Entertainment Engineering (a play in at least four acts)

Entertainment Engineering (a play in at least four acts)

by Kati Sidwall, RTDS Technologies Inc., Canada


Heavy red curtains slide open, lights come up, and the stage is set. The backdrop is the chilly Canadian city of Winnipeg - more specifically, the brick-clad warehouses of the historic Exchange District, which was once the heart of Canada's grain industry...

The year is 1998, and the wheat trade has given way to a lively collection of bars, restaurants, art studios, and theatres.

The leading lady, a small girl, crosses the threshold of a brick building. The girl and the building are ordinary to the untrained eye, but as one enters the other, both are transformed. The plainness of the day melts into a memory and the girl beholds a special place where great monsters leer from above, the faces of deities deck the halls, and valiant knights battle to the death over the last chocolate chip cookie. These are puppets on strings, masks on hooks, and children hard at work.

This is a theatre school, and it is where our story begins. 

Act I: Foundations - As you may have already discerned, I have a flair for the dramatic. Twenty years ago, my parents recognized that a formal outlet might be required for my creative tendencies and enrolled me in classes at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People. The school offers courses in characterization, movement, voice, scene-work, improvisation, puppetry, film, animation, and musical theatre for children and young adults. It also offers performance companies, allowing youth to audition for a spot in an intensive rehearsal process and opportunity to perform on the mainstage. I learned and performed in this environment throughout my youth. It's here that I received my foundational training in acting, but more importantly, where I first fell in love with being on stage. For me, theatre is a transformative habit. It is technically challenging and has benefits that are hard to quantify: it encourages empathy and tolerance, develops memory, stimulates imagination, and teaches cooperation.

I moved on to high school, attending a school with a compelling reputation for performing arts. While other kids were up early running track or spending late nights at the pool, my contemporaries and I were preparing for auditions, memorizing lines, and rehearsing like our lives depended on it. The school offered singing, dancing, and acting classes, but also ran annual shows that were mounted on some of the most beautiful stages in Winnipeg. A few graduates had even moved on to perform on Broadway.

The program was competitive. I learned that in a room full of performers, I'll never have the most' talent. To compete, I had to develop skills beyond the singing, dancing, and acting techniques we were taught. I learned to listen constantly, take direction like it was the word of God, and reinvent my creative approach over and over again.

When presented with a chunk of script, I would analyze it for interpretive opportunities beyond what was immediately obvious to me.

I practiced different methods of creative problem-solving and often moved willingly toward the unknown. Essentially, I learned to approach theatre like an engineer.

 Act II: The Engineering Musical - In high school, I engineered my performances. In university, I performed my engineering.

When I began my undergraduate degree at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, I promised myself that I would find a way to pursue theatre as a hobby. In the summer between my third and fourth years, I delivered on that promise. I wrote the skeleton of a musical parody (a comedy based on an existing show) and decided I would mount it at the university as a the first-ever Carleton Engineering Musical - a show entirely produced and performed by engineering students. Two other universities I knew of had been successful in similar endeavors, and now had lasting traditions of theatre within their engineering departments. I wanted the same thing for Carleton. This was an extremely foolish notion that coincidentally turned out well.

I assembled a team. I would write, direct, and produce the show, but was supported by an assistant director, a team of writers and editors, a choreographer, a vocal director, and a band director, among others. I plastered the halls of the engineering building with posters, advertising auditions that would run out of the student lounge at night. I had no idea if anyone would show up. They came in droves. There were first-year students who still had their trumpets from high school band; upper year students who could swing dance; peers I'd known throughout my degree who had honed their voices by singing in the shower before long days of lectures and labs. And, against all odds, there was a professor who wanted to join us on stage. He was an experienced community theatre actor who would narrate the show. Between the professor and several excellent auditions, we had a stellar cast, with our performers spanning Civil, Electrical, Mechanical, Biomedical, and Aerospace Engineering, to name only a few. There was a Psychology student as well - I thought it might not be a bad thing for the engineers to interact with someone outside the faculty.

In all, nearly fifty students would be onstage, or backstage during the show. We made sure that everyone who auditioned had a spot-on stage, and that anyone who felt comfortable with speaking had at least one or two lines. This presented a technical challenge involving at least one Excel spreadsheet. The focus was not only on optimizing the quality of the show itself, but also on optimizing the experience of the individual by ensuring their personal interests and skills were addressed and highlighted.

While the choreographer spent her evenings teaching dance to engineers with two left feet, and the band director tried to whip a very unlikely orchestra into shape, the writing team finalized the script and song lyrics.

The lyrics referenced Bernoulli's principle, Kirchhoff's laws, molecular geometry, and the general struggles of being an engineering student. "Let's do the time warp again" became "Let's study all night again."

The show was an outlet for students, allowing them to express and share their struggles and to celebrate the one universal commonality - that we're all in it together. There may have been some other consistent themes as well, including beer and Star Wars.

On opening night, I stepped out from behind the curtains into a spotlight to sing the first song of the show. I had been on stage many times before, but there was something notable about that moment. Blinded by the lighting and my near-crippling nerves, I sung words I had written in my basement apartment out to an invisible audience, knowing that nearly every seat in the theatre was full but unable to see faces.

