Johanna Pan: Simply Awesome and No, You Can't Hire Her... Yet

by Porsche McGovern
Johanna Pan. Photo Credit: Bridget Badore.
Johanna Pan. Photo Credit: Bridget Badore.

I met Johanna Pan years ago when we were designing a show together in New York. Johanna is a Scenic & Costume Designer, currently based in New York. After working professionally for four years, she chose to go back to school and get an M.F.A from New York University in Design for Stage and Film.

Johanna’s upcoming shows include In the Bleak Midwinter (Stuffed Olive Inc), The Sign in Sydney Brustein’s Window (Tisch Grad). Recent credits include James and the Giant Peach and Bye Bye Birdie (Barrington Stage), Urinetown (Lost Nation Theater), Delta in the Sky (Boogla Nights), The Sea Concerto (Flux), Salomé: Woman of Valor (Chutzpah! Festival), Ajax in Iraqand Woyzeck (Strasberg), Four Sisters (What Will The Neighbors Say?), Aphrodisiac (Loft 227), Cinderella (Coleytown), Boom (Stonewater Productions), Fingers & Toes (Plaza), Am I? Am I? Am I? (Flea), and associate costume designer for the recent Lincoln Center Falsettos revival on Broadway. She has also worked at Goodspeed Musicals, The Muny, Playwrights Horizons, Signature (DC), Roundabout, Primary Stages, Maltz Jupiter, Alley, Asolo Rep, Arena Stage, Steppenwolf, Rattlestick, and Atlantic. She holds a B.F.A. from Ithaca College. You can learn more about Johanna Pan at her website: www.johannapan.com, IG: @jpandesign

Urinetown at Lost Nation Theater. Lyrics by Mark Hollman. Music by Mark Hollman & Greg Kotis. Book by Greg Kotis. Directed by Sarah Jane Schostack. Choreography by Steven Dean Moore. Music Direction by Mark Hanson. Set Design by Lindsay Fuori. Costume Design by Johanna Pan. Lighting Design by Thomas Gunn. Sound Design by AJ Bierschwal. Photo by Steven Dean Moore.

Urinetown at Lost Nation Theater. Lyrics by Mark Hollman. Music by Mark Hollman & Greg Kotis. Book by Greg Kotis. Directed by Sarah Jane Schostack. Choreography by Steven Dean Moore. Music Direction by Mark Hanson. Set Design by Lindsay Fuori. Costume Design by Johanna Pan. Lighting Design by Thomas Gunn. Sound Design by AJ Bierschwal. Photo by Steven Dean Moore.

 

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
I don’t know if it’s harmed me. When I first started working, one of the designers I assisted had a running joke that he only hired Asian assistants (which wasn’t true). I’ve been fortunate that being a “model minority” in the U.S. has helped me get into the room a few times, which never occurred to me growing up as Chinese in Singapore, which comes with a lot of privilege. I’ve been fortunate that people have looked for a person of color to work with them, and it’s been me. 

Fragments, Intimacy. Discourses. at TISCH Dance. Choreographed by Nini Dongnier & Chaery Moon. Composers: David Trujillo-Tapias, Jarrett Murray, Katie Madison. Set Design by Juliana Barreto Barreto & Yulanda Yo-Rong Shieh. Costume Design by Johanna Pan. Lighting Design by Chris DAngelo. Photos by Ella Bromblin.
Fragments, Intimacy. Discourses. at TISCH Dance. Choreographed by Nini Dongnier & Chaery Moon. Composers: David Trujillo-Tapias, Jarrett Murray, Katie Madison. Set Design by Juliana Barreto Barreto & Yulanda Yo-Rong Shieh. Costume Design by Johanna Pan. Lighting Design by Chris DAngelo. Photos by Ella Bromblin.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
It’s sometimes frustrating that I don’t get to design shows that are about my personal ethnicity. The people who design those shows are either connected directly to a certain company, or are white. I do wish I could design more things related to my identity. I’m a Singaporean designer who has lived in New York City for the last decade. I’m hoping to immigrate to the United States. I’m actively choosing to try to live here.    

