Engineering + Theatre

Students combine skills to build sets for international competition

Students building exhibit for the Prague Quadrennial.

Mechanical engineering student Katherine Metzler works on an exhibit for the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space. Photo credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki.

“In computer science, you build your program, test it out, and get to see it on the website – that’s the end. Here, I got to draft the floor, build the floor, draft the kiosks that go on the floor, build the kiosks, build the software that goes in to the kiosks, and then I get to see everybody interact with it.”
Luke Tarnow-Bulatowicz, computer science student and theatre major

By Nicole Capozziello

Published December 16, 2019

Nearly every large event that people attend, from concerts to plays to commencement ceremonies, relies on engineering. But what most attendees don’t think about — unless something goes wrong — is that the technology behind theatre is essential, skilled work.

“In any field of technical theatre, the audience should be so enrapt in the show itself that your role kind of gets brushed over,” says Alex Poulin, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in theatre. “The story is the most important thing and good technical theatre supports that, helping the overall production feel natural.”

Jon Shimon, an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance and a UB alumnus, specializes in technical theatre — the behind-the-scenes work that exists at the intersection of art and function. It is a world in which theatre and engineering come together in precise, beautiful and extraordinary ways.

Over the years, a number of students from UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have participated in this world, beginning by taking Shimon’s Introduction to Technical Theatre Course, and going on to provide technical direction and support for shows of all kinds.

This past school year, the long hours of creative problem-solving paid off when a group of students got the opportunity of a lifetime: to build two sets for the Prague Quadrennial (PQ ), an international event showcasing the best in performance design, scenography and theatre architecture, which took place June 6-16.

“It’s an honor to be able to represent the United States in this way,” says Shimon, who travelled to Prague along with the group of students and others from the Department of Theatre and Dance. Shimon also points out that it’s an unprecedented opportunity for a group of undergraduate students; UB is the first school without an MFA in theatre to be chosen for this distinction.

Interested students applied to be on the team in the fall; many of them had been working with Shimon for years and had taken a spring 2018 special topics class, which focused on the pre-production details for the Prague Quadrennial and used it as a case study.

He and the UB team built two exhibits: the emerging professional entry, designed by a Chicago-based collaborative, and the professional  entry, designed by a team out of Houston.

The team of nine students tasked with bringing these designs to life over more than 3,500 hours of work included Poulin and two others from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences: Katherine Metzler, who recently  graduated with a double major in theatre and mechanical engineering; and Luke Tarnow-Bulatowicz, a senior majoring in theatre and minoring in computer science.

“We didn’t just take the drafts and hand them off,” says Poulin, who often moonlights in the UB Nanosatellite Laboratory. “We got to take the project from a piece of paper to building it in real-life.”

The sets had their first public viewing at the Center for the Arts in late January at the Upstate New York Regional Section of the U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology winter meeting and jobs fair. People had the opportunity to appreciate and interact with the team’s work, from the painting to the LED pixel tape lighting.

“In computer science, you build your program, test it out, and get to see it on the website – that’s the end,” Tarnow-Bulatowicz says. “Here, I got to draft the floor, build the floor, draft the kiosks that go on the floor, build the kiosks, build the software that goes in to the kiosks, and then I get to see everybody interact with it.”

Growing need for crossover between engineering and theatre

The need for crossover between engineering and technical theatre is growing nationally, with several universities introducing formalized programs in the field. This year, Purdue will host the first-ever “Symposium on Education in Entertainment and Engineering,” at which Metzler will present. At UB, about a third of the students in Shimon’s Introduction to Technical Theatre class are engineering students.

Metzler came to UB knowing that she loved to be around creative people, and wanted to use her technical talents to carry out their vision. Metzler initially thought she would pair civil engineering with architecture, but after taking Shimon’s intro class, discovered that technical theatre was an exciting synthesis of her passions and skills.

She later switched to mechanical engineering, and used her involvement in the PQ as the basis for her senior capstone project, a culmination of her training in both departments.

Arriving in Prague

Upon arriving in Prague, the team had two days to set up their exhibit for the final time. Then, they had an opportunity to check out innovative work in technical theatre, connect with industry greats and see the international audience interact with their work.

“When we look at the set all put together, we can say that all of us built all of that together,” says Poulin. “It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Computer science student and theatre major Luke Tarnow- Bulatowicz assembles an exhibit in Prague.

Students assemble one of the exhibits in Prague.

One of the sites of the 2019 Prague Quadrennial.

UB undergraduate student Alex Poulin examines an element of the PQ exhibit.

UB students worked more than 3,500 hours to complete the project. Photo by Meredith Forrest Kulwicki