Tara Houston: Navigating Mixed-Race Identity

by Porsche McGovern
Tara A Houston. Photo by: Eddie Perez.
Tara A Houston. Photo by: Eddie Perez.

While interviewing designers from the Latinx Theatre Commons Carnaval 2018, Porsche McGovern met Tara A. Houston and wanted to learn more about her. Houston is the Assistant Professor of Scenic Design at Louisiana State University as well as a freelance scenic designer. Her design work has been featured at Swine Palace, Skylight Music Theatre, Casa Mañana Theatre, Ocala Civic Theatre, Austin Shakespeare, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Music Theatre of Wichita, and others.

Before working in education, she was the Charge Scenic Artist at Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Music Theatre of Wichita. Before moving to Alabama, Houston served as a Scenic Design Assistant at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Previously, she taught at Stephen F. Austin State University and at Texas State University. 

5 Guys Named Moe at Skylight Music Theatre. Director: Malkia Stampley. Scenic Designer: Tara A Houston. Costume Designer: Samantha C. Jones. Lighting Designer: Latrice Negron. Sound Designer: Zack Berinstein. Technical Director: Alexander Moliere. Props Master: Lisa Schlenker. Photo by: Ross Zentner.How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
It’s hard to be objective about this question for me. I’m mixed-race person who presents as white and I have a very Anglo name. I’m judged to be part of the majority. The role of my ancestry has come on a personal, internal level in trying to understand my connections to the characters of my plays. That comes from my experience of being judged outwardly; I try to see below the surface. My mom’s family is Mexican, and a lot of our family traditions come from storytelling, music, performative arts. Storytelling was always a part of my culture. The seeds of being a theatre artist, the only one in the family, comes from those traditions of storytelling and performance.

Airline Highway at Swine Palace. Director: Joy Vandervort-Cobb. Scenic Designer: Tara A Houston. Costume Designer: Kyla Kazuschyk. Lighting Designer: C Touchet. Sound Designer: Shannon Marie O’Neal. Technical Director: James L Murphy. Props Master: John Michael Eddy. Photo by: Tara A Houston.
How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
I think in some ways, because of outward appearance, it hasn’t affected my career tremendously. In the last few years, I’ve done a lot of work about how I identity and want to navigate in our industry as a mixed-race person who presents as white. I think that the default in our industry and world is to sort by outside appearance. I’ve spent some time sorting through my privilege, how that functions as part of my work, and my responsibility because of my privilege and heritage. 

My default in my early years was to take up as little space as possible and to pass as white, to make it easy for everyone, to not talk about the complexities of race in America. In the last few years of engaging in anti-racism work and work by people of color, I realized that default was a cheap shot. First of all, I was not recognizing the wholeness of who I am as a human being, and the wholeness of who I can be as an artist because of what I bring with me into the room. It wasn’t confronting our industry with the complexities of our world, of the artists in the room. I’ve made a much more pointed effort in the last five years, to be really forward in who I am, my background. Being conscious of my privilege and not allowing my privilege to silence me has been really important for me to work on in the last few years. 

I’m not sure it’s ever harmed my work because passing is so easy for me. The place that that harms is you’re not bringing your full self to the work and your conversations with your collaborators. I wonder if I had approached my identity differently earlier, what pathways could have opened for me. Most of my work has been with predominately white institutions on white authored work. I’m not going to be the first choice for a Latinx company based on my name on resume, and that’s probably the way it should be. But, I wonder if I had been more aware and cognizant of who I am in the room, what other doors and options I might have explored.

A Year with Frog and Toad at Stephen F. Austin State University. Director: Angela Bacarisse. Scenic Designer: Tara A Houston. Costume Designer: Barbara Blackwell. Lighting Designer: CC Conn. Technical Director: Mark Porter. Props Master: Bud Odom. Photo by: Tara A Houston.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?
The biggest thing is don’t be afraid to take up as much room as you’re comfortable taking up. Don’t make yourself smaller to fit into a slot someone else created for you. Imposter syndrome is rampant. If you’re there, you deserve to be there. Never question that what you bring into the room is valuable. You’re going to do the best work you possibly can. Don’t be afraid to take up space and let your personality show. Don’t be afraid to tell personal stories from your past, or the things you think might other you. You never know what dialogue might open up on the team or connections to people you might make.

Find your collaborators in the room, who are ready to be collaborators with you as an individual. Building with your folx who can help make space for you, if you need it, and vice versa.

The Emperor’s New Clothes at Casa Mañana Theatre. Director: Joe Sturgeon. Scenic Designer: Tara A Houston. Costume Designer: Tammy Spencer. Lighting Designer: Clay Neves. Technical Director: AJ Kellison. Props Master: Brady Flock. Photo by: Tara A Houston.Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?
Early in my career, I did a lot of scenic art work. One of the first paint charges I worked with who’s also a designer, J Branson, at Music Theatre Wichita, is a very unique personality. As someone with a unique personality, it was good to see someone unapologetically be themselves in the room. He was great at seeing everyone’s strengths, matching people to both projects that played to their strengths and ones that would help us grow. He showed a huge level of trust in all the folx who worked with him. He really cared about all of us as human beings and workers. Rarely have I worked in environments where people come first, then the work. I have tried to cultivate this in places I work.

In my last year of graduate school, Regina Garcia was hired at University of Illinois. She’s a master at connecting people to each other. I didn’t have any classes with her, but she was the first Latinx female scenic designer I’d ever met. Even now, she’ll reach out and tell me about people and projects, with that sense of mentorship that extends beyond initial connection. What a huge labor it is to carry all these people in her heart and mind as she thinks about projects. I’m constantly impressed by the tremendous energy she puts into connection between folx. She also has an awesome career, and a full-time teaching job, which gives me hope that I can do the same.

Medea at Austin Shakespeare. Director: Ann Ciccolella. Scenic Designer: Tara A Houston. Costume Designer: Eimly Gilardi. Lighting Designer: Patrick Anthony. Sound Designer: William Meadows. Technical Director: Eric L Walker. Photo by: Tara A Houston.Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
I’m not sure there’s one individual I can credit, there are so many folx along the way who have helped and asked questions and modeled what it is to be an ally, activist, and artist. But, a pivotal experience for me as an educator and an artist was attending my first Latinx Theatre Commons convening four years. I came back and looked at my courses. I was teaching the exact same way I had been taught, all plays by white dudes, every piece of art in my slideshows by dead white dudes. I needed to think more about who was in my classroom and what I was putting out into the world. So I completely rebuilt all the classes I was teaching and changed my teaching philosophy. I needed to expose all my students to more art by people of color. They’ll figure out who Picasso is without my help.

What part of the theatrical process do you like the most? The least?
I have two favorite parts. The first is the first production meeting with everyone in the room, not so much when half the people are on video chat. It’s an electric moment of not knowing what’s going to happen, anticipation and imagination all wrapped together. The second is the first day of rehearsal with the actors, design presentation. Everybody gets to meet each other. I love hearing the play in other people’s voices. I like those moments of possibility and imagination.

My least favorite part is the drafting, when the fun part is done, and everything has to be plated and dimensioned. All the cleanup feels like it takes forever.