On Mentorship

We talk a lot about the importance of mentorship in this industry, and in general. While I may have studied theatre sound design in college, I feel like so much of the learning I have done has been through mentors who have given me a chance to watch them work. Now that I have gotten a few years of career experience under my belt, it has been super rewarding for me to take up that mantle and start mentoring myself. So, for this blog, I want to talk about my own experience progressing from mentee to mentor.

“There’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught!” – from The King and I. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Photo by Matthew Murphy

My first major mentor was Chris Evans, head of sound at the Benedum Center in downtown Pittsburgh. I was lucky enough to intern with him in the summer after my junior year of college, right when I was figuring out that I might want to mix musicals professionally. As Chris worked in an IATSE house (which meant that as a non-union worker there were limitations on what tasks I could do), my jobs included marking up scripts, making paperwork, and pulling sound effects. But mostly I just got to watch a brilliant mixer do his thing. I learned so much from just getting to be in the room with professionals and seeing how people behaved gave me a profound understanding of our industry. I returned to school that fall determined to channel all that I had learned from my new role model and be the best person I could be, not just the best mixer.

As I went on in my career, I collected a host of other mentors, some of whom probably don’t even know I think of them that way. I met folks through work, by shadowing them on shows, or by attending trade shows like USITT and AES. It can be awkward to approach someone when you have no footing in the business yet, but if I showed a genuine interest in what they do and a respect for their time and knowledge…the doors would magically open to me. And really, I can’t think of any other way that I could possibly have learned so much about the industry.

As I moved up in the ranks at my regional theatre gig, I kept in touch with mentors like Chris, but I also slowly began to mentor my apprentices. They each came in with different backgrounds, so while they all were hired to do the same job (be my A2 and assistant), it felt good to learn about each of them and try to tailor the experience to what they specifically wanted to learn about, whether it was mixing a musical, being a better A2, or doing cleaner paperwork. I could give them a safe place to learn on the job by handing over responsibilities a little at a time and share stories about when I had been in their shoes as an apprentice myself a few short years ago.

Even then, I still felt like I had so much to learn myself, but I was now squarely in the middle of the progression of my career. I wasn’t at the top yet (still nowhere near it!), but I was at least a few “rungs” up the ladder. I could now speak from personal experience about getting one’s first job, but also about getting a second job, or moving to a new city for work, or any of the other career hurdles that I had somehow managed to overcome. And as I continued to learn from mentors of my own, I could immediately pass that wisdom on, and hopefully save my mentees from falling into some of the pitfalls that I did, or that my mentors had during their early careers.

3 generations of Goodspeed Musicals Mentorship gathered safely at my pandemic wedding! L to R: Rob Baldwin, Olivia Denison, me, Jay Hilton. Photo by Eric Brushett Photograhpy.

Once I finally started working in NYC, I felt like something shifted. I began to get approached by teachers to guest-lecture for their students, and by young people asking me questions about getting into theatre. At first, I approached these encounters with an imposter-syndrome-fueled dread.  The way I saw it, I too was still making it up as I went! I had no idea how the NYC theatre scene worked, having just arrived there myself in January of 2019. I could give no advice on how to get a job, how shop builds worked…how could anyone think that I was a good example of someone to learn from? The first few times I mentored, I think this nervousness definitely showed! But, as I stood in front of my first group of students, I realized something. All you can give is your own story, and as “once in a lifetime/the stars aligned” as your career path seems to you, even sharing that information goes a long way to demystifying this world of theatre. And once I got a little better at doing it, I discovered I kind of liked it 🙂

After that first fateful experience guest-lecturing, I figured out my spiel a little bit. I kept inviting young aspiring mixers to shadow me at Rock of Ages, and did my best to connect with people who are underrepresented in NYC theatrical sound. However, it was during the pandemic that I really felt myself cross the proverbial bridge from mentee to mentor. I don’t know how it happened, but as we were all pivoting to life at home, suddenly people needed more guest lecturers in classes, or assignments to replace being on run crew for shows. And not only was there a need, but I suddenly had the time to fill it! The first months of 2020 I had been working multiple shows on top of each other basically nonstop (which by the way I DO NOT recommend!), and the effect was beginning to really deteriorate me physically and mentally. I wanted to continue being there for any young person I could, especially young women. And when the shutdown happened, I tried my best to keep paying it forward, even without being able to invite folks to shadow me at Front of House.

I’ve had a couple of great mentoring experiences this year. I took on my first SoundGirls mentee, zoomed with a young aspiring designer after this year’s virtual USITT, and most recently, did a structured 10 week program through Sound Thinking NYC where I helped my mentee complete a composition she wanted to work on. Again, my experience and career path didn’t always match my mentees exactly, but I found that I could help guide them in the right direction, or at least offer my takes on where they could go to learn more about the subjects that excited them. These experiences have been one of the absolute highlights of this time away from work for me, because no matter where my mentees were on their career journey, it was completely ok that none of us knew the answers! I would say things like, “well, I have no idea what job advice I can give right now, but here’s how it worked pre-pandemic.” The shared feeling of “making it up as we went” made me feel like I could be honest about my own uncertainties. And while at first, I worried that I was setting the wrong example by not having the answers, it turns out that my admitting what a mystery this line of work is made it ok for them to feel that way too.

Some of this year’s class of SYNYC mentees at one of our virtual meeting!

To me, this is the heart of mentoring, and what makes it different from just teaching. Sure, plenty of practical learning might happen by osmosis, but your job as a mentor is first and foremost to just do what you do, lead by example, and be honest about your struggles. We all want to come back to an industry that is more inclusive, more just, and more tolerant of people’s individual needs. And I believe that those of us who are mentors have a responsibility to keep opening doors in the industry to make that change happen for those coming up behind us.

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