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Theatre engineers' dragon capstone comes to life in 'She Kills Monsters'


April 2019 | By David Ching. Photo by Mike Atwell.


 

Avid Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast Carina Stocker might as well have hand-selected the play where she would complete her general engineering capstone project.

When Purdue Theatre debuted its final production of the 2018-19 season, Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, a collaborative project Stocker completed with multidisciplinary engineering seniors Elena Helvajian and Zack Kovalenko factored heavily into the climactic scene involving the fantasy role-playing game.

“As a huge fantasy and dragon nerd to begin with – and then it’s a D&D thing – it was really great for the timing to work out so perfectly on this project,” Stocker chuckled.

The dramatic comedy tells the story of young woman who attempts to connect with her deceased younger sister within the fantasy world her departed sibling left behind in a Dungeons & Dragons notebook.

“The climax of the game, and the climax of the play, is a confrontation between the lead character and this fantasy figure called Tiamat, who in Dungeons and Dragons lore is the queen of all evil dragons,” said Rich Dionne, the clinical assistant professor and technical director in the Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance who coordinated the students’ capstone project. “So the play calls for the appearance of a giant, five-headed dragon that the main character fights with sword in hand.”

The students who brought life to those five heads, as well as to the dragon’s claws? Stocker, Helvajian, and Kovalenko.

Scenic design graduate student Kate Cardinalli developed the concept for the dragon heads, where they are to appear homemade, as if they were built by the play’s characters themselves. The dragon heads needed to light up internally, mimicking the chromatic scheme that distinguishes Tiamat in D&D lore. And they needed to tip up and down, twist, have mouths that open and close, and be operated by performers in a style reminiscent of a traditional Chinese lion street dancer.

She Kills Dragons April 1st, 2019: Dragon Skeletons
Dragon skeletons at rehearsal, April 1, 2019

Tasked with those directions at December’s initial design meetings, Stocker and Helvajian then collaborated to construct functional head and neck mechanisms that cast members may wear, controlling the five heads as puppeteers. Meanwhile, Kovalenko created the two clenching claws that actors will operate onstage during the fight. 

It was an ambitious undertaking for the Purdue Theatre production, where in addition to the puppetry involved, cast members learned all-new physical skills from Chicago-based fight choreographer Orion Couling for the play’s numerous battle scenes.

“We are really stretching ourselves as a program to make this happen from a building perspective and from a performance perspective,” said director Amy Lynn Budd, a visiting assistant professor in the Rueff School. “These are all-new skills for these students that are highly relevant to the workplace, whether they’re going to be working backstage in technical design, which is a fast-growing field full of real, actual jobs, or whether they’re going into performance.

“Puppetry is an increasingly prevalent form in contemporary theatre. It used to be something that was seen as maybe just for kids, but that’s just not the case anymore.” 

One reason why the three multidisciplinary engineering students selected a focus in theatre engineering is because it directly relates to their career objectives. They all want to work in entertainment, whether it involves developing innovative theatre technology or designing theme park rides and aesthetics. So this project’s requirement that they work within a $500 budget to create functional, ergonomic dragon heads and claws provided valuable practical experience.

“Theatre happened to be the thing that would give me the most hands-on experience with a design and manufacture and delivery process,” Stocker said. “Engineering has programs like EPICS, which are really good and fun, but they don’t have anything like this process in terms of real-world application and design feedback and deliverables and budget.”

Helvajian – who was recognized as the Rueff School’s Outstanding Senior for the 2018-19 academic year – added that beyond the analysis, design, and budgeting work the collaboration required, it also taught her valuable lessons about project management. In retrospect, she and her collaborators might have attacked their work differently, perhaps by selecting a group leader who oversaw the work instead of separating it into three parts.

“I think the biggest lessons to be learned from this project are not from the analysis, are not from the construction,” said Helvajian, whose degrees will include majors in multidisciplinary engineering with a concentration in theatre engineering and in theatre design and production with an emphasis in technical direction. “They’re really on how to organize a team so that it’s successful.”

And then there were the equally valuable lessons for engineers who intend to work with artists. It takes practice for someone who lives in the technical realm to understand how to effectively communicate with creative types.

“What the theatre program does here is it teaches you how to think like the artist or teaches you how to talk to the artist. I don’t think engineering does that. I don’t think traditional mechanical or structural engineering teaches you how to think like an artist, not that they need to think like an artist, but they need to be able to have the same conversation,” said Helvajian, who also has a minor in mechanical engineering.

“So the biggest issues that I’ve seen on our team versus the design team is how to have those conversations. We can’t ask, ‘Do you want this to move two feet per second or four feet per second?’ They don’t know what that looks like. We need to ask, ‘How do you want it to move? Do you want it to get from this location to this location? How big do you want this to open?’ Because that’s something they can picture.”

This is the second year that a theatre engineer is completing a capstone project in a Purdue Theatre production. Last year, 2018 graduate Amanda Grimm’s project involved animating a trunk to roll down a set of stairs during a play.

It was an impressive technical achievement, Kovalenko said, but he prefers the multifaceted requirements that he and his collaborators faced this year. For instance, if the claws he developed were too uncomfortable for the performer to wear or if a dragon head Stocker and Helvajian designed was too heavy, they had to devise alterations that made their creations more performer-friendly.

She Kills Monsters Rehearsal April 8th, 2019: Dragons nearly finished
Dragons nearly complete at dress rehearsal on April 8, 2019

“This is much more actor-focused and –related, and I think it fits the engineering capstone project a lot better because we’re meeting way more requirements of stakeholders this way,” said Kovalenko, whose degree is in multidisciplinary engineering with a focus in theatre engineering and a minor in electrical engineering. “We really have to consider actors’ safety, their comfort. There’s a lot more than just automating something to roll down stairs, so it’s a bigger challenge, I think. Maybe not from a technical aspect – I feel like the rolling of the trunk was a larger technical challenge – but from the idea of having all these different parameters work within, it’s a lot more constrained problem.”

The budget and time constraints certainly created challenges that the student designers had to overcome. But once She Kills Monsters reached the stage, its final scene provided a showcase for the work Purdue theatre engineers are capable of producing.

“I’m so excited about the program and so excited about what it can do for the industry,” Helvajian said. “I just went to a conference where I promoted this program so much, and it was so exciting to see how excited the industry was about the program. The big first step is just making sure they know we exist.

“There are loads of engineers who work in entertainment. There are loads of engineers who work in theatre. But the fact that we have a degree that teaches students about both industries before they leave college is very much exciting.”