Christopher Scott Murillo: Storytelling Through Scenic Design

by Porsche McGovern
Christopher Scott Murillo. Photo: Jim Carmody.
Christopher Scott Murillo. Photo: Jim Carmody.
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I was introduced to Christopher Scott Murillo through a mutual friend. We also work on the USA829 diversity committee together. Christopher Scott Murillo is a scenic designer, artist, and educator based in Los Angeles, CA. Most recently, his work has been seen at The Kirk Douglas Theatre, International City Theatre, The Chance Theater, Skylight Theatre Company, East West Players, New Village Arts Theatre, Native Voices at the Autry, The El Portal Theatre, and the Getty Villa, among many others. 

Currently, he is an associate artist with Playwrights’ Arena serving as their resident scenic designer. Christopher is a member of the Television Academy and United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829. He holds a MFA from the UCSD Department of Theatre and Dance, and a BA from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Christopher is an Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance at Loyola Marymount University teaching courses in scenic design, stagecraft, and the collaborative process. He is a 2016 recipient of the Princess Grace Foundation Theater Fellowship - Pierre Cardin Award.

Anna in the Tropics at Open Fist Theatre Company. Director: Jon Lawrence Rivera. Set: Christopher Scott Murillo. Costumes: Mylette Nora. Lighting: Matt Richter. Sound: Tim Labor. Photo Credit: Darrett Sanders.
Anna in the Tropics at Open Fist Theatre Company. Director: Jon Lawrence Rivera. Set: Christopher Scott Murillo. Costumes: Mylette Nora. Lighting: Matt Richter. Sound: Tim Labor. Photo Credit: Darrett Sanders.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
I feel like I have an interesting career trajectory. The first theatre that hired me was really diverse, the Chance Theatre run by Oanh Nguyen. As I went to different places, and worked with different people, I began to notice a lack of representation and at times, I was the only person of color in the room. I started to embrace new works that dealt with culturally specific stories or stories that blended culture. 

Now, I try to find a distinct personal connection to work I do, whether it be advancing the stories and storytelling of people of color to diversify our industry, or supporting actors of color so they can be seen on stage. At this point in my life, new work is the work that fulfills me the most. 

Cloud Tectonics at New Village Arts. Director: Herbert Siguenza. Set: Christopher Scott Murillo. Costumes: Carmen Amon. Lighting: Paul Canaletti. Sound: Mark Spiro. Projections: Blake McCarty. Photo Credit: Daren Scott.
Cloud Tectonics at New Village Arts. Director: Herbert Siguenza. Set: Christopher Scott Murillo. Costumes: Carmen Amon. Lighting: Paul Canaletti. Sound: Mark Spiro. Projections: Blake McCarty. Photo Credit: Daren Scott.

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
After grad school, I started to work with Playwrights’ Arena, whose mission is to do stories about diversity by LA-based playwrights. I’ve done work about Hispanics living in LA, Filipinos living in LA, and various other culturally specific stories. That work has been really fulfilling for me, because we’re putting out important stories that the American theatre needs to experience. We tend to do them in smaller theatres, but sometimes they get picked up by larger theatres in the mainstream, like Center Theatre Group.

My experience with new work has developed me a reputation for being able to do new work. I’ve been invited to non-culturally specific new play festivals as a result. Looking younger than I am has been a bit of a hindrance, in larger theatres and in academia. Others seem surprised that I’m the one making the decisions.

Pure Native at Native Voices at The Autry. Director: Randy Reinholz. Set: Christopher Scott Murillo. Costumes: E.B. Brooks. Lighting: Chris Stokes. Sound: Chris Warren. Projections: Tom Ontiveros. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz.
Pure Native at Native Voices at The Autry. Director: Randy Reinholz. Set: Christopher Scott Murillo. Costumes: E.B. Brooks. Lighting: Chris Stokes. Sound: Chris Warren. Projections: Tom Ontiveros. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz.

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?
Know that your voice matters, it belongs in the room, and you have every right to be part of what we do as theatre artists in a mainstream arena. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re just a diversity hire, that you’re only there because you’re a person of color. Don’t let that discount or question your talent. We do so much that’s vulnerable in the art we do; don’t let that little voice of discouragement into your head. Your talent is real, and you should pursue the career you want to and that fulfills you.    

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field? 
Oanh Nguyen gave me my first real opportunity right out of undergrad to design a show with him at the theatre he ran, Chance Theatre. As an immigrant, he started his own theatre company in Orange Country and built it up from nothing. They do good work and support both new and seasoned artists. He gives chances to be a part of the theatre to people from all walks of life and backgrounds.

Bloodletting at Playwrights
Bloodletting at Playwrights' Arena. Director: Jon Lawrence Rivera. Set: Christopher Scott Murillo. Costumes: Mylette Nora. Lighting: Lily Bartenstein. Sound: Howard Ho. Photo Credit: Lily Bartenstein.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
Jon Lawrence Rivera, a director who runs Playwrights’ Arena. I admire his ability to call out that our industry is white-dominated. But he does it with such eloquence that it never feels like it’s an attack. He points out the facts and says that we need to work on making our industry more diverse. Here’s people who do that and people who don’t. He also calls out people who say they are working on increasing diversity, but don’t actually. He makes an active choice to be a part of the solution with getting people of color on stage through the work he does. I have worked with him for over 11 years, even before grad school as a props master. He has mentored me throughout my career, and steered me through changing the kinds of work I’m interested in and that I ultimately engage in.

In a Word at The Chance Theater. Director: Jocelyn A. Brown. Set: Christopher Scott Murillo. Costumes: Bruce Goodrich. Lighting/Projections: Lily Bartenstein. Sound: Darryl B. Hovis. Photo Credit: Lily Bartenstein.
In a Word at The Chance Theater. Director: Jocelyn A. Brown. Set: Christopher Scott Murillo. Costumes: Bruce Goodrich. Lighting/Projections: Lily Bartenstein. Sound: Darryl B. Hovis. Photo Credit: Lily Bartenstein.

What is the one thing you wish all theatre folks knew about scenic design?
Scenic design is visual storytelling. Scenic design is just as important as the performance and the actors who tell the story. It tells the story before the actors even come onstage. It’s crucial to prep the audience for engaging in the story being told. The scenic design creates the environment for the actors to be their best selves and give their best performance. For me, scenic design is fictional anthropology, where you discover a community and world through inquiry based on the script. I want people to acknowledge scenic design is crucial to the storytelling of any production.