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Bridging Art and STATE-OF-THE-ART: Revisiting a 2002 examination of entertainment technology education.

At the birth of the modern era of high-tech show production in the 1980s, most entertainment technology training was theatre-focused and taught in conservatories. At that time, this made sense because the world of shows was a lot simpler. Concert touring had only started getting big recently and the trend of large, spectacular corporate and special events was in its infancy. Disney was just opening EPCOT, its second Florida park, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) (then WWF) was just starting its major expansion, and Cirque du Soleil was still a small local troupe in Quebec. The broader live entertainment market grew quickly along with an array of new technologies, however. In 2002, as a relatively new professor of entertainment technology at New York City College of Technology (also known as Citytech, which is part of CUNY), I wrote "Rethinking Entertainment Technology Education," an article for TD&T. This article returns to those ideas, revisiting how this expanded landscape impacts our training programs.

Serving Students 17 Years Later

The 2002 article postulated that traditional undergraduate conservatory theatre programs--while effective for performers, directors, and designers --were starting to fall behind in serving the needs of live entertainment technology students, at a time when the non-theatrical world was growing dramatically. The article included a list of then-new technologies and argued that many were too complex to learn the traditional way--working on lots and lots of theatre productions. Of course, practical show experience will always be important, but it's difficult for students to learn things like IP addressing, networked audio routing, moving light programming, rigging load calculation, or video server configuration under the pressures of a load-in or technical rehearsal. While our world has changed a lot in the intervening 17 years, much of what I wrote then still, I believe, holds true today.

The technologies the article identified in 2002 still have their flashiest and most obvious use in non-theatrical performance forms: concerts, corporate meetings, e-sports, museums, wrestling, cruise ship shows, Vegas residencies, theme park attractions, and other kinds of shows often derisively referred to by some theatre snobs as "spectacle" or "entertainment." The original article used 2001's Britney Spears Live From Las Vegas as an example of a modern, high-tech show that successfully exploited these storytelling technologies, and stated, "If you took a technician fresh out of a typical, traditional conservatory college theatre program today and dropped them backstage at a Britney Spears concert, they would likely be utterly lost and adrift in a vast sea of technology. This tour featured highly sophisticated video systems, synchronized pyro, flame effects, hundreds of moving lights, automated scenery, show control systems, enormous rain curtains, digital audio systems, lasers--you name it. Today, what used to be considered special effects are now core show technologies used to reach millions of people." For a comparable show example today, consider the 2018 Taylor Swift reputation stadium tour, which makes Spears' 2001 spectacular and massive show look tiny. These shows, 17 years apart, tell us that the use of these technologies has expanded along with the market. Clips from both shows are readily available online. (Britney Spears Live From Las Vegas was broadcast on HBO and Taylor Swift's reputation is currently streaming on Netflix.)

In 2002, City Tech was one of a handful of undergraduate schools focused specifically on entertainment technology and the demands of the larger live entertainment industry beyond the theatre. This program continues to thrive today, with a larger student body and many successful alumni working in the field. Since the 2002 article, a few similar bachelor's programs have developed, a few theatre departments have rebranded to address the larger market, and vocationally oriented associate degrees in entertainment technology are being offered around the country. This is a great development, offering a variety of approaches for a variety of student backgrounds as the market continues to grow.

However, because so many of these entertainment technology programs are relatively new, they fly beneath the radar of many college consultants, and the traditional theatre conservatories still dominate the "best of" lists. And it appears, from examining a number of undergraduate curricula, that the leadership of quite a few traditional theatre departments continue to assume these newer, popular live performance forms--and, therefore, their related technologies--aren't worth embracing, and that design is the only thing worth teaching. This attitude is to the detriment--or even exploitation--of those schools' technically-minded students, and opportunities to learn these technologies are important, because in the 21st century, "legitimate" theatre is only a small part of the overall live entertainment market.

