Sylvia Hillyard Pannell, professor of drama at the University of Georgia, took office last year as president of USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology, www.usitt.org). Now in the middle of her two-year term, LD caught up with Hillyard Pannell as she marks her first anniversary at the helm of USITT during its 2007 Annual Conference & Stage Expo in Phoenix this month. No stranger to the organization, Hillyard Pannell has been active in USITT for more than 20 years as a member of the Finance Committee and the Grants & Fellowship Committee; a member and chair of the Publications Committee; book review editor for Theatre Design & Technology; a presenter and co-chair at the Annual Conference & Stage Expo; a member of the Southeast Regional Section and the Costume Design & Technology Commission; and a member of the Board of Directors. In 1995, she was inducted into the Fellows of the Institute.
Live Design: Tell us a little about your background and how you got into theatre production.
Sylvia Hillyard Pannell: By an experience approaching divine intervention. While pursuing an undergraduate degree in Clothing and Textiles at Florida State University, my lifelong vocational interest in theatre led me to take an Introduction to Theatre class from the most charismatic teacher of them all, Professor Richard G. Fallon.
Passionate and persuasive, Professor Fallon explained that it was ever so important that we participate in FSU's internship program at the Asolo Theatre Festival in Sarasota, Florida. The Festival productions were performed on the Ringling Estate in a tiny, 300-seat 18th-century Italian Baroque court theatre that had been purchased by Ringling from a castle in Asolo, Italy. Although the internship did not advance my undergraduate degree, it certainly did change my career trajectory.
The classical repertory, superb acting, lovely theatre, and beautiful physical surroundings enchanted me. My clothing and textiles studies made me a valuable asset, and I was hired to help make costumes for two productions, and a Title 3 grant helped take them on a tour of Florida. The company was changing from a summer festival season to a year-round operation, and I was engaged full time.
I hastened back to Tallahassee, finished my Clothing and Textiles degree, and hurried back to the Asolo Theatre for a glorious year-and-a-half with the company. By then, the Department of Speech and Theatre — now the School of Theatre — at Florida State was one of a handful of universities offering the MFA in Theatre Design, and having decided that I wanted a career in costume design, I returned to graduate school.
LD: Would you say you're a designer or a teacher first?
SHP: From graduate school, I went directly into teaching — not so much by choice but because there were many teaching opportunities and few of us who held the MFA. My first four years of teaching were at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University); the next three were at the University of New Orleans; and I just retired from the University of Georgia, where I taught since 1977. No doubt, the most significant aspect of my career has turned out to be teaching, and most valuable to me are the many students I have had the privilege of knowing and teaching. Many have made significant contributions to theatre design and technology. I trust that they are all members of USITT!
LD: How did your election as president of USITT come about?
SHP: My major professor, Larry Riddle, and my mentor, Don Stowell, were very interested in USITT — then a fledgling organization — and urged me to join. In 1975, at the Anaheim Conference and with Stowell's guidance, the Costume Design & Technology Commission of USITT was created, and I joined shortly thereafter. I have been an active member of USITT since 1976. So I believe that I sort of worked my way up to this post and the privilege of leading this remarkable organization.
LD: What has it been like this first year as president of USITT?
SHP: Exciting and busy! As we look forward to USITT's 50th anniversary in 2010, planning is underway and change is afoot. Learning the many aspects of this multidimensional organization — with its interest groups ranging from the very traditional aspects of the “legitimate” theatre through the many and often unfathomable new 21st-century entertainment technologies (ever changing, and at dizzying speed) — is challenging and absorbing. Fortunately, the very talented and knowledgeable executive committee and staff, many of whom are seasoned leaders of the organization, have been most gracious coaches.
LD: What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?
SHP: USITT is a strong, well-respected, and healthy organization owing to years of passionate and enlightened leadership. I want to build on nearly 50 years of wise decisions. I also want to employ the expertise of the current board, membership, and staff in shaping USITT as it blossoms into a 21st-century institution. Toward that end, the board of directors recently engaged in a retreat entitled “USITT in the 21st Century: Vital, Visible, Sustainable, Marketable, and Innovative,” where panels examined each of the five topics.
LD: Do you see a lot of crossover between designers, programmers, and technicians working in theatre production, as well as houses of worship?
SHP: Yes, perhaps the goals ostensibly differ, but the requisite methodologies and technologies are interchangeable. In fact, among my own cadre of former students, there are several who work professionally as designers, technologists, and directors in houses of worship — some part-time and some on a fulltime basis.
LD: What is the biggest challenge of running an organization as president?
SHP: USITT is a large and complex organization. Although our mutual interest in theatre design and technology provides the magnet, our constituents represent a wide variety of backgrounds and interests — seasoned professionals, manufacturers, young professionals, theatrical product vendors, designers, technologists, architects, managers, educators, scholars, students, and more. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to understand it holistically and ensure even-handed representation for each constituency.
LD: What's most important to USITT members?
SHP: The Italian language provides the best word for our #1 member benefit: simpatico. The network that USITT provides for its members — the opportunity to share information through Student Chapters; Regional Sections; our professional development offerings; our beautiful and informative journal TD&T; and the Annual Conference & Stage Expo where we can visit with colleagues, become better informed, explore, and celebrate the very best work of artists, craftspeople, innovators, and scholars in the entertainment industry nationally and internationally.
LD: What is something you would like people to know about USITT?
SHP: Actually, what I would really like is for many, many more people to know about USITT. I appreciate the opportunity that you have given me to be introduced to your readers. I am eager to discuss our organization and to extend an invitation to those interested in design and technology to consider becoming members. If design and technology in the field of entertainment arts — film, TV, animation, theme parks, cruise ships, industrials, and, yes, the stage — is your passion, consider joining some 4,000 people who share it.
LD: What other work do you do related to theatre production or education that might be of interest to our readers?
SHP: For many years, I have conducted research on the designers of the music halls of Paris — those who worked between World War I and World War II, with particular emphasis on the career of Freddy Wittop. The University of Georgia holds — in its Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscripts Library — The Paris Music Hall Collection with some 6,000 magnificent pieces, including sketches, renderings, and working drawings by the likes of George Barbier, Jose de Zamora, Zig, Freddy Wittop, and the great Erté. These sketches, comprising an unparalleled study collection, were the property of Max Weldy, designer and owner of the Weldy Studio, a costume and scenic studio located across the street from the Folies Bergère. Between the wars, the Weldy studio provided the visual accoutrement for the great music halls of the world.