I leapt into what felt like the void, and for a moment, I was suspended in mid-air as I sung through the first verse. Then the audience caught me (like they always do), applauding and cheering.  If you have done something similar - like giving a paper presentation at a PAC World conference, for example - you might know what that feels like. Theatre is an adrenaline sport.

The engineering musical has continued as an annual tradition at Carleton. The shows have improved every year, but I'm pleased to say that beer and Star Wars are still recurring themes.

More at www.cengmusical.ca.

Act III: Showtunes - Having graduated years ago and moved on to a career in real time simulation, I now perform regularly with a Winnipeg community musical theatre company called Piper Pride Productions.

This is a group of people who share a love of theatre as a hobby, led by a "retired" musical theatre instructor with an impressive list of performance history and a high standard for show quality.

To rehearse and perform alongside others who have careers seemingly unrelated to theatre but who also maintain the balance and make it work - that is to share something special. Backstage as the house lights dim and the orchestra begins playing, I stand with teachers, paramedics, and graphic designers, and watch as everyone silently tries to contain their excitement and nerves.

I first auditioned for the company in 2016. They were staging a comedy revue show that poked fun at many of Broadway's biggest hits. I was cast in a few roles, one of which was particularly challenging for me vocally - the task was to sing a parody of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Misérables. The song is intended to be powerful and emotionally impactful, and the effect is usually achieved by using a singing technique called belting.

Belting requires the singer to mix their lower and upper vocal resonances in a specific proportion which results in a powerful but well-controlled sound. "I Dreamed a Dream" also contains a sustained note under crescendo, requiring some air control. I enjoyed workshopping my singing technique to improve the delivery of the piece.

I played with adjusting the physical factors that change the quality, range, and stamina of the voice. Belting involves dominant use of the thyroarytenoid muscle and tends to engage the hard palate in the mouth - I'm more accustomed to engaging my cricothyroid muscle and engaging my soft palate.

It also requires massive engagement of the torso muscles and a focus on breath support.

Some of these factors become ingrained over time and don't demand a contrived effort, but others do require some intention. If done incorrectly over a long period, belting can seriously damage the voice, so correct technique is important for reasons beyond the listener's pleasure. It can be challenging to remain mindful of these physical aspects while staying in character, engaging the audience, sometimes dancing, and often within the confines of an uncomfortable costume.

Choreography is another beast altogether. Since joining the company, my inventory of dance shoes has grown to include jazz shoes, ballet slippers, tap shoes, high heels designed for dance ("character shoes"), and discreet slip-on underfoot pads that create the illusion of no shoes at all. Beyond the physical demands of dancing - a good workout, especially if you're singing simultaneously - each show presents many different routines to memorize.

Travelling frequently for work means a lot of late-night pirouettes and buffalo steps in hotel rooms. Add lyrics, lines, scene and set changes, and the fact that the company stages two shows every year, and you have a veritable memory challenge on your hands. If only it were as easy as adding more RAM. Instead, I try to learn from my (many) mistakes and come up with new tricks to commit combinations to memory.

In this way, theatre serves as an unexpectedly powerful tool for cognitive maintenance and development.

It's a pleasure and a privilege to perform for any audience, but when friends, family, and colleagues are there to support you, the experience is heightened. My colleagues at RTDS Technologies have been particularly supportive - these performances have suspiciously high numbers of electrical engineers in attendance.

More at www.piperprideproductions.ca.

Act IV: Fringe - Fringe Festivals - experimental (and typically un-juried) theatre festivals - take place globally, but Winnipeg is host to a particularly vibrant one. Every year, theatrically-inclined folks gather in the city to perform and watch nearly two hundred works, most of which are independently created and produced. After limiting my participation to "voracious attendee" for many years, I finally got closer to the stage this year. I co-directed a play (written by a friend and co-director) telling the extraordinary true story of an English journalist who disguised herself as a male soldier to infiltrate the trenches of World War I.

The show was a big undertaking for the Fringe Festival, featuring some fairly elaborate sets and props designed at immersing the audience in the world of the combat engineer - a largely forgotten theatre of war. We took care to tell the story with as much historical accuracy as possible, using legitimate World War I era items or recreating them with painstaking accuracy. This included two legitimate firearms which we received firearm safety training to use.

Being involved in Fringe and experiencing the process of bringing a handwritten show to life again has inspired me to write my own show. This might be the next new addition to my theatre résumé.

Intermission:  The leading lady is no longer small, and she left that old brick building long ago. The year is 2018, and the scene is set very differently. The lights are dim. Multiple backdrops come in and out of focus: getting into costume backstage at a small Winnipeg theatre, rehearsing for the Fringe Festival in a friend's basement, reading a script on a plane, reviewing dance steps in a hotel room.

This is a different kind of theatre school, but it is not where our story ends. Let's take an intermission and see what happens next. 


Kati Sidwall received her Bachelor of Engineering from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. While at school, she founded the annual Carleton University Green Energy Symposium, managed the engineering student newspaper, and founded the Carleton Engineering Musical – an annual charity musical produced and performed by engineering students. She is now based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she spends time performing with a community musical theatre company, writing stories for the page and the stage, and playing Dungeons & Dragons. Kati works in technical marketing at RTDS Technologies Inc., the world standard for real time digital power system simulation.

Power. Flexible. Easergy.
BeijingSifang June 2016