Multi-Billion-Dollar Market

According to the Broadway League, the 2017-2018 Broadway season grossed $1.7 billion at home and $1.4 billion on the road, up from $526 million in 2000-2001. TCG: Theatre Communications Group reports that not-for-profit theatres took in $1.5 billion. This totals up to an impressive $4.6 billion in annual ticket sales for the professional theatre market in the United States. However, live event conglomerate Live Nation's concert revenue in 2018 was $8.8 billion, part of a 2018 global concert touring industry that took in $10.4 billion, according to Pollstar. And that's just concert touring. Cirque du Soleil is privately held but its annual revenue is often estimated in the range of $700-800 million (Rendell). Privately held Feld Entertainment is rumored to be in the same ballpark financially, and publicly-traded WWE took in more than $144 million from its live events in 2018 (plus TV revenues, of course). The event industry is a bit harder to pin down, but one analyst puts the business-to-business event industry worldwide in 2018 at more than $30 billion (EventMB). The theme park industry also dwarfs the theatre business: Disney alone took in $20 billion in 2018 in its Parks and Resorts segment (Walt Disney Company). The four Disney parks in Orlando alone have a total annual attendance of about 50 million (Magic Guides); multiply that by a ticket price around $100 and you've got $5 billion, more than all professional theatre in the U.S.

Disney, Cirque, Feld, the cruise lines, and many other commercial entertainment companies are now a fixture at USITT conferences, recruiting our graduates. This would have been inconceivable a decade or two ago, but it is a fantastic development. To adequately prepare technical students for this larger world, we need to provide opportunities to get a solid foundation in the technologies that form the literal backbone of modern shows, from stadium mega-spectaculars to local rock shows, and from Broadway to the off-off production.

21st-Century Technologies

The 2002 article included a list of "new core technologies that need to be at least introduced in college entertainment technology programs and incorporated into student learning objectives." The list has held up pretty well, and it seems that, after a period of rapid technological development from the mid-1980s through about the first decade of the 21st century, the larger market has accepted what the article identified as new in 2002. Compare Taylor Swift's massive and impressive show to the 2001 Britney Spears show, which was--by any standard--spectacular. Compared to Spears, Swift doesn't actually have a lot of new technology on her show, she just has more of it--more structures, more lights, more video walls, more integration, more networks, and more software controlling it all.

The industry now has a fairly comprehensive set of mature, stable, sophisticated, and powerful show technologies and techniques, and many of us have been teaching these topics for decades; we have successful pedagogical models for this content.

cal models for this content.

The original list targeted the thendominant conservatories, so areas well covered by traditional theatre production (general safety issues, scenic construction, conventional lighting, scene painting, costumes, welding, etc.) were not included (for a more comprehensive list, see USITT's Essential Skills project). The 2002 list was also a bit ambitious, so the new version (with a few refinements from the original) breaks into two areas: "21st Century Technologies" for undergraduates and then a list of "Advanced Topics for Graduate Students or Working Professionals." Following are the 21st Century Technologies:

* Computer Systems and Networking/Entertainment Control Systems. This topic is now first in the list because it is critical and seems underrepresented both in traditional conservatory and entertainment technology programs. In 2002, Ethernet was still on its way to dominating the industry, and "computer networking" and "entertainment control" were listed as separate items. But the market has evolved; today, almost all modern entertainment control and media transmission systems are built on networks, and networks form the backbone of all kinds of systems, from lighting to sound and from video to automated scenery. Students don't need Cisco networking certification, but all technical students these days should know how to set an IP address and what a subnet is. This area still seems to be underrepresented, perhaps because it does not fall into traditional theatre department structures or curricula. Fortunately, the rise of the network has also meant that once students understand these more abstract networking concepts, they can get by with less knowledge of previously necessary bit- and voltage-level details of systems like DMX-512 and MIDI.

* Programming. Given the speed at which we work in our industry, we will likely always be doing high-level system integration for shows, rather than low-level custom development. However, as systems grow in sophistication and integrate over the network, the need for programming skills will increase. Not everyone needs to be a master coder, but basic programming concepts are important to understand. In addition, show control (connecting two or more entertainment control systems together) these days is mostly networking with some programming thrown in, and as networking has offered easy connections, more and more systems are being connected together.

* Math and Science. Most entertainment technology students do not need calculus, although if they can handle it, they should be encouraged to take it; all entertainment technology students should get through at least one college-level math class and also have some background in science. Physics is the most relevant. Math is critical to understanding many of the subjects listed here and the world today. Looking around at various curricula, it seems that many theatre schools are still de-emphasizing these subjects in favor of multiple theatre or art history courses (important for designers) or acting even for their technical students. One university curriculum reviewed requires only one course of "math or science."

