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Outstanding Undergraduates in Theatre: Design

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Outstanding Undergraduates in Theatre: Video and Light Design

An interview with Senior Joseph Spinogatti by Clara Wilch

As we end the semester, the Theatre Arts Department wanted to focus in on the work of some outstanding members of the Senior Class. Joseph Spinogatt​i​ has been recognized for his work in the area of theatre design and technical work; He shared with us some of his favorite and formative experiences at Pitt, goals for the future, and some insights for incoming students about how to make the most of an education at the University of Pittsburgh.

What drew you to theatre, and design and technical work specifically?

One of my earliest memories of going to see a show was seeing The Lion King on tour in Pittsburgh. I’m not sure what age I was, but something about that show (read: everything about that show) left a mark on my young, impressionable mind. I feel like from that point on, whether I knew it or not, I was hooked. Additionally, I’ve always had some sort of ingrained passion to tell and retell stories - a desire which theatre satiates quite well.

In terms of picking a specific focus, I tried the performance part early on - and while fun - quickly discovered that it probably wasn’t my thing. I’m also one of those people who can’t draw a straight line with a ruler; but when I discovered that I was able to paint with light, I quickly found my home. My interest in Video Design also grew out of that original love for lighting. I’ve also always been the token ‘computer person’ in my family- in fact, my second degree is in Information Science - so the tech aspect of both Lighting and Video Design came extremely naturally and fluidly. As a designer, one of my favorite parts of my job is sitting in the back of the house and watching the audience during those moments when everything just clicks - the performer hits their mark perfectly, the light cue lands in exactly the right place, and the music hits all at the same time - I love the reaction, however small.

What attracted you to Pitt, and how have your experiences here guided the growth of your interests? Any formative professors or classes that helped you zone in on your interests? 

To be completely honest, I’m not exactly sure what attracted me to Pitt - I think it may just have been a “being from Pittsburgh” thing. My experiences here, however have definitely guided and influenced my growth and my interests as a designer and artist. At the beginning, I didn't come into Pitt with theatre in mind; I kind of fell into the department by chance and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The entire Theatre Department at the University of Pittsburgh has been like a family to me over the past four years - whether it be career advice or life advice, I can go to them for anything. Annmarie Duggan taught me to never take no for an answer and has been the driving force behind both me and the Theatre Department as a whole; she’ll throw you in the deep-end but will always make sure you swim. Much like Annmarie will throw you in the deep end, I feel like it’s been the other way for me and Gianni Downs; as one of the first students in the department with a true interest in Video Design, Gianni has jumped whole-heartedly at the challenge of becoming a mentor and professor in another design discipline - with a smile on his face the entire time. Cindy Croot has also been another wonderful collaborative mentor, opening my eyes to devising and other strongly collaborative forms of theatre. Last, but certainly not least, Michelle Granshaw has been a solid and steadfast supporter through my work to push my design work into theatrical scholarship. 

Echoing Lauryn Morgan Thomas’ sentiment (read her interview here), the professors of the theatre department have been ardent supporters of my work (and the work of every other student), both inside and outside of the department and I would not have been as successful without them.

Have you received any professional opportunities, internships, awards, grants or other distinctions we can recognize?

Within the University of Pittsburgh, I am a recipient of the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship (Fall 2014 - UHC), the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship (Fall 2015 - UHC),  a research grant (Fall 2014 - OUR), and was a member of the London Undergraduate Field Studies Program (Summer 2015 - OUR). I am also a candidate for a Bachelor of Philosophy Degree in Theatre Arts, a degree jointly awarded between the Department of Theatre Arts and the University Honors College.

In March of 2016, I had the opportunity to work on the Broadway Premiere of American Psycho (click here for moreunder Tony Award-Winning Video Designer Finn Ross. Over the summer of 2016, I traveled to Seattle, Washington to work on the Boeing Founder’s Day Centennial Projection Spectacular (see video of the event here). Most recently, I was notified that I was the student winner of the Lux Festival, developed by Internationally-renowned Lighting and Video Designer Tupac Martir, and will be traveling to Cartagena, Columbia in 2018 to projection map the Iglesia de Santo Domingo (Church of Santo Domingo).

Can you describe a favorite show or production experience? Any thoughts of the significance of new theatre work in society, or your aims as a theatre artist? What are your plans and dreams beyond Pitt?

Even though I’ve really been focusing on Video Design of late, if I had to pick a favorite production experience, I would probably have to chose lighting A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe entire cast, crew, and production team came together to put on a phenomenal show and I was simply able to paint.

I’m still trying to figure out and begin to shape my life post-Pitt. Currently the plan is to either go straight to graduate school to pursue an MFA in Video Design or to simply go out into the ‘real world’ and continue my career as a freelance Video and Lighting Designer. Whatever happens at the end of the day, my only goal is to continue to tell stories.

Any words of wisdom for incoming students?

I’m not sure when or how I came across it, but I am consistently inspired by Steve Jobs' 2005 Commencement Speech at Stanford. I continually come back to it and it consistently rings true. Towards the end of the speech, Jobs says,

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”