August 2022 - COVER STORY - Montana Levi Blanco
In a search for finding New Mexico costume designers for a friend, I came across Montano Levi Blanco. A recent Tony Award winner for costume design for the musical, Skin of Our Teeth, Blanco has a strong love for New Mexico. Raised by a single mother and grandmother, both women sparked his interest in the arts. This graduate of Highland High School reminisced about his time growing up in Duke City. "My grandmother had a lampshade business, Shady Lady Lamps, for 50 years - making lampshades and working with her hands. She would babysit me, and I grew up playing with fabric and beads. A lot of the materials that I work with now," shared Blanco. "My mom is an avid lover of music and performance. She's always taking me to everything that would come through Popejoy - things on tour like Alvin Ailey. Eventually, I would play the oboe for many years in the Albuquerque Youth Symphony. The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra was also a big part of my growing up in New Mexico in terms of my art."
That experience naturally led him to continue his love for design, creating costumes for off-Broadway productions and enjoying every moment. Blanco never ceases to feel excitement when his work appears on a stage. "Skin of our Teeth was my Broadway debut," shared Blanco. "But the day after that, Strange Loop opened, which won Musical of the Year. I designed that as well, so I consider both of those shows my debut. For seven years, I've been working Off-Broadway, so I guess I can say, to answer your question, it's great to see something come to fruition that starts in conversation and research - kind of like storytelling - and develops the storytelling with the director. It's a special moment to see a very intangible craft manifest into something physical."
When it came to his recent Tony win and stepping on stage to accept his award, the two women that taught him so much came to mind. "I was honored for my family, to be honest. I was thankful that my mother and grandmother are still with us to see that moment," expressed Blanco. "I was also proud of the work that I had put forward. But, you know, the theater is such a collaborative art. So, my work is a partnership with the set designer, lighting designer, director, and, of course, all the performers. So I was grateful that "Skin of our Teeth" was honored. But I'm grateful that I could celebrate that with my collaborators."
Collaboration is key to seeing a piece of work come to life. Blanco is happy that while it takes a team to develop a vision on stage, he gets the space to have some inspiration in creating his designs. "I think there's a lot of inspiration along the journey of doing a project. But, I think I'm primarily in love with the research," confessed Blanco. "I would say that even if we're doing a piece that is fantasy or heightened-reality, there is usually always the inspiration, whether it's the look or a specific clothing item, most comes from real historical research. I love diving in and delving into the history of a particular period. Or the history of a particular type of clothing item. I find that when you have research like that, whatever comes after that, all the steps that come after are further grounded."
While building his career, Blanco understands how important his journey can inspire others. When asking him what advice he would give inspiring artists, he encouraged others to open their minds to opportunities. "I think when we think of theater, or movies, we think about the actors and the directors. I want to be more of an advocate for what happens backstage. There are a lot of roles and room for all types of imagination. You have people who work in theater, TV, and film and with a love of storytelling. But with that, we all have our different interests. I think of people who are masters at lighting or scenery, some in engineering. Then costume design is an interest in humans and psychology, developing characters. I came to the theater quite late - well, no. I don't think there's any time that's too late! But I didn't necessarily grow up doing theater in middle or high school. I found the theater at 27 after I pursued many other career paths. So that's the advice that I can put forward. Whatever your path or career you choose, we have to give - we have to allow life to happen. Then we find patience - this is also part of that journey."
When it comes to his future, Blanco plans to continue his successful design career. But he has been granted an opportunity he is very excited about. "Next season, I am doing some off-Broadway, but the thing that I'm excited about this upcoming season is doing an opera at the Metropolitan Opera, which will be my debut at The Met," shared Blanco. "It's an opera called "Champion" written by Terence Blanchard. He has many titles, but he is known for his Jazz compositions. I'm excited to do Opera in a lot of ways. Opera is the pinnacle of the form for theater designers because of the scale. There's a chorus of maybe 42 people. So you get to create something at a scale I've never worked on before. I remember growing up in New Mexico and watching PBS Masterclass at Lincoln Center with my grandmother. So, to find myself working there and being one of the participants in making and telling these stories is special to me."
Author: Teresa Robinson, Publisher / Editor-in-Chief