UI senior Brillian Qi-Bell awarded backstage theater scholarship

Brillian Qi-Bell, University of Iowa Senior majoring in theater arts and specializing in stage management will receive 4,000 dollars and participate in three different seminars with Renard Richard and other awardees.

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Qi-Bell works on Hit the Wall. Photo by UI Theater Department and the University of Iowa.

Mary Hartel, News Reporter


When Brillian Qi-Bell received an email about the inaugural Cody Renard Richard Scholarship program, she said she realized it was something that she needed her entire life.

The inaugural program centers diversity and is meant to encourage more people of color involved with theatrical management and artistic fields, according to its website.

“It checked all of the boxes for things that I wanted,” Qi-Bell said. “Representation backstage is very important to me.”

When she found out she received the scholarship, Qi-Bell, who is a University of Iowa senior majoring in theater arts with a focus in stage management, said it did not feel real. Of the 15 awardees, Qi-Bell said she noticed she was the only person from the Midwest.

“I’ve really wanted a mentor that looked like me, that knew what I was going through and could help me feel empowered in the space,” she said. “So, I definitely wanted to apply.”

The scholarship comes with $4,000 and three seminars where the awardees meet as a group with Richard, a Broadway stage manager who was the assistant stage manager for Hamilton. The seminars will focus on different topics and receive opportunities for mentorship and outreach.

“Personally, I have never met an Asian stage manager and I think I met one stage manager of color,” Qi-Bell said. “So, this is just very revolutionary for me.”

Qi-Bell said she was introduced to the theater during a sixth-grade drama course and found an instant connection to it.

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“I remember taking it and being like, ‘I really love this, but I don’t ever want to act’,” Qi-Bell said. “I love the theater, I just hate acting.”

When Qi-Bell, who went to high school in West Des Moines, learned about stage management after talking with another drama teacher, she said she has been doing it ever since.

“I love the lights, costume, sound, all of the technical aspects–I think they’re so cool,” Qi-Bell said. “And as a stage manager, you’re kind of just gathering all that information and you’re helping them accomplish their dreams and using your skillset.”

She started working on shows as soon as she came to the UI. She said her favorite show was last year’s performance Hit The Wall, because it represented people of color and LGBTQ people on stage.

Qi-Bell said she thinks diversity in theater matters a lot because she doesn’t like the concept of someone else telling her story. If she sees a show and can tell that the actor has not lived through the character’s experience, the show isn’t on the same level, she added.

Diversity backstage matters a lot because the people backstage are the ones who are making some of the artistic choices, Qi-Bell said.

“If you have an all-white team making a show about people of color, it just, they’re not really going to be able to connect as much with the audience that is people of color,” Qi-Bell said.

Microaggressions to people backstage also negatively impact peoples’ experience, Qi-Bell added.

“I don’t think anyone intentionally tries to have microaggressions toward me, but I feel like they expect me to be the submissive Asian stereotype: quiet, you’re never supposed to speak, you’re just very, very shy,” Qi-Bell said. “And I feel like I’m trying extra hard to fight against that stereotype.”

She said she hopes her work in theater will be powerful and important.

“I want to do work that makes what I’m doing matters to someone,” Qi-Bell said.

UI Lecturer of Stage Management in the Department of Theatre Arts Melissa Turner said she was thrilled when she found out Qi-Bell received the scholarship.

“She’s a great candidate, she’s very deserving of this,” Turner said. “She’s been an excellent student here for the past four years. And she’s very passionate about stage management.”

For a while now there has been a push for diversity on stage, Turner said, and there is just starting to be a discovery of the lack of diversity backstage at times.

“It’s important that there’s diversity from every part of the storytelling,” Turner said. “Not just those that you see on the stage.”

Erica Barnes, a recent UI graduate of the MFA in Directing program, said Qi-Bell was the stage manager for many of her shows, and also became a great friend.

Barnes said hearing about the scholarship was exciting, but it did not come as a surprise to her because of Qi-Bell’s high caliber on-stage and off.

“A scholarship like this not only provides visibility for the larger community who don’t always know that there are a huge team of people making the show possible,” she said. “But also [shows] how important it is to not just have white faces everywhere, having people on the team who reflect different perspectives.”

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