After penning and submitting an original play in her youth titled The Search for the Holy Pail, a product of her thirst for creative writing opportunities and her father’s frequent Monty Python references, stage manager and arts marketing consultant Jess Bergson was bit by the theatre bug — HARD. Today? She’s just finished her term on USITT’s board of directors as part of the Institute’s Board Mentorship Program.
A year after sitting down with Jess at her first Conference, USITT 2017 in St. Louis, much has changed. She’s attended official board meetings with USITT’s leaders, a board retreat, two Conferences, and gained a plethora of knowledge that she applies to her career daily.
A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Jess holds both a bachelors and MFA. Before attending college, an interest in playwriting and directing was at the forefront with a taste of stage management developing later on with the help of her mentors and teachers. Though stage management stuck and became Jess’ major, her true calling soon took over.
“During my college years at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, I developed a passion for all things management in the arts, so I ultimately decided to extend my stay at CMU to earn a Master’s in Arts Management,” Jess said.
Cue the Board Mentorship Program.
After seeing her professors and classmates return from USITT with that post-Conference glow every year, Jess was intrigued and eventually got wind of the Board Mentorship Program.
She was one year deep into her master’s program, learning about the dynamic between nonprofit arts organizations and their boards. “It sounded like such a great experience to witness and participate in this dynamic first-hand.”
The Board Mentorship Program aims to introduce its mentees to the structure, functionality, and responsibility that comes with being a board member.
Over the course of a year, the mentee familiarizes themselves and become immersed in the inner workings of the Institute. “There were no stupid questions,” Jess said. “I was encouraged to be curious and learn as much as I possibly could, which continued all the way through the end of my term on the board.”
Mentees are held to the same expectations and standards as other board members and are labeled as a full non-voting member. They sit on at least one committee and attend all functions the board is expected to attend. Being a mentorship program, the year-long journey excels at fostering connections between mentees and various board members, some of whom have filtered through the program themselves.
“Deb Sherrer was a huge influence,” Jess recalled. “She is a director and former board mentee. Her experience and passion for USITT was a big inspiration to me.”
Many mentees take part in the program during defining stages in their careers while passing from student to early career — a confusing but exciting time. “My time on the board fell at a pivotal stage in my life — from academia to the real world,” Jess said. “It helped me through this transition while getting to give back to an organization that helps so many young people find their place in this industry.”
Gaining mentors and career influences are just part of what mentees receive by participating in the mentorship opportunity. Access to board information, participation in three electronic board meetings and two face-to-face meetings, travel and accommodations to USITT19 and USITT20, and travel and accommodations to the Annual Board Retreat in August 2019 are all on the list of board mentee perks. Not to mention rubbing elbows with luminaries and those closest with the behind-the-scenes view of the Institute.
As the year progresses for mentees, their once anxious demeanor of the unknown evolves into vibrant dialogue among colleagues. “Starting at our August Board Retreat last year, I realized I had a lot to add to the conversation and I was encouraged to speak up when I had something to say,” Jess said. “Though I was new to the organization and my career, the board members ensured me that my opinions and ideas mattered — that meant a lot to me.”
For the incoming board mentee? Jess’ advice is to show up with an open mind, speak up when you have something to add to the conversation, don’t be afraid to ask questions, bring a notebook, a pen, business cards, and a sweater, and most importantly, you get out of it what you put into it.
“The board of directors is full of kind, smart, generous people,” Jess said. “The experience of sitting on a board so early in my career has been invaluable and has given me a deeper understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like between a board and an organization. I will cherish this learning throughout my career and hope to put what I’ve learned to use sitting on boards of organizations I am passionate about in the future.”
The Board Mentorship Program is now accepting applications for its 2019-2020 cycle. If you’re interested in picking the brains of USITT’s leaders and sharing your insightful thoughts at board meetings, retreats, Conferences, and with the membership as a whole, you can find more information about this opportunity here.