Montana State University

MSU student fuses passion for theater, engineering

May 8, 2017 -- By Skip Anderson for the MSU News Service

Aaron Benson, from Rapid City, South Dakota, led a project to design and build stage equipment for MSU Block Box Theatre's production of Spring awakening, including a 12-foot-diameter turntable that spun as cast members performed the rock and roll musical on its surface. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN - When Montana State University mechanical engineering major Aaron Benson graduates summa cum laude in May and launches a unique career, he can count his grandfather and William Shakespeare among his influences.

It was childhood trips to where his grandfather worked, at NASA’s largest rocket engine test facility, that first sparked Benson’s interest in engineering. But it was during a trip he took with a high school drama program to London’s famed West End – a mecca for live theater – that he realized he could make engineering come alive on-stage.

Watching a production by London’s National Theatre, Benson marveled at the hydraulic machinery that allowed the stage hands to rapidly switch sets, in one instance lowering an entire two-story house below the stage surface. “That blew my mind,” he said.

When he entered the Honors College at MSU with a Presidential Scholarship, Benson majored in mechanical engineering and worked as a set designer on two productions at MSU’s Black Box Theatre. During a summer break, he trod the boards in the title roles of Macbeth and Hamlet in Shakespeare in the Square productions in Rapid City, South Dakota.

He even channeled his passion for theater into co-developing an upper-division Honors College course called Discovering Shakespeare, which he also helped teach.

“I’ve always been passionate about Shakespeare,” Benson said. The course, he said, was designed to enrich students’ understanding of the Bard by studying his works as they were meant to be experienced — “through live performance.”

When it came time to select an intensive, year-long capstone project, which all engineering students must complete in order to graduate, Benson pioneered a collaboration with the School of Film and Photography in MSU’s College of Arts and Architecture.

Knowing that Black Box Theatre would soon produce the Tony award-winning Spring Awakening, Benson proposed that MSU engineering students design and build the play’s central prop: a 12-foot-diameter turntable that would spin as cast members performed the rock and roll musical on its surface.

As Benson and five other engineering students (Daniel Moore, William Blomquist, Lisa McEnnerney, Gookhyun Jeong and Steve Ferestad) took on that challenge, they also designed and built a large scissor-lift for the rear of the stage, to elevate actors during dramatic scenes. Both machines would need to be operated from a control booth off-stage.

“The largest challenge by far was not only building a structure that would meet the desired performance criteria, but also simultaneously designing a structure that can be easily moved into and out of a space and that will last for years to come,” Benson said. “In addition, these systems needed to be completely silent.”

Benson’s team completed the hardware, which cost about $3,000, on schedule. They also wrote a manual that gives instructions for operating the equipment safely.

When Spring Awakening was performed during a two-week period in April, “the audiences and the actors were blown away” by the new stage equipment, said Black Box Theatre technical director Tom Delgado. During the play’s climactic moments, the spinning turntable played a key role by allowing audience members on all side to see the emotion on the actors’ faces, he said.

The unique collaboration between the School of Film and Photography and the College of Engineering may be a first for those programs, said Shanon Reckinger, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and the faculty adviser to the capstone project.

According to Reckinger, Benson’s blend of enthusiasm, technical aptitude and leadership were central to the project’s success. “Aaron has been passionately working towards a career in stage automation.”

Upon graduation, Benson will head to a job as a mechanical designer for TAIT Towers, a live-event production company listed as one of Fast Company magazine’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017. There, he will create structures and equipment showcased at Disney's theme parks and with Cirque Du Soleil productions around the world.

That, Reckinger said, “is a dream job for any engineer.”

Contact: Aaron Benson, bensona15@gmail.com; Shanon Reckinger, shanon.reckinger@montana.edu, (406) 994-2801.