Dream Jobs 2012: Designing Automation for Acrobats

Phillip Toussaint’s computer code moves the scenery, props, and other gear that make magic for Cirque du Soleil and other extravaganzas

5 min read
Photo: Gregg Segal

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Phillip Toussaint

IEEE Member

AGE 26

WHAT HE DOES
Writes the software that makes scenery—and sometimes actors—fly across the stages of Cirque du Soleil and other theatrical productions.

FOR WHOM
Stage Technologies

WHERE HE DOES IT
Las Vegas and at client sites around the world

FUN FACTORS
Travels the globe creating magic for performers and audiences; meets the directors and sometimes the stars of today’s hottest shows.

Phillip Toussaint is crouched inside a hot, dark crawl space, looking down at a giant statue of Elvis Presley. This must be Las Vegas. Peering through a grate at the stage 10 stories below would make just about anyone a bit acrophobic, but Toussaint doesn’t feel “all shook up”—he’s intimately familiar with the motor control cabinets, motorized trolleys, and other gear that surround him and that move the scenery for the Cirque du Soleil production Viva Elvis.

Toussaint points to his favorite collection of nine whirring winches. They lift a 27 000-kilogram hunk of scenery that incorporates seven trampolines; the crew calls it the Got a Lot. Toussaint wrote the code that controls the Got a Lot’s precise travels along a laser-guided path. He’s an automation engineer with Stage Technologies, a maker of hardware and software for automating spectacular set changes and gravity-defying flying effects for concerts, opera houses, and theater companies all over the world. Automation is essential to theatrical performances today for creating effects that would be impossible to produce manually. It’s Toussaint’s job to write the computer programs that, along with sophisticated hardware, guide the movement of stage machinery, scenery, and acrobatic performers, making sure each follows the same path every time.

The opening ceremony of the 2011 Pan American Games, in Mexico, which Toussaint worked on, was a typically intricate project. A projector displayed moving images directly onto the performers as they flew suspended on wires. Toussaint wrote the code that synchronized the projection system with the performers. Using “stuff you learn in high school physics,” he says, he calculated the positions of the winches and the cable lengths to engineer the airborne movements of the performers in three dimensions over the stage.

Toussaint, a self-professed computer nerd, always knew he wanted to be a programmer. In high school, he enrolled in a class on theater lighting to fulfill an arts requirement and became excited by the technical challenges of theater. At the University of Arizona, he majored in computer engineering and minored in theater arts.

All roads started pointing to Stage Technologies, which is headquartered in London. His technical theater professor suggested he look into the company, as did an alumnus he met in 2006. A year later, he met J.T. Tomlinson, then senior project manager for Cirque’s Las Vegas shows and now general manager at Stage Tech. Impressed with Toussaint’s passion for both engineering and theater, Tomlinson introduced him to Stage Tech’s CEO, who offered him an internship in the Las Vegas branch.

It was an adventure from the very start. On his second day there, he was assigned to work on Cirque’s Beatles-themed production Love. While helping to install a new operating system, he plugged in a hard drive and immediately smelled smoke. With the flip of a switch he had destroyed the drive and several adaptors, including one that had been custom designed in Britain. “Fortunately, we got the drive fixed before any performances,” he says.

The internship lasted on and off into 2009, with Toussaint spending summers and semester breaks at the company’s Las Vegas offices or at client sites and occasionally working on assignments during the school year. Two weeks after he graduated in May 2009, he joined the company full time. Figuring out how to move the Got a Lot scenery for the Viva Elvis show was one of Toussaint’s first assignments as a Stage Tech employee. “I couldn’t believe three weeks out of college I could go straight into working on this show,” he says. “There’s no schooling that prepares you for that sort of project.” In the two and a half years since then, his job has taken him all over the United States and to Canada, Mexico, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.

In this business, the work moves at lightning speed. “If I spend weeks on a project, it’s a long time,” says Toussaint. “Projects don’t have time to get boring.” It isn’t unusual to have up to six projects going at once. Recently he’s been juggling the Taylor Swift concert tour, the new Cirque show, Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, and work for Indiana University’s theater program.

Stage Tech has only 25 or so employees based in Las Vegas, so Toussaint does a little of everything—one day he may be writing code and the next he may be soldering wires or oiling chain hoists. Work may be nine to five in the office one day and 18 hours at a client site the next. Occasionally, he may not see the sun for days at a time, spending his nights coding in a dark theater. “A few months ago I flew to Canada to deal with a problem, only to find that an Ethernet cable was plugged into the wrong port!” he says.

One morning in 2010, his boss called him into his office and told him to fly to Singapore that night. There was trouble at a new show, Voyage de La Vie. This time, it wasn’t a matter of just replugging a cable. The show, about a boy’s metaphoric journey through a “theatrical rock circus” universe, repurposed some large pieces of scenery from another production, propelling them across the stage by automated guided vehicles, known as “trucks” in theater jargon.

For the Singapore production, three of the trucks were supposed to lock together and move in synchrony. Each truck has an onboard motion-controlling computer and a laser that bounces off a map of reflectors on stage to tell the truck exactly where it is and where it should go. But with an uneven stage floor, “all sorts of things can go wrong,” says Toussaint. “If the reflectors move, the truck will think it’s somewhere other than where it is, causing problems and even damage to the stage floor.” And with acrobats dancing on the scenery, he adds, “you have to be extra careful.”

The trucks were not cooperating. Toussaint had to adjust for mechanical variances between the trucks and then incorporate a series of tiny adjustments into the code. “A couple of millimeters apart can make a huge difference,” he says. After rehearsals finished each day, Toussaint spent his nights tweaking the software. Four nights later, he finally got the trucks to roll into the correct position every time.

Toussaint enjoys the travel and challenges that come with each new show. And he adores being able to see the audience react to his contribution. “In the end, it’s about the audience loving what we do.” With more theaters installing automation systems, and the bar rapidly rising on what artists can imagine and engineers can create, the 26-year-old is optimistic about his future. “I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in three years,” admits Toussaint. Then again, he says, “I really have no idea what I will be doing next week either.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Automation for Acrobats.”

About the Author

Alaina G. Levine is a Tucson-based science writer who spent years acting in performing arts camps and singing in choirs. Then she was seduced by the dark side and got her BS degree in Mathematics. But she still doesn’t get all shook up in front of an audience. In fact, she is a busy comedienne who incorporates nerdy humor into gigs for engineering and science organizations.

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