D&P alumni bring never-before-seen entertainment to life with industry giant TAIT

On Feb. 12, 40% of American households tuned in to watch the Super Bowl LVII Apple Music Halftime Show featuring multiple Grammy Award-winner Rihanna. The 118.7 million viewers were also watching the work of UNCSA alumni as employees of industry giant TAIT, one of the world's most innovative suppliers of live entertainment experiences and an employer of numerous alumni of the School of Design and Production (D&P) at UNCSA.

In 2022 alone, TAIT accelerated the worldwide return to live entertainment with clients as diverse as Adele, Lady Gaga, the Royal Opera House, Time Magazine’s 100 Summit at Lincoln Center, Harry Potter Forbidden Forest Experience, MSC Cruises and countless others. TAIT employs creative engineers, fabricators, producers and technologists across 20 offices worldwide and has worked on projects in more than 30 countries across all seven continents. 

D&P Dean Michael Kelley, an alumnus of the scene design program, says the school has built a strong relationship with TAIT that benefits students before and after graduation. For example, TAIT employees have presented workshops at Intensive Arts, including one where they taught students how to fly actors onto a set.

“That was a big wow,” Dean Kelley said. “The students loved it.”

TAIT nearly always attends D&P’s annual Job Fair, and students have gone to the company’s career day at its global headquarters in Lititz, Pennsylvania. 

“Our alumni love working there; I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Kelley continued. “The School of Design and Production is proud of its excellent track record in employment for our graduates. TAIT is just one example of the incredible industry connections and networking opportunities that UNCSA offers and we are so proud of our many Pickle ties to the groundbreaking work TAIT is doing in the global entertainment industry.”

Currently, about a dozen UNCSA alumni work at TAIT, bringing to life never-before-seen live entertainment experiences. 

The mechanical integrator: Making sure everything works

Mechanical Integrator Jacob Ostdiek (B.F.A. ’19), who concentrated in scenic technology, was one of the alumni who helped create floating platforms that held Rhianna and her dancers in what TAIT team lead Aaron Siebert called “the most technically advanced Super Bowl halftime show that’s ever been done.”

Other alumni who worked alongside Ostdiek on the project include Casey Roche (B.F.A. ’04), Dan McLaughlin (B.F.A. ’11), and McLane Snow (B.F.A. ’07), who all concentrated in scenic technology; and Daniel Porter (B.F.A. ’08), who concentrated in lighting

Mechanical Integrator Jacob Ostdiek (B.F.A. ’19)

Mechanical Integrator Jacob Ostdiek (B.F.A. ’19)

As mechanical integrator, Ostdiek is the person who makes sure everything works. “I take everything that TAIT is delivering to a client and make it work together,” he said. “After it has been designed, built and painted, I have to make sure it works, can tour around the world, and is serviceable. I work onsite with production and other vendors to achieve the artist’s vision.”

Since joining TAIT shortly after graduating, Ostdiek has also worked on projects for some of the world’s biggest artists, including Adele’s Las Vegas residency; tours for the Jonas Brothers and Billy Eilish; and JUMP Limitless Flight, the world’s first hyperreal wingsuit simulator, winner of a Thea Award from the Themed Entertainment Association.

Though the JUMP project took most of a year for Ostdiek, it was very fulfilling. “Getting to play a part in designing, building, installing and bringing the idea to life was a blast,” he said. “It’s hard to beat when a moment from a show goes viral and our work is plastered all over social media.”  

The mechanical design engineer: Putting a theater background to good use

Mechanical Design Engineer Justin Fenniman (B.F.A. ’19), who concentrated in scenic technology, enjoys the TAIT working environment. “The best part is working with all these extremely talented, creative and intelligent people,” he said. “It’s a great resource to bounce ideas off anybody in the room. With so many shows under TAIT’s belt, if you can’t figure it out, you can probably find another show with a similar situation you can build from.” 

What is a mechanical design engineer? “In short, I draw pretty shapes and make drawings,” Fenniman said. “I take the design process from the project’s start, where I estimate hours and develop some design concepts. From there, I flesh out the design and meet with the fabrication and integration teams to make sure the design can be built and installed. Then I make construction drawings for the fabrication team and send the parts off to the machine shop.

Mechanical Design Engineer Justin Fenniman (B.F.A. ’19)

Mechanical Design Engineer Justin Fenniman (B.F.A. ’19)

“If I did my job right, it ends there, but there is always some support and revision work after that,” added Finneman, whose work at TAIT includes Carrie Underwood’s Las Vegas residency and this year’s Gorillaz Coachella festival. 

Since joining TAIT in 2021, Finneman has been challenged by learning to design machinery. “It’s very different from building flats and platforms,” he said. “Thankfully, my theater background doesn’t leave me at square one. With a strong base of drafting and creative problem-solving, once you learn the rules, it quickly all comes together.” 

