People Get Ready

Club Jaeb artist Kyshona Armstrong talks about the music that made her and her journey from a music therapist into a singer-songwriter in this exclusive interview.

Caught in the Act caught up with folk musician Kyshona Armstrong while she was on the road to Missouri for a gig. She appears next Monday, Dec. 16 as our featured Club Jaeb artist for December.

Caught in the Act: Let’s talk about the South. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your life there.

Kyshona Armstrong: I grew up in a town called Irmo, South Carolina, and it’s right outside of Columbia. We used to run around in the woods. We spent a lot of time in the house or playing out in the yard or whatnot. My grandpa played guitar and sang in a gospel quartet, and my dad is the same. In the house, my dad was always practicing, so we would hear him playing old gospel songs on his electric or playing “People Get Ready.” [sings] People get ready, for the train’s coming. [laughs] He was always playing that or the solo from Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Those were his go-to songs. Anytime I hear them, my brother and I are like, we think of Daddy.

When I was young, Mama put me in piano, and that was my escape. I loved telling stories through the music alone. I loved creating a soundtrack to whatever was going on in my mind. Whatever Beethoven or Mozart song, I always had a movie in my head when I was practicing and playing. That’s how I always wanted to emote.

I feel like singing wasn’t something that I grew up doing, though. I preferred getting an emotion across just through my hands. Even when I was playing the oboe, I wanted to tell a story through the music alone. I wasn’t wanting to use my voice. When I went off to college and studied music therapy, music became this ‘oh, we can create in the moment. I don’t have these notes right in front of me that are telling me what to play and what dynamic to play it and what speed to play it, but I’m able to create in the moment with my patients and with my other therapists or with my classmates.’

It got back to what I experienced with my grandfather, with my dad, of creating in the moment with others and creating an environment with the music.

CITA: Was there any particular reason why you didn’t think about singing as a part of who you were as a musician? Did you not want to speak? Did you feel like you didn’t really have anything to say?

KA: I definitely was a very shy kid, very much an introvert. I did not want to be the center of attention. I never want anybody looking at me. I didn’t want focus on me at all. Please ignore the fact that I’m in the room. [laughs].

But I didn’t really have anything to say, either. What I’ve always prided myself on, though, even when I was shy and the ultimate introvert, was the ability to convey an emotion through song. I wanted to give people the experience of going on a musical journey. I wanted to play Fur Elise by Beethoven completely different than anybody else did because I wanted the listener to have a different experience. I’ve always connected to wanting to give people a different emotional response.

But as far as me using my actual voice to do that, though … I didn’t find my voice until I was having to use it for my patients, and it was just my patients saying, ‘your voice is very soothing, your voice is very calming.’

When someone is telling you that, and they’re a person in a hospital bed, then that’s how I’m going to use my voice from then on. If someone has said ‘your voice comforts me,’ I’ll use it again in a comforting way. Slowly, I started to own the voice that was coming out.

My voice has changed for sure over the years from a quiet, comforting voice to one that is gritty. I growl a lot more. I yell a lot more, but I think that’s also because I’ve walked through the world a little bit more and I’ve seen so much more.

CITA:  Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into musical therapy as a job?

KY: I went to the University of Georgia. It was one of the oldest music therapy programs. Because I had so many years under my belt as a pianist and as an oboe player, I knew that if I was going to go to college and needed scholarships, music had to be the way to do it. I was also very fascinated with psychology. My junior year in high school, I met this guy at the cotillion for my church, and I was just talking about, yeah, I need to do music and I’m in the marching band so I know I’m going to have to major in music somehow.

He was like, well you know, there is this profession called music therapy. I leaped on it and started doing research, and I found the American Music Therapy Association organization’s website. There was a music therapist in Columbia who worked at Baptist Medical, and I shadowed her. I followed her around for my junior year class project, and at that point I was like, ‘I think I know what I want to do.’ It sounded awesome—to combine music with psychology and the ability to help people through music.

CITA:  Then you ended up working in some really hardcore situations, in prisons and with people who had mental illnesses. You went straight into what you’ve referenced before as “really heavy circumstances.” Did you feel called to be there? At any point were you aware that you were gathering materials as an artist, or did the work feel more like spiritual healing?

KA:  I definitely was not aware of gathering any kind of materials. I think it was more self-centered than that.

