Pablo Santiago speaks slowly and carefully, pausing between phrases as he considers his words. He brings this same thoughtfulness to his lighting design. Santiago’s unique style has been recognized with the 2017 Sherwood Award for emerging artists.
The $10,000 Sherwood Award was established in 1996 in memory of longtime Center Theatre Group Board member Richard E. Sherwood to nurture innovative, adventurous Los Angeles theatre artists.
Santiago more than fits the bill with his "unusual" approach to lighting. "Sometimes people question whether what I’m doing is a good idea. But you have to create a way of working and telling a story that is particular to you. You have to find your own voice," Santiago said. "My mom reminded me recently that I’ve been at this for 22 years. Winning the Sherwood feels like a validation of the approach I have taken."
Santiago, who grew up in Chiapas, Mexico, had a roundabout entry into the world of live theatre. After graduating from UC San Diego with a degree in visual art, he worked in lighting design in film for 15 years. It wasn’t until his wife, a modern dance choreographer, enlisted his help because she couldn’t afford a lighting designer, that he "fell in love with how light works in a live performance." Determined to better understand live performance, he went back to school to earn a graduate degree from UCLA.
For Santiago, the differences between lighting for film and for the stage are striking. "In film you are tied to reality a lot more," he said. "The lighting is specific to that moment. Onstage, the opposite is true. You can be more unrealistic, architectural, or colorful. It can be more emotional. But you also have to be very careful about how you direct the eye and have to account for the whole play from the beginning. In theatre, you do one long take that is an act long." For him, that’s part of the fun of it. "In theatre, lighting acts like the editor in a movie. You create the cuts of the story."
Santiago is currently at work on Good Grief, a World premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, and Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum. Good Grief presents the challenge and opportunity of being a totally blank slate. Zoot Suit has a different kind of pressure. Apart from the fact that Zoot Suit is mythic in its own right, that Luis Valdez—the legendary Chicano playwright and original director of the 1978 premiere at the Taper—is helming its revival, and that the original production is embedded in the national theatre narrative, Santiago has bigger challenges facing him than high expectations.
"Luis Valdez is very interested in the idea of the show functioning as a film noir movie, which requires a lot of contrast and shadow," said Santiago. "The story itself is also challenging. There is a mental space and a mythic space. There is reality and there is song."
Music is integral to Zoot Suit, which is a good thing for Santiago, who feels that lighting and music are closely connected.
"Lighting functions best when it has a musical rhythm. Timing is also very important. There is also something visceral about the reaction one has to how a space is lit and that is an interesting way for me to communicate," he said.