The man behind the curtain combined an education of engineering and art to land in a profession he loves.
[Joe is pictured during a 37-hour “human-powered expedition” he made, bicycling and hiking 45 miles and 9,000 vertical feet from his home in Las Vegas to the Mount Charleston (Nev.) summit.]
Title: Assistant Head of Automation, Cirque du Soleil
Hometown: Baton Rouge
Now resides in: Las Vegas
Degree: B.A. speech/drama ’91; B.S. chemical engineering ’95
What brought you to Tech? The engineering school’s reputation mostly. I did not want to go to LSU, and when I was 11 or 12, I had seen Kim Mulkey and the Techsters play on national television; it was the first time I learned that there were schools in Louisiana besides the big one in Baton Rouge.
Why did you choose this career? The career combines my talents with my interests. I always had a gift for math, but I’ve always been excited by the arts.
Where do you see yourself in five years? That’s hard to say. Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas employees form a loving and supportive extended family, and (wife) Sandra and I both love working on the shows (Sandra is the Head of Wardrobe at The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil at The Mirage Hotel and Casino), but there are probably better places than Las Vegas to rear our preschool son, Benjamin.
Talk about what your job entails, or describe the day of a show/before a show/day after a show: On show days, the day crew inspects the kit and starts up our equipment. Like operations anywhere, we have daily inspections, monthly inspections, and annual inspections. The show crew comes in about three hours before the first show. The acrobatic acts require maintenance rehearsals, and we always have new acts to develop or little changes that the artistic director is trying to make, so the crew has to support these rehearsals. An hour-and-a-half before curtain, the show crew does its round of flashlight-checks and presets the stage for the show. During the show, the automation department has two cue-tracks. We have a console operator who runs cues for the 43 programmable pieces of equipment (axes), and we have a “rover” who moves around the theatre to be close to the most critical pieces of equipment.
What’s been the biggest technical mishap you’ve been involved in and how did you solve the problem? The Zumanity theatre has a long thrust with a 21-foot turntable downstage-center. In the middle of the turntable is a six-foot diameter lift that revolves and at times in the show rises above deck level. It was three feet above deck level one night at the end of the male stripper’s act when it failed; the stripper was surrounded by five dancers but had completely divested himself of clothing expecting his usual exit into the basement on the lift. Instead he had to slink off sideways using a bouquet of flowers to cover himself; the dancers were crying they were laughing so hard. Bypassing the broken safeties for the lift, we were able to lower it to deck level and continue the show. Basic electrical trouble-shooting is involved in more than 90% of the fixes we have to make on show nights. One of my big accomplishments at Zumanity has been to work with stage management and the other departments to find workarounds that allow the show to continue if the automation equipment should fail. Eighty-five minutes of the 90-minute show can be done using workarounds and backup equipment.
Can you talk about how “abilities” or talents/education overlap? For instance, technical theatre vs. or combined with mechanical engineering: The theatre is a collaborative art. The same teamwork that gets one through the senior design projects in engineering is required in building a new show. For me, the theatre is harder. In engineering, you can check someone else’s calculations, but in theatre, you have to trust the director’s vision.
When you began engineering, did you see yourself in this job? What did you think your career in engineering would be? Both of my parents worked for Dow Chemical’s Plaquemine Division, so I expected to work in the petro-chemical industry after graduation. I would say that I majored in engineering because it was a clear, familiar future.
Your best memories of Tech: When I went to Tech, only one high school classmate was there, and that was someone I had not known in Baton Rouge. That first night in McFarland Hall, I was overwhelmed at having moved away from the only home I had known, and the phone rang after midnight; it was a friend I had made during orientation. If she had not called and invited me out the next couple of days while the upperclassmen went through registration, I do not know if I would have lasted in Ruston until classes started.
Your advice to Tech freshmen today: Learn from everyone you meet. My two degrees meant that I had more liberal arts courses than most engineering graduates and more math and science than most liberal arts graduates. I try to use all of my experiences and knowledge rather than compartmentalize what might apply only to “work.”
What’s your advice to Tech students who want to get into show business and how do they stay encouraged since many students think it's “easy” to become a “big star” overnight?: Automation in theatres is a growing part of the industry; just like robots make cars more precisely and with less labor, one operator and several motion-controlled winches are more precise than a team of stagehands at a counter-weight fly-rail; (it is also much safer). If you have practical experience and the technical understanding of how things work, you should be able to find good work. A willingness to do the unglamorous jobs in the entertainment industry is a sure way in.
Tell us about some neat places you’ve traveled to with the show: I never toured like Sandra did with one of Cirque du Soleil’s tent shows, so before settling into Vegas (and it is funny how you can tell who just came off tour and who has been in Vegas for a while by looking at their waist) most of my work-related travels were with Ford, Bacon and Davis when I was an instrument engineer in the pulp and paper industry. I went to exciting places like Yazoo City, Miss., and Prattville, Ala.
How can we get more info about the show? zumanity.com
How many people help you or how many are you in charge of? Our department includes a department head, myself, three other fulltime technicians, and two part-time technicians. I serve as the number two in the department and generally manage the three technicians that rotate through the show’s crew.