For me, if somebody says, ‘this is a population that is hard and it might be difficult for you, we don’t know if you can handle it,’ then I’m always like, ‘cool.’ That’s what I want to do.

My senior year, we ended up doing some clinical work in the jail that was a couple counties away. I loved the challenge, and the patients challenged me all the time. They kept me engaged. It started off like ‘I dare you to tell me I can’t work with this population because you think I’m too quiet and I’m too sweet and I’m too nice. That’s not who I am.’ After a while, I found out that I actually had the tools and the patience and the desire to go where a lot of people don’t want to go. I enjoy going into places that are difficult for me. I enjoy going into dark spaces with others. I like being stumped. I like sometimes not having the answer.

But, I also found that what I liked about going into those into the hard places was just the fact that not everybody had a positive voice for my patients. Not everybody was seeing them in a positive light.

I found I was able to truly be an advocate for those people who the medical team might have given up on. My work as a musical therapist helped me realize I have the heart and the tools to show up and speak for these people.

CITA: We’re super intrigued by what you just said about being an advocate. We’ve been thinking about your evolution as an artist. In your other interviews and in your Ted Talk, you speak about finding your voice as something that must be an advocate for all people. Is that an evolution that you felt consciously, that your voice needed to be an advocate for healing in these troubled times?

KA:  It was an evolution for sure. What made me pull back from music therapy was the fact that I realized I was getting walls thrown up in front of me when all I was trying to do was good.

The more I spoke up for the kids, the more heat I got from the team. What I realized was, the moment I stepped away from the institution of it all, from the rules and the hierarchy, I could do more work by coming in from the outside. It’s almost like I have more credibility, too. I feel like I can reach people on a deeper level because I’m not confined by any kind of position. I’m not worried about my job at this point. Now, my job is to come in and be a voice. That’s it.

CITA: Who are your big musical influences?

KA:  I’m all over the place. As far as what they stood for and their mission with their music … Definitely a major fan of Nina Simone. Also Sam Cook. I’m listening to Hozier right now because he’s doing the same thing. His music has a meaning and there’s a purpose behind it. He’s trying to create change through it, but sonically it feels so good.

I love that Nina [Simone], her whole thing was that it is the point of the artist to be a reflection of what is happening in this country. That is a responsibility on the songwriter, on the artist to tell the story, of what is really happening in the world. I feel like she’s been definitely an influence of how I walk through the world with this new hat that I wear.

CITA: When we were watching your “Same Blood” video, we wondered if you had any inspiration from Nina Simone. It seems like what she was doing at the time she was visible is very similar to the times that we’re in right now and what you are doing. We’re in a social moment we’re we can no longer assume people are going to have a rational response. Because of that, we’re seeing the kinds of public social violence Nina confronted. Do you feel that too?

KA: Absolutely. Also, from the videos that I’ve seen and interviews that I’ve have heard of hers, her audience was also very similar to mine. It was mainly a white audience, and so she was a reflection of what else was happening, the other side. That’s something that I have to think about every time. Oftentimes, I show up to performing rooms, and I’m the only one who looks like me. Therefore, I try to make sure that I get it right, or as right as possible, and I speak truth.

I don’t have the comfort to just pull up in a gas station, especially if I’m in middle Georgia or South Carolina. I can’t just pull up anywhere. Oftentimes, I’ll pull up to a gas station and be like, ‘oh no, this isn’t a safe spot.’

But people think, oh, you’re a songwriter, you’re out on the road, that must be magical. Yeah, and a little dangerous at times.

I have to really think about where I am and where I’m going to rest my head. That’s not a reality people think about when it comes to what it must be like being a songwriter and storyteller. Some people see it as this awesome experience, but I’m also seeing real America, and not only am I experiencing those moments of ‘is this a safe place for me and a safe space? Can I say what is on my heart and what I’ve experienced?’

We’re currently right now driving from Nebraska. We were in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, and that experience … I got to see a different part of America that not many get to see. These are the people who are feeding America. You know what I mean? Their wants and needs are different, their desire is different, and I’m playing in rooms where there was no one there that looks like me. These are towns of 200 and 300 people. I’m a representation of a people, another way of living in a region that they don’t know. But the thing that I’d like to get across to them, too, my storytelling, I always start off by talking about my family and where I come from, because that’s something that many of us have in common—we have roots. We have people who fed into us. We have someone who inspired us, either from traditional or nontraditional families.

