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USITT Conference – A Retreat for Technical Thespians

April 8, 2014

I finally had the availability (a.k.a. unemployed :-)) to attend a USITT conference and it was in warm Spring weather – hello, Fort Worth, TX! I had a blast. I came back to a cold, soggy, and still snowy New England climate but it didn’t matter because I was refreshed, rejuvenated, and extremely inspired.

The conference focuses on the technical production side of the entertainment business. It’s filled with sessions devoted to various topics that appeal to every level of experience (from high school to retired) and there is an Expo floor that is filled with booths promoting the latest products, ideas, and programs for technical production It’s not just for young students looking for the grad school experience or those having just graduated and looking for that start into their career. For someone like me who is a freelance Equity Stage Manager that works mostly in small regional theatres and has been working professionally for over a decade, I found a lot to do and not enough time to do it in.

When I arrived, I was in a van with 2 other USITT participants – one of whom knew many people that I have worked with. We decided to have dinner after settling in and that first evening found me meeting 10 different people by the end and so my networking web started to expand. That’s the other brilliant and wonderful aspect of this conference – the networking. As long as you can reach your hand out to someone and introduce yourself to them, things fall into place and you easily find yourself connecting on some level. For someone like me who considers networking a difficult thing to do, this was the first time where I felt extremely comfortable and confident doing it.

The next day was filled with attending various sessions. As a result, I have a notebook filled with notes and ideas which will form future blog entries! Much of what I attended focused on management but I did branch out to topics such as 3D scanning and how props can kill. I had earmarked several sessions for the following 3 days but I ended up sitting in on a handful because of “The Expo”.

“The Expo” – I put that in quote marks because it is an event unto itself. You can easily spend the entire span of the day walking around and chatting with people. And you never know what opportunities may arise from this activity. I spent a good hour with the Virtual Callboard booth learning about their program and then finding out that the man I was talking to was seeking an Equity SM for an upcoming project and that conversation took another 30 minutes. By the end, he was taking my resume for consideration! At one of the university booths, I was admiring a set model when the department chair started talking to me about it and by the end, asked for my info because he was interested in getting an Equity SM to work in their department. After that, I visited most other university booths to strike up conversations about their programs and how stage management fitted in. As a result, two more places cropped up as possible job opportunities for me. You never know where or how you can find work until you start talking to people.

I also spent a good amount of time visiting various product booths, even those not necessarily devoted to stage management. Lighting, Sound, Rigging, Flies … seeing what the latest innovations they had were useful and interesting because I may very well find myself working on a show that will use them. I also came across various computer programs (such as Virtual Callboard) that are meant to be useful to stage managers (future blog post about these is forthcoming).

And then there’s the Stage Managers’ Association booth. I hung around there a lot helping to promote this networking organization and meeting young and old SMs. It was a great place to settle myself when I needed a break from walking the Expo floor.

I stayed until the veritable end of the conference. Many people had left by Saturday afternoon when “The Expo” closed but there were still a few sessions to attend and the closing night party. However, my networking did not stop there. It continued the next day in the van to the airport where I met a colleague to the man who first asked for my resume. Before finding out who she was, I demonstrated my stage management prowess and capabilities by helping her figure out which terminal she needed to go to for her flight. It was a seemingly easy task from my vantage point but to her, it wasn’t. It also helped to avoid the unanticipated inconvenience she would have found herself in because she thought her airline was housed in only one terminal (if only that were easy in this world of travel). The conversation that followed made the road trip fly by and I learned more about that job opportunity from another perspective which is rare to experience in this profession.

So, the next USITT conference will be in March 2015 in Cincinnati. They start registering in December and if you have the time and money, I highly recommend it. Most businesses have their corporate retreats and this is one example for our profession. Let me end by saying that it also helps to re-establish connections that you haven’t had for years. I lost count of who I ran into from my past, but one encounter stood out for me. A young lady approached me at the end of a session and introduced herself. I didn’t recognize her name but she was familiar. She reminded me that she was the 8th grader who assisted me backstage at the Hangar back in 2001 and now she’s pursuing stage management.

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