Setting the Stage

Graduates bring the Bible to life at musical theater

by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday. Photos courtesy of Sight & Sound Theatres

Published August 1, 2018

A wooden fishing boat pitches on a turbulent sea, rising and falling on gale-fed surges, violently tossed fore and aft in a dramatically realistic replication of nature’s wrath.

Eric T. Metzler, who received electronics engineering technology and technology management degrees in 2007 and 2009, adds internal technology to make a lantern’s glow visible from each of the theater’s 2,000 seats. Photo by Tom WilsonAwash in emotion, audience members don’t consider the mechanics behind it: the 100-foot “rain curtain” through which they watch the spectacle unfold, the omnidirectional hydraulics that create the illusion, the variables that combine to such grand effect.

The tempest – a storm of literally biblical proportion – is part of “Jesus,” which runs through January at the Sight & Sound Theatres in Lancaster County.

The facility has earned its ranking as one of the top three theatrical attractions in the country, all the more astounding when one considers it began as a dairy farmer’s portable slideshow 42 years ago. What it offers is 21st century stagecraft, pure and not-so-simple. It is art devoid of artifice, the handiwork of earnest craftspeople hitching their talents to their faith.

“You know that the show that you made, whatever part that you had, is eventually changing someone’s life.”

“Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,” the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, a fitting road map for the hundreds of employees who turn their collaborative expertise into a celebratory experience for more than a million people each year between Lancaster and a sister theater in Branson, Missouri.

Three of those staff members, bound by common purpose and conviction, infuse their jobs with skills nurtured at Pennsylvania College of Technology.

Jeffrey T. Feeman, ’13, was the institution’s first graduate in industrial design; Franklin N. Carr, ’07 and ’08, holds certificates in construction carpentry, cabinetmaking and millwork, and masonry; and Eric T. Metzler, ’07 and ’09, earned degrees in electronics engineering technology and technology management.

Feeman is a scenic drafter, Carr a scenic architect, and Metzler an electronics/animatronics technician. Three awe-inspiring job titles for three awesome gentlemen, who draw viability from a visionary’s sketchpad.

“Just being able to be creative with materials, then putting them together to make something that you've dreamed up in your head, is really fulfilling,” Carr says. “Coming up with an idea here at the theater, designing it on the computer and then seeing it put together in reality up on the shop floor, that’s really cool.”

Various departments (art, lighting, special projects, electronics/animatronics, and even hair and costumes) bring their wish lists to the Show Engineering work stations for what they want to see built.

Sight N’ Sound Theatres scenic drafter Jeffrey T. Feeman, a 2013 industrial design graduate, supplies blueprints for the theater’s “Shop Two,” where a set’s metal framework is given its shape. Photo by Tom Wilson“Then the art department actually gives us a fully formed mesh, like a rendering, of what the set is going to look like, and we have to make that a reality,” Carr explains. “If they give us a 30-foot-tall set, we have to design what’s going to hold it, the bone structure of it.”

An all-access walk through the sprawling network of offices and workshop space is rife with those bones and barely scratches the surface of the enterprise. Enormous sets in varying levels of completion command attention, while no-less towering remnants of past shows are warehoused for their eventual return to the schedule.

It is truly a beehive wrought large – artisans wielding paint-sprayers atop scaffolding; design wizards making magic at multiple monitors; wardrobe and wigs, cataloged and carefully displayed. And there are animals – a camel, water buffalo, horses, llamas, goats, donkeys – well-tended and waiting in nearby stalls and pens for their cue. 

All of it happens with workday regularity, aside from (and in service of) 11 wondrous shows a week. There is no energy wasted, no offstage histrionics, no one taken for granted or deemed more important than another. 

“Our chief creative officer will come down … and stop a meeting before it even starts … and say, ‘Let’s just take a minute and realize that each of our jobs, whether they’re big or small, creating the sets or creating the entire show, let’s take a step back and realize they’re all needed,’” Feeman says.

Live animals have become signatures in Sight & Sound Theatre shows and are well-tended on the theater’s grounds. Photo by Tom Wilson“You know that the show that you made, whatever part that you had in that show, is eventually changing someone’s life,” he adds. “You may not see it day to day, as in any job, but you know at the end of the day that what you’re doing does matter.” 

The alumni took different paths to their theatrical destination, but the roundabout roads began on campus and continued to their shared haven. 

Feeman once eyed architecture, and he doesn’t rule out a future in prosthetics (or any other field in which he can give back and improve lives). Carr was on the verge of a yearlong mission trip to Ireland when he got wind of a cabinetmaking job, then a dinner-theater carpentry gig in which he found a calling. Metzler’s resume includes a few years at an industrial park near campus, then travel to Lancaster with college friends to start an offshoot of their adopted Williamsport church.

“Penn College was definitely a great fit for me. The hands-on part was what really led me there, and getting that experience led me to where I am today,” Feeman says, singling out his coursework with industrial design professor Thomas E. Ask.

