News From Mark Shanda, USITT President
The Humbling Tape
As an undergraduate student, I was encouraged by my faculty to pursue scenic design. In our only course covering theatre design, I pencil drafted sample flats, drew a ground plan for Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and built a ½” scale model of my scenic design for Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun. My teacher was so impressed with my model that I was instructed to enter it into a design competition sponsored by a large mid-western university. So, I drafted a ground plan of what I had designed, took color photographs of the model, packed up my entry, and shipped it off, expecting nothing but recognition of my greatness.
The competition was “blind judged” in that only an entry number was the identifier on each submission. The judges examined the materials in some room on the sponsor’s campus while a cassette tape recorder captured their thoughts. The resultant recording was then sent back to each entrant to provide feedback, and as I assumed the most appropriately awarded prize money.
When the padded envelope appeared in my dorm mailbox, I was more than excited. But when I opened it, there was no letter, nor any prize money, just the cassette labeled “ENTRANT NUMBER 1”. Thoroughly convinced the prize money must be coming later, I popped in the cassette, cranked the volume, and expected to hear nothing but praise.
The tape began...Entrant Number 1 – The Royal Hunt of the Sun...(long pause) and then the first reviewer spoke: “While I have no idea who this student is, nor where they are studying, they are certainly no scenic designer.” Reviewer number two: “They obviously know very little about this play and I cannot image whoever taught them to draft!” Things went downhill from there until the last reviewer said, “Well although they are not worthy of any recognition as an artist, they did take a risk.”
To say I was crushed was an understatement. How is it possible that I was such a big man on my own campus, a design and technology superstar...and yet these industry professionals declared I was wasting my time? In point of fact they were right. It was not a very good scenic design. I had no research skills, had not conducted any script analysis, and produced scenic elements with only 90° corners and 4’x8’ units.
For years, I held onto what I eventually called my “humbling tape,” listening to it whenever I was feeling a bit too proud of myself. I never did become a scenic designer, but I have had a fairly successful career in theatrical production since that devastating blow. How you respond to criticism and disappointment can be a real hallmark of your work effort in this industry. Choose to learn and channel your energy into an even stronger commitment to your passion. In hindsight, I have had more successes than failures in my career, but my humbling tape reminds me that I still always have room to grow!