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?
I was very hesitant to associate myself with other Asian people when I came here. I was trying to leave Singapore behind, and at orientation in undergrad, all the international kids from Asia just sat together. I tried to pretend I wasn’t really an international student and I have an American accent. I tried to distance myself from the stereotypes of an Asian international student. I learned that it’s okay to be me. I’m still who I was when I came here, even though I tried to blend in. Lean into who you are, because that’s what gives you a different perspective. Don’t be afraid of your culture and where you’re from.

Stand your ground, even when you’re the only person of color in the room. People don’t always understand where you’re coming from. Don’t let their fear of the unknown hold you back from trying different things and following through on your impulses. There is a community out there who will understand what you’re trying to say.

James and the Giant Peach at Barrington Stage Company. Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. Book by Timothy Allen McDonald. Directed by Sarah Jane Schostack. Choreography by Steven Dean Moore. Music Direction by Jennifer Peacock. Set Design by Douglas Puskas. Costume Design by Johanna Pan. Lighting Design by Derek Keifer. Sound Design by Andrew Gluvna. Hair and Wig Design by Brittany Hartman. Puppet Design by Katie McGeorge. Production Stage Manager Lucas Clark. Photo by Steven Dean Moore.
James and the Giant Peach at Barrington Stage Company. Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. Book by Timothy Allen McDonald. Directed by Sarah Jane Schostack. Choreography by Steven Dean Moore. Music Direction by Jennifer Peacock. Set Design by Douglas Puskas. Costume Design by Johanna Pan. Lighting Design by Derek Keifer. Sound Design by Andrew Gluvna. Hair and Wig Design by Brittany Hartman. Puppet Design by Katie McGeorge. Production Stage Manager Lucas Clark. Photo by Steven Dean Moore.
James and the Giant Peach at Barrington Stage Company. Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. Book by Timothy Allen McDonald. Directed by Sarah Jane Schostack. Choreography by Steven Dean Moore. Music Direction by Jennifer Peacock. Set Design by Douglas Puskas. Costume Design by Johanna Pan. Lighting Design by Derek Keifer. Sound Design by Andrew Gluvna. Hair and Wig Design by Brittany Hartman. Puppet Design by Katie McGeorge. Production Stage Manager Lucas Clark. Photo by Steven Dean Moore.
Another photo from James and the Giant Peach at Barrington Stage Company. Photo by Steven Dean Moore.

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field? Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field? 
Dede Ayite. I was one of her first assistants when she came out of graduate school and I was just out of undergrad. She was the first designer of color I worked with, and she works on a lot of shows about people of color. It’s awesome to see her career trajectory. I worked on the show with her that she won the Lortel for, and she took me to the awards ceremony. She’s been an incredibly supportive mentor.  

Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb at Bridge Theatre @ Studio54. Directed by Sarah Jane Schostack & Drew Weinstein. Scenic & Costume Design by Johanna Pan. Lighting Design by Jessica Creager. Music by Grant Carey. Photo Credit: Bridget Badore.
Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb at Bridge Theatre @ Studio54. Directed by Sarah Jane Schostack & Drew Weinstein. Scenic & Costume Design by Johanna Pan. Lighting Design by Jessica Creager. Music by Grant Carey. Photo Credit: Bridget Badore.

You went back to graduate school in costume design after working professionally in the field for four years. Is there any advice you would give to people considering going back to graduate school after working professionally?
It’s hard. I got to a point in my career where I knew I needed to go to grad school, it was now or never. It’s been hard to go back to school in the city where I was already working. People keep asking me when I’ll be done. I’m very aware of the things I need to work on and the reasons I went to grad school. Check in with yourself every few months to remind yourself why you went back to grad school. Going back to grad school after working as an assistant professionally forced me to think differently. Grad school has really given me the time to think about storytelling first, and then problem solving.