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BWW Interview: Lighting Designer Adam Honoré Talks Amplifying Voices of BIPOC Theatre Artists & More

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Adam Honoré is a Drama Desk-nominated lightning designer, best known for his work on CARMEN JONES, AIN'T NO MO' and others!

BWW Interview: Lighting Designer Adam Honoré Talks Amplifying Voices of BIPOC Theatre Artists & More

Lighting designer Adam Honoré has been making a splash in the theater world from the moment he burst onto the scene. One of the youngest designers ever to have been nominated for a Drama Desk Award, at the age of 24, for the Off-Broadway smash Carmen Jones, Honoré is consistently working to amplify voices of BIPOC artists in theatre through the projects he takes, the work he does behind the scenes and more.

Honoré, who takes a passionate role in advocating for fair representation both onstage and backstage, is committed to mentoring up-and-coming theater-makers, and uplifting voices of color through his work on productions including Ain't No Mo, The Amen Corner, and an extensive list of regional productions, national tours and international premieres.

Honoré- whose infectious spirit and fierce enthusiasm for his work leaves no room to wonder how he got so far so young- spoke with us about advocating for equity in the theatre industry, what he is doing to amplify voices of BIPOC artists in theatre, his early experiences with design and more!


Tell me about your journey to becoming a lighting designer!

I was a little freshman and I showed up on campus and I was like, "I want to participate in big high school theater now!" Later that year, the seniors ended up leaving the theater program and the technical director was like, "Well, we have no more technical students, who else is interested?" And I was in the room, and I was like, "I'm interested!" That day, he said, "We're doing The Music Man as our musical, we just need some sketches of what we think the scenery is going to look like." So I'm in there drawing on this piece of paper and after a while the head director of the program comes over and is like, "Oh my God." And I was like, "It's that bad?" and he said, "No, it's brilliant!"... And that was really my first big design experience. It was the first time that I was credited in a program as the Scenic Designer.

Cut to, in Texas we're in an extremely competitive environment, there are multiple theater competitions that a lot of schools participate in. They do the state level festivals and then they have the national festivals. We were going to state, and you can compete in anything, any facet of theater...I get out the catalog book and I'm like, "What can I participate in? I'm not an actor, I'm not really a technician," and they had a Theater Marketing competition. I flipped to the back of the book and it said "Polished portfolio review/overview of entire works." We get to the competition, I have my theater marketing stuff in one hand, I have my portfolio in the other hand. I was pitching myself, and I had video of my shows which no one had at the time. We go to the final awards ceremony and they do all the big acting awards and performance awards, and my teacher at the time was like, "Okay, we have 13 hours to get back to Dallas, we should start loading up the bus now." So we stand up before the award ceremony is even over, and we're literally filing out of the auditorium, and they go, "So now, we're going to present the award for Outstanding Achievement of Portfolio Reviews, which comes with a college scholarship to any college of your choice. This award goes to Adam Honore!"

I went to the University of Oklahoma, I studied there for four years, I graduated on a Saturday. I had a close designer friend of mine call me the day after graduation, and he said, "If you can get on a plane and make it to New York by the end of this week, I have an Associate job for you." So, I graduated on a Saturday, and that Tuesday I was on a plane to New York City, and quite honestly, I've been here ever since. Since I got here I've been working, even within the musical theater realm, relatively early on. And honestly I have to thank all of the people who saw the spark in the beginning and gave me an opportunity to make their theater my sandbox.

I was taking one of my last Associate gigs, and it just so happened to be on a project BWW Interview: Lighting Designer Adam Honoré Talks Amplifying Voices of BIPOC Theatre Artists & Morethat the director John Doyle was directing... A couple months later he calls me up and he was like, "Adam, I'd like to know if you would be interested in designing Carmen Jones." I was like, "Anything to work with John Doyle again!" I hang up the phone, I go online, I see that these huge names are attached to the project, like Anika Noni Rose, who I grew up watching in Dreamgirls and who voiced my favorite Disney princess! And I come to look at the rest of the design team, it's Scott Pask, Dan Moses Shreier, and Ann Hould-Ward, who all have Tonys to their name, who have all been designing since long before my birth! I was almost starstruck at being able to work with these designers....Carmen Jones gave me a Drama Desk nomination, Ain't No Mo' gave me a Hews [nomination] and these shows kind of put me on the map. Now I'm just hanging out, waiting for the next one!

You make a conscious choice to work on projects that uplift and amplify voices of BIPOC artists in theatre. Tell me about your process for deciding which projects to work on.

This question always feels like it's so much bigger than the world, right? I remember the first time someone asked me I didn't know how to answer! But, quite frankly, I read the script and if it does not speak to my soul then I just don't do the project. I know that in itself kind of sounds crazy in a way, because for young rising designers, we try to take as much work as we can. But I've actually found if you take the shows you're really passionate about the entire experience will be so much better. In reading a fresh piece like Behind the Sheet or Ain't No Mo', if I'm crying, if I'm laughing, if I have had an 'ah-hah moment'- oh my gosh, I feel like Oprah Winfrey talking about her 'ah-hah moment'- that's when I'm really jazzed about a piece. A lot of these pieces I'm working on are new works that have never been presented or seen before. So I just have to go into my imagination while I'm reading them of, "What could this be?" and "At what level are we producing this?" because some of these pieces could have ten different outcomes, and depending on all of the players on the design team and on the producing team, you never know what it could be. But if I see in my mind's eye the greatest version of this show and it is something beyond the page, then I'll agree to do it. If it doesn't have the life, it's just another show, then I think that's far less exciting than being jazzed by the work you're working on.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the theatre industry, in regards to representation and diversity?