* Electrical Power. This was critical in 2002 and is even more so today, when almost every device on a stage needs power. Some of the issues of the massive power systems we build on big shows today are likely beyond the realm of undergraduate students, but today's students need a solid foundation in Ohm's law, the power law (here is where the math comes in), basic grounding, electrical safety, relevant codes, and similar topics. They should know how to solder and do basic wiring. Some schools are covering these areas as part of their lighting curriculum, but it's really important for all show technology students.

* Rigging. The 2002 advice still stands today: "A large percentage of the shows in the [commercial] world are done with trusses and chain motors, not counterweight rigging systems. All students should have at least an introduction to this kind of temporary rigging." It is important for undergraduates to have a basic understanding of rigging techniques, ratings, the forces at play, and their safety implications.

* Moving Light Operation, Configuration, and Programming. At just about every level today, there are moving lights in all types of shows and the technology has stabilized a lot. LEDs are a mature technology now, both in conventional and moving fixtures; they share some of the same control ideas as moving lights. So, every lighting technician should have at least a basic proficiency in these areas. This is one area where coverage at many schools seems to have improved.

* Sound System Design and Engineering. Many theatrical sound courses focus on theatrical sound design and sound score creation, but the vast majority of sound for live events involves live systems, which are increasingly digital and networked. Being able to keep a microphone from feeding back or clocking an audio network are more marketable job skills today than being able to write a theatrical underscore. And, it's critical to be able to deliver sound to an audience, so sound system engineering and analysis skills are important. It seems that in many programs, the engineering side is still getting short shrift.

* Video Systems. Video is now ubiquitous, often replacing or being integrated with scenery. Video is also easier, cheaper, and more powerful than ever, including everything from amazing, low-cost projectors doing video mapping to high-end projectors hung from arena ceilings, and from motion tracking video systems to massive video walls. Shows large and small depend on video presentation these days, and this means students must understand the basics of digital video with all its attendant issues. The ability to get video systems connected and controlled is an in-demand skill in the market, but it seems to be underrepresented in many programs.

* Digital Fabrication Techniques. This broad-ranging skill area includes 3D printing, waterjet/laser and CNC cutting, large-scale digital printing, and other similar techniques. While mentioned in relation to machinery construction in 2002, these techniques are ever more common and cost-effective in industry today. There's a lot to learn here, but the key concepts can be introduced without massive technology investments.

Advanced Topics for Graduate Students or Working Professionals

* Electronics. In 2002, electronics was on the list as a core technology for undergraduates. These days system integration typically occurs at a higher network level, so low-level electronics knowledge--while certainly interesting and valuable--is not really a high-priority core subject for live entertainment technologists. If students are interested in learning electronics, schools should wholeheartedly encourage them, perhaps by seeking out more hands-on education than one would receive in the theoretical, mathintensive courses often offered by college physics departments.

* Advanced Electrical Power. Large scale entertainment power systems have a variety of issues (power transformers, power factor, breaker sizing, etc.) that are important but need experience to understand.

* Structures. As scenic designers get more daring, and as insurance and liability issues increase, it is important that technical designers are able to help push the envelope safely. The only way to do this is to actually learn and do some engineering. A few wellknown grad schools teach this very well.

* Mechanics and Scenic Automation. Because a huge number of shows today rely on automated scenery, the basic concepts of machine tools, mechanisms, motion control and methods should be introduced. Several grad schools also cover this area well.

* Certification. At the time of the original article in 2002, ESTA's Entertainment Technician Certification Program (ETCP) was still several years in the future. Today, in another sign of the industry's maturation, certifications are widely recognized in the electrical and rigging fields. Although undergraduate students likely are ineligible to sit for these tests, they should be aware of them and working towards them. Working professionals should strongly consider sitting for the test in their area of expertise.

* Other Technologies. As of this writing, a number of buzzword technologies have emerged, including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), extended reality, "holographic" projection, etc. While some of this technology has become cheaper and more widely available in recent years, few of these technologies are really new; VR has existed for decades, and today's so-called "holographic" projection is really a retooling of a 150-year-old Pepper's Ghost effect. None of these have yet risen to "core" technology status for live shows, although of course VR and AR have great uses in pre-visualization and show preparation. But of course, all these areas should continue to be investigated and explored.

