Grit and heart: Arnel Sancianco draws on both for his evocative theater sets | Fall Theater and Dance | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Fall Theater and Dance

Grit and heart: Arnel Sancianco draws on both for his evocative theater sets

With two major shows opening this fall, the designer's career is booming—but he's focused on making audiences connect emotionally with the world of the play.


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Back when he was an aspiring actor in the University of California-Irvine's undergrad theater program, Arnel Sancianco joined some classmates at an In-N-Out Burger. "And one of my friends, jokingly, with all love, was like, 'It's gonna be really hard for you, Arnel, because they don't write roles for Asians.'"

That comment may have pushed Sancianco out the window of his thespian dreams, but it opened a doorway to what has become a burgeoning career as a set designer. He finished his undergrad degree in the honors stage design program at UC-Irvine and then landed in Chicago, earning his MFA at Northwestern in 2017. This past year has been particularly notable, with his sets for Ike Holter's Lottery Day at the Goodman's Owen Theatre, The Total Bent with Haven Theatre at the Den, Photograph 51 at Court, and Something Clean (a coproduction of Sideshow and Rivendell) at Victory Gardens' Richard Christiansen Theatre all catching my eye and approval.

He's designing two big shows opening this fall: The Color Purple at Drury Lane (directed by his frequent collaborator Lili-Anne Brown) and a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House at Writers Theatre. But no matter the size of the space or budget, the question Sancianco asks at the start of every design process is "'What does the audience need to experience?' Because if the audience doesn't care, then why are they here?"

Sancianco's physical vocabulary evokes rich emotional timbres, often before we've heard a word of dialogue. For example, Selina Fillinger's Something Clean (clearly inspired by the Brock Turner case) anatomizes the broken world of a couple whose college-age son is in prison for raping a woman by a campus dumpster. In addition to figuring out how to fit a real dumpster on the small stage, Sancianco filled the rear wall with common household implements—a vacuum cleaner, a laundry basket—sliced in half and painted a sickly gray-white, suggesting a world bleached of wholeness and vibrancy.

For Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51, he designed bookending spiral staircases that framed the gloomy lab where Rosalind Franklin, who helped discover the double helix structure of human DNA, labored in the shadow of her male colleagues. Sancianco notes that he couldn't find many images of Franklin's actual lab, and he knew he'd also have to design a set that could accommodate projections of Franklin's groundbreaking title discovery. But he and director Vanessa Stalling also decided that Franklin's world should suggest a series of interior windows through which she was constantly being monitored by her peers. "We knew that this is a story about a marginalized person who is suddenly put into a position of power where every person around her is waiting for her to fail. I know exactly that feeling," says Sancianco.

Marginalization and boundaries also figured into Lottery Day, the final chapter in Holter's seven-play "Rightlynd Saga," set in Chicago's fictional 51st Ward. Sancianco created a facsimile of a new condo looming over the backyard of the gentrifying ward's matriarch. He also drew a map for the Goodman lobby display of the imaginary neighborhood.

As a transplant from San Diego, he's found his own imaginative road map through Chicago theater in venues large and small.

"New York is the face of theater, but Chicago's the soul," Sancianco says. "Chicago's where you get to the nitty-gritty and the painful and also the romantic and the beautiful."  v

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