That’s something in common. I might look different than you, but somebody raised me and instilled me with qualities and with a purpose and with morals. That’s where I start, and by the time I get to the end of the show, we’re talking about how we’re walking through the world and how are we seeing one another. Are we being truthful with one another and kind with one another? I’m telling the stories of everyone that I’ve met that is incarcerated, that is dealing with mental illness, that is walking around quote unquote free in this world, but in their own prisons because of the wounds they’re carrying and the trauma they’re walking around with.

Yeah. In that way I find I have to always look back at the work that people like Nina Simone and Mavis Staples have done in just telling the stories and singing the songs and keeping the thread going. That’s the only way to bridge the gap between all the regions and all the different ways that we live, not only in this country, but in the world.

CITA:  It’s a hard walk to be true, so we’re glad you’re doing it. How do you let off steam? How do you care for Kyshona?

KA: [laughs] That’s a very good question. I just got a membership at Massage Envy.

CITA: Good idea because Massage Envy is everywhere.

KA: But this is something I’m trying to work on because I’m in a season where I’m working really hard. I’m gone a lot. I’m fortunate for it, I’m grateful for it, but the same thing that happened to me when I was a music therapist has happened. I stopped taking care of myself. I’m feeling again a little run down and a little heavy. I’m trying to just take little moments of joy. When I go home, I shut down. I might turn on some trash television. My new thing has been Schitt’s Creek, catching up on what I’ve missed over the years and just trying to find a way to zone out and maybe not think about anything. A couple of weeks ago I tried to really stand in the privileges that I have, and I went on a because-we-can trip to Barcelona for four days.

CITA: Did you love it?

KA: I did. We had no plans, other than to walk around and eat food and drink wine.

CITA: Well, what other plans do you need in Barcelona?

KA: [laughs] Right? That’s the other thing that music has done for me is pulled me into different countries, which I never thought I would be able to do as a child, or even as a young adult. I never thought I would get to travel the way I have because I have a guitar and stories and songs to share. It was great to travel to Barcelona and experience a whole other culture and a whole other way that people live, to have no job other than receive, right?

CITA: We’re pumped that you’re bringing your music to Tampa. Is this your first time to this part of Florida?

KA: No. I’m actually down there often. The first thing that brought me to the Tampa area was a songwriters’ festival that I did in Safety Harbor, Florida.

CITA:  Oh wow! Yeah, that’s right up the road.

KA: Yeah, I’m always in 30A for this 30A Songwriters’ Festival. and I’ll just keep on coming south. I was just in the area a few months ago to play at Fogertyville.

I’m playing house concerts, which are nice, intimate songwriting series that are in these communities people just built up, and they’ve created a really cool network in Florida, especially around the Tampa, Clearwater, Safety Harbor Area. Florida has surprised me by their love of the singer-songwriter and their love of storytelling

CITA: Well, we’ll be glad to see you here soon.

KA: See you soon!

Learn more about Kyshona Armstrong when she appears live and in person at Club Jaeb next Monday night, Dec. 16.

Talking With: Nick Offerman

You probably know him as Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation and as a sublimely convincing Dick McDonald in The Founder opposite Michael Keaton. Nick Offerman can also make a super fine cedar-strip canoe by hand out of his woodshop in east L.A., which you may not have known. He also co-wrote the book The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History with wife, actress Megan Mullally.

How did you get started in the business?

As a teen, I read the Gospel selections at Catholic mass in my local church. It was in the pulpit that I first noticed the efficacy of a deadpan delivery, and I was driven to entertain an even larger congregation, so I went to theatre school at the University of Illinois, formed a theatre company in Chicago with my fellow mountebanks (The Defiant Theatre), and rode my stage work to Los Angeles, where I have slowly but surely cultivated a string of jobs that allow me to continue in my pursuit of tickling audiences.

What’s always in your refrigerator?

Locally-sourced, properly-pastured meat.

What’s your worst quality?

I’m a workaholic … [and] I am extremely lucky to work at jobs that I love. So I have the bad habit of jamming my calendar full of said employment, rather than spending enough time strolling through the woods with my loved ones.

What music is on your playlist?

