Purdue’s one-of-a-kind theatre engineering program combines artist’s creativity, engineer’s diligence
Jessica Goldberg dreams of becoming a professional designer of theme park dark rides, creating immersive storytelling experiences like Disney’s Haunted Mansion, where guided vehicles transport guests through the ride’s various scenes.
After enrolling at Purdue, she learned that the University actually has a major and concentration that can help her achieve that career goal.
“When I was little, I was very much gung-ho about Disney Imagineering, but I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler,” says Goldberg, a junior majoring in multidisciplinary engineering with a concentration in theatre engineering. “A lot of creative things I was able to express through math and CAD (computer-aided design) and all of those programs, so engineering was kind of natural.
“When I came to Purdue, I didn’t even know they had a theatre engineering program. I learned about it through homecoming callouts and meeting some of my current peers. I was like, ‘It’s a very specialized field, but it’s specialized to what I want to do,’ so I joined and I haven’t regretted it.”
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Building valuable skills
Goldberg is among a select group of 12 undergraduate students admitted to Purdue’s one-of-a-kind theatre engineering program. Many of them entered the program to build technical skills and engineering know-how that would enable them to find gainful employment in the theatre industry. The beauty of the program, however, is that the skills it teaches are transferable to many different forms of live entertainment.
Elena Helvajian, a 2019 program alumna, is a junior engineer at McLaren Engineering Group, which does mechanical and structural analysis on projects for the entertainment industry.
As someone who grew up loving math and science and working backstage in the theatre world, she was inspired by productions like Cirque du Soleil’s “Ká,” a McLaren-engineered stage show in Las Vegas that features jaw-dropping effects and one of the most technologically advanced stages ever created. Helvajian enrolled at Purdue precisely because it would allow her to build engineering and theatre skills that could prepare her to work on such a project.
“Lots of shows were coming out at that time that had this technology,” Helvajian says. “And I’m like, ‘All right, so someone’s doing this math. This is art, but someone’s doing it. How do I get that job?’ So that was sort of the origins on me trying to do engineering specifically for theatre.”
Current theatre engineering students enjoy a wealth of opportunities to gain beneficial hands-on experience. But those avenues have not always been available to Purdue’s interdisciplinary engineers who want to specialize in live entertainment.
Eric Hall came along in the 1990s when theatre engineering was essentially a do-it-yourself concentration instead of the intentional route that today’s students follow. Hall has worked at Disney World since even before he graduated from Purdue in 1997, but he had to teach himself many of the skills he uses today as a technical director.
He believes Purdue is onto something by providing students with far more experiential learning opportunities than he had access to as an undergraduate engineer.
“It was a little hands-on, but it was one of those things where, really, it would be awesome to have somebody sit down and go, ‘Here’s what this is’ and ‘Here’s what that is’ and literally hands-on, figure it out, show me how,” Hall says.
That’s all part of the plan that Purdue professors Rich Dionne and Mary Pilotte devised in 2017 when they chose to take the self-directed theatre engineering pathway that existed in Hall’s day and give it structure. Almost immediately, they received feedback from connections at other universities and within the entertainment industry that they created something unique and valuable.
“We started hearing from folks in industry and other institutions saying, ‘How are you doing this? Because these students are changing the dynamic of hiring,’” says Dionne, associate professor of practice and theatre production manager in the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance. “The universities are saying, ‘We want to replicate that’ and industry institutions are saying, ‘We want to hire those folks.’ We found ourselves in the position of being looked at as unintended leaders in what is clearly a burgeoning field.”
Speaking two languages
In many cases, technical directors either have formal artistic training and personal interests in the technical side of entertainment, or they are engineers with artistic sensibilities. Purdue’s theatre engineers are formally trained in both educational realms, allowing their creativity to thrive in conjunction with the disciplined thinking and rigorous safety concerns emphasized in traditional engineering curriculum.
Purdue’s is currently the only multidisciplinary engineering program to have earned accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc. (ABET) offering a concentration in theatre engineering. That enables graduates to pursue professional engineering licensure and sign off on the safety and quality of designs — whether it’s a bridge, a building or a complex installation at a theme park.
