While some theater graduate programs require students to focus on one specialty, the University of Iowa allowed Alastair Sigala Ramirez to pursue both of his passions.
Emily Nelson
Justin Torner

Alastair Sigala Ramirez couldn’t choose between lighting and costume design when looking at graduate schools.

“A lot of grad programs for theater want you to focus on one thing, and that’s not me,” Sigala Ramirez says. “I get bored just doing one thing. I like variety. I’m a Gemini, so I’m indecisive.”

Fortunately, he didn’t have to choose.

As he enters his third year working toward an MFA focused on lighting and costume design, Sigala Ramirez says the University of Iowa was a perfect fit.

Latinx Heritage Month

Alastair Sigala Ramirez hopes a few things occur during Latinx Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15).

“One, learning and connecting with a culture that you may not be familiar with, even if you are Latinx, because there are multiple cultures within that term,” Sigala Ramirez says. “And also, just exposing yourself to the history behind it and the individuals who have come before us that put us where we are and have contributed to our world.”

Growing up in Amarillo, Texas, Sigala Ramirez loved looking at fashion magazines and designing clothes with his sister and cousin. He got into acting in middle school and was involved in theater throughout high school. His high school director alerted him to scholarships at Amarillo College, where he got his associate’s degree in theater.

“That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Sigala Ramirez says. “I am such an advocate for community college, especially in the theater scene. I started off in acting, but I experimented with everything I could: lighting, costumes, sound, scenery, props. They let us explore, which was just what I needed.”

After getting a BA from Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, Sigala Ramirez went to work for Lyric Stage in Dallas, where he gained further experience in a variety of theater roles.

As Sigala Ramirez began applying to graduate schools, a friend from Texas Wesleyan University reached out to suggest that he look at the University of Iowa’s Department of Theatre Arts. He arrived in Iowa City in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While COVID significantly affected the performing arts, Sigala Ramirez says there was a bit of an unexpected silver lining.

“Everything was being filmed, which led to a whole new method of how I had to do things,” Sigala Ramirez says. “Lightingwise, I had to think about how colors would be perceived on camera rather than on the stage. It was the same with costumes; certain textures that I would use on stage would look horrible on camera. It was a nice experience to get because I wouldn’t mind working in television in the future.”

Along with designing shows for filming, Sigala Ramirez says he has been grateful for research opportunities to try technology and equipment that he might not have had access to at other universities, such as Clip Studio Paint for costume rendering and Disguise (d3), media server software that allows a designer to visualize choices and communicate design elements before spending time and money on the actual elements for the stage.

“These experiences have prepared me better for the future,” Sigala Ramirez says.

Alasatir Ramirez

“I will admit that I prejudged it a bit before moving here. Seeing some of the political stuff out of Iowa and looking at the demographics, I was a little bit worried because I am a Latino gay man. But coming here and seeing how enamored the city is with the arts, especially during the summer, when there are numerous festivals like Arts Fest and Jazz Fest, was amazing. The community engagement really blew me away.”

Alastair Sigala Ramirez
third-year University of Iowa student working toward an MFA focused on lighting and costume design
Folk costumes meet haute couture

Alastair Sigala Ramirez says it’s difficult to pick which show during the 2022-23 academic year he is most looking forward to working on, but he is excited to be designing costumes for November’s The Bacchae: A Tragedy in One Act, directed by Sarah Gazdowicz.

“There’s two separate worlds with this costume design, where you have the world that is Dionysus and the Bacchae, which is inspired by traditional folk Polish costuming and traditional folk Ecuadorian mixed with European rave,” Sigala Ramirez says. “And then you have the world of Pentheus, which is very much like Thierry Mugler and Alexander McQueen, so sharp angles and haute couture. It’s a genre that I haven’t been able to play with before, and Alexander McQueen is one of my favorite designers of all time, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

New play production, a hallmark of Iowa’s Department of Theatre Arts, also was new to Sigala Ramirez.

“Before coming here, I’d always done shows that have been done before,” he says. “Putting up a new show and workshopping it was definitely a new experience. It’s very cool seeing how the script changes once you start seeing it onstage. I worked with (graduate playwright and director) Jarek Pastor last year and it was great collaborating with them. It was nice having that back-and-forth conversation of hearing what they want and what I can do.”

Sigala Ramirez says he appreciates the flexibility he has been given to focus on two disciplines, as well as having the chance to flex his skills in areas he hasn’t worked in before.

“I mentioned some things that I felt I needed to grow better in, and that definitely influenced my show assignments this year,” Sigala Ramirez says. “For costumes, I said I wanted to do something that was a little more avant-garde or out there because I’ve done a lot of modern shows and 20th century shows. And I get to do that this year. And then for lighting, I had never done a musical and I thought that would be really helpful for me to do before I get out in the real world. And I got the musical.”

Bryon Winn, professor and director of theatre, says Sigala Ramirez has proved to be a wonderful collaborator since his arrival in fall 2020.

“Every director truly cherishes him as a collaborator and artist,” Winn says. “He is known for bringing some of the most striking visual research to every project. His artistic instincts are specific and well-grounded in the storytelling of every production. He is able to work as an artist in a multitude of medium, from the tactile fabric in costume design to the ephemeral medium of light. He often integrates these two forms and is currently working on a project where he weaves lighting into the physical costume. He is a consummate artist and his work enhances and elevates that of his collaborators.”

Winn says Sigala Ramirez also has become a supportive mentor to many of the undergraduate students in the Department of Theatre Arts as a teaching assistant and through his production work.

Training the next generation of theater designers

The University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts’ MFA program in design serves students of imagination who aspire to be artistic visionaries of the future, adept in techniques and methods for creating new works. Whatever a student’s background—theater, art, architecture, fashion, or other fields—the program aims to develop artists who will work as professional designers for the performing arts.

Sigala Ramirez urges students to have fun with their work, but to not forget to take care of themselves.

“Something I’ve struggled with in the past is getting lost in my work and putting too much focus on that and not putting in the time to take care of myself and making sure that I’m OK,” Sigala Ramirez says.

As graduation nears and he thinks about moving somewhere on the East Coast, Sigala Ramirez says he won’t forget Iowa City.

“I will admit that I prejudged it a bit before moving here,” Sigala Ramirez says. “Seeing some of the political stuff out of Iowa and looking at the demographics, I was a little bit worried because I am a Latino gay man. But coming here and seeing how enamored the city is with the arts, especially during the summer, when there are numerous festivals like Arts Fest and Jazz Fest, was amazing. The community engagement really blew me away.”

While Sigala Ramirez can see himself working in TV, concerts, or even media design in the future, theater will always be his first love.

“It can stress me out, and sometimes I think, ‘Should I still be doing this or should I just get a 9-to-5 job?’” Sigala Ramirez says. “But I can’t see myself doing anything else.”