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Even in a city known for its glitzy entertainment scene, most people don’t think twice about what goes on backstage. Joe Aldridge, program coordinator for UNLV’s entertainment engineering design (EED) program, has always paid attention to the man (or woman) behind the curtain.
Aldridge built his career working on technical theater crews at hotels like the Frontier, Stardust, Hacienda, Sahara, and Bally’s. Now he shares that expertise with students in UNLV’s groundbreaking program, which combines technical theater with pure engineering. It’s a profession most don’t even know exists, but without it, Vegas wouldn’t be the entertainment mecca it’s become. The crews working on shows along the Las Vegas Strip, Broadway and beyond demand unique professional skills. Here’s what it takes to be great.
If the tech theater crew does its job, the audience will never even notice. The audience shouldn’t ever wonder how something happened; they should just be amazed that it did.
Along the same lines, if a show has to stop in the middle of the performance due to technical difficulties, then the tech crew failed. Of course there are always going to be little mishaps here and there; it’s a live performance. There are certain issues that just can’t be predicted but, before every show, the technicians have to make sure every piece of equipment and every piece of the set is in pristine working condition. Once money is exchanged for the show, the box office really doesn’t want to give it back due to technical difficulties.
This industry is unlike most other industries, especially ones that deal with engineering. Look at the automobile industry. Manufacturers and designers are working six, seven, and eight years out. They are designing cars today that we'll get in 2020.
In the technical theater industry, we have to have working prototypes that work for the whole run of the show. Take Cirque du Soliel’s KÀ for instance, the show relies entirely on this massive moving platform. It had to work the first time and then every subsequent time. There's not another platform or system like it in the world. You can't go to Home Depot and pick up another one.
Unlike an automobile where designers can test different functions, features, and prototypes, we don't have that luxury. So the uniqueness of the industry is one of the things that pushes UNLV’s EED program.
Theater technicians are often just as important as the performers, especially in this town. Audiences want to see major productions, and that’s not possible without the technical theater crew. Unlike the community theater or the theater we do here on campus, which focuses more on art form rather than the whole production, the eight Cirque shows on the Strip employ thousands of theater technicians to make each show a visual masterpiece, full of both theatrics and technical aspects.
Today, because of the advancement of shows, it’s not enough to just have an engineering or theater degree. Our students have to take classes in mechanical, civil and electrical engineering, computer science, theater, art, architecture, film and music. It’s not a right-brain/left-brain thing. It’s full brain!
They take engineering classes because they have to be able to create equipment and solutions that work. They take art and architecture classes because they have to be able to put pen to paper and quickly sketch out an idea to show the rest of the team. Theater and music classes are important so they understand the terminology. It's a unique nomenclature that they have to be able to understand.
Marrying engineering and design is not easy, but it’s imperative in this industry and in this city, especially.