UMass Boston performing arts professor gives students top priority


By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor

Rafael Jaen
Photo/UMass Boston and Firestarter Interactive

Boston – Whether serving as chair of UMass Boston’s performing arts department or freelancing as a practicing costume designer, Rafael Jaen gives top priority to training his students. He also appreciates interacting with them as an associate professor of theater.

“Luckily, as department chairs, we still get to teach,” he explained. “I would never want to lose touch with the students in the classroom. They’re the real stakeholders of this venture.”

Soon after graduating from New York University with a BFA in technical design in 1985, Jaen relocated to Boston in pursuit of work. He designed bridal gowns before freelancing as a costume and technical designer at regional theaters.

Hired by Emerson College in 1990, Jaen began working a 23-year stint in various capacities including resident costume designer, costume department supervisor and design-tech teacher.

“At first, I thought I would be a freelancer forever,” he acknowledged. “But then I realized that I love teaching.”

While working at Emerson, he concurrently studied there and earned a master’s degree in theater education in 2002. He based his decision to study at Emerson on the faculty’s inclusive teaching approach.

“They were talking about diversity in the classroom, which was a new term for me and it resonated,” shared Jaen, a native of Venezuela. “I wanted to study with people who have the pulse of the community. Emerson really prepared me for the role I have now at UMass Boston.”

Another lesson that Emerson faculty taught him was the importance to practice what he teaches.

“The Emerson faculty were all theater practitioners,” he recalled. “It was the beginning of my understanding that it’s not only about the teaching approach in class, but also the active participation in the community’s small theaters. I need to be a practitioner of my art in order to be a better teacher.”

Among regional theaters where he has worked are Beau Jest Moving Theatre, Charlestown Working Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company and Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Film and television credits include Disney’s “The Game Plan,” and two episodes of the PBS-TV series “God in America.”

Jaen started working at UMass Boston in 2013 as the performing arts department’s resident costume designer and assistant professor of costume design. Throughout a four-year period, he accepted additional responsibilities and ultimately became the performing arts department chair in 2018.

While working toward his current position, he received 2013’s Kennedy Center Golden Medallion for Excellence in Theatre Education, 2016’s Lifetime Achievement in the Arts by Salem University’s Center for Creative and Performing Arts, and 2017’s Manning Prize for Excellence in Teaching from UMass.

Rafael Jaen with his “Digital Costume Design and Collaboration” book cover

“I need to keep making my art,” Jaen noted. “It could be via designing or writing a book.”

He has published four books: “Developing and Maintaining a Design-Tech Portfolio,” 2006; “Showcase,” 2012; “Digital Costume Design and Collaboration,” 2017; and “Theatre Artisans and Their Craft” co-edited with Holly Durbin and Christin Essin, 2019.

Jaen designed costumes for Boston Midsummer Opera’s “La Cenerentola” presented in July 2019 at Watertown’s Mosesian Center for the Arts. Some of his students participated as apprentices.

“I’m always trying to find opportunities for students to be involved in a professional setting,” he said. “That’s how they get their foot in the door.”

Earlier this year, he was selected as the featured faculty designer at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (Region One), held at Cape Cod venues. According to its website, “For over 50 years, the organization has served as a catalyst in improving the quality of college theater in the United States.”

Rafael Jaen at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (Region One), held Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 at Cape Cod venues

“I feel strong when I find myself in a place like UMass where there’s so many possibilities working with people in Boston,” Jaen noted. “What a great opportunity to chair a department where you can educate the higher-ups about why the arts are so relevant!”

Jaen is impressed how effectively UMass Boston’s performing arts faculty and students have adapted to learning remotely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I stay hopeful because artists have always been able to survive and reinvent ourselves,” he said. “I cry myself to sleep some nights because I’m so moved how artists can sublimate the most difficult circumstances into some form of expressing art.”

Wearing costumes designed by Rafael Jaen in Boston Midsummer Opera’s 2019 production of “La Cenerentola” are (l to r) Megan Roth, Ryan Cherry and Chelsea Baker.
Photo/Boston Midsummer Opera

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