Storytelling Through Lighting Design

by Porsche McGovern
Xavier Pierce
Xavier Pierce
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For this post in Illuminations, I interview Xavier Pierce, a New York-based lighting designer with strong ties to the Guthrie Theatre, Playmakers Repertory Company, and the Mint Theatre.  In this interview, Xavier talks about how he began his journey, advice for starting a career in theatrical lighting design, and the importance of mentors and role models.

Before we begin, some more on Xavier Pierce. Recent projects include A Day by the Sea at the Mint Theatre in New York City, directed by Austin Pendleton; Harvey at the Guthrie Theatre, directed by Libby Appel; Fences at Long Wharf Theatre and McCarter Theatre, directed by Phylicia Rashad; Two Trains Running at Two Rivers Theatre Company in New Jersey, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; and The Mountaintop at Playmakers Repertory Company and Triad Stage, directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges.  You can see his  work soon on Shakespeare in Love at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, directed by Christopher Moore; Smart People at Arena Stage, directed by Seema Sueko; The Glass Menagerie at California Shakespeare Theatre, directed by Lisa Portes; and Native Gardens at the Guthrie Theatre and Arena Stage, directed by Blake Robison. For more of his work, please visit xavierpiercedesign.com.  

A Raisin in the Sun at Westport County Playhouse. Director: Phylicia Rashad, Set Designer: Ed Burbridge, Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce, Costume Designer: Emilio Sosa, Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones
A Raisin in the Sun at Westport County Playhouse. Director: Phylicia Rashad, Set Designer: Ed Burbridge, Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce, Costume Designer: Emilio Sosa, Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones

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

It’s hard to tell what is racism and what folks in power think who will and won’t fit on any given production - when systematic racism happens, it happens under a veil and is cloaked in principalities. I think it’s helped in some instances, because people who look like me have given me amazing opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten, coming out of a graduate school. I know of several prominent theatre and dance practitioners who fought hard to give me an opportunity professionally, such as Phylicia Rashad who I adore greatly, Ruben Santiago–Hudson who taught me so much not just about theatre but about being a black man in the industry, and Bill T. Jones- that brother is strong .

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?

I think it’s influenced the shows that I’ve done. Very early on in my career, the only people who gave me opportunities were black directors. I worked on the shows they worked on. It was great! The caliber of those directors was exceptional and so were the actors- just phenomenal talent. I was so excited to be working with black talented people. They gave me strength and a grounding that allowed me to leap frog into different projects where I was the only black creative artist.

I think Joe Haj started to change the trajectory of my career by asking me to do other shows that were not centered around the African American experience. I’m really thankful to him, he is one of my biggest supporters and I’m so grateful for his artistic vision. It was really nice not to be pigeonholed into a box. I’m a storyteller. All stories are valid and I want to be at the helm to tell them through my lens as a African American male.

Two Trains Running at Two River Theatre Company. Director: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Set Designer: Michael Carnahan, Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce, Costume Designer: Karen Perry, Sound Designer: Rob Kaplowitz
Two Trains Running at Two River Theatre Company. Director: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Set Designer: Michael Carnahan, Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce, Costume Designer: Karen Perry, Sound Designer: Rob Kaplowitz

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?

Be an assistant! Be an electrician, be a master electrician, be an associate… learn your department. Assisting allows you to learn how to be in the room and not have too much responsibility. I got to learn about being part of a big production by being the assistant to the LD on FELA and the associate LD on Clybourne Park, both on Broadway. Assisting lets you see other people’s perspectives, learn from other people’s mistakes and successes, and learn how to navigate a room.

People of color should seek out the best education and best schools possible. People of color come into the business with such a disadvantage because there’s already an assumption that you don’t belong or you have no skill. Having the greatest education possible allows you to learn your craft really well, to leverage that name and your talent to move forward in your career. Go where working designers are. Go where there are diverse practitioners, so when you look up, you can say "Well, she or he made it, so can I." Having that is essential for being successful in those programs. Our industry is built on legacy, history and legitimacy.

Also, try to set up a support system, with a person who cares about you and you care about them. Ken Roberson was and still is my support system; I don’t know how I would have made it without him.

FLY at Florida Studio Theatre.  Director: Ricardo Khan, Set Designer: Beowolf Boritt, Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce, Costume Designer: Toni Leslie-James, Sound Designer: John Gromada
FLY at Florida Studio Theatre. Director: Ricardo Khan, Set Designer: Beowolf Boritt, Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce, Costume Designer: Toni Leslie-James, Sound Designer: John Gromada

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?

My role model from the very beginning was Allen Lee Hughes. I’ve assisted him and we’re very close. He was the first person I knew who was black and a lighting designer. I went to a historically black college and my sophomore year, I got a letter with a brochure about the Allen Lee Hughes fellowships at Arena Stage. I put the brochure on the front of my door for 2 years until I cold called Allen my senior year and left a message. He called me back, thinking I was offering him a job! That story makes me laugh always.

I was the Allen Lee Hughes fellow at Arena Stage after college. I assisted Allen there and saw how he worked. I went to NYU and got to study with him.  I saw how he worked as a lighting designer and as a professor how he navigated the world: He was strong , soft spoken and very very talented. I looked up to him. His ability to be himself, to do good work, and his mannerisms form the basis of how I work now. All the things about being prepared, coming to tech as prepared as you can, how he dressed, I just copied. Even now, I talk to him all the time about shows and career.  Allen shaped the artistic part of me.

Kathy Perkins shaped another side of me as well. She taught me that our black people have a legacy in the theatre. She taught me to speak up when things are not right and to look out for people of color. She still teaches me a lot and I’m so grateful for her kindness.

Peter and the Starcatcher at Playmakers Repertory Company.  Director: Brendon Fox, Set Designer: McKay Coble, Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce, Costume Designer: Holly Poe Durbin
Peter and the Starcatcher at Playmakers Repertory Company. Director: Brendon Fox, Set Designer: McKay Coble, Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce, Costume Designer: Holly Poe Durbin

Are there any challenges that you have faced that you feel are specific to the person of color designer experience?

Having to be the best, to maintain the strictest standards to avoid being written off quickly. I have to be the nicest; I can never yell, get upset or lose my temper.  I have to be on my best behavior always, with the feeling of  invading a space not meant for you. Systemic racism is inherent to all structures of American Society- it didn’t evade the arts.