The aim of the International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023’s #EmbraceEquity campaign theme is to get the world talking about why equal opportunities aren’t enough. People start from different places, so true inclusion and belonging require equitable action. One such example is Argentinian lighting and production designer, Sophya Acosta of Sophya Acosta Lighting Design Studio who shares her pathway into the world of lighting design, highlights gender inequality in lighting, and shares perspective as the founder of an independent all-women design studio.
What first attracted you to the world of lighting?
“I’ve always been a theatre kid. I remember that when I was 5 or 6 I went to the theatre with my mum to watch The House of Bernarda Alba. It was a complex play in terms of its content so I didn’t get the story. I remember that the set had a door that opened by itself for the characters to come into the scene. I thought that when I grew up I wanted to create that kind of magic. A decade later when it came to choosing my university, I discovered Stage Lighting Design at the National University of Arts of Argentina. The first semester was full of art history, theatre analysis but also physics of light and electrical engineering, it was awesome. Looking back, my life has been connected to light.”
What were some of your original goals for Sophya Acosta Lighting Design Studio?
“After a few years of designing as a freelancer, I realised that the way that I wanted to create was with a team. Collaborative work has always been for me the best way to express myself. I had assistants and collaborators but I had the feeling that something was missing. Then I met the APDI (the Association of professional Architectural Lighting Designers of Spain) and discovered that they had these structures of studios and firms that I never saw in Argentina before. I knew of people that had assistants like me, or that collaborated with other designers in some projects, but I didn’t know that a studio specialised in stage lighting design was possible.
“In 2019, I was offered to join Cirque du Soleil at Sea. It was one of my childhood dreams to work with Cirque du Soleil but at the same time, I had previous commitments with different productions in Argentina and Spain. It was then that I created the structure that we have now. In our studio we have Associated lighting designers, assistants, and collaborators. This structure allows us to create a collaborative environment where we can adapt to the needs of each production. Sometimes Luciana Suppicich (my main Associate Designer and the Head of the argentinian office) and I co-create the lighting design, sometimes she is the main lighting designer, sometimes I am, and with some projects we even work with other designers.
“Besides the structure, another of my main goals was to create a safe and healthy environment for young female designers to develop. When I started in this industry, like many of my female colleagues, I had to face different situations where my abilities as a designer were questioned just because of my gender. I remember a musical production where the Technical Director questioned my cueing by saying that I was a Latina without rhythm, alluding to the stereotypical conception of Latina women and its predisposition towards certain behaviour.
“Through the studio I want to propose a different way to approach the creation of lighting design, a way where our connection is with the light itself rather than with the gender of the designer but at the same time, to promote a work environment of respect and good professional practices with a gender perspective.”
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What have been some of your career highlights thus far?
“The use of colours and time as the main element of creation. In the past few years, I have been deeply connected with the research of the relationship between light and time in its spiritual, scientific and perceptive way. During the COVID-19 pandemic I had a lot of time to think (like most people) and to conceptualise what I was doing with light and how I wanted to approach my creative process. The past three years have been the realisation of all this analysis. In my last few shows I devoted myself to developing the main concept of light. Even in the smallest projects that we took part in, I decided to create unique concepts and research different aspects of light.”
What advantage do you think operating an all-woman studio gives you in the marketplace?
“In Argentina and Spain, the idea of a studio focused on stage lighting design is rather new – moreover a studio led by young female lighting designers. When we started in 2019, we had to explain to people how we designed and how we worked. Our industry was used to freelancers. After the pandemic, we started to see more and more stage lighting studios, which is great. In the gender department, we are one of the few studios where the main designers are women. We can find studios where there are women in starter positions, or assistants, or producers, but just a few (less than 10 that I’m aware of) with female lighting designers, programmers, and technical directors.
“I noticed in the past two years that more and more directors and choreographers want to work with female lighting designers. Some people feel safer, while others prefer to create in an all-female environment, and other productions prefer a creative team with a female perspective of light. Female programmers are also starting to get more and more noticed; people want to see females in the FOH of festivals.”
What barriers do women face when it comes to breaking into the industry?
“I think we still have a lot of work to do regarding gender equality in our industry. For me, the first step is to be able to create safer environments for everyone. From comments about our professional abilities to misconceptions about our physical possibilities to complete technical tasks, as an industry we have to start to question ourselves, and from every position. There is a reason why there are so many female technicians in this world but when you go to the staging of a big format show, you only get to see less than five. During fairs and conferences, this subject is also very noticeable, the booths are filled with men explaining to men about the new fixtures. I’ve been to events where I was mistaken as the ‘girlfriend of’ who went to accompany someone when maybe I was one of the speakers. It is starting to change, slowly, but it is. Female technicians and female designers all over the world are joining their voices. It is wonderful.”
Have you noticed an influx of women looking to find their way into the sector?
“I have! I also saw a drop in the age of the people choosing this career path. Our work of the past ten years is starting to pay off. More and more young women start to see this industry as a possibility, mainly in lighting and sound. Rigging and automation are still lacking young female professionals. But it is a process, and we will start to see how it changes in two to three years.”
What does the future hold for Sophya Acosta Lighting Design Studios?
“We are having a great start to 2023. We are premiering three shows in March and April in Barcelona, and we have confirmed two shows in Argentina from June until September. This year is going to be a year full of design as well as research and publications. We are working on academic papers and articles about lighting design and light art. We want to create great shows for the audience, and specialised literature for all the young designers to come. So, stay tuned on our social media channels!”
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