Creating the magic: Theatre alum shares her experience as a Disney Imagineer

Tiffany Anguiano (‘16 M.F.A. Theatre with emphasis in scenic design) is a show set designer for the Walt Disney World Theme Parks in Orlando, Florida. Anguiano spoke with the College of Arts and Architecture about her experience at Penn State and how it prepared her for her magical career with Walt Disney Imagineering.

A&A- Where are you from originally?

TA- I grew up in South El Monte, California, a city within the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County. Moving to central Pennsylvania to attend Penn State was the biggest move I made away from home, aside from residing in Orange County for my undergraduate studies at University of California – Irvine.

A&A- Why did you choose Penn State and did the experience live up to your expectations?

TA- When I was considering the next phase in my educational career, in my final year of undergrad, I attended the URTA (University Resident Theatre Association) showcase in New York, which is an annual event where prospective M.F.A. candidates can exhibit their work and meet with faculty and recruiters from various theatre schools. As a prospective scenic design M.F.A. candidate, I had the opportunity to meet face-to-face and speak with future mentors. It wasn’t until I sat down with the faculty recruiters from Penn State that something just clicked.

After speaking with Dan Robinson, head of the design and production program, and Milagros Ponce de Leon, associate professor of scenic design, I knew I wanted them both as my next mentors. Being of Mexican heritage, I didn’t see much Latino/a representation within the scenic design industry, let alone a female Latina who has navigated a historically male-dominated field. I was so inspired and excited to have made that connection with Milagros, who is of Peruvian heritage, that I knew I really wanted to follow in her footsteps and be guided by her experiences. The freedom I was given by my instructors to explore my art and tackle new techniques far exceeded my expectations. It continuously fueled my ambition to challenge myself and take advantage of the time to hone my craft as a designer.

I also met my husband at Penn State, who was a third-year Scenic Design M.F.A. candidate when I was an incoming first year. Little did I know I’d be meeting my future husband, and that we’d continuously cross paths in our careers, sometimes even working on the same projects! I feel grateful I had great mentors and colleagues during my graduate studies at Penn State.

A&A- When did you start working for Disney and what is your title?

TA- I began my career with Walt Disney Imagineering in January 2018 after wrapping up my first project as a recent Penn State graduate with BRC Imagination Arts. BRC offered me an opportunity to step into the world of “Themed Entertainment” and learn how my theatrical set design skills could be applied to museums, brand centers and theme parks. Today I am grateful I am continuing my journey with Walt Disney Imagineering as a show set designer for attractions at the parks.

A&A- Can you offer an overview of the job?

TA- As my beloved mentor and manager at Imagineering, Andrew Sanchez, always says, “show set designers are the architects of the show.”

The main objective of a show set designer is to keep the integrity of the show intact. We want to ensure that whatever the space is – attraction, exhibit, you name it – upholds the reality of the story and the overall creative vision. What is so unique about a show set designer is that we have the opportunity to become the coordinators and integrators of the project.

Not only do we focus on the overall design and produce drawings of the scenery, but we also interface and collaborate with all the various disciplines, including creative directors, architects, ride engineers, lighting designers, audio/video designers, set decorators, special effects designers, production designers, mechanical engineers and project managers, to name a few! We take on the role of making sure all elements are located properly throughout the attractions, that there is proper access for maintenance purposes and, most importantly, that it’s all themed and hidden from the guests’ perspective so that it does not reveal the illusion.

We wear multiple hats as scenic designers depending on the project at hand, which is why I think theatre  artists excel in this industry as we have the foundation of working alongside a collective group of creative teams to produce incredible experiences. I feel really lucky I get to learn from all these subject matter experts on a daily basis, which helps me understand their process and in turn makes me a better collaborator and designer.

A&A- How did Penn State prepare you for your career?

TA- The mentors and faculty during my time at Penn State were instrumental in helping me build my confidence as a designer. Allowing space for students to follow their own paths and learn new techniques that may not have been traditionally on the curriculum really set this program apart.

For my final thesis project, I produced a stop-motion animation short, incorporating the process of designing for a traditional theatre setting. I also utilized this project to learn about other techniques and computer software applications that I wouldn’t have necessarily picked up had I not created the parameters of this project.

All my work was leading to this moment of realization that learning never stops. We must remain adaptable and willing to step up to new challenges. This philosophy has been one of the major ways Penn State prepared me for my career.

A&A- Would you choose Penn State again and why?

TA- I would definitely choose Penn State again. Regardless of how challenging it was to move away from home, I was grateful to have had the privilege to have such incredible mentors and peers. It was the right decision and I do not regret it one bit. Knowing what I know now, I probably would want to try to push myself even further to explore how theatre can be applied to multiple fields and career paths. I truly never thought I could apply my theatrical skills to work for theme parks and themed spaces. Had I really begun my time at Penn State with that career in mind, I may have adapted my projects and research to step out with a great portfolio piece.

A&A- If you could speak to the students in your field and relay a message that could help them to land a good job, what would that message be?

TA- Never stop being curious and don’t be afraid to ask ALL the questions. Look for those opportunities to get hands-on experience, whether it be through internships, part-time jobs or even starting to explore your art and designs at home, any way to get you creating, practicing and learning.

Because we tend to wear multiple hats as scenic designers, your willingness to try out different roles and responsibilities is really important. You may not realize it, but sometimes it could lead to opening new doors and career paths you may have not considered, as well as growing your network of colleagues. Having great communication skills and being a great collaborator is essential in this field. Do not let yourself be discouraged and stay committed to always finding ways to improve yourself.

And most importantly, don’t forget to lift others along with you, always share your knowledge and be a mentor to others. Only then will we all be able to reach our highest potential.

A&A- What is next for you?

TA- I honestly feel like my career is just beginning. I never imagined my theatre background would land me a job with Imagineering. I hope to continue this journey in themed entertainment, continuing to grow as a collaborator and storyteller, dedicated to creating impactful experiences for guests around the globe.

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