Nancy And Beth, Wilco, Laurie Anderson, Matt The Electrician, The Milk Carton Kids, The Decemberists, Neil Young, Nick Cave, Randy Newman, Tom Waits

Read any good books lately?

I love [reading] more than any other art form. I just re-read Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. Also The Library Book by Susan Orlean, How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

Cat person or dog person?

Dogs, decidedly. I grew up with dogs and cats, and I love all animals deeply, as I am a talented scratcher, but our dogs make our lives substantially more beautiful at home with my bride.

What’s your “guilty pleasure” television show?

My wife and I indulge in The Bachelor franchise. The fast food of TV – scientifically engineered to be immediately flavorsome, but ultimately delivering only a stomach ache.

Who or what inspires you?

My wife inspires me without ceasing. She is the most talented person I have met, and yet she also works harder at her craft than anybody else, which serves as a driving force whenever I apply myself to a project. I am also massively inspired by the writing of Wendell Berry and his perspective on the actions of humanity. If his words were required reading, our climate would be much more comfortable and our food would be much healthier and delicious.

What are your thoughts about our great state of Florida?

I have not seen enough of the paradisiacal parts to satisfy the Jimmy Buffett in me, but I have greatly enjoyed the flavors of Miami, as well as the more rural areas where the people remind me of folks I grew up with in the Illinois farmland. My favorite books about Florida are The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and Oranges by John McPhee.

What do you consider your greatest successes – personally and professionally?

Personally, I feel like I am so far making my parents proud by taking the values and work ethic which they imparted on me and crafting a fruitful life in which I’m able to deliver some entertainment to folks while I have not been convicted of any felonies. Professionally, my favorite “rating” to achieve is when I learn that I have helped inspire anyone to make things with her/his hands.

Nick Offerman: All Rise comes to the Straz Center Saturday, December 7 at 7 pm.

Guess What? We Made Our Own Custom Fabric Design for Nutcracker

A first for The Straz, the new fabric designs represent a wild collaboration between dance costuming and graphic design.

When people think of the graphic design department in a performing arts non-profit, they may imagine program layouts, banners, signage, logos and the like. They may not consider a couture collaboration to produce custom costumes specifically for dance.

The Straz Center houses an extraordinary ballet training program headed by Philip Neal, a retired principal dancer from New York City Ballet. Our pre-professional ballet company, Next Generation Ballet, stages a knockout production of Nutcracker each season, hosting famous guest artists in the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. (This year we’ve got Maria Kowroski from NYCB—the real dancer for the Barbie ballerina movies—and Aran Bell of American Ballet Theatre, who was featured in the Youth America Grand Prix documentary First Position).

Next Generation Ballet students rehearsing for Nutcracker

If you’ve attended NGB’s production of Nutcracker, you already know it is lavish, sumptuous, magical and full of exquisite classical ballet technique. The production’s costumes star as some of the most fun eye candy in this Land of the Sweets, with their detailed faux fur trims, delicate embellishments and delightful array of bold colors. If you haven’t been to Nutcracker yet, then get your tickets for the show this weekend  because you’re in for a treat.

This past summer, NGB costumer Camille McClellan brainstormed with Philip about the possibility of producing designed fabrics that she could customize for NGB dancers. If they could find a local company to print directly to spandex blend textiles, then we could potentially have bolts of fabric for affordable, sustainable, unique-to-NGB costumes.

Costume Designer Camille reviewing plans for one of the new designs for Nutcracker

Philip and Camille decided to revamp the four leopard and 11 butterfly costumes using print-to-fabric technology, which would allow Camille to hand draw the new look Philip envisioned. What they needed to complete the project was the aid of graphic designers to trace Camille’s pattern in Photoshop, convert it to a digital print file and send it to the printer who could ink the design onto stretchable fabric. Then Camille could cut the patterns and sew the costumes together, add embellishments and have them show-ready by this weekend.

To see their idea become reality, Camille and the dance department partnered with Straz graphic designers Joseph LaCrue and Roderick Taracatac to take her designs into the digitally print-ready world.

Camille and Graphic Designers review samples of the custom printed designs.

“What was fun for me,” says Joseph, who worked with Camille for the new butterfly costumes, “was that Camille has been in the costume industry for years, so she automatically started off the project thinking about what the costume would look like under theater lights, how it would read from the back of the audience. That’s where I was really impressed. She’s thinking of not just the dancer; she’s thinking about the audience member … can they see it? Is it going to read? I thought that was really cool.”

