Lucrecia Briceno: Diversity Through the Lens of an Immigrant

by Porsche McGovern
Lucrecia Briceño.
Lucrecia Briceño.

I met Lucrecia Briceño for the first time at a Wingspace salon on race in theatre design a few years ago. Since then, I’ve had the great joy of having honest and deep conversations with her on issues that really matter.

Lucrecia Briceño is a Peruvian artist currently based in Brooklyn. Much of her work has been in association with artists developing innovative and original pieces. Her work includes theatre, opera, puppetry & dance, as well as collaborations in several non-performance projects. Her designs have been presented at such venues as Oxford Playhouse (UK), The Public Theater, Arena Stage, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dallas Theatre Center, BAM (Fischer), Kennedy Center, Atlas Performing Arts, Berlind Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, La Mama ETC, Birmingham Repertory (UK), Culture Project, Pregones Theatre, Intar, HERE Arts Center, Soho Rep, Ohio Theatre, Irondale Center, ArtsEmerson, among many others.

Internationally her work has been seen in Caracas, Peru, Turkey, Scotland, Seoul, Bogota, Norway, and England. Her design work for Crime and Punishment was part of the Venezuelan delegation for the 2015 Prague Quadrennial. She is an associate artist with The Civilians, a Core Member of Anonymous Ensemble, a resident designer with Pregones Theatre/PRTT and La Micro; she has also been a guest artist/lecturer at NYU, Princeton University, Hunter College, and the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. She received her MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and is a member of USA829.

Nanas by Leonardo González at IATI Theater. Directed by Tatiana Pandiani. Set and Costume Design by Paula Castillo. Lighting Design by Lucrecia Briceño. Sound Design by Sokio. Photo credit: Marc Van Olmen.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
I am an immigrant from Peru, who came to the United States as a young person running away from conflict, terrorist and military violence, car bombs, food shortages, political corruption. I wanted to be culturally open and to soak in the arts, which were so different than what I used to in South America and Peru. I was by myself in my 20s, and I was really fortunate to meet people and come to work that enriched me. I started in Miami, where there was an incredible diversity amongst the Latinx community. 

I studied acting at the New World School of the Arts, and after I moved to NYC, I quickly understood that I was not going to make it to the professional highest levels. I felt that there was not a lot of room in New York for a woman with an accent. I wasn’t strong and interested enough to find my peers and create our own work. I wanted to do something where it was more about what I could do than who I am. I felt then that no one would care if I had an accent if I became a lighting designer. 

The Future at 229 Front Street (Made possible by Chashama). Core Anonymous Ensemble members Jessica Weinstein, Eamonn Farrell, Liz Davito, and Lucrecia Briceño are joined by Tiappa Klimovitsky, Thomas Kavanagh, Gavin Price, and Stephanie Ghajar. Photo credit: Eamonn Farrell. 

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
When I came to NYU, I entered a classroom full of smart and talented male designers and there I was, the performer. It became apparent to me, at the time, that the roadblocks were more about my gender than my ethnicity and background. I had to be fast and clever just to catch up with all the technical information my previous training lacked. Many of my peers were generous and incredibly supportive, and my design class was from all over the world, so diverse I felt at home. At the end, I was happily guided and mentored by women and people of color, to be a designer and a woman of color in the United States, because where I’m from, I’m a light skinned person of privilege, not considered a person of color. I have been shaped by lots of people I’ve met being interested in me as a designer and as a human. 

As a designer, I have been invited into rooms where I was the person who didn’t understand some or the entire cultural context of the work and was completely welcomed. At Pregones Theatre, a NY/Puerto Rican theatre institution, I didn’t know a lot about the Puerto Rican diaspora living in New York but they have embraced me, and I have learned so much about the island’s history and culture. We have a common language, but our experiences as Spanish-speakers are completely different. 

With another company, I worked on an adaptation of The Maids written by Jose Rivera in Spanish through the prism of revolution and the life at plantations in Puerto Rico. I was invited to understand what that means for storytelling. I have worked with La Micro, a Chilean theatre company that creates remarkable work that tell the stories of their people.

I’ve been invited to tell stories that have nothing to do with my background, but there I am as part of the conversation, and my artistic opinions have been welcomed. I have been very lucky. The community that I’ve created has always taken care of me and I’ve been there for them, too.

Words on the Street is collaboratively conceived and developed by Lianne Arnold, Matt Marks, Kristin Marting, and Anna Rabinowitz. Written by Anna Rabinowitz. Directed by Kristin Marting. Music Direction by Mila Henry. Composed by Matt Marks. Video Design by Lianne Arnold. Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Lighting Design by Lucrecia Briceño. Costume Design by Kate Fry. Photo credit: Paula Court.

Another shot from Words on the Street. Photo credit: Paula Court.

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 given this advice and I took it to heart; don’t apologize for your life experience. It’s different and unique. There’s a lot of my work that has nothing to do with who I am, but has created a footprint of what do I want my work to say within the story. I didn’t want to copy anyone else’s story to be invited. 

Recently, I went to a Kennedy Center regional event for young students. I told them sometimes they won’t be represented, but that they can create their own opportunities, and that it’s okay to have paralyzing emotions, acknowledge them, but don’t get paralyzed. Move in a positive way to embrace other people. Don’t assume that other people know what you know. Look around and work to include everybody.

I was with a group of women designers and discussed imposter syndrome. Yes, this is an emotion that happens, learn how to address it, and then move beyond it. There’s so much talent out there.

I think Bruce Lee said something about how the only thing you own is your time. I try to manage my career and life, based on who I want to spend time with and what stories I want to tell. In our work, the cue happens when it happens, then it’s gone.  I emotionally attach to moments in my work, and then I have to let it go. I’m in love with that sense of being over. 

I find my identity really close to what I do, in a way, but it’s not the work I do. It’s the conversations I have around the work that make me who I am. If anything, lighting has given me the opportunity to see the cinematography of life. To understand it, to bring it in, and to make it a part of my everyday life. It has given me the incredible joy of understanding the world and how it’s being seen. 

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? 
Lighting mentors include Allen Lee Hughes, a friend, a big influence, who has always treated me as a colleague. ML Geiger and Susan Hilferty, women that really helped open doors for me to find work, especially after I became a mother. Robert Wierzel has answered questions and inspired me always. John Conklin has been always a resource and also an inspiration about staying curious. 

Early on in my career, I was fortunate to get invited to work with Steven Cosson from the Civilians, who was, and still is, a great influence in my career. Steve who speaks Spanish, had done a Fulbright in Colombia so he completely understands where I come from culturally and psychologically. We even had wonderful designer meetings fully in Spanish about subjects like death, aliens, real estate, etc. Our speaking vocabulary/relationship is broad, but it felt so rewarding to collaborate with someone who is not from your cultural background, but feels fully ready to embrace it. I yearn for having more collaborations like that. 

Tell me about this theatre project you’re embarking upon, that has nothing to do with lighting.
I have been a theatre person for a long time, for longer than I’ve been a designer. I come from Peru, where the official language is Spanish and Quechua, but there are forty-nine different languages spoken there. People that speak other languages than Spanish have not been given a full platform to tell their stories in their own language. For instance, three million people, one-third of the city of Lima, speak Quechua. I thought what if I gather some money and make a call for authors to tell theatre stories in their own language? I’m committed to create this project, beginning with deciding who to invite to the table to help me do this. It will not be easy since I don’t speak any of these other languages, but I am ready to start learning. As happenstance this year, we are celebrating Native Language in Peru, so I have a lot to do, reaching out to do, to the Ministry of Culture cultural department, friends, and family friends.