Storytelling bridges the gap between engineering jobs and technical theatre

The connection between the worlds of theatre and engineering is tightly knitted and, with the ever-increasing presence of technology, growing stronger all the time. The UNCSA School of Design and Production helps students bridge the gap between many types of engineering jobs and behind-the-scenes careers in the performing arts every day.

Already have an engineering job?

If you already have an engineering degree and an interest in theatre and entertainment, you are in the right spot to make the transition to the performing arts. Dennis Booth, Scenic Technology instructor and Director of Graduate Studies for UNCSA’s School of Design & Production, says, “It’s not unusual for us to see electrical engineers and mechanical engineers apply for our Master of Fine Arts programs.” These engineers are especially drawn to Technical Direction and Stage Automation, both of which are masters-level degree programs at UNCSA.

Like all the programs in the School of Design & Production, these concentrations offer intensive, hands-on technical and management experience with the systems that control the behind-the-scenes workings at the school’s five performance venues and in state-of-the-art production facilities—like a 5,000-square-foot motion control lab. 

Interested in STEM, engineering or technical theatre?

Theatre work isn’t exclusive to those who already have engineering degrees. If you are a high school or undergraduate college student who’s interested in a STEM career and you haven’t considered theatre and entertainment production as an option, Booth says you should.

“When I talk to middle and high school students, and even to graduate program applicants, they are sometimes surprised to hear about our programs,” he says. “They see star talent and celebrities, but don’t realize the entire support system that is behind the artist.”

When I talk to middle and high school students, and even to graduate program applicants, they are sometimes surprised to hear about our programs. They see star talent and celebrities, but don’t realize the entire support system that is behind the artist.

Dennis Booth

The light bulb moment happens when students realize that the support system comes with an array of career opportunities for those with an enthusiasm for science, engineering and design—in programs like Lighting, Sound Design, Scenic Technology and others.

Have a passion for bringing stories to life?

“We are all storytellers here,” Booth says. “I like to say we are building ‘fake houses for fake people.’ We bring the stories to life.”

In Stage Automation, Technical Direction and other technical programs in the School of Design & Production, thinking like both a storyteller and an engineer go hand in hand.

The qualities that make a good engineer are strongly reflected in these programs. Technicians who pursue careers in these fields are avid problem solvers, critical thinkers and hard workers who like to get their hands dirty. 

Do new challenges excite you?

“What’s so attractive about this field for many people,” Booth says, especially as opposed to more traditional fields like engineering and architecture, “is that every few months we are working on building a new, exciting and different product from the ground up.” Each new show or event presents a new challenge, a new problem to solve and a new solution to build. 

production shop

The School of Design & Production supports more than 200 performances a year. / Photo: David Hillegas

As a student at UNCSA, that might mean configuring the turntable stage in Freedman Theatre (originally built by students in the Stage Automation program) for shows like this season’s Company, or integrating automated effects into the schools annual production of The Nutcracker.

And then, there’s the professional world.

Want to work with some of the best in the field?

Booth refers to companies like Hudson Scenic Studio and TAIT Towers as “lightning rods” for the kinds of work graduates can expect to be doing. You’ve likely seen the work of these two companies without even realizing it.

Hudson Scenic Studio fabricates scenery and automation for the likes of major Broadway shows and the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop. TAIT Towers builds scenery and stage automation for some of the biggest names in entertainment—think Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Both companies employ alumni from the School of Design & Production and regularly attend the school’s annual job fair, along with major industry names like PRG Scenic, ShowMotion Inc., Showman Fabricators, Global Scenic Services and many others.

And if you need some real-life engineer-turned-theatre-technician stories, look no further than the many UNCSA alumni working behind the scenes to bring magic to life at the Metropolitan Opera.

Want to join the artist-engineers in the School of Design & Production?


November 22, 2017