Pablo Santiago: When Storytelling is Central

by Ross Jackson
Pablo Santiago
Pablo Santiago

Pablo Santiago is a Los Angeles-based lighting designer originally from Chiapas Mexico. Pablo and I met on the production of Skeleton Crew at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, CA.

Pablo is the winner of the Richard Sherwood Award 2017 and Stage Raw Award in 2015. He was nominated for an Ovation Award in 2018 and 2014. His work has been seen at Arena Stage, ArtsEmerson, the Skirball Center, Soundbox, REDCAT, and Su Teatro. Recent credits include Proving Up and The Wreck (ONE Festival/Opera Omaha), Threepenny Opera (Boston Lyric Opera), Destiny of Desire (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Goodman Theatre), I am My Own Wife (Laguna Playhouse), War of the Worlds (Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Industry), Dementia (Los Angeles Theatre Center), Zoot Suit (Mark Taper Forum), Breaking the Waves (OperaPhila), Flight (Opera Omaha), Good Grief and Citizen (Kirk Douglas Theatre), and Skeleton Crew (Geffen Playhouse). Upcoming projects include The Cake (Geffen Playhouse), Boris Godunov (San Francisco Symphony), Schoenberg In Hollywood (Boston Lyric Opera), Prism (Los Angeles Opera), Ted Hearne:Place (BAM), Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine (OperaPhila), Pagliacci (Opera Omaha), Macbeth and Mother Road (OSF), and Valley of the Heart (Mark Taper Forum).

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
I generally don’t see myself as different from others in the tech room or in the tech process. However, I am aware that I am a person of color and that I need to be extra careful when it comes to deadlines, paperwork and relating to production staff. There have been a couple of times when my drafting was questioned by production staff and they are the only theaters I haven’t been asked back. In any case, I think it is also a wonderful asset. I, as any other person of color, have a different upbringing and point of view and it allows me to bring a different sensitivity into the room, to the work. I do work with directors of color and stories that center on people of color quite a bit, I don’t seek them intentionally but I am very happy when it works out. In general, I like to wide range of projects and work on avoiding being pigeonholed into a particular niche.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
I am not sure how many times I have been hired or not hired due to race/ethnicity. In any case, I believe that the most influential part of my career in relation to my upbringing has been the work of my parents in defense of human rights and social activism. They have worked in the South of Mexico with indigenous populations. I think this has been influential in my beliefs of equality and respect to all. I think this belief system and moral center has influenced the type of projects I tend to work on, the way I collaborate with other designers and theater makers and the lighting of different characters and environments.

What would you like for people of color considering - or in the early stages of - a theater career to know?
First of all, it is a general thought and recommendation for anyone who wants to do theater. Do it only if you really love it and are passionate about it. The work and the life of a theater maker is quite challenging so if you are not ready to give it 110% it won’t be a successful career.

Second, and perhaps more importantly. You have to find your voice and point of view. What is your contribution to the play? Find techniques, color combinations, timing etc… that are original to you.  If you copy others then you won’t be hired. They will hire the people you copied before they will hire you. As a person of color the expectation conscious or sub-consciously is that you bring something different to the table. If your work looks like that of others and/or famous designers then you won’t stand out.  
Destiny of Desire at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
In the beginning of my design career I would say the director and professor Jose Luis Valenzuela. As we worked together in several projects his advice has been invaluable. I also would have to mention the opera director James Darrah who has hired me and stood up for me in the complex and competitive world of opera.

How did you find your way to lighting design?
For me it took some time to find my way to lighting design. I went to UCSD for college and it took me quite a while before I declared to study Filmmaking. I was first in the directing track in the program. After a while my professors encouraged me to concentrate on cinematography and director of photography given my camera work on several student projects  Once I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry and the camera department. Due to opportunities and considering my weakest skills in cinematography were in lighting I decided to work on lighting primarily. Time passed and I concentrated on lighting only. After a while, my wife, who worked as a modern dance choreographer, asked me to do lighting for her shows. As time went by more and more dance companies asked me to design for them. Before long my work expanded to theater and musicals to the point I found a passion for it and a desire to improve my work to a professional level. So after 15 years in the film industry I went back to school and got my MFA in theatrical lighting design from UCLA and the rest is history.

Do you have a favorite type of production you like to work on?
I like new works and/or recent works… I like finding the language that will help tell the story and tap into the contemporary state of culture and politics. I prefer when the work is relevant to the present reality and the audience. As opposed to works that are historical and/or an escape from contemporary reality.
Skeleton Crew at the Geffen Playhouse

How do you feel your film experience influenced your approach to theatrical lighting?
It has been a huge influence because that is how I first learned about light. Specially when I am working on naturalistic or realistic plays I often try to mimic with theater lights what I could do with film lights. Also, my use of color in such situations is closer to film lighting. In abstract lighting, on the other hand, I don’t think I use film techniques all that much.

Was the transition from film to theater challenging? Do you have any recommendations for anyone that’s considering the same or opposite leap?
The opposite transition is way more common than film to theater. It is a big adjustment. First of all, your bank account gets much smaller. Tech and the day to day are quite different. In film, the day  to day is to create options for the editor and director in post-production, in theater, we are working on the final product and making decisions that are much more definite. In any case, for me it was an opportunity to do more creative work and more creative and challenging lighting. It was an opportunity to be bolder and to experience the work with an audience and experience their reactions. In any case, both film and theater are storytelling media, however abstract it could be, so in the end they both have the same objective. As long as storytelling is central to your work both theater and film lighting are possible and successful. The bank account will definitely be different.

Do you feel that theater is an effective form of protest?
I think theater at its best has a point of view and commentary on the human condition and present historical moment. Theater has been a form of protest for hundreds of years. I think its effectiveness is directly related to the place theater has in the society/culture in which exists. In the States, I would venture to say that theater has a lesser role in the society than in other countries. Only commercial and escape-ist theater have a prominent place in the culture.

Would you be willing to tell us more about your parents’ roles in human rights and social activism?
My parents dedicated their lives to the betterment of the less fortunate, of the indigenous peoples in the South of Mexico. Their work has been centered around economic development and self determination. For peoples to develop the socioeconomic tools that would enable independence from a system of oppression that has subjugated them for hundreds of years. It is important work and it is also slow and methodical. It is a work that is long-term. Some of the results are evident now after 50 years of work but many of the goals will be actualized generations from now.
Three Penny Opera at Boston Lyric Opera

Is there a project you really want to do but haven’t been able to yet?
After the last couple of questions my answer might not seem all that impressive or momentous. In any case, I have always wanted to do the opera Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov. It is a work that speaks about the last days of life of Garcia Lorca. The music is at times Spanish, at times Arab, Jewish, Flamenco, and classic grand opera. The coming together of all those influences creates an alchemy that is both arresting and exhilarating.

Have there been challenges working within the U.S. being from Chiapas?
Not overtly. I suspect there have been moments that the choice between me and someone else came down to criteria outside the work. Sometimes I find out later that my fee was less than what others make. It is hard to prove that the reason is purely due to my ethnicity. In any case, I have the understanding that I have to be extra good and extra vigilant to make sure I don’t give anyone a reason to have a negative reaction to my work and/or work ethic. At the same time, I have been very fortunate and my career has been a charmed one. I have and continue to get opportunities that are not usual for any designer. Sometimes I am reminded of my fortune and the history of minorities in design when crew at a particular theater tell me I am the first lighting designer of Mexican descent they have ever worked with… It has happen several times.