years. Reconnecting. Being surrounded by so many talented and smart people of color. There was a different vibe, a feeling like family.  People addressing the issues that are happening now in the world. People spoke to the need to do art that addresses the issues. It was special and moving. We had fireworks at our gathering, which is such a Latinx thing.

Sanchez:  One of my favorite moments was when all the designers on my team were in a room working together, which was so fun, fulfilling and productive. Another favorite moment was when all of us from Carnaval were together, united with the same passion for theater and united by our heritage. It felt like a very deep, communal moment.

Delgadillo, Jr.: It’s so refreshing to not work in a bubble with the director. It was great to feel everyone’s energy. Seeing people’s methods and approaches to design. It’s really inspiring and reinforces how unique we all are. They brought such a beauty to networking in theatre. 

Santiago: Getting to see other designers present and respond to the work. It was nice to see other lighting designers, to see how they presented. 

Tara A. Houston: It’s so rare to meet designers from your same discipline. The chance to have some depth in your field in the same room was really cool. It’s rare to have an environment that supports ideas that aren’t going to be produced, to really focus on process. We all got to work at the same pace. I’m really thankful for how generous and open everyone was with their expertise. The magical thing about this Carnaval gig is that it was from a place of imagination. We didn’t have to consider the challenges, logistics, and constraints. It was fun to do some imagination work and that made it exciting. It was freeing.

The mission of the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) is as ‘a national movement that uses a commons-based approach to transform the narrative of the American theatre, to amplify the visibility of Latinx performance making, and to champion equity through advocacy, art making, convening, and scholarship. The LTC is a flagship program of HowlRound. Our values include service, radical inclusion, transparency, legacy & leadership cultivation, and advancement of the art form.’ The 2018 Carnaval was produced in associated with Teatro Vista and the Alliance of Latinx Theatre Artists of Chicago (ALTA). 

For more information on or to get involved with the Latinx Theatre Commons, please visit www.latinxtheatrecommons.com.