23 October 2020

Introduction to the Theater

Whether or not you have attended a play, and if you have been in a play but it was a while ago, take a break before you go on, and read a play book that includes stage directions, production instructions and descriptions of sets and set changes. It should be easy to find one at a library. Pick a play that you have enjoyed seeing, if not live on stage perhaps in its movie form. As you read, pay special attention to notes about sets, and stage directions What did you engineers see in the play that caught your engineering attention? How about set elements like part of a house that is sturdy enough to safely support actors “upstairs” yet light enough to be moved out of the way to provide space for a different set in the next act? What other engineering things go on to make a theater production happen. Here’s a scenario that may jostle your memory:

Somehow, everyone assumes that the systems will all work as planned. But that does not happen by accident, it happens by design. A person enters from the left, throws a light switch on the wall, and the first floor is bathed in uniform light—that control system again. The person goes to the stairs visible at the back of the stage and calls a name. Upstairs another person comes out of a “room,” replies, and comes down the stairs. The temporarily constructed second floor and stairs are strong enough to support the actor—structural design at work!

And this happens routinely, five evenings and two afternoons a week, hopefully through several seasons of extreme heat and cold. It only happens thanks to good design, using well-engineered, super-reliable components and systems. Have you ever experienced an engineering systems failure during a play that you attended? Probably not, they’re usually engineered very well.* The potential loss by disappointing an audience is too great to risk. If you have a a friend who is involved in a local theater activity, you can get an even better feeling for the role of engineering in the theater if your friend can arrange a behind-the-scenes tour for you Safety in the Theater Because the stage is occupied by people who are deeply involved in the play, and the theater is (hopefully) filled with a live audience, there is a very strong focus on safety. One of the ways this is provided for is by using what may seem to an engineer to be unusually high Safety Factors in structural design in a theater

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