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San Diego Area University Theater Students Selected For National Diversity Scholarship

An SDSU and UCSD student are two of just 15 students nationwide to be named recipients of the Cody Renard Richard Scholarship Program.

Annelise Salazar of San Diego State University and Alex Luong of UC San Diego are two of only 15 students from across the United States selected for the inaugural cohort of The Cody Renard Richards Scholarship Program "honoring, uplifting and supporting the next generation of Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) theatre makers."

The scholarship comes with $4,000 in financial support and the chance to learn from and connect with other up-and-coming BIPOC actors, designers, directors and stage managers. Scholarship winners will meet three times over the next few months, establishing a network that can speak to the group's diverse cultural and racial backgrounds. The sessions also give opportunity to learn about community building, leadership, mentorship, social justice and racial equity.

Cody Renard Richard is a celebrated advocate, educator and professional stage manager with a career that spans genres including Broadway, television, Cirque du Soleil and opera.

Annelise Salazar illuminates the future today

Annelise Salazar began her Bachelor of Arts (BA) undergraduate studies at Millikin University in theater untethered to any specific field but it was clear to her that she felt most at home inside a theater. In her freshman year her path cleared, literally illuminated, after being assigned lighting design in shop class.

"I found myself staying after hours and asking a ton of questions. I did not just want to know how things were done, but why they were done," Salazar recounts. "I followed around a senior lighting designer. I thought she was just about the coolest person I have ever met!"

Soon after, Salazar changed her major from a BA to a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) focus on lighting.

"Since that move, I have never stopped thinking, breathing, and working with light," Salazar said.

Salazar then transferred to SDSU to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Design and Technology to take her passion for lighting to the next level.

"I am both honored and humbled to have received this wonderful honor and award," Salazar said. "I am excited to meet the rest of my cohorts chosen for this scholarship, and have intellectual and meaningful conversations! I would like to thank everyone who has made this possible for me!"

Being Hispanic, Filipino, and Native American (Tataviam Tribe), Salazar said, "I didn't see anyone else in the field that looked like me" and she found it difficult to fit in at first, while simultaneously feeling Americanized by not speaking a second language in a predominately Hispanic area.

Her feelings of discomfort to fit in, both in theater and in her home's community, catapulted her exploration of Latinx artists in the technical theater world, allowing Salazar to have a "coming to life moment."

"I finally fully embraced myself," said Salazar. "Sure, I don't know much about my roots, but that does not mean I cannot discover and also inspire a generation of lighting designers to do the same. I might not speak Spanish, or go to tribe events, or know how to make Filipino cuisine like my grandmother, but I am still a strong woman because of those who came before me, and I will keep laying the foundation for those who are to come after me."

Salazar believes this scholarship is a way for young artists of all backgrounds to communally pave the way and have open conversations about what it means to be BIPOC in the technical theater industry.

Although Salazar owes her work ethic and passion for lighting to many people, Anne McMills, head of lighting design at SDSU, has been a special mentor who created an immeasurable impact in her lighting education.

"To be able to learn from someone who has such a passion and talent for lighting makes me want to up my game that much more," Salazar reflects.

Salazar also appreciates her family, as she said they "do not have a huge background in theater, but they are at every show, and my dad is always asking why I made certain design choices. The people around me make me a better designer without even realizing it."

'Changemaker' Alex Luong seeks to increase Asian American representation on stage, and behind the scenes.

After years of looking for honest and diverse Asian American representation on the stage, in film and on TV, UC San Diego student Alex Luong is set to make change in the industry he has grown to love, with stage management as his specialty.

"The thing I'm most excited about is creating this small, sort of tight-knit, community where we can talk about our experiences more in depth. In theater as a whole, it's generally a pretty white industry," said Luong, a second-generation Vietnamese American who first experienced theater in high school.

"It's a very new and fresh world for me, and it's something that I'm sure a lot of BIPOC folks can relate to, particularly in regards to representation," he said.

A visibility report for the 2017-2018 season that was released October 2020 by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition showed BIPOC actors, writers and directors as "markedly less visible" on all New York City stages, where many university graduates pursue careers. Representation is even less in the industry's highest leadership roles: 100% of artistic directors in the 18 theater companies surveyed were white, the report finds.

"These students are consistently underrepresented in training programs across this country and that translates directly to underrepresentation in the entertainment industry as a whole," said Lora Powell, a stage management faculty member in the UC San Diego Department of Theatre and Dance.

Both Powell and Professor Lisa Porter, who is head of the university's Stage Management MFA program, praised Luong's commitment to the department, and Powell explained that Luong has achieved well above what most are able to accomplish in four years. In particular, Luong has taken several graduate-level, stage-management courses that are only open to the most advanced students.

Three of those classes came in 2020 alone: "Temporal Leadership," "Ethics" and "Production Process: Anti-Racism, Activism, Advocacy, and the Stage Manager's Role." Porter, who invited Luong to take the upper-level courses, said his research was impeccable.

"Alex is a storyteller and changemaker. I have witnessed a substantial change in him as he has boldly shared his story and embraced his identity as a BIPOC stage manager," Porter said. "This vulnerability has intersected with an understanding of and disappointment about the lack of representation of Asian American stage managers in our field."

Luong came to the program at UC San Diego interested in set design and construction, and explored stage management off the suggestion of a friend. He was drawn to the position's capacity to "really dig into a play, from start to finish," he said, "working in tandem with the director to shepherd the entire production toward the greater goal of the play."

He said one of the biggest takeaways from his training is that it allowed him to focus on who he is, and who he can be: "If anything about stage management in this program, I've learned to really be more comfortable with myself."

A double major in Theatre and Dance, and Communication, early on Luong served as assistant on two larger productions, "A Raisin in the Sun" and "Balm in Gilead," and has been assistant stage manager on multiple others, including the dance-focused "New Directions," and a world premiere presented at the department's acclaimed Wagner New Play Festival.

As his trajectory continued, Luong was stage manager for one act of "Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play," presented spring quarter 2020 as a first "virtual" production due to the pandemic. In January, he was the stage manager for "Exotic Deadly: The MSG Play;" a dream come true, he said, with a primarily Asian cast and creative team directed by Jennifer Chang, head of the undergraduate acting program and honored for her work by the Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theater.

"Witnessing Alex's growth over the past years has been remarkable," said Porter. "He is an authentic leader who is learning the power of taking risks, embracing mistakes, and growing into who he is as a human who stage manages."

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