Designer Profile: Elliott Jenetopulos
This interview is the first of a series of conversations with designers conducted by Alexandra Pinel. We rarely hear from lighting, scenic, costme, and sound designers, though we are always aware of the power of their contribution, and we are excited to forefront their perspectives on the works we are seeing and considering this season. Thank you, Elliott!
Alexandra: I became interested in initiating this series with Elliott Jenetopulos when we worked together on luciana achugar’s last performance season at New York Live Arts, and Elliott’s work kept popping up at all of my favorite performances since. Despite their young age, Elliott’s strong sense of identity and political voice as a designer struck me and I am grateful for their generosity in this interview. Elliott’s upcoming projects include working on STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at the Public Theater with Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company (now playing), and collaborations with Enrico Wey and Anna Sperber this spring.
Alexandra: Can you talk about your current role with Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company?
Elliott: Working with straight white men? (laughs.) Yeah! I’m doing some production work for a play called STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, and the transition into theater after years of exclusively dance was challenging just in the format of it. Also, the summer when I started working on it was when the events in Ferguson happened (the shooting of Michael Brown and the following protests against police brutality). So that, in combination with sitting at a desk writing everything that these straight four white men were doing, was totally bizarre, challenging and it made me think about all the times that straight white men have done shitty things to me or someone I love. And they almost never pay for it. And I am the first body people see when they come in because I give the pre-show announcement, which is a specific choice by Young Jean Lee. I feel like I have come to represent the non-straight-white-male. So that has been emotionally challenging. As it turns out, they’re all really good guys, and it’s been a pretty positive experience.
Having started your lighting design career after having been a performer, and with most of your production training done at DTW, is there an institution that you are more fond of in terms of production ethics?
I don’t really love any institutions right now. Dixon Place will always have a big spot in my heart but it’s not a world that I interact with very often now. And maybe that will change. But they are not really an institution, they’re an organization, I guess. Maybe those are really gray terms, but to me an organization is something that is invested in the community that it serves while an institution is more interested in its own survival, and each makes choices based on those fundamental values.
Where do you hope that your artistic work will go?
I would just love for someone to give me a space grant, a studio where I could just build weird shit (laughs).
Are your collaborators also from the production world?
Chimmy Anne Gunn and Ashur Rayis — I met them both through the production world. Chimmy and I worked at St. Ann’s Warehouse together- I worked at St. Ann’s for a short period full-time. And Ashur and I met through DTW. So we all see each other often because we work together a lot, and have been trying to see each other outside of work as much as possible but there is nothing like that in New York (laughs). It’s tricky when your collaborators are in the same situation as you; you all have five day jobs and six night jobs, because as a freelancer you live pay check to pay check.
Is it difficult to work for your friends?
Sometimes it is, but I feel like there has been a push in the dance community to be more transparent about your funding — at least with the people I work with. So it’s usually a conversation we have pretty early in the game, and usually there is a bit of barter that happens. It’s always a challenge because I know that more often than not, the choreographers forget to pay themselves but I also need to pay my own bills. So I think that the earlier the money conversation can happen, the more aware we are. It’s better for an artist to know what needs to happen for a design to be created and for a designer to know their parameters.
Have you considered going back to performing?
I do perform in this thing that I created with Ashur and Chimmy. It is very task-based because my life is task-based. But as far as other people’s work, I’ve really only performed in one thing since I moved here. My schedule doesn’t have the flexibility that performing might require, so it is frustrating but it is a choice.
Do you feel like there is a common misconception about lighting designers? That people may underestimate their role?
I think people underestimate lighting design period. It would give me such joy if people brought clip lights into their rehearsals and figured out how a specific moment would feel when it’s in silhouette… I want to see more people experiment with lighting, even if it is without me (laughs). Sometimes I feel like the work doesn’t need lighting and should be about the work itself and not the design. luciana is a really good example of this. There is a very specific design that goes with OTRO TEATRO. I always feel like such a white person when I say (OTRO TEATRO) and I think that’s kind of the point (laughs). But also her process and the movement have a life outside of the design. So this is a really challenging question. I wish there was more funding for lighting and me in the dance world because I love serving these works in the way that I am able. But sometimes there is no room for that.
