Michael Tellez: Pat MacKay Diversity In Design Scholarship Winner 2021

Michael Tellez, a winner of the 2021 Pat MacKay Diversity In Design Scholarships, is studying sound in the Design/Tech BFA program at the University of Arizona, class of 2022. He has over a dozen shows under his belt and has already met his dream mentor, Abe Jacob. Tellez says he was impressed just by watching Jacob, AKA 'The Godfather of Sound,’ when he was involved with the Arizona Repertory Theatre’s productions of Pippin and The River Bride.

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. The sound scholarship winners were selected by a judging panel organized by TSDCA, and coordinated by Lindsay Jones.

Tellez talked to Live Design about his other inspirations, giving back to his community, and his hopes for the future of the industry.

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

Michael Tellez: I applied after being sent the scholarship from one of the professors in our theatre department at the University of Arizona. After looking at the scholarship details, seeing that it was a scholarship specifically for minority students, I knew it was a scholarship worth applying for.

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

MT: My love for music and sound effects got me into the industry. In high school I was given the chance to be the sound designer for a class project and fell in love with the practice. When I got to university, I applied for the sound design and engineering program and I’ve been able to hone my skills in a protected environment. Going into my final year here, I feel as prepared as ever for what the real world has to offer, the good and the bad.

LD: What are your career goals?

MT: My career goals are still a little blurry right now but I know my end goal is to teach theatre in underrepresented communities to give people like me a chance to express themselves freely, possibly find their calling and help them along the way. In between now and the, however, isn’t defined just yet. With a seemingly wide array of opportunities in varying industries (theatre, movie, sports, broadcasting, etc.) I’ve been telling myself to see where the wind takes me and dive in because what else do you do as a young artistic person?

LD: How can the industry better serve underrepresented communities?

MT: I’ve written papers on this exact topic! I’ve concluded that with the release of In The Heights in movie theaters and shows like Sister Act, Newsies, and Hamilton on Disney+, underrepresented communities can’t justify the price of a live theatre ticket but can easily afford a movie theatre ticket or streaming subscription. With cultural shows hitting the main stage but no underrepresented communities to sit and enjoy them until they’re out on the silver screen, it becomes redundant. I use In The Heights as a personal example since I come from Latin American descent and my family had never heard of the musical until the movie came out, not because they didn’t like musical theatre but why spend that much money for a ticket to see it live, rather than using that same money to buy lunch, a movie ticket, and snacks? Communities like the one I grew up in that are predominantly Mexican don’t view a theatre ticket to be nearly as worth it as a movie ticket is. Starting there at income disparities across these underrepresented communities is the way to go, if the theatre remains as an income hierarchy of an audience, then these communities will become more and more excluded.

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

MT: My influences mostly come from outside the theatre world, revolving around work ethic and drive more than anything. People like Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Cesar Chavez, and especially my parents. All these figures have taught me that no matter the profession, working hard and having the drive to break barriers and pave your own path means more than simply being ‘naturally gifted.’ I hold their advice and stories near and dear to my heart and look to their words whenever I feel stuck, especially my parents who’ve been with me every step of the way.

LD: Are there particular challenges you have faced, either personally or artistically?

MT: Most of the challenges I’ve faced in my life have been, cliché as it may seem, breaking barriers as a person of color. Growing up playing golf, I was one of the only people of color playing in Tucson. Transitioning to the theatre world has been eerily similar in some instances. I’ve worked shows where I was the only person of color in the cast, crew, and audience which has made me feel personally out of place at times. Regardless, I do my best to push through and put my best forward into any piece I work on. The recent call for a more diverse experience has made me optimistic for the future of the industry.

LD: What is your number one bucket list item?

MT: Being able to work on a Latin-American themed play or musical with an abundance of people of color both onstage and behind the scenes. I look at recent Broadway musicals, casting and hiring with diversity, for inspiration that this bucket list item will come to fruition one day. It would be an honor to do one of these shows and the upcoming generation of theatre cast and crew are pushing the hardest for these changes.

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

MT: The pandemic has made me realize just how much the theatre world needed an overhaul of work hours, conditions, pay, diversity casting, etc. It’s been a breath of fresh air when multiple theatres and personalities have been changing exactly what needed to change. I can only hope the industry as a whole does not remain a victim of tradition. Even working on my current show with adjusted hours has me coming home and showering, eating, and going to bed at one o’clock in the morning. As for how I view my work, I genuinely believe that every artist's work is still just as important as before; however, many people are realizing, subconsciously or not, that they rely on art, in whatever medium they prefer, for entertainment and an escape from day-to-day life. As a designer of color, I’m very excited to see where this industry goes in the next five years. If there was ever a time to change the roots of the industry it would be now,  following a time where the industry has been shaken to its core.

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