It's funny because someone asked that very question at Lighting Design International a couple of years ago when I was on a panel, and they went down the line of the panel and they were like, "Between a 1 and a 10, how do you think diversity inclusion is in the theater?" And the person right before me said, "Probably an 8,'- a 10 meaning it's doing really well and a 1 meaning it's not. And they got to me, and I went, "I'd give it a 2.5." And everyone snapped their heads, they were like, "2.5?! It's not that bad, is it?" I was like, "When I walk into a space and everyone automatically assumes I am the designer because I am the one person of color in the room, that's a problem."

And it goes well beyond the stage. I feel like we have a couple of productions, Ain't Too Proud, Tina, The Color Purple, productions like that, where people see people of color on stage, but what they don't realize is that the whole rest of the iceberg is quite literally white artists, crew members, there's just a lack of diversity in every aspect... The real answer to that is you have to level the playing field and you have to inspire more designers and artisans and crewman of color to go forward and join the industry. A lot of the arts starts when you're at the junior high level. I know most people don't get into it until they're in high school, but how it's perceived in your formative years will set the foundation for the rest of your life. I had the opportunity to be exposed to some form of theater, some form of production at such a young age that I then was hooked.

Something that's driven me this whole career has been, there is a hole in the industry of BIPOC designers and I never felt like I saw other designers who looked like me, so I was like, "I need to go fulfill that role. I need to go play that person." Now we have the time, and we have the resources, and the organizations that can go and inspire this kind of change. There are a lot of things we can do right now, like voting for these unions and getting more representation in, and changing up the artistic director level, but I think it won't be until ten, fifteen years that we're really going to see people rising up through the ranks and people coming through programs and school programs that are of a more diverse background.

What are you doing to help advocate for fair representation in theatre, not only onstage, but backstage as well?

BWW Interview: Lighting Designer Adam Honoré Talks Amplifying Voices of BIPOC Theatre Artists & More

We have a weekly mentorship meeting I love participating in for the Roundabout Theatre Company's Theatrical Workforce Development Program. What we do is we take 30-50 students in the New York area and connect them with theatre-makers in their field. It could be stage management, costume creation, costume design, lighting design is my area, and each of these students has an opportunity to choose their mentor, which is really nice! Because I often find in these programs you just get assigned a mentor, but I love that we had a speed dating experience where you get to meet everyone and they get to choose who aligns with their values or who speaks to their soul. I participate in a number of academic and educational panels all the time, especially now that we have this Zoom world going on. Now you can do it at any time because you can see anyone anywhere, so that's really wonderful as well.

What would you like to see more people who work in the theatre doing to help create racial equity in the theatre industry?

I feel like this speaks to America right now, you could take that question and open up the gates and say, "How can we help America?" Oh my gosh, am I running for president? I think what that is and what that means at this moment is that the gatekeepers need to open the doors to BIPOC designers and take that extra second to look at what they're saying. And I'm not saying that you should inherently give the BIPOC designers more time, but you have to realize, the theater industry is hard for all of us whether you're BIPOC or not, but, think about how hard it is for the non-BIPOC designers, and then lets put all those inequities on top of it. That inequity is why you should give them the extra two seconds, and two seconds quite literally is not enough. Take the time to meet with them, take the time to mentor them if they write to you, take the time to read their email, because you never know what could be fruitful from those relationships, and what could grow, and what opportunities that may open up for them.

That's something we could do just to start, just to get us in the room. I'd love to show up to lighting focus and have three focusers of color, but that just doesn't happen. Recently in the Off-Broadway world and in the regional circuit, we're finally starting to get a little gender diversity in there. I've heard horror stories of the time before that was even a thing, and even that has a far way to go.

What would you like to be working on in the future?

I will say, as a BIPOC designer, and I'm not speaking for everyone else, but what often happens for a BIPOC designer is we sometimes get pigeonholed into only working on stories of color, written by or for people of color. My career is starting to take me to a broader scope of shows, which I am really jazzed about, I am really interested in working on other shows. I always love working on my show about the black movement, but it's also going to be really exciting to open up my portfolio and say, "What else can I do?" and "What's next?" So, that really is the challenge of once you become an established designer, are you just the one trick pony who only works on one thing? Or, you have the opportunity to go play in the sandbox with everyone else.

Do you have anything else you would like to share?

My favorite mentor in the theater ever, back when I was a young child, used to say this as the end to every class he taught and every production we worked on. This would specifically be a statement to the young BIPOC designers, crew members, artisans who want to have a career in this field: Keep doing what you do, cause what you do is good.


For more information on Adam Honoré's work visit: https://www.honorelighting.com/

*This interview has been edited for clarity.


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