February 2014

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February 2014

The Last Word:

USITT Fellow: Leon Brauner

In a continuing series about the Fellows of USITT, Past President Leon Brauner reflects on his experiences within and outside the organization.

Leon Brauner

Leon Brauner

During my working years, I always had a "paying job," and a "non-paying job." My paychecks usually came from universities, production companies, and governments. My non-paying "employers" included USITT, OISTAT, and most recently, the Ocean Shores Food Bank. From this somewhat strange alliance of jobs and organizations, I became the beneficiary of knowledge, creative energy, and opportunities to travel and experience other cultures, and I also expanded my range of experiences far beyond anything I would have dreamed.

Right out of university, I was a boy without a plan. By my second "paying job," Roberta and I had four wonderful, exuberant children who were ready to go anywhere, do anything – and that is what we did. We were able to experience many life-changing and joyful experiences through the support of Indiana University and USITT. While I think I am a fairly average designer, I became a better costume designer and technician with each new set of production challenges, and I gained something new and valuable from each person with whom I collaborated. I often felt like a "masked bandit," receiving more than I contributed. There are many designers, technicians, directors, and yes, even actors, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.

Early on, I became an avid reader of TD&T and Pat McKay's Theatre Crafts. TD&T was USITT to me. The magazines awakened in me a need to look beyond the techniques and creative approaches to theatre crafts I had learned. At that time, the really exciting work seemed to be happening in Eastern Europe and that is where I wanted to be. Gary Gaiser, Joel Rubin, and Ned Bowman provided encouragement and introductions that led to a fulfilling first sabbatical year visiting and interviewing theatre craftsmen in seven East European countries. The outcome of this first adventure was a handful of published articles, lectures, exciting production designs, and several USITT conference programs. The programs were the hooks that drew me further into another USITT adventure - the newly formed Costume Commission.

Dr. Rubin must have worn his fingers to the bone writing letters of introduction to individual colleagues, and OISTAT and ITI centers abroad. His kindness and zeal inspired me to try to emulate his altruism. He shared his network of friends and colleagues and he was resolute in spreading the message of individual and professional growth through exposure to new ideas and experiences, especially those outside our own borders.

As Costume Commissioner, I came into contact with the inner workings of USITT. During the course of my USITT career I participated in almost every element of the organization. I had the privilege of working with many gifted and generous members and together we accomplished projects that both changed and strengthened the Institute. I enjoyed participating in the development of a national conference committee, our greater emphasis on international activities, and the initiation of World Stage Design. These were projects that came to fruition through the efforts of members like Dick Devin, Christine Kaiser, Dick Durst, John Uthoff and Eric Fielding, and others currently below my aging radar.

There were many who guided me in running meetings, speaking in public, and solving complex problems. Chris, Devin, Durst, and John were often my confidants, collaborators and sounding boards. During my last active USITT years, I was the Institute's representative to OISTAT, where I served on the executive committee. The committee's main focus was to keep OISTAT organizations energized and focused on projects and sharing, and to keep OISTAT financially solvent. While secretary of the executive committee, I was again reminded that no one person or organization has all the answers. Listening to what others have to say can often lead to great outcomes.

I enjoyed my international work for USITT and OISTAT, and I could have gone on doing that until I dropped. But, as most of us know, there is a time to stop what you are doing and move on. It was time to make way for a new generation of members ready to move USITT to new places and new heights.

During the last few years on OISTAT's executive committee, I began volunteering at a local food bank. While not many of my costuming skills were put to the test, I did rekindle the joy of collaboration, reminding myself of the importance of love and compassion, ratcheting my humility back down to where it belonged, and finding great satisfaction in knowing what I was doing (unloading trucks, restocking shelves, cleaning floors -- whatever was asked of me) was for the common good.

After stepping back from USITT, I became operations manager for the Ocean Shores Food Bank, a small food bank beneath the shadows of the Olympic Mountains. In 2011, we served about 125 families at each distribution and provided our clients with about 94 tons of food. Today we serve about 185 families and distribute over 125 tons of food. During this three years we have also grown from 25 volunteers to 48 active volunteers. This past September we completed a major renovation, changed our distribution model and established long range planning and goals. Last year I represented the food banks in three western Washington counties for Food Lifeline.

Do you see a pattern? Many of the most useful lessons I learned and use today were a part of my USITT education. Chris, Joel, Gary, Ned, Devin, Durst, and John – these are compassionate, caring people who work at helping people. Their various skill sets were invaluable to the growth and prosperity of USITT -- and to my growth.

I still use these skills to energize a strong group of volunteers, to establish a new management team, to take the message from the small rural food banks to the hunger relief agencies in Seattle, to raise funds, to market, but most importantly to care. Theatre, USITT, OISTAT, our many mentors inspire us to do good work and to care for each other.