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Vianey Salazar: Navigating POC Politics in Production

Porsche McGovern • Illuminations • January 13, 2020

Vianey Salazar

When I designed for The Last Five Years at Portland Stage last spring, I met Vianey Salazar who programmed lights for me. Vianey Salazar (vya-NAY sah-lah-ZARR) is a Mexican lighting designer and electrician who was born in Chicago and raised in Texas. She received a BFA in Theatre Design & Technology from Illinois Wesleyan University and has worked for American Players Theatre, Portland Stage Company, and Peninsula Players Theatre in various electrics positions. She is currently based in New Haven, Connecticut working as a Sound & Lighting Technician for Long Wharf Theatre.

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night at American Players Theatre, Spring Green, WI. Director: John Langs. Voice & Text Coach: Eva Breneman. Costume Design: Jenny Mannis. Scenic Design: Arnel Sancianco. Lighting Design: Michael A. Peterson. Sound Design & Original Music: Josh Schmidt. Choreographer: Jessica Bess Lanius. Fight Director: Brian Byrnes. Assistant Costume Design: Kelly Myers. Stage Manager: Jacqueline Singleton. Lighting Supervisor: Eliot Garfield. Electrician: Vianey Salazar. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.



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

My name is always a five minute conversation on how to pronounce it. It’s so unique that it stands out. It’s not a common Mexican culture name, either. The first introduction of my name makes it clear that I’m not coming from a white background. Sometimes people resort to calling me “V,” never fully learning my name. This nickname is something I’m trying to be better about eliminating, because it’s quite literally becoming erasure of my name. It’s a double-edged sword, where I can be memorable because I stand out from most of my coworkers, but I can just as easily be “othered” from the beginning and therefore forgotten or erased. I can stand out but also be isolated; I can question and doubt myself, but also push myself towards perfection so that I can’t be questioned.

Sans Merci at Not Your Average Ingenue Theatre Company, Portland, ME. Director and Scenic Designer: Meaghan Parker. Costume Designer: Eileen Thoma. Lighting and Sound Designer: Vianey Salazar. Stage Manager: Terysa Malootian. Photo credit: Ethan Sepa.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?

I’m usually the only person of color in the room, in the department, in all of production, or even in the whole company. I’ve never felt targeted, but I feel very isolated sometimes. I have no one to talk to when I feel like there’s a question about treatment at work—is it who I am or what I’ve done? I’m usually filling roles where my predecessors were white men. I’m either the first woman or first woman of color filling a particular position at a company.

Multiple times I’ve seen productions that are specifically about non-white culture, and the cast and director may be POCs, but the rest of the design & production team will be white. I don’t believe that serves the story justice. The designers and production team are just as much a part of telling the story, regardless of the fact that we are never seen by the audience. I almost left production theater to continue my studies and pursue a career in academia, because I felt like that was the only area that could fully foster the conversations I wanted to have about race and culture. However, I think we need to take more action towards creating diversity in production than we currently do. I want to be a part of changing that culture so that there are POCs working in all areas of the theater, not just those that are directly seen by our audience. Essentially, I want to be a part of telling my own culture’s stories to ensure that they’re being told authentically.

Skeleton Crew at Portland Stage Company, Portland, ME. Director: Jade King Caroll. Costume Design: Kathleen P. Brown. Scenic Design: Anita Stewart. Lighting Design: Bryon Winn. Sound Design: Karin Graybash. Stage Manager: Shane Van Vliet. Lighting Supervisor: Daniel Brodhead. Master Electrician: Vianey Salazar.

What would you like people of color considering or in the early stages of a theater career to know?  Is there any advice you wish you’d be given?

I wish I had been more aware of my own racial politics. Working in primarily white institutions, I’m super aware of my accent and how much Spanglish I use. I’m learning to analyze where POCs are positioned within a company and how long they’ve been with a company, so I can know whether a specific company is a place to foster and develop as a person of color. I make an effort to connect with POC peers and coworkers because I think it’s really important to have people you can get a second opinion from. This is definitely something I’d recommend, especially because it can feel so isolating as a POC in a PWI.

The Crucible at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, IL. Photo credit: Pete Guither. Director: Thomas A. Quinn. Costume Design: Connor O’Neill Speck. Scenic Design: Curtis C. Trout. Lighting Designer: Suni Holmlund. Sound Design: Dani Von Helms. Assistant Lighting Designer: Vianey Salazar.

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?

This was actually a very hard question for me, and frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it before now. I think because I live in such an intersectionality regarding my identity, I don’t have one specific person which I can say is my role model. Of the nine designers who I have worked with professionally, only two were POCs, one of which was a woman of color. Of the twelve theater professors and lecturers under who I studied in college, only one was a person of color and three were women. Of the eight supervisors under who I’ve worked, half were women and none were POCs. I respect Eliot Garfield and Cody Westgaard for their intense work ethics. I’m grateful to Faisal Hamadah for teaching me to question the authenticity of poc theater and whether it’s appropriate or appropriated. I have been so incredibly fortunate to learn from strong women, such as Armie Thompson and Betsy Smith. I don’t know that I’ve found just one person who has helped me shape and formulate my identity and art as a POC in theater, especially in lighting, where POC politics oftentimes feel overshadowed by the gender inequality situation. I feel like I’m living at an intersection of little bits of all these identities and experiences, which I’m still trying to piece together while also formulating my own.

Miss Holmes at Peninsula Players Theatre, Fish Creek, WI. Director: Elizabeth Margolius. Costume Design: Rachel Lambert. Scenic Design: Jack Magaw. Lighting Design: Jason Fassl. Sound Design: Christopher Kriz. Properties: Amanda Herrmann. Scenic Artist: Eileen Rozycki. Stage Manager: Richelle Harrington. Production Manager: Cody Westgaard. Master Electrician: Vianey Salazar. Photo credit: Len Villano.

What’s the best thing about where you are right now, in your career?

I’m in a time of new discoveries. What does it mean when people of color become integrated into the works Shakespeare and Jane Austen? I’m a point where I could go anywhere and do anything. When I studied abroad in London, I did a semester looking at performance studies in relation to racial, cultural, and global issues. After that, I wanted to produce more non-white art because that’s where my Latinx identity felt relevant. However, I’m realizing that we, as theater artists, have the tools and power to create a seat at all tables. I’m finding new places to exist as a person of color that aren’t exclusively Latinx and non-white art.

The Girl who Fell through a Hole in Her Sweater at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, IL. Director & Sound Design: Jamie Kreppein. Costume Design: Lena Kincaid. Scenic Design: Olivia Sarkis. Lighting Design: Vianey Salazar. Stage Manager: Maren Flessen.

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