Camille estimates she spent about 200 hours over the summer getting the design and measurements of the costumes perfect then painstakingly calculating the exact positions of where the designs needed to be on the fabric so they would line up properly when she cut out the parts and sewed the costume into one piece. She determined she would need three different-sized costumes to accommodate the diversity among the size of the dancers, which meant that she had to repeat the laborious calculations and draw the costume, in full, on graph paper with tick marks denoting where the pattern was to meet upon sewing.

Camille spends countless hours fine-tuning the details to each costume that will be seen on stage during the Nutcracker performances

Joseph then scanned the three life-sized costume drawings, reduced them to scale, hand-traced over them in Photoshop, colorized them and saved the work to a digital file to send to the printer. The anxiety-producing aspect of this project was that there was no margin for error. The calculations, drawings and tick marks had to be perfect, otherwise the pattern wouldn’t align, ruining the entire costume.

“This project was extremely technical. For me, it was two hours to draw the petite, two hours to draw the medium, two hours to draw the tall. This is about as couture as I think you can get in this day and age,” Joseph says. “We talked about why wouldn’t you do this with just dyed fabric and an applique, but the theory is that if we invested in this technology now, we’ll have these costumes for generations to come. I know this was a labor of love for Camille. I think we all learned a lot on this project. It was fun.”

Butterfly costume design for Nutcracker

“The dance department is thrilled to be using this technology, and the graphic designers have been great to work with,” says Camille, who hand-sewed the 15 new costumes, adding arm sheers to the butterflies and gem embellishments to the leopard unitards. “The butterflies were such a challenge because of the scattered design that wraps around the body and a ribbon element that had to match at the side seams in five different locations. I wanted something fantastical for the leopard print and found the inspiration from a Versace ad I saw in a fashion magazine. I gave that to Roderick and said ‘this!’”

“I have created prints and patterns for projects in the past, but never anything that was used for performing art on stage,” Roderick says. “This collaboration was a blast. Camille is a very detail-oriented artist, who had a strong vision of what she wanted the final piece to look like. That took a lot of the guesswork out of the project and really streamlined the creative process. Once the colors were finally nailed down, there was some back and forth on scale of the print, and before we knew it, we had the final product done and out to the printer. Camille named this print Confetti Leopard.”

Camille’s originally named ‘Confetti Leopard’ custom printed fabric

You can see the debut of these new costumes this weekend when NGB’s Nutcracker  dances onto Morsani Hall stage.

Girl Power

The Straz Center arts education partnerships program with Tampa’s The Centre for Girls

In addition to our many performances, lectures, classes and workshops, the Straz Center hosts a super cool outside-of-the-spotlight arts education partnership program which brings us into fruitful, fun and inspiring relationships with many organizations around the area.

This semester, one of our musical theater teachers extraordinaire—Sarah Berland—traveled to The Centre for Girls each Thursday afternoon to give an afterschool theater workshop on the theme of “soaring to great heights.”

Sarah works with various organizations through the Straz Center partnerships

Sarah built her curriculum around the upcoming Broadway show ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, a calypso retelling of The Little Mermaid story, which features a courageous young heroine, Ti Moune, who risks her soul to save a man’s life. Interweaving Caribbean island history, drum and dance culture and fundamentals of storytelling, Sarah and a few guest artists guided the girls into a tight-knit ensemble who wrote and performed their own stories of personal courage. This Thursday, they’ll all attend ONCE ON THIS ISLAND as the culmination of their work together.

“Our partnership with The Straz has been nothing short of amazing,” says Sartura Shuman-Smith, director of The Centre for Girls. “Our girls are so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with professionals in the various areas of performing arts. Through the Straz Center’s program, the girls are not only given an “up close” view of the inner workings of performance, but they are also gaining knowledge in public speaking and confidence building.”

The Centre for Girls exists to create positive change for girls ages 5-14 through innovative programs in fine arts, STEM-based instruction, fashion and ceramics. The center offers a safe place for girls in highly formative developmental years to find empowerment and constructive outlets for self-expression.

