In Vegas, a class on building extravaganzas

Course melds theater and engineering for spectacles such as Superbowl shows and Celine Dion theatrics.

Behind the first-floor casino of the Sahara Hotel, a group of college students scribbles diligently on yellow pads. Oblivious to the "ka ching" of nearby slot machines, they are getting lectured on the fine points of induction motors, electrical relays, and capacitors of the hotel's rollercoaster which disgorges passengers in a back room.

Weeks before, the same group observed the back of Bellagio's $40 million Cirque du Soleil theatre to see how engineers make an onstage lake rise and fall on command. Before that, courtesy of the same man who made Peter Pan fly on Broadway in the 1950s, they received pointers on how to make an animal or automobile levitate.

The students are enrolled in a first-of-its-kind program that formally melds the diverse disciplines of engineering and theater to feed America's growing demand for blockbuster extravaganzas - supersized, of course.

And where better to teach a course on hi-tech spectacle in theater, sports events, rock concerts, civic celebrations, and theme parks than Las Vegas?

Driven by the need to diversify beyond gambling and create other draws for its 30 million annual visitors, Nevada's neon city has become home to entertainment megashows that range from dancing lasers at the Luxor's "Blue Man Group" to fireworks and flying divas at Celine Dion's show in a new theater built just for her by Caesar's Palace.

The program, offered by the school of Entertainment Engineering and Technology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is where "right-brain" techies meet "left-brain" thespians and dreamers, according to its creators.

"Let's call it marrying the creative mind with the logical mind so we can design and build whatever we can imagine," says Kent Bingham, president and CEO of Entertainment Engineering Inc., a former Disney "imagineer" and former chief structural engineer at Disney's EPCOT Center in Florida.

"The world of theater, theme parks, and entertainment are all morphing to the point where something like this would have to finally reach the university level," says Mr. Bingham, an adviser and sometime lecturer to students in the new program. "We will all be able to do so much more than any of these disciplines can do now within their own fields as currently embedded."

Observers cite the building of two pirate ships outside Treasure Island in Las Vegas as an example of how fragmented the two disciplines once were. The ships, which collapse and sink, were built by engineers and have had few mechanical problems over a decade. The lagoon beneath them, by contrast, was built by theater designers and lasted only three weeks before major repairs were needed.

As envisioned by Darrell Pepper, Dean of UNLV's engineering school, the new program will unite technological expertise, theatrical design, and engineering design. The school will also partner with firms in the area that specialize in sound, lighting, robotics, hydraulics, and more.

"From half-time shows at bowl games to Broadway to rock concerts to theme parks, the world of entertainment is getting fancier and fancier," says Scott Fisher, owner and president of Fisher Technical Services, an entertainment automation firm in Las Vegas. "It's getting harder and harder for the typical theater person to be up to speed on the computers, programs, and materials that are necessary to put on the shows they want. And technically trained engineers are like the math nerds with pocket protectors who don't know how to create dramatically."

That analysis jives with that of Masoud Feghhi, a first-year, engineering PhD. candidate taking the course.

"I hate to say it, but the cliché of engineers as math nerds is correct because we too often are afraid to think outside the box," says Feghhi. "By being thrown together with theater people and seeing behind these unbelievable shows in town, that is what I am learning to do."

Partly because of its location in Vegas, partly because of the vision of course creators, many observers say the entertainment-engineering program at UNLV - still a prototype at the moment - is unique.

The University of Central Florida and Georgia Institute of Technology offer degrees in digital media. and digital media design. The Institute for Creative Technologies at USC specializes in virtual reality applications. And the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon has specialized in robotics and virtual reality.

But none yet have the breadth attempted by UNLV or the community where students can receive such broad, hands-on experience.

"This course is certainly an important development for the future of shows like this around the world," says Cirque du Soleil's Tony Ricotta, operation's manager for "O." "They are definitely ahead of their time."

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