Build a Bridge

In 2019, is conservatory-style training still the right approach for a student who is passionate about working backstage? At several enlightened conservatories I know, the backstage faculty understand and embrace the realities of the market and address them as best they can in the larger context of the school. However, I recently met with the head of a major theatre conservatory, and he told me about the thousands of performer applicants the school receives each year for the dozen or so spots available in their musical theatre program. With that kind of market pressure and successful alumni performing on Broadway, are conservatories likely to change any time soon?

I hope that conservatories--which, in a different era, gave me a great education --will continue to evolve and embrace not only these technologies but also new performance forms, since I think there are good reasons to do so from a purely artistic perspective. As I wrote in 2002, "Whatever you may think of the cultural impact of these new forms of entertainment, the audience is voting with its dollars, and the language of live-performance storytelling is now evolving fastest outside the theatre world. These new high-tech mega-spectaculars have taken traditional theatrical techniques, and have morphed and augmented them into something new." Of course, the high-end mega-spectaculars like the Taylor Swift tour have proven this point from 17 years ago, but from a theatrical perspective, cost-effective show technology trickling down has allowed even more storytelling innovation to happen on smaller, technologically driven productions like the amazing Say Something Bunny in New York and countless others.

But in 2019, the conservatory is not the only game in town, and, with my background, if I were a technical theatre student looking for a college today, I would be considering my options. Students can get a great education in a number of four-year bachelor's programs (like at City Tech), and career-oriented associate's degree programs around the country can provide a great start in the industry. In addition, all kinds of in-person and online training options are offered by unions, institutes, manufacturers and others.

As a passionate lover of all kinds of live shows and a long-time advocate for show business, I still believe, as I wrote in 2002: "We need to bridge the worlds of ivory-tower theatre education with the commercial world of live entertainment production. I believe this bridge would be beneficial not just to the technical students, but to the whole art of performance. When high-tech systems such as video, moving lights, computerized sound, mechanized scenery and show control are mastered by even average entertainment technicians, they can advance the state of their craft, which will allow artists to advance the state of their art."

Works Cited

The Broadway League. 2019. "Statistics --Broadway in NYC." Research & Statistics.

The Broadway League. 2019. "Statistics--Touring Broadway." Research & Statistics.

CUNY City Tech. 2019. Entertainment Technology undergraduate degree models.

EventMB Studio Team. 17 May 2019. "100 Event Statistics 2019 Edition." EventMB.

Frankenberg, Eric. 30 November 2018. "Taylor Swift's reputation Stadium Tour Breaks Record for Highest-Grossing US Tour."

Gensler, Andy. 17 December 2018. "2018 The Year in Live: The Industry Weighs In (And Everything is Awesome!)."

Huntington, John. 2002. "Rethinking Entertainment Technology Education." Theatre Design & Technology 38, no 4 (Fall): 10-19.

Huntington, John. 22 February 2019. "Theatrical Snobbery's Impact on Aspiring Technically-Minded Live Entertainment Students." Control Geek.

Live Nation Entertainment. 28 February 2019. "Live Nation Entertainment Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2018 Results."

Rendell, Mark. 6 July 2017. "Cirque du Soleil Acquires Blue Man Group Production Company."

Spears, Britney. 2001. Britney Spears Live From Las Vegas. Concert broadcast by HBO and available here as of this printing:

Swift, Taylor. 2018. reputation. Concert available streaming on Netflix as of this printing.

TCG (Theatre Communications Group). 2018. Theatre Facts, 2017.

The Walt Disney Company. 8 November 2018. "The Walt Disney Company Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year Earnings for Fiscal 2018."

"Walt Disney World Statistics." 2019. Magic Guides.

WWE. 7 February 2019. "WWE Reports Record Results For Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2018."


John Huntington is a professor of entertainment technology at New York City College of Technology/City Tech, and author of Sow Networks and Control Systems. Through his company Zircon Designs, Huntington freelances as an entertainment and show control systems consultant, and sound engineer, and is an award-winning photographer and storm chaser. He blogs at
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Author:Huntington, John
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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