Never Stop Learning

by Michael Eddy
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Stage Directions recently spoke with David Grindle, Executive Director of USITT on lifelong learning and the benefits of attending the USITT Conference and Stage Expo. This year’s conference will take place in Fort Lauderdale, FL from March 14-17.

Stage Directions: There’s a lot of exciting new things happening at USITT this year. 
David Grindle: There really are, you know every year we go to a different city and the benefit of that is we get to take advantage of things you can only do in that town. Being in South Florida this year one of the things we’re able to take advantage of is the weather, so we can actually have events outside. In fact, we’ve got a great session of people who work at outdoor theatres, talking about how they have to deal with different materials, or test materials in a different way. Also, I’m really grateful to our partners at Stageline, who are giving us the outdoor stage. We have even turned that into a talk about how you set one of those stages up. We’re trying to turn everything into a training experience if we can. 

Besides the weather, we also get to take advantage of the fact that the Ft. Lauderdale Convention Center shares a parking deck with the cruise port. Almost every day we are offering the opportunity to tour the entertainment facilities on a different cruise ship while it’s in dock. People will be able to tour the facilities in some of the largest ships on the water today. Our partners at Princess, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival, are all working to take as many people as they can, through their facilities.

Another thing I’m really excited about, is that over the many years we’ve had different labs at the Stage Expo where you get your hands dirty. This year we’ve partnered with Jay Duckworth and we have the Prop Lab. It is right on the Expo floor. People can get in there, learn how to make some things. And whether you’re a prop person or not, it’s a great opportunity to try something, learn something, and appreciate the skills that go into it. 

Something that hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage, but I think is really important is that H&H Specialties is helping us by sponsoring hearing screenings. I happen to have deafness in one ear from a medical situation, but for our theatre community I’m really concerned about hearing. Through the support of H&H, we have partnered with the audiology department at Nova Southeastern University. Any conference attendee can sign up ahead of time for a free hearing screening at the show by going to the conference website.

USITT really is about the idea that you never stop learning, talk a little bit about the range of attendees and some of the presentations.
Our attendee range continues to be from a 17-year-old to right now the oldest attendee that’s scheduled to be there is 85. The interesting thing is the 85-year-old has lots to teach the 17-year-old. The 17-year-old has things to teach the 85-year-old. That’s how we advance one another through our learning and collaborating. 

The thing that I’m constantly pushing with USITT is about lifelong learning. It’s never too late to learn or refine a skill. When people say ‘you’re all about students’, I say, ‘Yes, we are. When did you quit learning?’ That’s the thing I love about theatre; no two days are ever really the same. Every day you’re learning something       new; you’re trying something new. It’s a very custom-made product; that’s what we do. If you take a theatre person to a hardware store they’ll show you a thousand different uses for a product that were never intended to be used in that way. 

The thing that’s exciting about our gathering, I love that everyone comes together and everyone’s there to share ideas. You go to other tradeshows and the air of competition can almost be cut. Here, it’s not that we don’t have competitive businesses. We certainly do. It’s not that theatres don’t compete with each other; but here it’s the idea of learning from one another and connecting with people to figure out how we’re going to do the next crazy idea that somebody brings forward.

So no matter where you are in your career or studies, our sessions are looking at things from the very basic level of something all the way to sessions that I can barely pronounce, much less understand. The door is open to get advanced learning on something you want to advance in and basic learning on something that you think, ‘boy, it would be really cool if I knew a little bit more about that’. I’m really excited that the level of our speakers has become so varied so that there’s something for everyone, even those who have been in the industry a long time. 

You have multiple sessions that are so timely with diversity, sustainability, inclusion, culture in shops and backstage. Talk about the relevance of USITT to the larger conversations that are going on currently in the theatre industry.
Well, I think the Institute wants to be a place where we can have a respectful conversation about the challenges we face. I’ll never claim to be the organization that has it all figured out, because we don’t, but we want to work to try to figure it out and try to be better than we were yesterday. And the Institute needs to be a place where you can come and have that conversation. We try to be more timely and responsive. I believe the Institute has changed to the point where we will be timely and have the conversation without rushing it.

Our Cultural Appropriations session on Saturday afternoon with Dr. Adrienne Keene has stemmed out of about a year-and-a-half of planning and making sure, not just that we’re having a conversation, but we find the right person to have the conversation. The Institute has many incredible members with information to share, but we also need to make sure that we’re going outside so that we’re all getting the opportunity to learn. Dr. Keene comes from a theatre background. She understands some of the challenges that we’re facing to begin with. 

Talk a little about alternative career paths; USITT is not just about traditional theatre jobs.
That’s one of the things that we have to embrace. If you’re going to work in our industry today, you’ve got to be open to the fact that entertainment comes in many different forms, and many different opportunities. Certainly, as the kid who was raised on a dairy farm in the mountains of Georgia but went on to stage manage operas at some decently large houses in America, you got to take that opportunity. How did I find myself backstage stage managing at the National Prayer Breakfast one year? Because opportunity knocked, and I want USITT to be the place where every kind of opportunity can be there at every stage of your career. We really are working to provide opportunity for people in as a broad a sense as we can. That is the thing that unites us—a love of creativity. Whether it’s the designer coming up with the idea or the technician who’s realizing that idea, we are all creating. What I love is that we continue to push ourselves passionately to create that art, and we want to make our Institute reflect that by trying new ideas, new things, and new opportunities.

That really is why people should come to the USITT Conference and Expo, there is always something new.
Absolutely, USITT is never the same two years in a row. Our annual conference is an opportunity to engage in unique learning opportunities at every point in your career. And this year we’ve embraced that with our outdoor performance focus, with our safety focus, and with our opportunity to learn more deeply about the cruise industry. When someone says, ‘Why should I be there?’ Because you’ll never get this opportunity ever again.