Pride Month: Q&A with Shen Heckel
By Bridgette Ramirez
June 24, 2021
Shen Heckel is an LA-based theatre director and jack of all trades who has worked with us on our stage as a performer in Noise Now’s TranSister Radio and the props master in Gem of the Ocean. Discover his ongoing work and how he got to where he is now.
How did you get started on your artistic journey?
To be honest, it was a little bit of an epiphany. I had always been in theater as a kid and growing up, but when I was getting ready for college I had it in my head that I had to choose a field that would make money. I applied for a bunch of nursing programs. It was at UC Riverside’s summertime welcome meeting, and it had all the people that were applying for biology or nursing, and they were saying: “Shoot for the moon! Cure cancer!” I’m thinking, “I’m relating to the touching lives, healing lives thing, but I am not as excited about the medical field as everyone around me is.”
When I went out of that meeting, they had extracurriculars, and I went up to the theater booth. The guy I talked to was like, “If you are passionate about theater, you should be doing theater.” So, I did theater. I went to community college, because I had pivoted my major, and I’d already done the applications and did theater there. Then I got into UCLA for Theatre, Film, and Television. So since then, I’ve been an independent freelancer on predominately theater but a little bit of film content as well.
What sort of film projects have you done?
I am just starting to dabble in it. I am hopefully going to investigate how to get into the Properties and Set-Dressing union. But I have a friend that is in the art deck field, and so he has brought me on for a couple of productions. Mostly music videos. I did work on “Me” by Taylor Swift, and Ed Sheeran’s and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care.” I was a prop runner, set dresser, really wherever they could fit me in, because the field of film is a little different than theater. The language is a little different, the pace is a little different, but it still has the same addiction. It’s almost like you are in tech week the whole time you are on set. You hurry up and then you wait, you hurry up and then you wait, you hurry up and wait. And then it is all done.
How did you get to where you are now? Particularly in theater?
Honestly, I am not even really sure. The first couple of years of college were very hard. Trying to put my name out there, trying to get in on productions. But slowly over the years… I don’t remember the last time I submitted a resume, because it was just like “Oh you worked on this show, come work on this show,” or someone else suggested my name, or I get an email from a theater that saw a theater production I did. So, I get a lot of jobs by word of mouth rather than applying. Covid might be a little different because all the theaters closed, so I need to remind them of who I am.
What challenges would you say you faced on the way?
I think like any artist, juggling following your passion and making ends meet was the biggest struggle. I like coining the phrase Freshman Year of Life because you really don’t know which way is up after college and it is really hard to get your finances figured out. You know, keep your head above water and if you don’t have a steady income because you’re an artist what does that mean, what does that look like, how do you save. So, like any artist, I went through all that.
How did you find and end up at ANW?
I got reached out to be a part of TranSister Radio, where transgender artists were doing the choir and they had some monologues and things like that. So that’s how I made my first connection at ANW. I really enjoyed that event. I did a spoken word/monologue/TED talk. I had literally written it that day. I mean, I had thought about it and I knew what I wanted to say. I wrapped it into my props background, and I had different props that I talked about that related to transgender identity.
After that, of course, I applied for the prop designer of Gem of the Ocean, and I absolutely loved that show. I loved just being able to walk into ANW, work in the shop, and get to know the staff. It was a very good experience. I hope to be back again. Predominantly in the theater world, I’d consider myself a director-writer-producer. Those are the fields that I predominately am in, those are my goals. I hope to someday be maybe an artistic director or producing executive.
But I guess my make ends meet side job is Prop Master work. I do a lot of prop design, set dressing, I’ve been a co-set designer a few times, along with other design backgrounds.
How would you say your personal identity, culture, and history influence your work? Both in an LBGTQ lens or another lens you want to talk about.
Overall, in these interviews it’s very interesting to me because to be quite honest, I never lead with any of my identities. I am a transgender man. I am predominately Mexican with a Mayan background. I did the 23 and Me, and I’m 60% Native American and I never knew. Those are features about me, but I never lead with it. My art is from my lived experience and my life around me and my friends and family, other experiences are more important. Whatever the play or film I’m going into, I try to relate to the story that has been written from my lived experience.
But that being said, I have dabbled in a few artistic endeavors that do, well, call to a part of my visual identity. I worked with CASA 0101 on Brown and Out, actually. I got to celebrate my cross-section of being Latinx and LGBT. It was an interesting experience. Again, I don’t predominately lead with that, and so it was something I was doing to go above and beyond and go outside my comfort zone and be supportive and within the community.
Out of all your accomplishments in the arts, what are you most proud of?
That’s a hard one, that’s a really hard one! I would have to say my work with After Hours. I’m the unofficial managing director/one of the producers and production manager. After Hours is a fun vehicle to do the new immersive work that no one has really seen or heard of. We did a completely immersive new tactile interpretation of Cuckoo’s Nest. I was the producer on that, and I did the props too. That was a lot of fun because it was very detailed work, and it’s very new. Everything had to be so detailed, and it was so energetic. Also, with After Hours, we’ve done a couple marketing activations, and those are a whole new branch of theater which I absolutely love. I was the director of the actors for an HBO launch party of Warrior. That was fun! I got to direct for HBO in a roundabout way. I mean it was just an activation party but still, it was amazing.
Who would you say is your favorite LGBTQ+ author/playwright/artist? What is your favorite work of theirs?
That’s a hard one, I really can’t think specifically. I don’t know why but my brain went to Dorian Gray. I went classical. Like that Picture of Dorian Gray.
Because I don’t seek it out, I don’t really have like “Oh yeah, this person is who I idolize.” It’s more like, if I find out that they act and are LGBT, it’s like: “Oh great, it’s an amazing bonus. Now I understand why this scene has a double meaning.” That is how I have approached it in the past.
Anything else you want to share?
One thing I left off, it might be interesting, but I didn’t want to classify this as a struggle. Something fascinating about my journey is that my artistic journey has been the past 10 years since I graduated in 2011 from UCLA. But I have only been transitioned for 6 years this summer, so I’ve had to navigate the theater realm where it is so important to put your name and your image out there. And that was not a struggle but an interesting part of my artistic journey. For the first 4-5 years I was very, “This is my name” and “I am going to correct pronouns sometimes, but not all the time because it doesn’t matter.” I was again navigating how to be myself in the artistic world. Yes, there was a time where people got confused or didn’t know who they were talking about. I don’t find that as a struggle or a negative if it is just part of who I am and what I went through. Now I don’t even remember the last time I was misgendered or anything like that.