John Uthoff, a USITT Fellow and recipient of the Joel E. Rubin Founder's Award, took over the reins as president of USITT (United States Institute of Theatre Technology) on July 1, 2004. He has been on the faculty at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, since 1976, where he is now both an associate professor and head of the sound and lighting department. From this vantage point, Uthoff has watched the basics of stagecraft and theatre technology go through major changes over the past 50 years. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux touches base with the new president to get his take on where USITT, and technical training in general, is headed.
ED: Did USITT start out with an academic purpose?
JSU: Actually, it was professionals in New York who started USITT, but it is the academics who have the time to volunteer for the association and do the programming, so it becomes academic as a result. The percentage of academics also varies from commission to commission. Archi-tecture, for example, is all professionals, while sound is about 50%, engineering is more than half, with many of the same people who are on the ESTA technical standards committee. We have supported ESTA's work in that regard ever since they were the Theatrical Dealers Association. Now some of the manufacturers also offer programming at the annual conference that should appeal to more professionals.
ED: Do you have specific goals for your tenure as president?
JSU: My goals this year are the success of our international activities, including World Stage Design and the OISTAT World Congress, both in Toronto in 2005, at which we expect many international guests. Then in 2006, we will be in Louisville for our stage expo and conference, and we will tie into the Actors Theatre of Louisville and we have a large regional presence there as well. We are also developing new publishing projects including monographs on a variety of subjects, as well as author signings and electronic publications.
ED: Are there specific things you would like to see improve?
JSU: I would like to see the organization be more interesting to more people in commercial theatre. We do this through special guests — it's great to see Ming Cho Lee informally meeting with students in the lobby of the Long Beach convention center and looking at their portfolios — and reach out to more young designers. The new Rising Star Award should help us find the talent that's out there. [The award, which recognizes outstanding young talent in entertainment design and production, will be presented annually at the USITT Stage Expo and is funded by Entertainment Design, Lighting Dimensions, and ETS-LDI.]
ED: What about long-term planning?
JSU: Our 50th anniversary is coming up, in 2010 I think, and we will be using the next five years in planning special activities for the 50th. We are also planning series of workshops to be held regionally, outside of the annual conference, and would like to see our guests from other countries visit our regional chapters.
ED: Do you sense any new trends or issues in education for technical theatre?
JSU: For one thing, small universities tend to have equipment issues. It's easy to teach the literature and theory, and the opportunity to design, but not always so easy to offer hands-on experience on the latest technology. It's hard to explain to the administration that you need new moving lights when they are worried about the next big scientific grant. It's a quandary for the smaller universities.
ED: What can you do to fill in the gaps?
JSU: We focus on making someone a designer or a technical director, for example. It's interesting that the areas covered by ESTA's new certification program, such as rigging, are not necessarily covered in a college education. That is not our main focus. The irony is that you don't need to go to college to be a good stagehand, but if you do go to college you still need to know those skills. Universities are not really set up to teach things like ground support trussing. But I think we'll eventually see them become part of the college curriculum.
ED: How has the design world changed since you first started in the business?
JSU: I was a technical director early on, in the days when scenery was soft-covered, painted flats. Then we moved on to steel and hard-covered flats so it became more of an expanded field and much of the old stagecraft of 50 or 60 years ago has disappeared. So we try to bring in union designers to come and teach design so we can stay relevant. Especially with the move toward digital technology. Last year we had projected scenery in three of our seven mainstage productions. This turns out to be more cost effective than building so many different sets.
ED: Do you think that this new move toward projection makes this an exciting time to be teaching design?
JSU: It's been exciting for the past 50 years, from the early projection work in the 70s. It's a direction that scenic design has been going in for a long time. But the equipment is more commercially available new, you don't have to go off to Germany to find a projector. You have a lot of options now.
ED: How can USITT embrace these new technologies?
JSU: Clearly through the conference programming, in talking about what works and what doesn't, and sharing ideas. In sound, for example, today we are doing things we couldn't even imagine 30 years ago. I mean, it wasn't all that long ago that people were still cutting and pasting reel to reel tape. Now it's hard to keep up with all the new equipment. That's where manufacturer training sessions are useful. We are also talking about doing training on the regional level to help spread the knowledge around.
ED: So what is your ultimate goal for the first year of your term as president?
JSU: The main thing is the success of the World Stage Design exhibition and OISTAT World Conference in Toronto next March. That really needs to be the focus of the first year. Then we'll be planning for Louisville in 2006, when the next president will be announced.