Engineering + Theatre: Students use engineering and computer science skills to build sets in international theatre competition

Katherine Metzler works on an exhibit for the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space.

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

by Nicole Capozziello

Published July 15, 2019

Nearly every large event that we attend, from concerts to plays to commencement ceremonies, relies on engineering. It’s something we don’t think about unless something goes wrong – but the technology behind theatre is essential, skilled work.

“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, an incoming senior majoring in theatre and minoring in computer science

“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, an incoming 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, assistant professor of theatre and UB alum, specializes in technical theatre – this behind-the-scenes work existing 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 student from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) 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 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, 2019.

“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 program to be chosen for this distinction.

Shimon bid for the project and was named technical director by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology for the U.S. entry for the PQ in 2018. Shimon’s extensive experience in the field of technical theatre, as an educator, artist and certified rigger made him an outstanding candidate for the role – and he was able to show that students here had the dedication and expertise to carry out the work. 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 went on to build two exhibits: the emerging professional entry, designed by a Chicago-based collaborative, and the professional entry, designed by a team out of Houston, TX.

The team of nine students tasked with bringing these designs to life included Poulin and two others from SEAS: Katherine Metzler, who recently graduated with a double major in theatre and mechanical engineering; and Luke Tarnow-Bulatowicz, an incoming senior majoring in theatre and minoring in computer science.

In the fall, the team was presented with the two designs and began the drafting process, sending questions and sample pieces to the original design teams as they worked. They began building just after Thanksgiving, working from 5-9 at night after classes. In January, construction of the exhibitions began in earnest: the team worked 12 hours days, six or seven days a week, collectively contributing over 3,500 hours.

“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.” As they troubleshot and built, the team continued to communicate remotely with the design teams, who each came for three days at the very end of the process.

The sets had their first public viewing at the Center for the Arts in late January at the USITT Upstate NY 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.”

After they took down the sets in January, they were packed up and transported to Louisville, Kentucky for the USITT National Conference, which took place from March 20-23. From June 1-27, the team and Shimon were in Europe, with the PQ taking place from June 6-16.

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. Here at UB, about a third of the students in Shimon’s Introduction to Technical Theatre class are SEAS students, many of whom remain active in the department, academically and extracurricularly.

Such was the path of Metzler, who came into 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.

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.

The most recent Quadrennial, held in in 2015, featured attractions in more than 60 locations in the center of Prague, including 600 live events and over 150 expositions of performance design from 78 countries. The event attracted 180,000 visitors, with 6,000 accredited professionals and more than 1,300 students from all over the world actively participating.

“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.”

In addition to Shimon, UB faculty and staff included Dyan Burlingame (BA’ 04), clinical assistant professor and director of the Design and Technology Program; Eric Burlingame (MS ’18, BA ’03), theatrical technician from the Department of Theatre and Dance; Rick Haug (MA ’16), scene shop supervisor from the Department of Theatre and Dance; and John Rickus, head carpenter from the UB Production Group.

The other students who worked on the project were: Gina Boccolucci, BFA Theatre Design and Technology ’19; Joe Crumlish, BFA Theatre Design and Technology ’19; Emily Powrie, BA Theatre ’17, MA Theatre and Performance ’19, MFA Studio Art ’20; Aliza Schneider, BA Theatre, Management minor ’19; Becca Stock, BFA Theatre Design and Technology ’21; and Madison Sullivan, BFA Theatre Design and Technology ’19.