Guest artist leading a Caribbean dance class at The Centre for Girls

“Through our arts education partnership program, the participants at The Centre for Girls get a glimpse of all three performing art mediums—music, theater and dance—as well as an unforgettable experience with a mainstage production where Caribbean culture is represented and celebrated,” says Heather Clark, our community partnership coordinator. “We are thrilled to be able to encourage these girls to find expression through the performing arts.”

Past, Present & Future

The 2019 D’Angelo Young Artist Vocal Competition honors Opera Tampa’s dedication to nurturing new artists. On a more personal note, the competition represents Opera Tampa League Board Chair Gina d’Angelo’s commitment to continuing her parents’ love of music through philanthropic support.

Dr. George and Mary D’Angelo

When Straz Center donor and Opera Tampa League chairperson Gina d’Angelo was in college, a fortunate series of events led to her parents hosting a dinner party for Luciano Pavarotti at their home in the hamlet of Erie, Penn. Tasked with pressing the wrinkles from the famed tenor’s tux, Gina and her sister Joanne set to their chore with giddy delight. Joanne, an actress, knew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a costume when she saw it.

She pulled on Pavarotti’s tux, brandished its white handkerchief, then launched into her best impression, small white flag a-wave, as though she stood on the stage at La Scala.

Pavarotti and Gina at a D’Angelo dinner in Erie, Penn.

As charismatic and larger-than-life as Pavarotti was, it wasn’t the two D’Angelo daughters who were most enamored with the Italian singer — that was George D’Angelo, the girls’ father, who happened to be Erie’s homespun impresario and a devoted fan of fine music and inspired artists. Dr. D’Angelo, a heart surgeon, also presided over the Erie Philharmonic and had befriended Pavarotti’s manager in the hopes of convincing him to get Erie on Pavarotti’s performance calendar. A few years passed until, one day, Dr. D’Angelo received a call.

“Pavarotti’s going to be singing in Cleveland on Friday,” the manager tells him. “If you want him on Sunday, he’s yours.”

That’s how Joanne D’Angelo ended up in Pavarotti’s tux while the rest of the house was in a tizzy getting ready for the post-concert reception for the world’s greatest tenor.

“It’s funny,” Gina remembers, “because when you host an event like that, everybody comes through the front door. My parents were very social, and because they were such lovers of great music and subscribers to The Met, we had quite a few singers at our house in those days. But Pavarotti — he came through the back door, through the kitchen. He started talking to the cooks, tasting the food. He was just a normal guy. A pretty large normal guy.”

George D’Angelo came to his appreciation of the arts through Gina’s mother, Mary. “It all started with my mother,” Gina says. “She was classically trained. She had a beautiful voice. She first got involved with the Erie Philharmonic, eventually convincing my dad to get involved as well. Those initial investments of time grew into so much more.”

Mary D’Angelo with Granddaughters Olivia and Alexa

The D’Angelos ultimately funded the D’Angelo School of Music at Mercyhurst University and the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center. Eventually, they saw the need to take an active role in developing new talent, so the couple conceived of and created the annual D’Angelo Young Artists Competition in Erie, awarding the winners substantial prize money and a performance opportunity.

When George D’Angelo passed away in 2014, Gina felt a profound sense of responsibility to live up to and honor the example her parents had set as contributors to their community. “I thought, if my dad could be a surgeon working 18- hour days and be president of the philharmonic as well as giving to so many other charities, then I can do that, too,” says Gina. She became the chair of the Opera Tampa League in addition to her full-time job and various other obligations, deciding, last year, to revive the D’Angelo Young Artists Competition for Opera Tampa. “I think Dad would be proud of me. I contacted the winners from when we hosted the event in Erie. I asked them, ‘what did winning the competition do for your career? How did it impact your life?’ The responses I got convinced me we needed to bring it back.”

Dr. George D’Angelo with Pavarotti

This season, Opera Tampa celebrates its 25th anniversary — an auspicious milestone for enacting the inaugural D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition. Purely a competition for upcoming singers, this event demonstrates Opera Tampa’s unwavering commitment to finding operatic talent and developing their careers. The winners receive prize money to further their studies and careers and also earn the opportunity to perform in an Opera Tampa production. “For me, bringing back the competition is an extension of what my parents did. Mom and Dad instilled in me that giving back is just what you do. I am trying to live by their example,” says Gina.

