Noelani Montas: Pat MacKay Diversity In Design Scholarship Winner 2021

Noelani Montas (she/her), a winner of 2021 The Pat MacKay Diversity In Design Scholarships, is entering her final semester as a Theater Design and Technology student at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is a proud Native Hawaiian and Dominican girl from Southern California, and is honored to receive this award. Although she is a multidisciplinary artist and designer, she has loved working on recent projects as a production designer, with an emphasis in lighting design. Storytelling has been really central to her life since she started hula at a young age, and she is so excited to continue to tell stories as a designer. She is also looking forward to seeing a wider range of diverse bodies on stage and at the table, and can’t wait to share that future with fellow Native and mixed-race artists. E holomua!

The Pat MacKay Diversity In Design Scholarships, funded by LDI and Live Design, were  introduced to support the underrepresented and unique voices in the field of entertainment design and are presented in partnership with TSDCA and USITT, for undergraduate students

Live Design: Why did you apply for the Pat MacKay Diversity In Design Scholarship?

Noelani Montas: I applied because I want to see more designers that I can identify with having their voices and work amplified. I want to see more Native designers, more Latinx designers, more mixed-race designers, more female designers of color, and I felt like it was my responsibility to put myself out there and be proud of who I am and the work I’ve accomplished so far. This scholarship and having my name, my picture and my work out there goes beyond just myself, it’s for my family and my communities and all of the people who can relate to me in some way.

Lighting tests for Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue - Production Design

LD: What made you interested in the field of lighting design?

NM: Lighting design was something that I was not expecting to fall in love with. It was the first design course I could take at UArts, and I was honestly bummed that I had to take it and wait another semester to take Set Design. But once we finished the first project, I started to look at the world around me in a different way. I noticed the lighting on the street and the instruments used at concerts, and I was really drawn to the way that it enhances emotion without physically being there. It definitely is some kind of magic.

LD: What are your career goals?

NM: Right now, my biggest career goal is to take on projects that excite me, and to not be limited to only one style or art form. I want to work in theatre, opera, dance, music videos, concerts, and touring shows and I want to be able to have different roles in different projects while keeping my art personal to who I am. I want to feel so confident in my ideas as an artist and designer that I can take on anything I feel drawn to.

LD: How can the industry better serve underrepresented communities?

NM: While there are many ways the industry can better serve underrepresented communities, the thing I gravitate towards the most is representation. Hire us. Put more Indigenous and Native performers on stage and have them tell their stories. Put more Latinx designers in the room and let them connect to their roots. And give those of us who identify as more than one background the chance to embrace our full selves. Hear us speak our languages and feel joy and community in performance spaces together. To me, that is the first step of bringing marginalized communities into the spaces and conversations where we belong.

Final footage for POP! - Production Design

LD: Who or what are your influences, in terms of people or events?

NM: I mentioned this on my application (and my friends and classmates know this answer already), but my dream mentor is Es Devlin. She can do anything. And whatever she does, she does it with such precision and attention to detail, while still reflecting her style. Her work includes theatre, opera, fashion shows, arena concerts, and art installations, so that’s where my excitement to work in any area I can comes from. But a lot of my emotional influence and the reason I was drawn to theater in the first place is from hula. I grew up dancing and learning from my mom and grandmother, so it has always been a very personal thing for me, and an important way to connect with my family and culture. My family always says that hula is telling stories through song and dance, which is also the definition of so many other art forms. That’s something I will always love.

LD: Are there particular personal challenges you have faced?

NM: I think I’ve had a very interesting journey as a transfer student because once I had the ability to start assisting professionals in shows on campus, we went remote. Obviously, safety is the most important thing in these times, but it was scary for me to go from being a lighting assistant in the spring to being a lead production designer in the fall. And while we were fully remote! But I’m very lucky and grateful that I’m able to look back on this virtual year and be proud of the art I was able to make with some amazing collaborators. I think being in a time where no one knew what was going on in our industry was actually very liberating and exciting for me, because it got rid of the idea that I needed to do things a certain way. I found it challenged me creatively and helped me feel confident enough to try anything.

LD: What is your number one bucket list item?

NM: My number one bucket list item is to be able to speak multiple languages. I’ve always been exposed to multiple languages and cultures, and I’ve learned at school and on my own, so being able to be conversational in maybe six different languages is a goal of mine. I’ve always looked at languages as a gateway to different people and ways of life, and being able to connect to them is something that’s really important to me. Learning Spanish and Hawaiian are really up there for me because those are related to my cultures and family, but there’s a bunch of other languages I would love to learn. Hopefully one day!

LD: Has the pandemic changed how you view your work or the industry?

NM: The pandemic has changed both for me. In terms of my work, I feel really proud of the things I was able to create with such amazing people, and that it was done remotely. I’m proud of the actors for being so willing to be their own designers and technicians, and for allowing me to connect with them and give them agency within my design in a way none of us were used to. In a practical way, it was nice to have things recorded, so I’m hoping to be able to record and take photos of every part of my process and the final product when projects transition back to in-person work. As for the industry, I think this time really highlighted the inequalities that have been deemed ‘normal’ for so long. I’m hoping companies and productions continue to provide streaming services for performances, allowing more people to engage with them. I’m hoping we continue to bring captioning and subtitles to audiences in a way that makes performance much more accessible. I’m hoping to see more people of color hired as performers and designers as well as in administration and management positions across the board. I’m hoping we have more ethical working conditions for all roles in the industry, and that workers are protected and encouraged to do their jobs safely. This is just a short list of things that come to mind when thinking about what we learned during the pandemic, and I hope to see a lot of valuable changes in the future.

Click here for more scholarship winners from 2021 and previous years.