Clemson students gain real-world experience with national musical MAMMA MIA!

It would be fair to say that most of Clemson University’s undergraduate students have never heard of the band ABBA. With any luck, that will soon change, especially for the students who have the opportunity to work backstage on one of the biggest Broadway hits in recent memory.

MAMMA MIA!, the incredibly popular and Tony Award-nominated musical featuring tunes of the Swedish disco group, is about to kick off its national tour in Clemson, S.C. Through a relationship with Work Light Productions and its Executive Director, Steve Gabriel, the traveling show moves into the Brooks Center Theatre on September 20 for two weeks to engage in “tech” rehearsals. This means that the technical elements of MAMMA MIA! will be put together on the Brooks Center stage. Lighting and sound cues, sets, and performances are rehearsed to have everything performance-ready before the show appears in theatres across the country.

The collaboration between the Brooks Center and Work Light Productions has been a happy one since it began in 2005, when Brooks Center Director Lillian Harder met Gabriel at an annual conference in New York City.  “We began a conversation about his search to find a venue to tech a family musical,” says Harder. “Steve was looking for not only the right venue, but also for exceptional students who could assist in every phase of the production process. I convinced him that the Brooks Center would be the perfect choice and that our students were capable of doing whatever was asked of them.” Work Light first brought a number of family musicals to Clemson before transitioning to larger scale productions like Avenue Q in 2009 and In the Heights in 2011.

As Harder says, students are on the front lines of these productions. Majors in Clemson’s production studies in performing arts program will spend two weeks with arts professionals helping to put finishing touches on the show. A unique major found only at Clemson, the production studies major is broken down into concentrations of theatre, music, and audio technology. Students choose a concentration area and are educated to be masters of their particular craft. But they also receive training in other areas of the performing arts that make them marketable to employers. All students, for example, are required to work a certain number of hours building sets, selling tickets, hanging lights, and running sound. Plus, students take classes in how to compose resumés and cover letters, write a grant request, and, in their final year, conceive of, market, and execute a full-scale arts event.

“The unique partnership between Work Light Productions and Clemson’s Department of Performing Arts not only allows students the opportunity to work side by side with industry professionals for two weeks on campus, but has led to jobs for our majors on national and international theatre tours upon graduation,” explains David Hartmann, chair of the Department of Performing Arts.

Justin Willis Smith says he benefited immensely while working on Work Light’s 2011 production of In the Heights. Smith, who graduated in December of 2012 with an emphasis in audio technology, is now an employee at Productions Unlimited in Greer. He was part of the show’s rigging, audio/visual and lighting crews. “Working with them taught me to be a jack of all trades,” he says. “I believe working as an intern with Work Light Productions helped me get where I am today and hopefully my whole life.” The most important advantage? “I made lifelong contacts that I am able to put on my resume.”

MAMMA MIA! will open its official national tour with two performances in the Brooks Center on Monday, September 30 and Tuesday, October 1, both at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $35 for adults and $15 for students. Tickets and information are available at or by calling the box office at (864) 656-from 1 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

(Images from the 2011 international tour of MAMMA MIA!)

Thomas Hudgins is director of marketing and communications for the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts.