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October 10, 2013

Did You Know?: Theatre Engineering Studies

Theatre engineering studies

From left: Rich Dionne, assistant professor of visual and performing arts; Alex Owens and Steve Hnath, technical direction MFA students; and Amanda Grimm, multidisciplinary engineering student, examine the tripping mechanism for the trap door on stage at Hansen Theatre. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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Purdue's engineering students who pursue interdisciplinary studies in the Department of Theatre gain access to invaluable knowledge and experiences that often help them land jobs in the entertainment industry.

These academic options are called theatre engineering studies, and they involve courses in sound system design, scenery engineering and lighting design. Students can receive undergraduate degrees in multidisciplinary engineering from Purdue’s School of Engineering Education.

This degree can prepare students for careers not just in theater but in the entertainment industry at large, say Rich Dionne, assistant professor of visual and performing arts, and Rick Thomas, professor of visual and performing arts.

"Theatre engineering studies allows students to apply their engineering knowledge to practical, collaborative, process-oriented problems and scenarios in a professional setting," Thomas says.

"For example, our students work on complex, automated scenery, state-of-the-art lighting systems, and sound-system design projects that are used in Department of Theatre productions -- these experiences provide them with hands-on education they can then use to hit the ground running in their careers."

For example, five students in a scenery design class last year converted an equipment lift into a personnel lift for the department's production of the classical play "Medea."

The lift safely and quickly elevated the production's lead actress 12 feet in the air when the play called for her to "ascend to heaven in a fiery chariot." To use this lift, students had to design a complex control system that included safety measures to satisfy campus and federal requirements. In addition to the rig's revolutionary use in the play, theatre engineering students demonstrated it at a United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) convention in Milwaukee for industry professionals, Thomas says.

Another example of theatre engineering students' accomplishments involves the production "Ad Infinitum3", which the department staged two years ago. For that production, students developed an interactive game for viewers' smartphones, which allowed them to become a character in the play. The innovative achievement was performed on an international stage when the production opened the prestigious Prague Quadrennial in Czech Republic.

Purdue alumni who have studied theatre engineering have landed jobs at some of the most respected and highest-profile companies in the entertainment industry. Alumni are working at places such as Walt Disney Imagineering, Microsoft, and major video-game development and publishing companies, Dionne says.

"Purdue has a very strong reputation in the entertainment industry," Dionne says. "Our alumni network is very dense, allowing our students access to professional connections who can help them kick-start their careers as soon as they graduate."

Phillip Wankat, director of engineering education undergraduate degree programs, says theatre engineering studies offers students some invaluable advantages.

"Whether they're looking toward a career in theater or entertainment or an entirely different engineering career, multidisciplinary engineering students working with Purdue's Department of Theatre receive priceless opportunities to work with theater professionals, gain access to excellent facilities, learn to work in teams with non-engineers and work as technicians and engineers for theater productions," Wankat says.

Purdue's multidisciplinary engineering degree is accredited through the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc. (ABET).

Writer: Amanda Hamon, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu