Stepping into the role of president of the USITT Board of Directors through 2018 is Mark Shanda, divisional dean for arts and humanities at the Ohio State University College of Arts and Sciences. Live Design chats with him about his academic career, vision for the organization, and advice to students. From his first conference in 1986, to being inducted as a Fellow in 2013, he has certainly seen USITT evolve over the years.
1. Can you talk a little about your academic career and your current position at OSU, and what are your main responsibilities as a dean?
I started at Ohio State University in the summer of 1986, planning to stay three to five years. I was hired as an assistant professor and resident technical director. Over the years, I progressed to associate and then full professor. I served as associate chair for the department of theatre, then five years as department chair, and then was tapped to serve as the divisional dean for arts and humanities in the recently re-organized College of Arts and Sciences. In that role, which I also served for five years, I oversaw 21 academic departments, ranging from Arts Administration, Education and Policy, to Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. The division had 450 faculty, 13 interdisciplinary centers, and interacted on a daily basis with over 18,000 students. Overall, my time in the dean’s office wasn’t much different from managing a production of massive scale that never really opened or closed. I stepped down from that job on June 1 and am currently on a research leave, working on several writing projects. My co-author, Dennis Dorn, and I have a new book with Focal Press coming out in December entitled, Technical Management For The Performing Arts: Utilizing Time, Talent, And Money.
2) How and why did you get involved with USITT?
Although I heard of USITT while an undergraduate at Iowa State University, my first real engagement with USITT was while I was in graduate school in the theatre technology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Being involved in the programs of the Mid-West Section of USITT and attending the national conference and stage expo just seemed to be expected. In Oakland, at my first conference, Rick Stephens and Bob Scales, technical production commissioners at the time, greatly impressed me. I knew of Bob from his many articles in Theatre Crafts magazine and Rick was a master of encouraging volunteers with good ideas to step up to the plate and provide leadership in the Institute. Over the years, I presented many panels at the conference, was heavily involved in the Tech Expo, and have served in a variety of leadership roles in the organization. Why I got involved boils down to the impression I got at that first encounter with the Institute on a national scale: The people in USITT have become an outstanding resource to assist me in my career and my continuing education, and many, including Rick and Bob, have become friends. Now it is time to pay forward in response to the many gifts of wisdom and insight from which I have benefited through the years.
3) What new directions do you think the organization should take in the next three to five years?
I have frequently been quoted as saying that as USITT matures into its second 50 years, it is moving from what has been a highly successful “handshake” organization to an even more successful “professional” organization. The Institute will be growing into a well-deserved leadership role in the industry in the areas of continuing education, diversity and inclusion, and safety. We hope to become even more effective partners with other industry organizations, leveraging our unique strengths to have an even greater impact. I told the board at our recent meeting that my personal goal is for USITT to be seen throughout the entire calendar year as one of the key resources anyone would turn to when faced with a design and technical challenge in the entertainment industry. With the strength of our executive director David Grindle, our remarkable staff in Syracuse, and the hundreds of volunteer leaders we have throughout the country, the next three to five years will see great things!
4) What skills should today's students master in undergrad or grad school?
At the core of production is the need for effective communication and collaboration. There is no greater skill set to master than those two demands. In fact, business and engineering schools everywhere are attempting to find ways to infuse their curricula with activities that enable these two areas of development. We already have it in theatre, and every student should pursue with a great deal of zeal becoming an effective verbal, written, and graphic communicator, and to fully understand the give and take necessary for effective collaboration. Working with a team of unique individuals to take a script and an empty stage and transform them into a live experience that can effectively touch an audience, over the course of a finite time schedule and within what is always a limiting budget is a remarkable feat, repeated daily in our colleges and universities throughout the country. Mastering the skills of dreaming big, bending the limits, and effectively working with others are the essential skills of today.
5) What is the best advice you offer to your students seeking a career in the industry?
My best advice is quite simple: Approach each task knowing that there is always something more to do. In watching the student in whom I have been most proud, develop as early career artists and technician, those that inherently want to know, “What’s next?” are the ones that succeed. Those that seek instruction for a task, successfully complete it, and then just stand there waiting, are the ones that most often leave backstage and are never heard from again.