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Big Ideas: Clever and creative engineers take to the stageAugust 30, 2018

Twenty-one years after its birth, the beloved annual tradition that is the Mac Eng Musical looks undeniably like a big idea.

But the concept of a musical that would be entirely created and performed by engineering students was closer to an ambitious whim back in 1997, when Tina Traini and Eloise Harvey first imagined it.

“We had seen some of the other Eng school shows, but we wanted to do something different,” recalls Traini, an Electrical & Society student with a drama focus and a background in community theatre. “We tossed around a lot of ideas, including doing a full musical, but settled on randomly re-writing words to famous musical theater songs.

“It was the journey of an engineer from frosh week to iron ring …but very loosely …Putting a real story behind the show only really started in the second year.”

Titled Jopko and the Amazing Technicolour Vectorspace, that first performance took place in the now-defunct basement student pub, the Downstairs John, where Traini remembers having to shovel beer bottles off the dance floor before Sunday morning rehearsals.

“To this day, the smell of stale beer brings back fond Eng Musical rehearsal memories,” she says laughingly.

With no budget, the inaugural performance included pipe-cleaner microphones, tinfoil iron rings and hand-coloured programs. Students kicked in their own cash to rent equipment.

Once the lyrics were penned, Kim Brown led the choreography, while Geoff Olsen headed the band.

“I feel like luck and heart created the first show. We basically begged people to join us, and even had to recruit one musician from high school – although he eventually became a Mac engineer,” says Traini.

Nowadays, September auditions are held to cast the enduringly popular show that is recognized as a way for aspiring engineers to indulge and showcase their creativity, while blowing off stress and building deep and often lasting friendships.

At least 100 students work together as musicians, actors, set designers, prop painters, joke writers and more, as they build a slick and polished three-day production that is staged each March.

Most students, like 2017 Dr. Wonka director Francesca Altobelli, are looking to channel their passion for the arts into an extracurricular activity.

“I was excited to audition and keep up with my interest in music and theatre after high school,” she says. “It was so valuable to have a creative outlet that isn’t usually entertained in engineering classes.”

Ali Waseem, director of the 2018 Into the Arts Quad show, agrees.

“In high school, music was a large part of my life,” he says. “I played trumpet in the concert band for four years and was looking for a way to keep that part of my life going.

“Getting involved in the Mac Eng Musical gave me a community of peers with similar interests, and really gave my life meaning and gave me something to look forward to when engineering got extremely stressful.”

The much-anticipated yearly event pokes fun at student life, favourite professors and courses, and the daily grind of earning an engineering degree. But all laughs aside, participants agree that the musical’s biggest success is in bringing together McMaster’s engineering community.

For participants, it builds friendships that cross engineering programs and class years.

Rebecca Lariviere, who will direct the 2019 show, joined the cast in her first year and has been involved ever since.

“We’re a musical family that cares for and helps each other, whether it be for sharing advice in difficult situations, having someone to take a coffee break with, or even getting help on an assignment from an upper year,” she says.

And within the wider faculty community, the annual performance found a receptive audience from its very start.

The response to the first show was “pure joy,” Traini recalls. “Expectations were low but our energy was so high it was infectious. And I think the faculty was shocked, especially those we featured.”

Two decades later, Waseem says the show gives everyone a chance to put aside the stress of assignments and midterms, and relax for a few hours as they laugh at their own struggles and hardships.

And that shared experience is part of the draw of the show, says Altobelli.

“For members and those in the audience alike, university is challenging and the musical gives everyone time to laugh at themselves and this unique chapter of their lives, together.”

Although the growth of the production surprises Traini, she is also thrilled to have helped launch something that has survived through the years.

“Going to the anniversary event last year made us all realize why it is still happening -- spirit, hard work and the sense of family,” she says. “It is an escape, a place to belong and something to be proud of in a world that is so busy and challenging. We all could not be prouder!”