The D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition finale takes place on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 4 p.m. in the TECO Theater. Winners will be announced, and prizes awarded. To see these upcoming opera stars, rsvp@strazcenter.org.

 

Who is Larissa Fasthorse?

Jobsite Theater’s latest knockout of a show presents the work of Native American playwright Larissa Fasthorse. Obviously, she’s gonna have a few thoughts on Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving Play opened in the Shimberg Playhouse a few weeks ago to rave reviews. The play is terrifically funny, especially if you’re looking for someone to jab a sharp stick in the eye of white fragility among self-appointed woke liberal folk. The playwright, Larissa Fasthorse, holds the very dubious distinction of being the first Native American to have a full-length, full production in a major Off-Broadway theater for this very play. When? Last year, in 2018. So, we’re happy to have this chance to introduce you to her. You can get to know her a little better—then, if you haven’t already, go check out her fantastic play, or see it a second or third time.

Caitlin Eason (Logan), Giles Davies (Jaxton), Dana Mauro (Alicia) and Adam Workman (Caden). Photos from a tech rehearsal of Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play. Photo by Jobsite Theater.

We’ve edited and excerpted the interview below from a wonderful article by Victoria Myers, for The Interval. For the full article, visit “Larissa Fasthorse on The Thanksgiving Play and More”.

Victoria Myers: I read that you have a background in dance, and film and TV. How do you feel all of that affects your writing? And how did all of that impact how you taught yourself to be a playwright?

Larissa Fasthorse: I was a classical ballet dancer for a whole first career. In a lot of my plays, there are very large sections of physical, visual action as opposed to text, and it wasn’t intentional, but I’m sure that comes from my dance background and my film and TV background. I have a lot of trust in physical action on stage and physicality and seeing visuals without text behind them or involved in them.

I think it has helped me hugely. I sold two TV shows before I was commissioned to write my first play and I had a feature film going to the Sundance Native Film Program. I always wanted to write plays because I came from a stage background, but because every playwright I knew had a master’s degree, I thought that was a requirement, you just had to have one. Because I didn’t even have any kind of degree, I figured I wasn’t able to do that. Then I got commissioned to write my first play and I realized how much my film and TV background has really helped me.

VM: Going to [The Thanksgiving Play] and the idea of the American theatre, I read the play very much as a satire on many, many types of people that I’ve met working in the theatre. Did that ever feel scary to write about or have produced, especially as your New York debut?

LF: I don’t know why people are doing this play. I’m constantly surprised. I said in another interview that I just make fun of white people for 90 minutes and people keep coming. But, like I said, I did make sure that there’s comedy for everybody. Everybody can laugh at something. It’s not like I’m sitting there bopping you over the head with rthings.

I’m just really trying to say, this is what I see. This is what I experience every day in the world, in the American theatre, in white liberal America. I did a play called What Would Crazy Horse Do, where I worked with a Klan member as my research subject for a year and a half. He knew what I was doing, what the play was, helped me inform this character, and interview him about everything—and that was so much easier than working with super, super, super well-meaning liberals. I knew where he was coming from. It was an easy collaboration. We knew what our points of view were, we knew what our goals were, and we could just work forward. But when well-meaning American theatre, which is fortunately changing slowly, but has up until now mostly been white liberal folks, they’re so scared of making a mistake that it paralyzes them into doing nothing, and I can’t do anything with that. I don’t know how to deal with it. I can’t change it, I can’t fix it, I can’t work with you if you’re just sitting there in fear and ultimately doing nothing.

These folks that I’m actually talking about in my play, I hope what they take away from it is: let’s just all make the mistake together, let’s all be ridiculous together, and then that gives us somewhere to go. If I know where you’re coming from, you know where I’m coming from, and you can make mistakes, and I can make mistakes, and we can all get kind of crazy and yell at each other, but keep moving forward, that’s going to change everything. It truly will. I’m not someone who’s like, “Theatre will change the world,” but honestly, if we could all just start talking to each other and make mistakes and be honest, and then move forward and deal with that, it can change the world.

Adam Workman, Giles Davies, Dana Mauro, and Caitlin Eason. Photos from a tech rehearsal of Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play. Photo by Jobsite Theater.

VM: Have you found while doing press, now and in the past, that you get asked questions that a white male playwright is not being asked?