Penn College graduates, from left, Jeffrey T. Feeman, ’13; Eric T. Metzler, ‘07, ’09; and Franklin N. Carr, ‘07, ’08, have found a calling at Sight & Sound Theatres, where audiences are awed by the on-stage results of their behind-the-scenes work.

“In creating a product, you mostly go from engineering and you build your product, and then you make it look nice. You put the art on it, and you make it look aesthetically pleasing,” he explains. “It’s almost the opposite being a theater, because we come out with the art first. We get the show to look exactly as we want it to, then we build the framing behind that.”

Sight & Sound’s page-to-stage process traverses three main shops. One does metal, one does the foam and sculpting, and the third does paint and décor.

“I specifically work for Shop Two, in supplying blueprints and documents for them,” Feeman, the scenic drafter, says. “Once Shop One rolls the set through that's made of metal, they'll put plywood on, foam on top of that, and then that gets carved down to create the sets and make them look realistic. That'll eventually be rolled to Shop Three, where it gets painted and really looks realistic after that.”

Plausability is an essential element, but it is not always where the process begins.

“We work closely with the directors, taking their big-picture ideas and turning them into something real,” Metzler says of the 15-member technical-services department. “We listen to their crazy ideas and rein them in. Sometimes, we have to tell them, ‘We can’t do this, but we’ll do that.’”

A diversified skill set helps in navigating the periodic challenges, allowing a seamless back-and-forth between art and engineering. 

“Just being able to get three different certificates while I was there was a big deal for me, just having that knowledge in the back of my head,” Carr says. “I’ll never have to worry about not having a job because I learned so many different facets of construction while I was there. I’ll always have something to do.”

He is grateful for such instructors as Glenn R. Luse, with whom he learned masonry.

“Definitely has a teacher’s heart, a mentor’s heart,” Carr says. “That’s not just a career for him. That’s, I think, a passion.”

Learning alongside such accomplished faculty is a definite asset in his toolbox.  

“When you’re going to look for a job, the employer wants to see that you’ve put time into your career path, studying all the things that go into it. And being able to go into an interview knowing that you most likely have the upper hand because of your education, and especially the choice of college, is a big deal,” Carr says. “I think it always comes back to that hands-on stuff.”

The appreciable practicality of their education, put to use in such a personally rewarding venue, comes up often in conversation.

“This kind of presses all the right buttons for me. Being able to be creative, being able to bring the Christian message to people through what I’m able to do, is a really cool opportunity,” Carr says. “And it’s good to come to a show every once in a while, because being downstairs and disconnected from what’s going on up here, you forget about that. So coming to see a show, and seeing how excited people are to see the sets and the animals and everything, it’s refreshing and re-centers you on what you’re doing.”

Metzler also makes it a point to go upstairs once a week, as much for the audience reaction as to ensure a smooth performance.

“During ‘Samson,’ I watched regularly as the columns came crashing down,” he admitted. 

A colossal moment, perfectly rendered and delivered. But what if it weren’t? Refining the “show must go on” mentality that he learned during three summers at Sesame Place near his Bucks County hometown, Metzler occasionally provides on-call support during a show’s run.

“If they need a hand, I know a little bit about a lot of things,” he says. “When you’re in front of 2,000 people, you learn how best to troubleshoot. You really want to get the effect working; it’s not necessarily about fixing it, but letting the show push on without it if need be.”

Metzler is the type of guy who gets excited over the arrival of a new shipment of circuit boards and who respectfully recalls the co-worker who labored two years on lighting effects for “Noah.”

He instills each task with an attention to detail and a reverence for fundamentals that he learned in Penn College labs from the likes of Karl E. Markowicz, instructor of electronics and computer engineering technology.

“(He) drilled it into us such that, 12 years later, I still remember it!” 

Some of the higher-level programming – the automated gizmos that move 30-foot buildings and tell them to stop where they’re meant to stop, courtesy of GPS technology – is installed directly in the set. There have been animatronic animals over the years, as well, for those times when a real rhinoceros or giraffe can’t be found in rural southcentral Pennsylvania and trained to take stage direction.

Among Metzler’s specialties are designing and laying out the circuitry for more intimate props, handheld items such as the shipboard lantern into which he shoehorned 96 blindingly bright LED bulbs so that it can be seen from every last one of the theater’s seats. And, yes, he can make it flicker for added authenticity; one more artist’s touch to enhance the crowds’ involvement.

“Working on it every day, you forget how cool it is. And then when you see people, how excited they are, and like, ‘How in the world do you do that?’” Carr notes. “To me, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal until you take yourself out of it and just watch what other people are experiencing. That’s pretty huge.”

Seated with his fellow alumni in front of Sight & Sound’s panoramic 300-foot stage, where a technician fine-tunes the movement of a massive piece of scenery, Carr is no stranger to “huge.” Nor to the luxury of rewardingly blending vocation and devotion.

“Being able to come to work and love what I do … and love the people I work with … and love the end product, I think is not something a lot of people get to do,” he says. “It’s not just a job. It’s not just a career. It’s something that I love doing.”  ■