The scenic artist: Investing in people who share core values

Scenic Artist Sydney Yeoman (B.F.A. ’19), who concentrated in scene painting, has found it challenging to work in a creative role within a manufacturing setting. “I am constantly being pushed mentally and physically,” she said. “Every brushstroke is made with intention, and the decision fatigue can be hard to work through sometimes.”

But the TAIT environment is helpful. “Being encouraged to participate in conversations that lead to tangible changes keeps me invested in more than just the end product but the people I work with as well,” she said.

Being encouraged to participate in conversations that lead to tangible changes keeps me invested in more than just the end product but the people I work with as well.

Scenic Artist Sydney Yeoman, B.F.A. ’19

Yeoman appreciates TAIT’s core values. “I feel lucky to be part of a company that recognizes its responsibility to lead the way in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion, safety and sustainability not only for our internal teams, but for the industry at large.”

Yeoman worked as an intern for TAIT during the summer of 2018 and joined the company full time in 2019. Her most compelling project to date is Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. “I’ve seen this project through two iterations,” she said. “The first was designed for indoor arena venues with a large proscenium arch adorned with gold bricks and larger-than-life sculptures. 

“The second was redesigned to play in stadiums, where the proscenium was shortened with large hand-made gold roses weaving in and out of gold bricks,” she said. “The artistry and logistics that went into making these projects happen are great examples of what our team is capable of producing a beautiful and rugged product that still stuns audiences years later.”

Yeoman has also worked on scene designs for Grammy winners Adele and The Weeknd and nominees Eric Church and the Black Crowes.

The project manager: Solving problems every day

For Project Manager Sarah Grover (B.F.A. ’21), who studied stage management, a short-term project with an interesting client can be just as exciting as a huge tour. “I worked on a project with the Drone Racing League last year,” she said. “We sent a bunch of rigging gear and a couple of (small cranes) down to Las Vegas to rig a 100-foot-long net. It was the kind of project where we gathered the gear, devised a plan, figured it out and fit up onsite.”  

As a project manager, her role is to take a client concept through the shop all the way to delivery. “I am the advocate for the client to the organization and for the TAIT team to the client.”

Project Manager Sarah Grover (B.F.A. ’21)

Project Manager Sarah Grover (B.F.A. ’21)

Since arriving at TAIT in 2021, Grover has worked in the permanent install market, which has handled projects such as the UAE Pavilion at Expo2020 Dubai. “These theme parks pose different but similar challenges to what I faced in theater,” she said. “They are built for long-term, often daily and frequently outdoor use by the general public not just for a week or so by cast and crew in a theater venue." 

Grover enjoys solving problems daily with “some of the smartest people in the industry. Whether working with new technology or repurposing the old, the work and the people keep me on my toes and learning.” 

Most of her colleagues have 10 or more years of experience than she does. “I go into conversation with lots of questions and can’t be afraid to ask them to explain it to me again in small words,” she said. “Thankfully, my coworkers are very good at what they do and even better at explaining it.” 

The mentors: Advice that rings true

Grover learned that skill from faculty mentor Eric Nottke, whose advice continues to resonate: “Project managers don’t need to have all the answers; they just need to know who to ask.”

The other alumni also remember lessons from faculty. Ostdiek named several mentors who helped him get where he is today. “The advice I think about most often is from Jack Miller: ‘KISS: keep it simple, stupid.’ It is really easy (and often fun!) to come up with big, complex solutions, but the best ones are the simplest,” he said. 

Project managers don’t need to have all the answers; they just need to know who to ask.

Project Manager Sarah Grover, B.F.A. ’21

Yeoman said she was lucky to have two faculty mentors Howard Jones and Susan Crabtree. “Howard trained me to initiate my artistic process simply and build complexity as needed. As an artist, overthinking can be a big obstacle to overcome,” she said. “Under Howard, I learned to quiet my own thoughts and build artistic instincts that I could rely on.”

During her final year, Yeoman was paint shop foreman, which required her to work closely with Crabtree. “Her unwavering support made it possible for me to find my voice, which has helped me in my current position at such a large company,” Yeoman said.

Finneman recalled Scott Beckwith’s wisdom. “He always told me it sucks to be reliable any time I had a qualm about what was asked of me during a production,” Finneman said. “It serves as a good reminder that when you put your best self forward, people will recognize that and ask you to go above and beyond.”

Pickles aplenty

With all those Pickles on the TAIT payroll, it’s not unusual for the alumni to collaborate. Yeoman’s boss, Karla Ramsey, graduated with a B.F.A. from UNCSA in scene painting in 2007 and is scenic operations supervisor at TAIT. Every day, Yeoman said, she crosses paths with alumni who are managers, project managers, estimators, integrators, designers and even subcontractors. 

“TAIT has its fair share of Pickles,” said Ostdiek. “From lighting and sound alum to School of Dance graduates, you never know who you will run into on the road.”

By Lauren Whitaker

This article appeared in the 2023 issue of Scene.

October 16, 2023