Q&A with Scenic Designer Arnel Sancianco
In early November, Associate Artistic Director Chanel Bragg interviewed Arnel Sancianco, the talented scenic designer for Nina Simone: Four Women.
Arnel is a professor at Arizona State University and identifies as a first-generation Asian scenic designer of Filipino descent who is now a proud Arizona transplant! Chanel and Arnel spoke over Zoom while Arnel was in Washington D.C. He was applying the finishing touches on a new work for young audiences titled “The Acoustic Rooster’s Barnyard Boogie,” which premiered at the Prestigious Kennedy Center and will be released for touring in 2023.
During the interview, no time was wasted before delving deeply into an important discussion unpacking the significance of representation in the arts, and Arnel’s personal mission to show students of color that he is proof that they too can see themselves reflected in this industry.
Q: When did you realize you were first interested in scenic design?
A: In college. A couple of weeks prior to this key moment in my life, I was hanging out with some friends. I was an actor at UC Irvine, and we were engaged in a conversation surrounding what roles we wanted to play. I mentioned that I would love to play Edmond and King Lear because I loved the monologues. However, a friend of mine jokingly turned around and said, “You’re going to have such a hard time being an actor, there aren’t any roles for you …” And my heart plummeted. So, the world that I thought I had set ahead of me sort of vanished.
A couple weeks later I’m sitting in a scenic design class (that was required for majors), and I was inspired by a particular scenic designer’s work. His name was Robert Brill. I felt drawn to his aesthetic and as a graphic designer, I was excited about his work. When my professors showed a photograph of Robert I said, “Oh, he looks like me.” I immediately thought, “I can do this, scenic design could be a career for me!” Because he did it, I knew I could too. And it set forth the next 10 years of my life. I got the opportunity to meet Robert when I was working on a project at La Jolla Playhouse. I am grateful that I got to express that my entire trajectory of life was possible because he existed.
Q: Where did you study scenic design?
A: I went to Northwestern University for my graduate program (Class of 2016). Since then, I have worked tirelessly hustling for the last Five years. In one year, I designed 18 shows. I was in a tech every two weeks just to make rent and get my name out there!
There was an article written about me in the Chicago Sun Times that quotes, “I know it’s an Arnel Sancianco piece because when I walk in, I can see it and feel it.” I wanted that recognition, that someone could walk into a theatre and know who designed the show without having to look at the program. When I read that, it was the first time I felt that “I’m here, I’m established! I worked hard building my own seat, and I’m at the table!”
This industry is hard and just starting to work on inclusion. I will never meet a production manager at a theatre that says, “You remind me of myself.” I had to create an art form that was separate from me. Earlier in my design career, theatres would look at my portfolio and compare me saying, “You remind me of this designer, etc.” – I hated that my work had to be separate from my identity. It’s terrible that I needed to design like someone else or like someone else’s caliber before I could eventually become me. I want to design and be hired for my expertise, not hired to check off a BIPOC box.
Q: What advice would you give a young designer just starting out?
A: Find your people and make art with your people. I was inspired by Lillian Brown and that she believed in cultivating relationships based on trust. I believe that good art comes as a result of trust.
Q: You could have laid roots anywhere, why Arizona?
A: I came to work at ASU because I wanted to see more BIPOC designer’s who can perform their culture on stage at home. I wanted to work for ASU, where there was a diverse faculty and where undergraduate students are given a chance to fail safely in the classroom. That way, when my students graduate, they are at the same caliber as other students at other institutions that were given more access, resources, and a silver spoon in their mouth.
Q: We’ve spoken about some important topics. Let’s switch it up a bit! If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?
A: My favorite super villain is Mysterio. As soon as you come into my office, there is a giant Mysterio figure hanging over my desk. I love him because he creates allusions trying to trap spider man in a smoky box and or disappearing. I’d like the power of some form of mind control or allusion. Or sensory change.
Q: Favorite dish?
A: My mom makes great Adobo [a traditional Filipino dish].
Q: If you were a Pro Wrestler, what would be your theme song?
A: Brie Larson’s “Black Sheep” (from the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World).
Q: What is the latest TV show or movie you binged watched?
A: Just binged Midnight Mass, In honor of spooky season.
Q: Lastly, to get everyone excited about our upcoming production Nina Simone: Four Women, please share what inspired your Nina design?
A: Nina Simone is so poetic, and the Director, Tiffany Nichole Greene, wanted the space to reflect that poetry. We tried to meld poetry to an actual place historically that was bombed during the civil rights movement. The scenic design supports watching this play happen at the exact moment when the world seems to go awry, and everything feels shattered. This is the backdrop while we’re experiencing these women’s stories.
[Inspired by a Korean artists who takes images of spaces and blows them up into fragments], I went to the Library of Congress and found the drawings of the 16th Street Baptist Church and adapted it to the theatre. We fractured the church suspending fragments in the air, simulating where the blasts realistically would have blown the pieces to. Using black primer, I stumbled upon creating a void to communicate the broken pieces frozen in space, allowing the play to focus on the women.