Designing and Community Engagement

by Porsche McGovern
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Scenic Designer Regina García
Scenic Designer Regina García

This time in Illuminations, we sit down with Regina García, an Illinois-based scenic designer with long-standing relationships with the St. Louis Black Rep, The Cherry Lane Theatre and renowned Latino theatres including Repertorio Español, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, INTAR and Pregones Theater. García opens up about who inspired her as she was coming up in the field, and where she finds inpsiration when she's stuck. 

Before we dive in, some more info on García. Recent projects include The Yeomen of the Guard at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; A Work of Art for Chicago Dramatists; and The Last Wife at TimeLine Theatre Company, Chicago. Regina is a Fellow of the NEA/TCG Career Development Program for Designers and the Princess Grace Awards, USA. She is a company member with Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and Teatro Vista, Chicago; and a Regional Associate Member of the League of Professional Theatre Women and the Latina/o Theatre Commons.

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?

I’ve been working in theatre for two decades. Looking back, I didn’t have the visibility I needed in New York, because reviewers do not consistently review Latino shows or shows in Spanish, so I was just less visible because of the work I was doing. But every step I’ve taken since then has had a forward momentum. I’m grateful to have moved at my own speed, and no one else’s.  And I’ve been incredibly lucky to have met some amazingly generous theatremakers. I can see myself in the field clearly as a contributor, and as a very engaged designer not only in the broader American theatre, but also in the specific communities I’m connected to.

Yeomen of the Guard at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Directed by Sean Graney. Scenic Design: Regina García. Costume Design: Alison Siple. Lighting Design: Heather Gilbert. Sound Design: Ray Nardelli. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Yeomen of the Guard at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Directed by Sean Graney. Scenic Design: Regina García. Costume Design: Alison Siple. Lighting Design: Heather Gilbert. Sound Design: Ray Nardelli. Photo: Jenny Graham.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?

I used to be a painter. So when I decided to move from fine arts to theatre, I reached out to all the Latino organizations in New York, and only one replied: Pregones Theater in the Bronx.  That’s where my schooling started. Pregones offered flexibility and openness to a creative schedule, and they welcomed me.  I was able to do a little bit of everything from folding programs to doing flyers to ushering and eventually painting the set.  This was way before grad school was even an option. 

As a designer I am also in service to the community. I learned that at Pregones. When a theatre asks if I’d mind being part of a panel or talk about the design process, I respond with a resounding yes, please! It’s part of how I was brought up in the theatre.  We’re here for the community and it’s a direct extension of the job.  Community is why we do theatre.

As theatre people, we’re tribes of sorts.  So this meant that while in New York, I was working and well connected with a specific group of theatre artists, which helped me in those transition years. So when it came time to decide whether to go to grad school and get an MFA, they were instrumental in guiding me in that direction. They offered me a foundation and a community.

Engagement is the key. As I get older, I continue to connect with companies because of their mission and what they do. It helps me decide which gigs to do and not to do.  I get really excited when I can line up their work with my core values, it leaves me very fulfilled. 

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 would say to think broadly about the work you’re doing, like a stock portfolio, diversify, diversify, diversify! Try a little bit of everything from the beginning as you mature in the theatre. You need a toolkit of experiences to draw from and to meet the people, the theatre makers, who make all sorts of work.  Nimbleness is useful as a designer. 

Attitude is also important.  Do it with an open heart and mind, and don’t worry so much about the next gig. There is some hustle required, but see each project through all the way to opening.  We should, if we can, be at opening night and be a part of that celebration, as the end of the project.  It gives us closure.  It’s so good to make eye contact and shake hands and be together.  Enjoy being in that moment.      

Seven Guitars at Court Theatre. Directed by Ron OJ Parson. Set Design by Regina García. Lighting Design by Marc Blumenfeld. Costume Design by Christine Pascual. Sound Design by Josh Horvath.
Seven Guitars at Court Theatre. Directed by Ron OJ Parson. Set Design by Regina García. Lighting Design by Marc Blumenfeld. Costume Design by Christine Pascual. Sound Design by Josh Horvath.

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?

During my year abroad in Florence I was changed by a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author directed and designed by Zeffirelli. Though I wasn’t fluent in Italian yet, I understood everything that was going on because of the direction, acting and the transformative space that revealed itself in front of me.

And the stage would expand and contract; there was the work of a master storyteller, director and designer in one.

There is also a history of scenography in Puerto Rico, and plenty of visual artists still doing scenery, in the spirit of Picasso and Dalí.  It’s not uncommon to have cross- pollination in that way in the island.  In the '60s and '70s you could find women designers working in both drama and television, aside from painting. I was in fine arts at the time, and was enthralled by the work by these artists that were scenographers and painters. What I was seeing before me was basically their personal, intuitive, sexy 2-D or 3D work, but in a completely different scale!   It all made complete sense to me, since I was a painter. This group included Jaime Suárez and Maria de Mater O’Neill that are still working today.

Time and curiosity led me to the New York designers, including Joseph Urban and ultimately, Eugene Lee - I love his process – then I had to start digging for the ladies, who have all been very generous including Kate Edmunds and Marjorie Bradley-Kellog.

El Paso Blue at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Directed by José Carrasquillo. Set Design by Regina García. Lighting Design by Christopher Annas-Lee. Costume Design by Robert Croghan. Sound Design by Neil McFadden.
El Paso Blue at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Directed by José Carrasquillo. Set Design by Regina García. Lighting Design by Christopher Annas-Lee. Costume Design by Robert Croghan. Sound Design by Neil McFadden.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?

All I can say is that there are several people I still look up to.  I owe a lot of who I am today from a purely aesthetic point of view to Andy Bueso, who is no longer with us. My use of color and repetition of shape is a riff off what Andy taught me about composition in painting. When I’m stuck and have nowhere to go, I always retreat to fine art, sculpture, and installation because I came from that world.  I love Pepón Osorio’s work, for its cultural specificity in the Puerto Rican community, his color palettes, and overall aesthetics.  He’s a Puerto Rican installation artist and a scenic designer.  On the other end, there is renowned sculptor Martin Puryear.  He informs my work  in terms of materiality and form.

Another view of Yeomen of the Guard. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Another view of Yeomen of the Guard. Photo: Jenny Graham.

You’re on the advisory committee and have been on the steering committee for the Latina/o Theatre Commons.  Can you tell us a little bit about that?

I think it’s wonderful that the Commons continues to grow, and that the people on the steering committee change every so often, so it keeps being redefined.  We want different people at the helm.  We want everybody to be able to contribute.

I was totally surprised to be invited to the first conference in Boston in 2013.  That was an eye opening experience that confirmed and validated many years of service to the Latino and Black theatre communities.  I was very humbled by the request to be part of that first steering committee. I’ve certainly grown in unexpected ways.

Everybody’s been building their own chairs to bring to this table. My focus is on designers, technicians, and stage managers. We’re hoping that no one has to ask, “where are the designers of color?” anymore. We also a have a great group of people doing the work: Madilynn García at USITT, Gabriel Barrera and Chris Acebo at OSF, and designers Courtney Flores (and yourself!) amongst others. I love meeting designers and connecting them to one another, for advocacy, for networking, for mentorship and possibly friendship. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this important work.