“I don’t know yet, but I’m booked.” Meet Raquel M. Jackson, set designer for IF PRETTY HURTS

Raquel Jackson is an award winning set designer currently based out of Las Vegas. This is her first time working with Actor’s Theater of Charlotte. She took the time to chat with us over video on July 15, 2022.

 

How did you end up in the field of theatre set design?

I came from a background of interior decorating and designing. I created a group in 2015 called Black Female Interior Designers. It’s an organization for Black female interior designers around the country. That was my first love, my first passion. I’m from Philadelphia, and I moved to Atlanta in 2007. My daughters were coming out of middle school going into high school, and I actually got into [set design] from doing scenic paint on the set of The Color Purple, which my daughter was featured in, she was an actress. That was for her school production. From scenic painter, decorator – I actually did set decoration there too with my mentor Korey Washington who is a production designer in the film industry – there I really left decorating and designing and went into the field of television and film. That is the shortest version I can give you [laughs]. And that is how I found my love, back into doing the arts, into theatre.

It sounds like you discovered set design later in your journey. It’s cool that you shifted gears and succeeded in a new field.

But I was always one of those kids. Even in my younger years, I’m the one who’s always looking in the background. I’m the one who’s like,  “How’d they do that?” And my mother actually had a floral pattern sofa cover in our living room which was also on I think it was the Mo’Nique show, one of those shows. That’s when it was just like, “Hey, we have the same thing they have in their house!” As a child, you don’t even realize that that’s an occupation, like that’s a job that you can grow up one day and decorate that set, or design that set. So, it just become a love for decorative pieces, “Ooh! I wanna do my room like that.”

Your set for IF PRETTY HURTS UGLY MUST BE A MUHFUCKA is spectacular. What inspired this particular set, and is it a theme in other designs you’ve done?

It is absolutely not a theme in any other design that I’ve done. When I read the script and noticed it’s really not a place, it’s more of an imaginative place. It could be anywhere between let’s just say Africa and America. I have a son who just turned 17-years-old. His name is Ganvié. And Ganvié means, “the collectivity of those who found peace at last,” which is a village of Benin, and it sits on Lake Nokoue. It’s a village that’s built on stilts above water, right? So if I wanna go to your house I have to get in a boat, you know, we fish, we do a lot of things because we live on the actual water. The most intriguing part about IF PRETTY HURTS is the river scene, the juju, the spirituality that comes with it, the gifting. It just took me to that place like, “ya know, this could be Ganvié, or Lake Nokoue.” Without creating all of this water all over the place to make you feel like you’re on a lake, let’s just say if we kinda lived here – you don’t see the boats, but you go across the bridge, you get on the water, you have to do the juju and all these things. So I took a little bit from that, and from my African ancestry and knowing patterns and colors that are vibrant, I said, “You know what, this is the perfect opportunity for these children and adults to actually see what can happen in this imaginative world.” And remember the only production that exists of this – it’s not like there’s a thousand set interpretations of it or even hundreds, it’s really only the one. So it really left it up to my imagination. It allowed me to utilize colors, lighting, and just run with it.

That makes me curious, did you refer at any point to the one other instance of set design as you were doing the work?

I always do research. I wanna find out what’s going on, and I wanna find out, “how far am I from my own imagination?” Without having to dive deep into someone else’s interpretation. Because their set was lit but very simplistic, it allowed me to use my imagination and transform this space into whatever I wanted, to use projections, to use lights, to use LEDs, to use glow-in-the-dark paint. I wanted to throw in all the bells and whistles.

What’s next for you?

I have a number of productions that I’m doing. I have a nice little awesome season going on. I’m working with a theatre company in Utah, and they’re putting on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, another long title [laughs]. I’m working here in Las Vegas as well doing one of the Sherlock Holmes plays. And then I have the NOLA project which is in New Orleans, and we’re doing a production of The Seagull, rewritten [from the Chekov].

It’s so cool that you get to work with such a variety of stories.

I’m going from Africa, to Russia, to the United States in New Orleans, to France. I’m really going all around the world with these designs.

Thanks so much for talking with me today! Any other thoughts?

I’m excited! Paul has been so great – he’s the technical director for all of you who wanna know – on this set. He’s phenomenal, and I can’t wait to actually come to Charlotte, to visit you guys, to see the set. Shout out to Carrie, she’s been an amazing production manager and gave me the opportunity to do this. Actually, I wanted to say this more to the audience: I wanted you all to know that my job, although it’s hard, it’s not easy to come by. I am one of those designers who is not afraid to reach out to new theaters, such as Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, I reached out to you guys and got an amazing response back. Anybody who is looking to get into this industry, if you’re falling down on your luck as a designer because of the state of the world today, don’t feel afraid to make new relationships with people who you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them, send emails, and inquire, because right now it’s your time. Because right now I know it’s my time. I got interviewed a couple of months ago by a young lady by the name of Monique, and she has an employee-to-designer program which is amazing for interior designers. And she asked me back in May – and at the time I was doing Matilda – and she said “Raquel, what’s next for you?” And I said, “I don’t know yet, but I know I’m booked.” That was the mentality that would bring, and here I am with four, five productions getting thrown on my lap, which is amazing. Because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. My son graduated from high school, and as a mom I said, “After he graduates I’m going back out there full time.” This is for the moms, to say it’s never too late to put yourself out there.

 

IF PRETTY HURTS UGLY MUST BE A MUHFUCKA runs July 27 – August 20 at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. You can get tickets here.

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