by Emily Ehrlich Inget, Costume Rentals Manager
I spend about six months out of every year planning our exhibition at the annual USITT Conference Stage Expo. USITT stands for the United States Institute of Theatre Technology. They host smaller regional events year round, but the national conference at the end of March is their big event, with sessions about everything from show budgeting to wig making and pyrotechnics to knot tying, and at the heart of it all the Stage Expo is a theatre trade show wonderland. Everybody who’s anybody in the theatre vendor world has a booth on the Expo Floor: Disney, Cirque Du Soleil, Ben Nye, Rosco, Altman, Harlequin Floors, as well as hundreds of colleges recruiting for undergraduate and graduate programs and theatres offering residencies and summer internships. The Stage Expo is on three days of the four day conference and it is our opportunity to connect with our current customers face to face and find new contacts who don’t know about our services yet. It is a lot of work, but always a good time, and this year’s conference in Fort Worth, Texas, was no exception!
After three flights, I arrived at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport late on Tuesday, March 25th. It takes three flights to get just about anywhere from our tiny airport in Medford, Oregon! After a few hours’ sleep I fought off the jet lag with coffee and a western omelet smothered with spicy Texas salsa. (By the way, there will be a lot about food in this blog entry because the food in Texas was delicious!) I left my hotel and walked a couple of blocks to the Fort Worth Convention Center to check in at the exhibitor’s counter to get my badge and then get to work. Hanging in the center of the lobby was a giant star made of cowboy hats (pictured above). Welcome to Texas!
I met up with my supervisor, OSF Costume Department Manager Chris Smith-McNamara, and colleague FAIR Experience Manager Sharifa Johka, who exhibits next to us to recruit applicants for OSF’s internship program. This was our third year exhibiting so setup went relatively smoothly. We had shipped out our signage and display costumes the previous week and the box was waiting for us when we got to our booth (conveniently located kitty-corner from Disney and Yale University). We set up our table and the display costumes quickly. We bring different signature costumes every year, this year we featured a gorgeous gown from Henry V (2012), an Ascot hat from My Fair Lady (2013), a helmet and crown combo from Equivocation (2009) and the Boar costume from The Heart of Robin Hood (2013). Usually we just bring a gown and some accessories but the Boar this year was a smart addition, every 10 minutes a tough looking stage hand would stop at our booth and take a photo of it! A must for next year, armor or something equally appealing, perhaps covered in stage blood.
Emily in the booth at the Stage Expo
We rented a large LCD screen to play our never-ending slideshow of costume stock photos, and once that was set up the rest of the afternoon and evening was free to take in some sessions. I attended a session on costume inventory, wireless dimming for LED lights in props and costumes (very cool), and ended the evening at the USITT Costume Commission networking session. I had heard from my shuttle driver coming in about a great Mexican restaurant downtown, so Sharifa and I checked it out. It did not disappoint! Wonderful carnitas and even better hush puppies!
Thursday March 27th was opening day of the Stage Expo. Let me set the scene: in addition to the theater professionals who attend this event, thousands of students wait in eager anticipation outside the Expo door. When the doors open they charge down the center aisle to grab a free tote bag made from recycled drapery at the Syracuse Scenery booth, then scatter running from booth to booth to collect their free swag. It is all about the swag. Exhibitors bring free takeaways, their brochures and catalogues obviously, but also candy, pens, flashlights, mugs, measuring tapes, all emblazoned with their company logo. The bigger the swag the better, and tote bags to haul it all away in are gold. The first year we went at Long Beach we had nothing. Last year in Milwaukee we had pens. This year we had pens and tote bags. We have learned from experience.
After the initial mad rush we got to have some great conversations with new attendees who stopped by our booth, and regular customers from California Shakespeare Theatre and the Alley Theatre, as well as many of our educational customers including University of Oregon, PCPA, University of Texas Arlington, University of Montevallo, University of Connecticut and Indiana University. Costume Designer Jan Chambers also stopped by to say hello. She designed Henry V at OSF and posed for a photo op with her gown we brought for display.
Jan Chambers designed this gown from "Henry V"
After a long day of work Chris, Sharifa, Robert Goodwin from OSF’s Education Department, and I celebrated a job well done and all went out for some genuine Texas rib eye. I walked back to my hotel through the Fort Worth Water Park at the rear of the convention center. The park has many fountains and at night they are all lit up, some with color changing lights and some lit from beneath so the water glows. The “Active Pool” is a huge deep well with water cascading from the top down to a small pool in the center and cement blocks create a path so people can walk down to the bottom. Even though it was getting late it was still pretty warm out and the park was full of people walking around the fountains. It was very pretty.
Fort Worth Water Park "Active Pool"
Color-changing fountain at the park
Friday was an early start. The Stage Expo has a VIP hour on Friday morning where companies can invite their clients to visit them while the floor is still relatively quiet. We got a visit from the Dallas Theater Center costume shop and had a great time chatting with them. It is so nice to finally meet people in person when you’ve only known them as an email or a voice on the phone for so many years! The Expo opened, more students, more tote bags, more swag. The rush is not as intense on Friday, most of the good swag goes on the first day. We met more of our customers, including designers and shop managers from Texas Christian University, University of Illinois, Temple University and Marquette University. In the afternoon Chris held down the fort while I wandered the expo floor networking, checking out design displays, and doing a little Christmas shopping for my lighting designer/tech director husband. There were some great Mardi Gras costumes on display this year. If only we had things like that in our stock for rental!
Mardi Gras Costumes on display
The Mardi Gras Queen
After another busy day, Sharifa and I headed back downtown for dinner. I had my first chicken fried steak ever and it was delectable. I also swore when I got home I would only eat salad for a month. The night was a little breezy and stormy. Since we had been inside all day little did we know there had been a tornado warning in the area!
The next day was the end of the conference. The Stage Expo on Saturday is only a half day and typically a little more leisurely than the previous days. Since it was another early start USITT put out a buffet of mini pastries and coffee for everyone, of course once the doors opened everything disappeared within five minutes. Free food, like free tote bags, goes fast. After a relatively quiet day chatting with prospective customers, we packed up our booth and Rob, Sharifa and I (Chris had flown out that morning) set out to find some real Texas barbeque. We ended up at Riscky’s BBQ and celebrated the end of another conference with brisket and ribs and mac and cheese (another mental note to eat more salad). After dinner we walked around for a bit and explored downtown Fort Worth. It was a balmy evening and the city seemed very new, very clean and safe. Where we were the architecture was an interesting mix of old and new: modern glass and steel, art deco cement, and 19th century style brick and marble. Some of the brick buildings reminded me of Washington DC and the alleyways with vine covered verandas seemed like they were straight out of New Orleans or Savannah. We came to Sundance Square in the heart of downtown, a huge courtyard filled with people, more fountains, live music and a general party atmosphere. I was sorry I had to leave early the next morning and would have loved to have had more time to explore!
Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth, TX
All in all I had a great time in Fort Worth and at USITT. The city was very nice, the food was amazing, the people were friendly and the weather was beautiful. I can’t wait to see what next year holds. See you in Cincinnati at the 2015 Stage Expo!
To see more photos of my trip to Forth Worth visit the OSF Costume Rentals Facebook Page.
For more information on the Conference and Stage Expo visit the USITT Website.