The 2021 International Thespian Festival offers 50+ workshops on topics from becoming a lighting designer to hip-hop dance to audition techniques in the digital world. Meet Jorge Arroyo, lighting designer and Assistant Professor of Lighting Design at Boston University, who is leading a workshop called “Seeing the Stage” at ITF 2021. His career path started when a college friend snuck him into a theatre show.

How did you become a lighting designer?

In my junior year in college, a friend was ushering for The Crucible. He snuck me in to see the show. I didn’t even know the school had a theatre program. I was immediately hooked.

I’d been floundering around with a science major, knowing that my heart wasn’t in it enough to take the long journey to becoming a scientist. I was primed for a new career opportunity, and the theatre provided that. I joined the theatre program the following year and was cast as one of the prince’s entourage in Twelfth Night.

As a newly minted theatre major, I had to take a design class to graduate. I signed up for the only one that would fit into my schedule, which was lighting design. At the time I knew nothing about lighting design. Here I am, all these years later, a professional lighting designer and educator. And this journey, all started with a friend bending the rules to sneak me into a show.

Are you a Thespian alum?

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Theatre isn’t a widespread thing there, so very few high schools had theatre programs when I was growing up. My school didn’t, so I never had the opportunity to be a Thespian.

Students from Latin countries are in a similar situation, so few of us ever go into theatre as a career. Because of that, I’ve been part of a network of Latinx designers, managers, and technicians called La Gente: The Latinx Theater Design Network. We intend to raise our visibility, create engagement within Latinx theatre artists, and fight for advocacy for our community. There are some incredible Latinx theatre artists working in our industry, but the path hasn’t been easy for most of us. La Gente is working toward actively changing that. If you identify as Latinx and you plan on making a career working backstage in the theater, come join us!

What do you hope attendees will learn in your “Seeing the Stage” workshop?

I hope they’ll learn to see with fresh eyes. You need to understand what you’re seeing, and why. I’ll explain how your eyes deliver this information to your brain. This is a great place to begin the path toward becoming a designer. It’s about noticing and questioning the world around you in service of telling a story. 

So much of design training in high school is about learning the equipment, technique, and terminology of the theatre. That’s only a small portion of what I do as a professional designer. For example, you can learn the names of surgical tools and how to use them, but that doesn’t make you a surgeon.

What training has made the biggest impact on your theatre skills?

Having found theatre, and lighting design specifically, so late in my college career, I had to do a lot of self-learning. This was particularly hard in the early days of the internet, so books became my teachers. I attended some workshops at Lighting Dimensions International (a yearly trade show for the lighting industry) as well as some master classes held in New York.

But the bulk of my training came from attending the MFA program at New York University. That’s where I discovered what it really means to be a lighting designer. It’s where I learned how to be a storyteller who uses light as the medium.

What makes you well suited to teach this workshop?

I’ve been a professional lighting designer for 25 years now and I’ve been teaching at the college level for 10 years to students from varied backgrounds. I’ve taught absolute beginners to graduate students pursuing their MFA in lighting design. My teaching philosophy has always been about teaching students to see things that have always been in front of them. Things they never stopped to notice, think about, understand, or question. I help them discover why they see what they do.

My science background comes in handy. I use those lessons and apply them to composition on stage in service of the text and the storytelling needs of the show. I purposefully stay away from teaching by the book. I’ve always approached lighting education differently to produce artists who have their own unique voice. Learning who you are as a designer and artist doesn’t come from a book. 

And, just for fun, choose one from each of the following:

Hamilton or Hadestown?
I have good friends and colleagues who worked on both shows, so I’ll uplift them both. 

Ballet, Hip-Hop, or Tap?
I love them all, but hip-hop makes for some fun light cues, so I’ll pick that. 

Hero or villain?
Hero, for sure. Don’t we all need heroes right now?

The most dynamic performance you’ve seen?
I’ll cheat and pick a concert. Seeing The Police in 2007 made this child of the ’80s geek out hard. I knew every beat of every song for a solid two hours.

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