December 07, 2023
Alumni Spotlight: Eric Rouse (’97 MFA Theatre Design and Technology)
Just after Eric Rouse arrived in Cozumel, Mexico to board a cruise ship for a rigging inspection, his talk with Arts and Architecture began with a simple question: How did you get to where you are?
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Eric went to a school where he took French from the fifth to eighth grades and continued with it through high school. As an undergrad at Franklin and Marshall, he started in marine biology but quickly realized that route wasn’t for him. At the same time, he had a work study job in the Theatre Department. He was interested in theatre, but the options for a major were limited.
Considering his background, he decided on pursuing a degree in French while minoring in international government. During his time as an undergrad, he worked at the nearby Fulton Opera House as a carpenter and on the hemp rail while dabbling in lighting. He said that by the time he finished college, he wanted to be a lighting designer.
Over the next two years, Eric worked for a Flamenco company as a stage manager and a lighting designer. Being fluent in Spanish made this a good fit and he enjoyed stints at the Joyce Theatre in New York City and others.
When he decided to go to grad school, Penn State had the most to offer and although he didn’t have much experience as a technical director, the program at Penn State appealed to him. He admits that he didn’t know what he was doing in the beginning, but he kept at it and as he approached graduation, he decided his goal was to get an assistant technical director job at a regional theatre.
Around the same time, Rick Gray (‘79, MFA Theatre Design and Technology), then the head of the technical direction program at Penn State, was working on a new Cirque du Soleil Show called “O” at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. In the meantime, Eric met the head of the theatre company Flying by Foy and decided to move to Las Vegas to work with the organization.
Over the next few years, Eric worked nationally on installations for Flying by Foy including in Branson, Missouri, where he rigged a hot air balloon that would fly over the audience to the stage delivering Santa Claus into the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” starring the Rockettes.
A colleague at Flying by Foy became the head rigger for the installation at “O.” There were already a couple of Penn Staters working there during the creation of the show including Jason Pizzi (‘97, BFA Stage Management) and Kate Pappas (‘97, BA Stage Management). With his former boss at “O,” Eric was busy installing fly systems across the country, working at the Flying by Foy shop and preparing to go on the road with The Backstreet Boys to oversee flying trusses he helped design. That’s when he found out that his first of two children was on the way and he started looking to travel less.
Eric explained that, at that time, Las Vegas had a small theatre community of people working shows at night and in the shops during the day. “O” had opened and the head rigger was ready to return to work at Foy. Eric landed an automation job at the show where he would work for two years and spent another few years working as the lead maintenance rigger.
Working days, and sometimes running show tracks at night, now with two children, Eric was ready for something else.
There was a non-tenure track faculty position open at the University of South Carolina, where Eric would spend the next three years getting a taste of teaching.
In 2004, he returned to Penn State in the role of Assistant Professor and Technical Director. Over the next nine years, he earned tenure and enjoyed working and mentoring the students.
Eric taught rigging to crews from all over the country including at “La Reve” for Rick Gray in Las Vegas, classes for unions, the Walt Disney Company, Mountain Productions Hoist School and many others.
While at Penn State, he rebuilt the BFA Technical Direction program from scratch. His students are now working all over the industry. Two of them are Ben Gasper (‘07, BFA Design and Technology) now a technical sales manager at Tait Towers, and Gabrielle Heerschap (’15 BFA Design and Technology) who is an assistant technical director at the Metropolitan Opera.
Just as the program was getting on its feet, Eric got a job offer with the theatre company at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The gig at a renowned regional theatre took him back to his original goal when he graduated from Penn State.
At the time, Eric said that the Denver Theatre Center had a huge budget and was a popular landing place for designers because the theatre was willing and able to push the envelope. The staff had been in place for a long time and Eric was tasked with fitting into their way of doing things while bringing in his own ideas and experience.
He was able to bring in fellow Penn Staters including Doug Sager (‘94, BA Theatre) Curtis Craig, associate professor of sound design at Penn State, and Kenton Yeager (’83 BFA Theatre and Lighting Design).
Eric is very open about the difficulties he experienced during this time. He said that while it was a great place to work, and he learned a lot, it was challenging.
In 2017, Eric was teaching a rigging class at LDI when he was approached by rigging specialists The Chicago Flyhouse about training full time. He was able to continue to be based in Denver with travel to the shop in Chicago while leading seminars and training for other organizations.
In 2019, Eric joined Steven Michelman (‘97, MFA Technical Theatre/Theatre Design and Technology) and Joe Champelli (‘93MFA Technical Theatre/Theatre Design and Technology) at Entertainment Project Services (EPS).
Steven started this company in 2007 and had established a relationship with Royal Caribbean developing shows for them as well as working on permanent installations of large scale custom mechanical effects for theme parks, hotels and arenas. Their work can be seen in the recently opened Sphere in Las Vegas, where they designed the access and fall protection systems among other things.
As work came back following the COVID-19 pandemic, budgets were scarce for training and Eric is now doing more project management and installations. He said that getting back to the practical side of things has been great. He is the director of installations and show support at Entertainment Project Services and is excited about the many interesting projects on the horizon.
His Penn State connections have heavily influenced his path. From Rick Gray’s connections in Las Vegas, to meeting Steven and Joe in grad school, he knows that these relationships formed at Penn State have had a huge impact on his career.
Eric has some big projects in front of him, but first he has to board that cruise ship in Cozumel.
By: Allison Lee