Dan Sobel has worked for the Las Vegas-based construction company, Marnell Corrao, for just a few months, but this energetic young man has moved from the world of technical theatre to some of the most technically challenging theatrical construction projects in the world. Just 23 years old, Sobel holds a BFA from SUNY Purchase, where he graduated in May 2003. His technical know-how has been taken to new levels as he learns about the complex engineering required for today's automated scenery. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux met with Sobel in Las Vegas right after the premiere of Cirque du Soleil's newest production, KÀ, to get his take on current trends in theatrical construction.
ED: How did your technical training at school prepare you for what you're doing now?
DS: Problem solving was the big focus of my training as technical director at Purchase. We are in a business of solving problems, it's that simple. I was taught how to manage time and resources. How to be efficient. How to manage people and deal with difficult situations. How to keep it simple. How to make it work. I learned the nuts and bolts but also to never lose sight of the big picture. I believe these concepts will get me through anything I take on.
ED: What did you do right after graduation from Purchase?
DS: Actually, I had an internship at McLaren Engineering during my senior year. They are the company that developed and engineered two large scenic elements, the Tatami deck and the gantry lift that holds up the sand-cliff deck, for KÀ. The scenic designer was Mark Fisher, who had already worked with McLaren on projects like the Super Bowl Halftime Show and Rolling Stones' tours. It was like a gold mine for me. I started at McLaren in December 2002 as an intern and was later hired to complete the project.
ED: Had you already seen the Cirque du Soleil perform?
DS: Yes, I had always been a Cirque du Soleil fan. My ultimate goal was to hook up with them, and I worked as an assistant technical director for Zumanity, their show at New York New York in Las Vegas, from March 2004 through January 2005. In fact, when I first started at McLaren they were in the final stages of their work on Zumanity. It was a great way for me to get my head into the scale of these projects. At McLaren, an extraordinary group of entertainment engineers helps fill the void between artistic considerations and the technical requirements of a production.
ED: What is the most challenging thing you have worked on in the past few years?
DS: I've worked on some extremely technical projects, but things don't always have to be technical to be challenging. One of my Broadway endeavors at McLaren was part of the renovation of Studio 54. We were hired by the Roundabout Theatre Company along with architect Francesca Russo to increase the technical capabilities of the space for future, more demanding productions. Cabaret was still playing and my task was to as-build the theater structure and investigate the various void spaces that had been sealed since the days when it was the Gallo Opera House (1920s) and 70's night club that it's so famous for. Getting all the idiosyncrasies to work out on paper was a nightmare. Bill Gorlin (McLaren) was a great mentor and taught me the importance of a first-class site survey. I spent several days shooting lasers and mapping the entire building out in 3D CAD.
ED: What were your duties on a day-to-day level at McLaren?
DS: For KÀ, I assisted on the gantry lift from the beginning. I saw the concept drawings from Cirque du Soleil and Mark Fisher and was asked to research what else in the world is like this. That led me to NASA and aircraft carrier elevators, well outside the realm of technical theatre. As the project developed and my skills grew, I got more involved, working with the senior engineers on calculations that included structural framing design, cylinder sizing, and horse power requirements. I also worked on CAD drafting and began to develop my 3D skills. Weight estimating and product research became my new forte. I would identify everything that was needed, and research what manufacturers had the equipment, and then incorporate it all into a weight estimate down to how much each brake pad weighed, for proper engineering. I kept a daily spreadsheet to keep track of everything needed to build the lift, down to the last nut and bolt.
ED: Did you go from McLaren directly to Marnell Corrao?
DS: No. I took a two-month break and worked as a technical director on a cruise ship, the Holland America Zuiderdam. I call it an interlude of fun. I wanted to get in on Cirque du Soleil's KÀ project at the MGM Grand but hiring wasn't until August 2003. When I got off the ship, McLaren asked me to come back after the Christina Aguilera staging collapsed in Atlantic City. I was hired to document what had happened and help supervise demolition safety and preserve evidence. I took thousands of pictures. I was on site in Atlantic City for a few weeks and stayed on through the forensic investigation as the entertainment specialist on the job. I was then hired by Cirque for Zumanity.
ED: How did you land at Marnell Corrao?
DS: They build the Cirque du Soleil theatres, and I heard they were looking for a theatre guy. I said to myself that this would be a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a Cirque du Soleil project and deal with some of the players on a creative level. They were looking for a pivot person on the Marnell team to manage the technical systems on Cirque du Soleil's new project at The Mirage. I applied for the job. They were excited to have someone who had experience working with Cirque du Soleil working with them.
ED: What are your responsibilities?
DS: At Marnell, I serve as a project manager for all the theatre-related systems: AV, automation, rigging, lifts, and lighting. I provide an extra set of eyes looking at mechanical drawings from a theatrical point of view. I also interface with Auerbach + Associates and the other consultants on the project. The biggest challenge is keeping everything on schedule and making sure the room is turned over to Cirque du Soleil on time and that all the systems are in place to meet their artistic needs.
ED: How are you adapting to your new job?
DS: I am learning the job and the politics at the same time, and getting more experience in the building end of the industry. I think my engineering background helps as well as my taste of ship life, where I learned to think on my feet. Now I am working on the construction end of things and working with the consultants and sub-contractors. I am learning about all of the systems and with the Mirage project, I learn something different at every step. I think my experience will give me a unique set of skills and a broad sense of many disciplines that will be useful as theatres continue to get more technical.
ED: Is there a trend we should keep an eye on?
DS: Especially in Las Vegas, the industry is very much about the technical side of things, but there needs to be a happy medium between artistic needs and technology. There is more engineering and more infrastructure as the shows get more technical. There is also a trend toward more custom-built theatres, rather than shows loading into existing theatres. Everyone needs to adapt as we step away from traditional theatres to bigger-engineered and heavily automated environments. EFX! definitely set the tone for custom-built theatres in Las Vegas. Marnell will continue to be a big part of building Las Vegas, and I'm sure they'll be there for many more theatrical projects. This town is so entertainment-driven.
ED: What kinds of jobs do you think people should be prepared for in the future, and what kind of training would you suggest? Should there be a course in engineering for entertainment?
DS: It's hard to say. I think the best anyone can do is focus on the concepts. It's very difficult to stay on top of every new technology. Nobody can know it all. But what you can do is take the time to learn enough about something that you can speak intelligently with someone who does. I think there should be courses in engineering for entertainment, but not how to be an engineer, instead how to know when you need one and how to talk to one. Let the engineers do the engineering. My short experience has taught me that there's no reason to reinvent the wheel. The secret to this business is learning to apply other people's knowledge and other industries' technologies to ours. Let them do all the hard work.