David Jackson takes a few choreographed steps upon arriving for load-in at the beginning of UCF Celebrates the Arts (CTA). When no one is watching, Jackson walks onto the empty stage in the grandness of 1,770-seat Steinmetz Hall at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and simply stands there with eyes wide open.

“I spend 30 seconds looking around and taking it all in,” says Jackson, a senior theatre major with a track in design and technology. “It’s probably like a young baseball player going onto the field at Yankee Stadium for the first time. You’re in awe.”

After a brief time on the stage, Jackson goes behind it. A year’s worth of work has built up to this: more than 40 shows over the course of 10 days. Jackson is one of 1,700 participants from UCF involved in bringing CTA to this point. Many of them will not be taking bows in front of an audience. They are stage managers, company managers, props crew, show crew, light technicians, audio technicians, set designers, costume designers, hair stylists, makeup stylists, and every kind of backstage operative who makes it possible to pull open the curtains for professional-level performances on these world-class stages.

“This is unique,” says Bert Scott, theater professor and director of production. “I don’t know of any other university with a program where students work backstage in a setting like Dr. Phillips Center. It’s invaluable.”

UCF has a special arrangement with Dr. Phillips Center that started when the center opened its doors 10 years ago, where students are allowed to work alongside union workers during the festival. None of the backstage work is scripted. It is as real and raw as it is in the world of theater.

“Anywhere else, you would have to choose between working a job in theater or earning a degree,” says Claudia Lynch, associate professor of stage management. “For UCF students, this is their curriculum. The experience at UCF Celebrate the Arts and the classwork go together.”

B Antonetty transferred to UCF three years ago after making two discoveries. One, there are a multitude of careers in stage management. And two, UCF is the only public university in Florida that offers a theatre Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) with a track in stage management.

“This is why I came to UCF,” Antonetty says from a backstage area at Dr. Phillips Center. “So much of working backstage is knowing the language and being able to collaborate with people in every facet of theater. We cover as much as possible on campus, and then we come here and have our hands on everything. We work with union workers and find actual solutions as actual problems come up.”

To be clear, UCF Celebrates the Arts is not a 10-day theater lesson. The work on the 2024 event started more than a year ago. Dozens of Scott’s design and technology students have been creating scenery, costumes, and set pieces for nine months. For every week the onstage cast rehearses, the backstage crew puts in two weeks.

“The barber chair in Sweeney Todd is one example,” Scott says.

The audiences at the four performances of Sweeney Todd will see the centerpiece barber chair transform into a chute, over and over, with actors sliding out of sight. What they won’t see are the 182 hours Jackson spent researching, designing, constructing, testing, re-constructing, and re-researching how to build the chair to ensure it’s safe and durable enough to withstand a week of shows.

“We learn a lot of multidisciplinary skills in the program,” Jackson says. “I’ve learned electronics, welding, construction and how to research. In this field you have to constantly come up with new ideas, and research is the best way to add to my toolbox and be marketable.”

Networking is another powerful tool for anyone pursuing a career in theater. Lynch energizes UCF’s network, having spent 20 years working in New York City.

“Our faculty connections are strong,” she says, “but we also have an advisory board of working professionals and an influential alumni base in places where these students want to be someday.”

Lauren Koval ’21, an alum who majored in theatre with a track in stage management, working during a UCF Celebrates the Arts 2021 event, which was held outside due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lauren Koval ’21 is one of those graduates. Koval worked at UCF Celebrates the Arts during all four years as a student in stage management. A few months after the final CTA performance of 2021, Koval moved to New York to work backstage on a musical. It became a steppingstone into jobs with HBO Max, a Broadway firm, Showtime, and Netflix. Along the way, Koval invited other UCF students and alumni into the growing network.

For these 10 days, however, Koval has chosen to leave New York and come back to work as a production supervisor for CTA, unfazed by the 14-hour days.

“Nothing could stop me from contributing to this amazing experience,” Koval says. Koval has worked in iconic Broadway theaters and yet is still in awe of the venues at Dr. Phillips Center.

“These spaces are unlike any I’ve seen during my time in New York. And then you add the notion of being hired back by the same people at UCF who shaped me and my career, it’s hard to imagine anything more special than this.”

Students like Jackson and Antonetty are on the verge of starting their own backstage careers. The experience at CTA makes the transition less daunting.

“Working backstage at CTA makes me feel like I’m in a dream of where I want to be,” Antonetty says. “These are high-stakes productions, and I’m working with mentors, classmates, and professionals who have my back to make sure I can’t fail.”

There will be a lot of emotion when Jackson steps behind the stages of CTA for the final time as a student. Anxiety about the future will not be one of them.

“I’m excited,” Jackson says. “These shows create the perfect space between being a college student and starting a career. I know I’m ready.”

Lynch listens to all of the conversations and appears very much at ease for someone with so many plates spinning at the moment.

“This event is a massive undertaking,” Lynch says. “But every year when we walk in the door of this incredible Dr. Phillips Center, our faculty members look at the stages and we look at the faces of our students. And we say, ‘Yeah, this is why we do this.’”