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Dramatic Media Graduate Discusses COVID-19's Effect on Theatre Industry

Virtually everyone has been impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another. TLU's Office of Alumni Relations recently interviewed Alumni Association Board VP and Dramatic Media major Austin Manning '11 about how the theatre industry has been effected, essentially forcing the evolution of an age-old craft.

Q: Tell us about your role as Vice President of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. What made you want to serve in a role where you are able to give back to your alma mater?

The older I get, the more appreciation I have of my time at Texas Lutheran. I initially joined the Alumni Association Board of Directors in 2011 for a one-year term as a recent graduate. In 2011, my love and excitement for TLU was still fresh and I thought this would be an excellent way to learn from other servant leaders how to better support my own community and non-profit work outside of TLU. In that first year, I was hooked! Working alongside alumni from the 1950's to the 2010's provided context and strong examples of why we should keep service in our lives.

My first term on the Board greatly reminded me of a conversation I had in my Freshman Experience course, formerly known as GEC to those 2000's alumni. My professor, Dave Legore, was leading a discussion about "legacy" with our diverse class of 18 year olds, fresh out of high school and without much knowledge or concern for what 'legacy' really meant. I remember clearly, being so confident when I responded to Dave, saying 'I'm not concerned about my legacy. I am going to live my life as I see fit and to the best of my abilities'. Dave, always patient, as I would discover in my four academic years with him and the subsequent decade of mentorship, smiled and replied, "One day you will. Let's focus on that day."

Legacies are built over lifetimes, but strong legacies were, in their creation, the guideposts to our lives. And, by the way, Dave was right. Just four short years later, I was actively concerned about my legacies. I joined the Alumni Board, surrounded by alums who share that concern, both for their own legacies and that of our collective legacy, most commonly, TLU's. Growing into the role of Vice President, having been part of the Board for almost a decade and previously serving as Treasurer, my goal is to build on the work that's come before and to find those other alumni out there ready to aid in the growth and security of TLU's Legacy. A legacy of community, faith, service, and never ending learning.

Q: What is your role at the ZACH Theatre in Austin and how has COVID-19 changed the way you operate? What new changes have been made at the theatre?

Since 2015, with a brief hiatus in Seattle, I have served on the Technical Production team here at ZACH. Joining the team as the Assistant Technical Director in 2015, I returned in 2017 as the Technical Director and to commission our new Nowlin-Renaud Scenic Studios, a 20,000 square foot production facility featuring dedicated shops for carpentry, welding, scenic sainting, and prop creation. It's safe to say that if you can imagine it, we can create it! As the Technical Director, I handle all of the business side of scenic production, from guiding the design process to budgeting and estimating to transportation logistics to structural design and material selection. Leading a team of technical artisans, we then execute the build, painting, load in, and maintenance of all scenery and props for ZACH productions.

Moving forward, ZACH will need to stay apprised of best practices and procedures for COVID response. We are fortunate to work in an industry that is built on collaboration; the behind the scenes forums and leadership circles in the Entertainment Industry are spinning non-stop!

Knowledge sharing has long been key to the collective growth of the arts sector and this crisis is no different. In South Korea, The Phantom of the Opera has been performing during the global crisis and has shed light on many of the critical operations challenges we have to iron out before re- opening. Programs such as contact tracing, temperature checks, the health and wellness of staff, and how to handle positive cases onstage/backstage, require planning. Community and outdoor theaters have been operating this summer as well in areas around the nation, if able, and have added tremendously to the information pool for those of us unable to reopen yet.

The industry as a whole will take some time to regain its momentum; Broadway will be slow to reopen as they balance significant overhead with the challenges of seating a thousand to two thousand patrons each performance. Regional theatres, like ZACH, are a bit more nimble and able to modify their programming in real time. Our next season will continue to present fantastic and entertaining art on stage featuring incredible performers that engage our audiences. There will be similar changes to the overall experience as one can see in every facet of life. The good news is that guy standing RIGHT behind you pushing you to the concessions bar faster won't be able to do that...he'll be six feet behind you!

As we navigate this unprecedented time, it's a comfort to remember that our industry traces its western roots millennia back to ancient Greece; that it lived on horse drawn carriages in the dark ages; that it survived the closures of Elizabethan theatres during the plague; that it remained an experience audiences cherish even with, and possibly in refute of, the advent of contemporary entertainment. Most importantly, I recognize that live performance has been featured in every culture one can study across time. As I continue to lend my service to the mission and work of ZACH Theatre as her Production Manager and Technical Director, I work confidently knowing the extreme resiliency of live performance. There will be plenty of challenges ahead as decades old contract structures are upended, metrics of success are reimagined, and charitable giving wanes momentarily, but there will once again be those magical moments when the lights go down, the curtain rises, and the audience holds its breath in anticipation.

Q: Can you tell us about the TLU classes you're teaching?

This fall I will be joining my mentor, Professor Dave Legore, alongside Professors Shannon Ivey and Terry Price, in the Dramatic Media department at TLU to teach the course, Producing and Arts Management. It's an in-depth look at the industry and its structures, as well as the critical role various management positions play in the creation of theatrical productions. We'll dive into the organizational management of various theater types such as non-profit and for profit regional, community, and commercial companies, as well as spend significant time discussing the role of the stage manager. The stage manager is a really unique role as their responsibilities span the gaps between pre-production, design process, rehearsal room, technical rehearsals, and run of show. Of all the positions in the theater, the stage manager has the longest through line for a production. We'll capitalize on studying that role in order to get a well-rounded understanding of all the roles and aspects of producing theater.

The course will also look at the historical importance of our industries unions, such as IATSE, AEA, and USA, and how their membership and leadership have and continue to impact the entertainment industry. As a mixed instruction course, being both remote and in person, we'll be inviting working professionals from across the industry via video calls to discuss their roles and careers, the impact of COVID and how they see the industry moving forward, and answer all the fantastic questions that new minds have about dense material such as this. It should be an illuminating and exciting semester as the students develop a strong understanding of the mechanics and players in the industry.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

I am so excited this fall for the opportunity to connect with current students through my involvement with the Dramatic Media program. As a student, alumni engagement opened my eyes to the world outside of our campus. I value so many of the conversations I had with alumni as a student.

Whether they were 23 or 73, our common experience and love for 'the stately college of the plain' united us in community and fellowship, offering valuable insight during formative years. I encourage all Bulldog alum to reach out and see how you too might get involved. From talking to prospective students and connecting with alumni and staff, to curating our robust history and culture, it takes all of us to keep TLU the dynamic and inspirational home of faith and knowledge that it is.