“From an industry standard, that was something that wasn’t typical in the domain of the theatre or entertainment sector,” says Pilotte, director of engineering education undergraduate degree programs and professor of engineering practice. “You had the creatives come up with ideas, outsource them to so-called non-creatives — a group of engineers — and then hopefully good things happened in the mashup in between. But more importantly, that external company, that consulting firm, that engineer signed off on that design.
“Now, industry can hire our engineers, bring them into the creative side of the house, the design side of the house, and they know that they’re already pre-equipped to be able to speak the language and have an appreciation for the industry.”
Shep Dick, like Goldberg, planned to study mechanical engineering when he first arrived at Purdue. And like Helvajian, he grew up with a knack for math and science plus a love of building sets and doing backstage work on theatre productions.
He figured he would get involved in theatre as a student, but had no idea a concentration existed that would allow him to gain considerable experience working on control systems for automation and mechanical stage effects.
“When I got here, I heard about this theatre engineering program and I was kind of struck because it seemed like someone designed a major for me without my knowledge,” says Dick, a senior theatre engineer who plans to graduate in spring 2022.
Dick and his fellow students are unique in that they are able to speak both the artistic and the technical languages. Engineers, especially, can use that gift to differentiate themselves in the job market.
“I can teach you engineering. I can't teach you the creativity of theatre,” says Issy Block, a senior double majoring in theatre design and production, plus multidisciplinary engineering with a concentration in theatre engineering. “I can sit you down and tell you the laws of how structures need to be and how to calculate and how to analyze. I can give you an Excel sheet where you can do that and just plug in the numbers. I can’t teach you how to think when it comes to theatre.”
Another unique aspect of the program’s experiential learning environment is that students begin getting their hands on real-life work almost as soon as they are admitted. Each year as part of what Dionne and Pilotte call their “three-year capstone,” theatre engineering students enroll in a course called the production design seminar. Students enrolled in each seminar are assigned to specific roles on theatre productions, and in each ensuing year, their roles become more complex and with greater responsibility.
As sophomores, the students work as deck carpenters who do set repair and maintenance under supervision and conduct pre- and post-show safety checks. As juniors, they act as assistant technical directors on a production where they solve complex technical challenges and are responsible for creating construction drawings of pre-qualified structures, their cost estimates, labor estimates, installation and strike plans.
“What sets it apart is everything is so hands-on,” says Ashley Kikos, a senior double majoring in theatre design and production and multidisciplinary engineering with a concentration in theatre engineering. “I’ve been working in the scene shop since my freshman year when I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. But everybody there is so helpful and willing to help you learn to get better. I know in other places they don’t start hands-on working on shows until a little bit farther into your degree. But every single semester, I’ve had hands-on experience and I’ve been like, ‘Hey, I built that in that show’ or ‘I helped CAD this model in that show.’”
The cumulative growth opportunities build to the final step in the senior capstone design course, where students solve engineering-specific problems that require significant development, design and analysis. For example, Block completed her capstone in Fall 2021 in an immersive production of “Fefu and Her Friends” by creating illuminated exit signs that ascended and descended from the set during a portion of the play where audience members were actually on stage and moving through the set.
“We talk about it as building a design spine within the program,” Pilotte says. “In some engineering programs, students have isolated incidents of design experience, but those incidents aren’t connected in a way that students can see and experience their own growth. It’s important for students to see not only their growth, but learn from their limitations.
“They need to develop an appropriate level of engineering humility so that they don’t fail in really big and catastrophic ways once in their professional engineering roles. So, this design spine that systematically exposes them to multiple opportunities to both succeed and fail safely, and to make those connections internally regarding their capabilities and limitations, is really important.”
Changing the industry
Live entertainment becomes more complex by the moment, creating the need for creative professionals who can apply an engineer’s diligence and ethical sensibility to the ever-advancing technology. Students at other universities may have opportunities to build skills in both the artistic and the technical realms, but this type of formalized training remains unique to Purdue.
No matter where their career paths may lead them — whether creating eye-popping visual effects, working in TV and film, or ensuring that massive theme park installations pose no safety risk to visitors — Purdue theatre engineers have developed skill sets that will push the entertainment industry forward.
“Nowadays, most companies want people who understand the technical aspects, who can look at things with a critical eye,” Hall says. “Engineering students can have a really good career path doing theatre engineering, because you have that extra engineering knowledge, and it does help.
“It’s definitely getting to that point where people with extra knowledge beyond just the theatre design aspect are becoming more in demand, for sure.”