The Resilient Ones

by Ross Jackson
Ross Jackson with Avery Evans "Being a part of the Gateway program gave me confidence in myself and showed me doors and opportunites  I never knew existed."  -Avery Evans, stage management
Ross Jackson with Avery Evans "Being a part of the Gateway program gave me confidence in myself and showed me doors and opportunites I never knew existed." -Avery Evans, stage management

USITT’s Gateway Program Helps Erode Barriers

Across the United States, live entertainment is becoming an increasingly understood and accepted option for many young people embarking on their career journeys. With options like film, television, dance, symphony orchestras, concerts, road houses, conferences, conventions, theater, and more industrial endeavors than ever, live entertainment is now just as widely recognizable for its technicians, managers, directors, and designers. Just as we were able to shake the stigma outside the industry that live production is limited to what is seen on stage, we within the industry must now work to redefine what the industry looks like beyond the proscenium. USITT’s Gateway Program is one of the first and most successful steps that an early career technical theater professional can take in response to this call to action.

There are many visibility issues in the technical theater world. Women are largely erased from conversations of scenic design and technology. Women and people of color are practically absent from the corps of sound design. Black people are often removed from paths of management. Trans-people continue to be excluded from all aspects of the profession. There are far too many omissions and acts of erasure which permeate from venue to venue based on what a person is, looks like, or associates as. Not to mention the oft ill-conceived list of assumptions to which we are subjected. However, there is persistence at all fronts. An insatiable desire to more than ‘be represented’, but to represent. Representation is becoming less about a need for one or two ‘token’ candidates to be deemed as adequate by those that fit the status quo and is now a self-fulfilling form of revolution.

The USITT Gateway Program, along with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s FAIR program, is helping to move the conversation forward and actively do something to promote change. Students from around the country who are considered ‘underrepresented’ in their field of technical theater study and who may experience barriers entering their career path are chosen and welcomed to take part in the USITT conference. The added benefit for those students, whose registration, housing, and travel are paid for, is that they get the opportunity to work side-by-side with a mentor that comes from a similar background and focuses on their same emphasis. Throughout the conference, the students and their mentors attend sessions based around equity, diversity, and inclusion, a growing emphasis at the event and throughout the entertainment landscape as a whole. They also have someone to network alongside on the expo floor, where many suppliers and employers await, as well as participate in several invite-only events. 

The program began with three students in 2014. The very next year, enough support had been gathered to expand the opportunity to twelve students, six of which were completely funded. This year, the fifth of the initiative’s existence, saw twelve students accepted and all fully funded, as well as the introduction of peer mentorship. This expansion looks built to continue and with the addition of peer mentorship, even more opportunities are allotted to students that have completed the program but want to continue contributing. Mentors are selected after the students are, to guarantee a match in concentration and, most importantly, background. 

I was lucky enough to serve as a mentor during the 2018 class. I worked with Avery Evans, a black, male student from Jackson, MS who is interested in pursuing a career in stage management. I, a black, male, Equity stage manager, was fortunate enough to be paired with him. Though neither of us had been to the conference before, there was only a very small learning curve thanks to the guidance and leadership within the program and throughout the conference. We were able to explore what the four-day event had to offer while still having time to experience Fort Lauderdale, connect with friends, and continue to expand our networks together or separately. The impact of that kind of environment is exponential. For a student who had barely ever had the opportunity to meet someone that looked like him doing what he wanted to do, this level of immersion was unprecedented. Avery quickly went from being a student that simply wanted to grab hold of any opportunities that came his way, to becoming a student that now knows exactly what he wants to achieve in the next few years. That type of progress over a few days is unbelievable and entirely a testament to the effect of the program and his dedication to his craft.

Avery was far from the only participant to find clarity in his journey. Instead of being intimidated by all USITT had to offer, these young professionals had the courage to go into unfamiliar territory and find a way to thrive, whether with their mentors or beside each other. This is an opportunity that, rather than only addressing the diversity a given administration is comfortable with, is making sure that all types of students and professionals are given a voice and a space to exist. 

I know that this kind of encouragement and inspiration would have done wonders for me when I was in the mentees’ position. But even now, there was much to be gained from the experience as a mentor. Of course, it was an unparalleled experience to be involved in USITT Gateway. But some of the real value just came from being in the room with some of the up and coming artists that will soon move into the workforce. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of lagniappe, (Cajun for: something extra) too. I was given the chance to reconnect with colleagues I hadn’t seen in years, meet new people and expand my network, and offer opportunities and resources that I had to share. Everyone had a piece of themselves to offer to the conference. 

I believe we all came out of Ft. Lauderdale more informed than we were upon arrival. After attending sessions on diversity and inclusion, situational awareness, cultural appropriation, even Microsoft Excel, we had the chance to gain new information and better ourselves as we move forward. That growth will, I hope, begin to manifest in such a way that we can create greater access to technical theater for all people. Beyond just increasing the access though, the greater progress will be found in forging new relationships, fostering new talent, and following through on our obligation to properly and respectfully advocate for everyone’s right to exist in the theatrical landscape.

To equalize without tokenization or erasure is a very complex equation to endeavor upon. However, USITT’s Gateway Program has found a way to grant humanity to everyone that has been able to participate. Having just completed its fifth year and with no end currently in sight, this is one of the foremost training grounds for someone ‘underrepresented’ to become someone fully representative of themselves. This equips professionals in the fringes of the theatrical norm with the resources necessary to inspire others and allot opportunities to those being ignored. Then, in a moment’s notice, these resilient, persistent, deserving individuals go from unseen entities to leaders in their fields.  

Before USITT I didnt know that there were people of color in technical theater. Gateway showed me that those people are there and will support me in my professional career. Cor Christophe electricslighting designIve learned a lot about networking during my time with the Gateway Program meeting new people and sharing our love for theater with each other. Quinnata Bellows costume designI was granted the opportunity to be paired with a Deaf mentor and further my networking grid while at USITT under the helpful hands of the Gateway program. Christian Kurka Stage Management Scenic Props“It was also incredible to have been able to meet with so many people from the most diverse set of backgrounds succeeding. If I have the opportunity to return as a mentor, I definitely would!" Samuel Pierce Stage Management