'Inside the Box' Drama Project Requires Innovative Thinking for Young Engineers

Dec. 5, 2007 — It seems an improbable pairing — drama students and first-year engineering students, working together to bring a series of one-act plays to life in the University of Virginia's Helms Theatre in the ultimate interdisciplinary activity.

Dubbed "Inside the Box," the collaborative project is in its fourth year of combining the creativity of writers, directors and actors and the inventiveness of young engineers.

The result? Hammers and oversized martini glasses fly through the air. A veil hovers, turns and changes color from silver to red. A dove flies out of a briefcase, startling the actors and the audience. Objects mysteriously and magically disappear, then reappear. And balloons pop on cue — most of the time.

Benjamin Kidd, a graduate student in electrical engineering, first proposed the idea to Paxton Marshall, associate dean of undergraduate programs in the School of Engineering, when Kidd signed on as a teaching assistant.

"Paxton told me that he wanted me to come up with an idea that I was interested in," says Kidd. "I was taking or had taken some classes in theatrical lighting with (associate drama professor) Lee Kennedy and, as an electrical engineer, initially thought that we could build something around lighting. But I thought that would be too constrained, while special effects permits more opportunities."

Kidd and Paxton contacted the drama department and laid out their plan.

Playwrights from associate drama professor Doug Grissom's class are paired with a director from drama professor Robert Chapel's directing and stage management class and teams of students from the introduction to engineering class. At the beginning of the semester, the playwrights are given a list of five special effects in an assignment that requires them to write a play including four of the effects. Later, the directors must add the remaining effect. Based on the specifications from the playwrights and directors, the engineering students design and build the effects.

The plays are staged inside "The Box," a 10-foot by 10-foot by 10-foot steel frame that Kidd designed to be strong enough for the engineers to hang the various effects, including cables and wires.

Not only are the engineers given a problem to solve — making objects rise and turn and change colors — but the playwrights and directors have to stage a play that makes sense around the effects.

"Basically, it is a very good experience for our directors not only to work on new plays with playwrights, but with designers and technicians as well, which the engineers actually are," said Chapel.

Jessica Tabaca confesses that she hadn't expected to be spending part of his first semester as an engineering student working in the theater.

"I think it was a good surprise, though, because we all had a lot of fun getting to work with our playwrights, directors and actors," said Tabaca, whose team created the flying hammer and a possessed chair for playwright Jimmy Norton's "Ghost Machine."  "It was exciting to watch all our hard work come together in one final and exciting project."

The engineers learn one other thing the dramatists already know: performing in front of a live audience is as daunting as it is rewarding.

"It was very exciting to create effects and see them applied in a play in front of a live audience," said Nicholas Lewis, a first-year engineering student. "All of our effects worked and the audience seemed to enjoy the performance."

To add to the complexity of the challenge and the reality of a theater production, the engineers, directors and actors are required to set up all technical equipment, scenery and props that their plays require in five minutes or less. Additionally, all effects created by the engineers must be controlled remotely from a minimum distance of 15 feet.

"When we introduce the project, the students think there is no way that they'll be able to do it," says Marshall. "Then they find that, by pooling their resources in teams and working through a structured design process, they can accomplish much more than they thought and learn some useful hands-on skills in the process."

Among the interesting dynamics that Marshall has seen as Inside the Box has evolved is the relationship between the first-year engineers and the drama students who are generally in their third or fourth years.

"The engineering students have just arrived, and they are awed by the upper-class drama students, who seem so extroverted and confident," he said. "But in working together for a common end, they see the human side of the dramatists; that they are uncertain and groping towards an optimal solution just like the engineers. The engineers see that their contribution is vital to the success of the plays and this gives them both confidence and a sense of responsibility to the team effort.

"At the end they have a great sense of accomplishment and pride in their work."

And while the dramatists are not unaccustomed to sharing their classroom with live audiences, the Inside the Box performances may be the only time in their academic careers that the engineers will bask in the appreciative applause that their work has generated.