Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview with Lighting Designer Maria Shaplin


Maria Shaplin, 2019 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

Lighting designer Maria Shaplin (2019) spoke to us about the works that shaped her approach to her own practice, what makes Philadelphia’s artistic community distinctive, and how her theater background comes in handy with a new baby.

Shaplin creates immersive theatrical worlds through an experimental and deeply collaborative design process. In addition to her Pew Fellowship, she won a 2018 Barrymore Award for Outstanding Lighting Design for her work on Indecent at Arden Theatre Company, and she was awarded an Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts in 2015. Recent work includes lighting design on inFLUX Theatre Collective’s The Choice, which ran as part of this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and InterAct Theatre Company’s The Chinese Lady, running October 29 to November 21.

Maria Shaplin Q&A Block 1

Maria Shaplin Q&A Block 2

What’s your biggest fear as an artist?

My biggest fear is being isolated from my community and collaborators and rattling around in my own brain a bit too much. I think I could spin out in unproductive directions if I didn’t have some amazing artist friends with whom I can process. Our society, culture, and politics are way too complicated to understand on your own with your own thoughts. I need my people and my community to make sense of things.


What images or things keep you company in the space where you work?

In my home office, I need natural light, walls arranged with art posters, and a desk containing a few whimsical tchotchkes. I rotate pictures and ephemera in and out of a large wall collage that surrounds my desk. My favorite colors are green and electric peach, so those colors are always present in my eye line. The desktop of my computer is a photo of some beautiful sea slugs. Looking at the beautiful and powerful images that I’ve assembled resets my brain and can help remind me of my aesthetic principals and get me through a brain fog.



Sea slugs (Ceratosoma amoena). Photo by Iain Anderson.


What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work? 

There are so many books, TV shows, toys, and art that mattered so very much to me as a child. Being a new parent and being re-immersed in the world of cartoons and kids’ books, I’m realizing what a large impact these mediums had on my visual sensibility and love of storytelling.

If I skip forward in time to adulthood, a piece of art that really revved my motor was 14 Stations by Robert Wilson. I’m a major fan of installation art—artists like Joseph Beuys, Ai Weiwei, Ann Hamilton—but with Wilson, when I saw 14 Stations at MASS MoCA, I didn’t know that he was also a theater artist. When I learned about his work in theater, the possibilities of that medium really opened up for me. Each tableau is brilliant.

I also saw a show early in my theater career that was a game-changer: White Cabin by a Russian company, AKHE Theater. It was the most dynamic and inventive work I’d ever seen—clown and dance. It was a symphony of objects and shifting composition, tragic and ecstatic, an emotional rollercoaster.


Maria Shaplin Q&A Block 3

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