The Safe Place to Explore Unsafe Ideas

by Ross Jackson

An Interview with Leah Ramillano, Scenic Designer

Leah Ramillano is a Filipino-American Scenic Designer based out of Los Angeles and Orange County. After graduating with a BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Redlands, Leah participated in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s FAIR program, where she worked as an Assistant Scenic Artist, and then later at PCPA [Pacific College of the Performing Arts] Theaterfest as a Scenic Art Intern. Later, she designed the world premiere of Ser! (written and performed by Karen Anzoategui) at the Los Angeles Theater Center. Then, she designed Sueños Sin Fronteras under Cornerstone Theater Company’s Teatro Jornalero. Leah will be graduating from the University of California, Irvine with an MFA in Scenic Design in June 2017. Her main stage designs include The Liquid Plain, These Shining Lives, and Parade.


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

Leah Ramillano: What I find most frustrating, especially being a woman of color (WOC) in a field dominated by men, is how much people assume I don't know or how condescending their explanations can be; more often than not, people will either over-explain something or under explain something so that you have to keep asking them questions– or they'd simply withhold information. I find people explaining something back to me that I have explained to them in the past, or I find people doubting my suggestions. Best case scenario, I just get annoyed and we do it their way. Worse-case scenario, their way fails and they re-suggest my suggestion. Worst-case scenario, my confidence as a person and an artist plummets and I become part of a cycle where I relinquish my voice and let others take over.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?

I should start off my saying that I'm fairly green in my career as a theatre designer – coming out of undergrad, I was a young artist with absolutely no idea what to do because I felt as though I was talented but not skilled. That being said, I am incredibly lucky that Sharifa [Johka] at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF)l took a chance on me and opened the doors of the FAIR program, which is there not only to diversify the theatre world (especially in production) but also to educate others on how to implement [Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI)] and social justice work. Had I not been part of OSF, I know that the shape of my life – both personally and professionally – would be drastically different. My last 4 years since OSF has been filled with art, education, mentorship, friendship, and extraordinary collaboration. I would not have been able to do some of the things I have done without the access I had received from them. When I was at OSF, and every time I come back to visit, I feel surrounded by people who support my personal and professional aspirations. They have mentored me to be a better artist and an even better activist.

How can programs like OSF’s FAIR and USITT’s Gateway initiatives affect the next generation of theatre makers?

Being part of FAIR taught me that I had valid and valued role in the theatre community. It also offered incredible mentorship from people who are so active in the field. In turn, their network becomes part of your network and will ultimately help you continuously get your foot in the door.  FAIR also makes it a point to look for people with the drive and skills, who don't necessarily have formal education or have strictly studied theatre. They put feelers out anywhere that they can because more often than not, the people with these skills don't always have the proper access to utilize them and showcase them. This especially rings true for POCs and other underprivileged identities. 

I also admire the mentoring that the USITT Gateway program provides. They purposely pair a candidate with a mentor that has a shared identity with them. It comes down to being invited in and having space and representation created for you to be there. 

What these mentorship programs create is a unique bond that lasts a lifetime, especially if you continue to nurture it. It also allows these bigger establishments give people, like me, access to their bounty of resources to help me continue on in my path as an artist.

Leah working on the set of PARADE at UC, Irvine
Leah working on the set of PARADE at UC, Irvine

What would you like people of color considering - or in the early stages of - a theatre career to know?

Your voice matters. Your voice is NEEDED. Do not be afraid to be visible. Find people in this field that will not invalidate your lived experience as an artist of color.

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

Michael Ganio, Christopher Acebo, Gabriel Barrera, and Cliff Faulkner. The list definitely keeps growing, but I am ultimately inspired by people who align their integrity as an artist with their integrity as a human being.

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

Gabriel Barrera, who was my scenic art mentor at OSF and my everyday hero. Gabe really taught me that my voice counted. He still does this for me to this day and is a constant supporter of my goals.

Also on this list is Dawn Monique Williams, who taught me about my right to visibility in this field. She taught me the mantra “her successes are my successes” which essentially promotes the idea of the intersectional support that women– especially women of color (WOC) in this ever-evolving field– need to have for each other. The idea that one WOC's success also means a step forward for me, and likewise, a success under my belt is a success for all WOC.

How has your experience been as a woman in scenic design?

Overall, it has been very positive. Finding theatre and scenic design meant finding my truest passion. Someone in my life once told me that passion is where you feel that your greatest joy and the world's deepest hunger continue to meet– and for me, it's here in the theatre. I think that I've been lucky to land in places, like UC, Irvine where I've been respected by my fellow scenic designers as well as my other design collaborators, while being mentored by seasoned artists who are invested in me and the future of theatre.

How have you utilized design as a means of protest/discourse, political or otherwise?

When I design, I can never jump straight to visuals and feel grounded in my work. My artistic conscious and conscience needs to have discussions with the entire team, especially the director, on what the ripples of this production look like. Ripples, meaning how the microcosm of this production is influenced and can influence the larger macrocosm of the world. How do we take this story outside the four walls of a theatre?

Being a designer in theatre also means having a wealth of information stored in your brain about nearly anything– and from everything I've learned, I try my best to be an active voice and supporter of liberation for all people.

The powerful focal point of PARADE
The powerful focal point of PARADE's design by Leah Ramillano

Do you have a favorite type of show to design? (i.e. musicals, plays, social justice, dance)

My favorite shows to design have a deliberate message laced together with poetic dialogue. For example, two of my favorite playwrights are Sarah Ruhl and Lynn Nottage.

I also find great joy in working on projects with Cornerstone Theater Company because of how they work to truly represent stories of people who are not always represented. I admire how dedicated they are to bringing theatre to ALL people.

Are there practices or trends in the current fabric of the theatre that you think can be damaging or a hindrance to non-white people in the field?

“Colorblind casting” can be fairly problematic. I'm a supporter of “Color-forward casting” where actors of color (we can also include gender, [dis]ability, etc) are cast in roles meant and written for them, because colorblind casting essentially robs them of their identity.

Also, simply having the desire alone to diversify is no longer enough. An actual plan– peer reviewed by those who study EDI– must be created and implemented. It is not enough to simply invite [People of Color] POC into a company/production. Space must be created for POC to thrive and not feel as though they've been invited in but only limited to the POC bubble. 

How is it possible for American theatre to walk the ultra-thin line of the “safe space” and the space for conversation and opposition? I’ve always personally believed it should strictly be the latter. What are your thoughts?

In our studio, we've talked a lot about the semantics of these phrases and how they sort of move between with what we (as people working in the theater) intend and how some other people (who pay money and expect that actors should just act, designers should just make pretty things, no one needs to ask questions, and such) perceive them. Basically, what some people want is for their dollars to count towards a place where they are entertained for the sake of being entertained– and then they can give an applause (or not) at the end of the night and go home and never think about it again– their understanding of a “safe space.”

In my mind, the theatre is a safe space for artists to explore profoundly unsafe ideas, so that those who experience the work that has evolved from these explorations have a starting point from which to have necessary conversation– conversation that will help you expand and somehow make your world fuller and your periphery wider.

Sure, some theatre is meant to simply entertain and nothing else. Some theatre is all spectacle and very little depth. Some theatre is meant to only temporarily occupy mental space. But what I've found is that if you leave a theatre without any questions, without a burning desire to prod, ask, and discuss then you've haven't left any fuller than when you first walked in.