TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – At The University of Alabama, the distinct disciplines of theatre and engineering were acting as a band of brothers during the 2008-2009 academic year in an attempt to make Shakespeare’s history play “Henry V” come alive, both theatrically and mechanically.
The story begins with an idea of Seth Panitch, assistant professor in UA’s theatre and dance department. He was planning to stage “Henry V” in the spring 2009 semester, and he wanted to bring the excitement and immediacy of the play, which features the epic Battle of Agincourt, home to audiences.
“I’ve always felt that any time you can take classical theater and make it immediate, it’s more powerful than anything else, because the ideas and the passions within tend to be larger than modern theater,” Panitch says.
So looking for ideas about stage devices, Panitch went to a mechanical engineering design class taught by Dr. Beth Todd, associate professor in the College of Engineering. He presented the class with a set of problems. For one, he wanted effects for the big battle scene. For another, he wanted to bring a hanging that occurs offstage in Shakespeare’s text live onstage to reveal more of the character of the newly crowned Henry V.
“It’s one thing for him to hear that it’s happened; it’s another thing for him to see it and actually give the order,” Panitch says. “It makes him kill the last part of his past and allows him to move forward as king.”
The class took Panitch’s vision and, breaking down into eight groups, began to work on effects.
“First we watched videotape of the play just to get an idea of what exactly the context was, and then I let each of them brainstorm as to what aspect of the play they’d like to create an effect for,” Todd says. “They all went in different ways.”
The next step was to take their brainstormed ideas and convert them into working prototypes. Because the students had to hunker down and build the devices themselves, the discipline of making working models ensured their reach would not exceed their grasp.
“Having to construct a prototype provides certain constraints,” Todd says. “It puts limits on what they can do.”
Meanwhile, the students seemed to relish the change to tackle live theater.
“I thought this project was great, because most people don’t think about engineering and theater together,” says class member Courtney Taylor. “This project opens up other venues for engineering students to realize that there is so much that can be done with an engineering degree. It was something that we will remember and take with us as we got out into the work force.”
Their ideas impressed Panitch. One group created an effect that would have fog rise up from under the audience. A second group created an effect that would simulate a hanging on stage using a harness.
“One of the student groups that worked on that did a really wonderful job in constructing not only a harness but figuring out a way to cross-brace it so the whole piece wouldn’t’ fall over when a person dropped three to four feet,” Panitch says.
Another group created an effect that would shoot arrows across the stage. Unfortunately, that particular device proved to be impractical after Panitch decided to sit the audience on more than one side of the stage – you can’t shoot arrows over the heads of the audience. Plus, somebody would have to pick up the arrows.
“The only problem with that was I couldn’t use it even as much as I loved that effect, because you have to clean them up,” Panitch says. “If I shoot them toward the stage, then some schmuck has to come and pick all the arrows up.”
As the spring 2009 semester began, the class members moved on to new classes and projects, and only a few students had the time to meet with Panitch. The production ended up using none of the devices, but Panitch and his theater staff did learn a lot from the students’ innovations – particularly from the group that rigged the hanging device.
“We did have the hanging group in, and they have advised us on the loads that they worked with,” Panitch says. “We are using what they learned in their project to assist us in constructing the hanging sequence.”
Todd notes that the entire experience reflects what engineering students may find in the outside world – their prototypes morph over time according to new demands and ideas, until their original designs become unrecognizable.
“It’s like an auto-show concept car,” Todd says. “You’ll never see that go out on market, but you may see bits and pieces of it in new models.”
Panitch sees the project as the beginning of a longer-term collaboration that may bear fruit in future productions, with a class arranged so the engineering students can stick with a production through the final curtain. Meanwhile, the students themselves seem to have gotten a lot of out their experiences.
“It brought a new challenge for me, because as engineers we see numbers and that’s about it, but this project brought more of the creative side out in all of us,” says engineering student Ben Ayer. “We had to incorporate the drama aspect into our design.”
UA’s department of theatre and dance, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, presents Shakespeare’s soaring history play “Henry V” from Tuesday, Feb. 24, to Sunday, March 1, in the Marian Gallaway Theatre.
“Henry V” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 24, to Saturday, Feb. 28, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28, and Sunday, March 1. The Marian Gallaway Theatre is on Stadium Drive at Marr’s Spring Road in the UA Theatre District.
Tickets are $15 for adults ($13 + $2 service charge), $13 for UA faculty, staff, and senior citizens ($11 plus $2), and $10 for students ($8 plus $2). Tickets can be bought from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at the box office in Rowand-Johnson Hall; by visiting www.crimsonartstickets.com; or by phoning 205/348-3400.