Since you have lately been interested in natural light, do you see opportunities for design everywhere? Do you always have your designer hat on? And does that shape the way you see other performances?
I think that light is something that always interests me, even just walking down the street.
Do you recognize the designer behind the lighting plot in a show? Are there schools of lighting designers?
Sometimes. Or if I am familiar with a choreographer’s work, I might have an idea of who they could’ve worked with. The most obvious schools are literal schools like the Cal Arts people, the NCSA people, the NYU people. Everyone is their own individual human being, and sometimes you don’t know until you look at their paperwork, but then it makes a lot of sense.
What school do you identify with?
None. I didn’t go to grad school, I didn’t study lighting in undergrad. I just had a general tech and design degree because my department was really small and there was only one lighting design teacher and one scenic design teacher and no sound design teacher, so I didn’t go with sound design (laughs). I have become a self-taught designer. I am open to seeing where things go. Maybe New York has become an unsustainable place to live, so I’ve been thinking a lot about if I were to leave New York how would I keep doing what I am doing. Because I am so in love with the projects I have been working on and the people I have been working with, there really is no substitute for it. And I know New York is not the center of the universe, but right now it’s the center of my life and that is really important to me.
Can you talk about your most recent projects and the artists you have been collaborating with?
Obviously my favorite person that I have worked with is Jen Rosenblit. I feel like we have sort of grown up together in a weird way in this city. So seeing her get a Bessie Award felt sort of like a personal achievement (laughs). Not in a selfish way, I am just so excited for her. And I feel like she and I have developed a really great working relationship and that we both want to hold onto that for as long as possible. Marissa Perel and I also collaborated about the lighting concepts for her show and developed a specific way of working together. By the end I felt like I had known her forever. I have been also working on a piece with Anna Sperber in which we’re using natural light, so it was really exciting for me to be a big nerd about that. I am not totally sure how it’s going to work out technically, but it’s at the new Gibney space. It’s in this studio that has enormous sky lights that take up two thirds of the space. So we are trying to figure out how to work with that. This is a situation where I’ve had to do some sort of set design because in order to manipulate the sky lights we are talking about what fabrics to use to mask it or filter it to manipulate the natural light. I am so excited to be working on that. We did a sort of previous iteration of this work at BAX this past summer and obviously summer is the best time to work with natural light because you have more time with it. So if you have an 8pm show you still have some light at the beginning and then darkness at the end of it. Part of that came before I was involved because Anna Sperber is brilliant about space in general and using the space available to her in a really intelligent way, but it’s been really fun to get nerdy with her about this piece. I’ll also be working with Enrico Wey with a series he is starting to develop. A series of solos in a seemingly small patch of space so getting to manipulate light in a very concentrated way is really interesting. Enrico has a production background and we met working at DTW in crew calls. So working with him is fun because we get to have conversations about additive light and color, subtractive color… I feel like that one has a lot of possibilities. It’s challenging because he is based in Berlin but I got to visit him last month. It will be at Abrons Arts Center in March.
That sounds super exciting and it seems like though some of the work can be frustrating, most of these artists fit within a certain aesthetic that is in line with what you are interested in.
Definitely. The Young Jean Lee gig is interesting because she is experimenting with this naturalistic form that is outside of her realm of work even though it’s not new. So it’s been interesting to see her approach it in a totally different way than most people.
And it seems like she is conscious that this process may not be easy for you and is interested in that too. Do you feel like you have ever been politically challenged in other projects in that way?
I have said no to projects because of politics or personal feelings about certain artists or the content of the work, even if I know that something is going to do well — I don’t want my name on it.
It’s pretty impressive that you can stand up for your values in that way.
Yeah, sometimes I do feel a little regret if the show is successful. But I am not here to pay my bills, I am here to do work that I love.
Alexandra Pinel is a choreographer and performance artist from Paris, France. She works for luciana achugar.