For our Alumni Q&A series, we caught up with Summer Grubaugh BFA ’16 about her new role as the School of Dramatic Arts’ Alumni Relations Manager, staying connected after graduation and what makes the Trojan Family so special.
We are so excited that you have joined the staff at the School of Dramatic Arts, but what excites you about your new role as the Alumni Relations Manager?
Thank you! It’s been such a warm welcome. The most exciting thing for me moving into this role is the opportunity to show my fellow SDA Alumni how much the school still has to offer them and how much they still have to offer the school and current students. I’m also excited about being able to hear from alumni about what they are looking for from the School and work on creating programs that really serve this population.
Can you tell us a little about your professional journey?
I graduated with a BFA in Stage Management in 2016 and spent a few years freelancing and working in various theatres across Los Angeles – the Mark Taper Forum, Pantages, Boston Court, etc. After a couple years of that, I started stage managing at Disneyland. Around this time, I realized I didn’t want a long-term career in theatrical production and decided to go back to school through Disney’s subsidized degree program to aid a transition into arts administration. I began the MS in Nonprofit Management program at the University of Denver in January 2020, and of course was soon furloughed and ultimately laid off from Disneyland due to the pandemic. I spent some time just earning my degree before I started as a Development Assistant at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. I was there for two years and two promotions, ultimately working as their Donor Events Manager when this opportunity came up at SDA. I was ready to move on from working in events and knew this was the right direction for me to go, and the right way to continue growing my career.
What do you miss about college, SDA specifically?
I miss the way everything is right at your fingertips in college. Especially at USC and SDA, there are just so many opportunities to explore your passions, both personal and academic/professional. You can join a student organization, participate in an ISP or a mainstage show, take a class in something you never think you’ll do professionally, or a class that lets you dive deep into your own field, you can see a performance or go to a game pretty much every day. And everything’s in walking distance, including most of your closest friends! I miss that too.
Was there a class or professor that was particularly meaningful or influential during your time at the School? Why?
While many of my USC professors were influential, there are two that particularly come to mind – Paul Backer and Phil Allen. We were so fortunate to have Paul – an exceptional educator and man. He talked me through a long list of difficult decisions, crucial moments and terrible self-doubt! I miss him dearly. With Phil, I decided to take his sound design classes as electives my senior year. It was a class of two – just me and Stephen Jensen (BFA Sound Design ’17). Phil gave us a piece of advice that I have carried with me my whole career – that sometimes we would hear the word “no,” not because what we were asking for wasn’t possible, but because people were used to doing things a certain way. It was our job, as young people, to figure out how to get to the ‘yes” or even “well, maybe…” or “no, but…” I try to take this advice from both sides now – I work to not be a person who says “no” out of habit!
What (if any) productions did you work on?
I worked on literally dozens of productions when I was a student – from multi-hour Shakespeare shows on the Bing stage, to late night comedy and improv at The Massman with my friends in Commedus Interruptus. It’s difficult to focus in on one or two particular shows because the best part of my experience was having an incredibly diverse breadth of productions under my belt by the time I graduated.
What is it that makes the Trojan Family—particularly at SDA—such a special community?
The SDA Trojan Family is so special because we all genuinely want each other to succeed. This is an exceptionally competitive industry, but we are all really in each other’s corners. The SDA Trojan Family also loves to hire each other – almost every job I got out of school was because of someone I met at USC and I hear the same stories from so many alumni I talk to.
What are the best ways for SDA alumni to stay connected with their alma mater?
First, read our emails! There is so much going on at the School at any given time and the newsletters are the absolute best way to stay up to date. Next, contact me! I’m here to talk to any alum about how they want to be involved or how they feel we can best serve our alumni population. And, of course, come to campus and see a show or join us at an event.
What lessons from your SDA training have you applied to your professional life?
As a Stage Manager, there’s a laundry list of “hard skills” I learned that I use every single day – from organization and time management skills, to basic daily office tasks, but the soft skills I learned have been the most important. No matter what job I’ve had, the ability to collaborate with a spirit of generosity has always been vital, and particularly central to making theatre. My stage management training at USC also taught me a “people-first” philosophy – to lead with empathy, compassion, humility and a real investment in the growth of the people around you, even in times of extreme stress and tight deadlines.
What can students do during their training to prepare themselves for the professional world?
The absolute best thing they can do is make and maintain connections. Take the time to get to know faculty, staff, guest artists and lecturers and alumni. The entertainment world is small and full of Trojans and, like I said, they want to hire other Trojans. For Stage Management students in particular, this is also a good time to develop a couple hard skills that make you hirable. Take the time to learn to draft, program a lightboard, edit sound design cues, train in the latest softwares, etc. These skills can really set you apart in the professional world. Finally, develop good habits while you are a student in terms of staying up to date with what is going on in the industry. Read trade publications, see shows, attend conferences and keep your finger on the pulse. While you’re maintaining all those great connections, you want to be able to have meaningful conversations with them about the industry.