There’s a New Show in Town: Degree Program Combines Engineering and Theatrics in Vegas

LAS VEGAS—The four-story curtain vanishes in a puff of wind. The stage turns from water to fire. Trapeze artists are flung through the air by an enormous overhead crane. There are flying horses, a floating house with a working chimney, and an airborne ship aboard which gymnasts perform.

And when the Cirque du Soleil’s show “O comes to an end, the robust ovation is as much for the engineering as it is for the acrobats.

As shows from Vegas to Broadway become more highly technical to serve an audience used to amazing special effects in film, the field of entertainment engineering—usually reserved for film stunts or videogames—has expanded to create impossible illusions for Cirque du Soleil and other major live productions.

“People have come to expect something bigger, something better. They’re looking for that wow factor,” says Joe Aldridge, coordinator of a new program in entertainment engineering and design at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that was set up in response to the demand. “They want to see spectacular acrobatics, they want to see spectacular costumes, and they want to see spectacular technology.”

As a result, he says, “The designers are becoming bolder and asking for things that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, they would have found a reason not to do. It’s the producers and the designers that are really pushing the envelope on this.”

At O, for instance, whose name is derived from the French word for water, the pumps that transform the stage into a 1.5 million-gallon lake had to be re-engineered to work noiselessly. Special speakers deliver cues to the performers when they’re submerged. And everything had to be built to resist corrosion created from the humidity of the heated water. The 1,800-seat theater was purpose-built at a cost of $100 million, including a gantry crane in the ceiling.

“You’re inventing technology,” says Aldridge, immediate past president of the U.S. Institute for Theater Technology. “More specifically, you’re adapting technology. A lot of what we use is available in industry, but that’s an environment where noise is only noise to the workers and there is no paying audience. When you add the audience, then you’ve recognized a problem you’ve got to find a solution to.”

Engineering student Christian Calvo at his internship with KA Theatre at the MGM Grand Hotel.

The people attracted to this field say they’re drawn to the intersection of engineering and imagination. “We’re pushing the bounds of the arts, really, as well as technology,” says Alan Holton, who graduated in May from the UNLV program (one of his classmates “flew” to the stage to pick up her degree) after transferring from Purdue, and now works as a sound technician for the Beatles Love show.

As a mechanical-engineering major, Holton says, he faced the prospect of waiting years before doing any real hands-on engineering. “Straight mechanical engineering was very textbook-y,” he says. “Really, what it came down to was, I got bored.”

Students in the UNLV program don’t have much time for that. Splitting their time between classes in theater and mechanical, civil, and electrical engineering and computer science, they meet in the first week in a shop in the fine-arts building hung with exposed pipe and crowded with machinery, gather on lab stools around a paint-spattered table, and begin to build, from wood and metal, solving functionality problems.

“It brings out the art that’s engineering,” says Matthew Howard, who originally majored in theater design. “You can always take something to a new level that no one’s ever seen before.” Not only that, he says: “In the technical theater, engineering is not only a nice thing to have—it’s becoming a requirement.”

And for those who are artists or theater lovers first, and engineers second, the entertainment-engineering field is a practical solution to a big problem: It’s well paying, and in extremely high demand. “I didn’t want to end up as a starving artist who’s barely scraping by,” says student Alora Gollogly.

The potential is boundless. Producers want Spider-Man to swing from his webs on Broadway. Audiences are now paying top dollar for an even bigger and more expensive Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas called in which martial artists perform on a 40-ton hydraulic cantilevered platform that rises 70 feet, tips 110 degrees in any direction, and spins. It took six months just to test it.

“If you want to be a mechanical engineer, go be a mechanical engineer,” says Aldridge. “But we’re finding that there are people who want to be challenged. They learn engineering, but they also learn how engineering principles are applied to entertainment. They want to expand their horizons and express themselves, and those are the kinds of students we want. We want the adventurous type.”

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Photo courtesy of UNLV

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