USITT is often billed as the education show. To be sure, it's a terrific opportunity for students, teachers, and other educators to meet and share ideas. But I hope those who attend this important show don't think the only people they can learn from are those in academia. Education, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
I was reminded of that bromide at this year's expo, which was held in chilly Toronto last March. Cold nights on the city streets meant long nights at the hotel bar (well, okay, warm days also mean long nights at the hotel bar for this crowd, but that's another story). On one such night, I was sitting at a rather large table of various industry types, designers, manufacturers, dealers, and the like, when I had the privilege of witnessing two titans of the industry have what we'll call a “spirited discussion.” I'll not reveal the players or details of the argument; let's just say they were two top dealers having a disagreement about who should be repping a certain manufacturer. Afterward, I felt I'd witnessed the industry equivalent of Ali v. Frazier in Zaire — two pros at the top of their respective games.
Now, this kind of thing happens regularly at trade shows, onsite at a production, in an office, wherever; after all, it's just two people doing business. But for some reason — maybe it was the educational setting, maybe it was the time of day, hey, maybe it was the alcohol — I found their exchange to be fascinating. And it made me wish that all the students attending the show could sit around and witness the exchange. They would have learned about negotiating contracts, about public debate, about standing your ground — those real-world issues that tend to get lost when learning about design and technology.
Smart designers and technicians have always known that they can learn as much from a salesman or a dealer as they can from a teacher, a peer, a Broadway veteran. These professionals know a lot more than merely the gear they deal with every day; most of them started out as a designer or a technician, but their lives and careers took a different path. And over the years, manufacturers and dealers have had as much impact on the design of a show as any designer. I'm reminded of the legendary birth of the modern lighting console, the LS-8, for A Chorus Line, which involved the likes of not only lighting designer Tharon Musser, but also electrician Gary Shevett, and the console's inventor, Gordon Pearlman. That was a situation that could only have happened as a collaboration between a design team and a manufacturer, and it changed forever the face of lighting.
So a word to all you young designers out there: listen to your teachers and professors, but listen to everyone else too. You never know where your next lesson will come from. Hopefully not in a bar in Toronto, but hey, take them where you can.