LF: All the time. It’s endless. As soon as the announcement came out in The New York Times about this play, immediately I got fellow folks of color saying, “We need to talk to you about your white male director.” And I was like, “Great, I’d be happy to have that conversation after you assure me that you’ve talked to every white playwright that’s hired a white male director, and if you’ve asked them that same question first, then feel free to come to me, the first Native American person ever to be produced in the history of this theatre, who feels like I’m holding on to American theatre by my fingernails, then you can come to me and question me. But until you’ve asked the people that have been here doing this for 50 years, until you’ve asked them that question, then don’t come to me.”

VM: Do you feel that there’s an added pressure of altruism placed on you and your work? The play is a comedy and satire. Have there been people who have wanted to take it very seriously and reverently?

LF: Absolutely. … These characters are doing per formative woke-ness. They want to seem really woke, but it’s very much a performance that they do when it suits them and not when it’s needed and not for the people it’s needed by.

VM: What is your personal relationship like with ambition and have you found that it has changed over the course of your career?

LF: I’m definitely like a Type A. I’m a North, which is like the ambitious, aggressive, overachiever. My 40s have been a gift of being like, “Okay great, I’m a North.” I used to fight that and be like, “Oh, I should be more Northeast or Northwest,” But now I’m like, “You know, I’m just a North, so I’m just going to do that.”

I feel like I’ve always done that in my life. I said I wanted to be a classical ballet dancer from the middle of nowhere South Dakota, and as a Native American woman and there have been very few of us, and I did it. I said I wanted to write in film and TV, and I sold two TV shows. I said I wanted to write plays, and I’ve been really fortunate I can do this. It’s taken me a long time because I come from both the Midwest and the Lakota culture, which is very self-deprecating and everything’s about the community. But I’ve come to realize I’m a very ambitious person. I like to do well. That’s the reality.

Photos from a tech rehearsal of Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play. Photo by Jobsite Theater.

I work and live in a white dominant society that values certain things, and what they value is a certain type of ambition, a certain type of ego, a certain type of confidence. Often, it’s different for women, but I don’t know how to adjust myself for gender, so I just go ahead and I’m me. I get called direct a lot. I love it when people are direct. But in women it’s often considered a negative. And I’m like, “Oh well, then I guess I’m not for you, that’s okay.”

I think that’s been a big part of my whole philosophy. I’m just going to go ahead and be me, and I’m going to be ambitious and I’m going to want to do well, and I’m going to want to succeed, and if that’s not for you then that’s okay, there are other people. …

My ambition is my secret weapon to make the seventh generation be able to do this a lot more easily.

I’m standing on the shoulders of so many Native women. We have Spiderwoman Theatre right here in town. Those ladies paved such a hard road. They were moving boulders, they were moving mountains just to express themselves and get to do their work here in downtown New York and have their own theatre company. They had to do such incredibly hard work just to say what they wanted to say in a small space, and they’ve grown themselves into this beautiful, nationally beloved theatre company and this institution. They worked so hard for it and I know that I’m walking on that road that they already created. They may not have been in this space, but I only can walk into this space because they created the road from downtown to here.

The Thanksgiving Play runs in the Shimberg Playhouse until Nov. 17.

Just the Treats, Please

The Straz Center’s self-serve candy station in Morsani Hall is a year-round Halloween dream come true. No tricks here. It’s just all candy all the time, and we love it.

Colorful Jelly Bean options up for grabs at the Candy Bar in Morsani Lobby.

Each year, we buy about 2,100 pounds of candy. That much candy is roughly the weight of two full-sized grand pianos.

Each month, our guests consume around 175 pounds of candy –about the average weight of a six-foot-tall man.

Guest get creative choosing their favorite candies to add to their candy boxes. Photo by Rob Harris.

The four favorites for Straz guests are M&Ms, peanut M&Ms, Swedish fish and a long strip of candy called a blueberry sour belt.

Erika Elias, our concessions manager chooses which candies go in the station. She does take employee suggestions to change up the selections from time to time.

Some experimental candy choices over the years included red hots, gummy sharks, warhead sour tears and candy pebbles.

Occasionally, Straz donors get to pick a few new candies for the jars. Their picks included banana candies, black licorice bites and cappuccino Jelly Bellies.

Erika rolls with the seasons, so candy corn may be in there this month and peppermint will appear for the holiday season.

Candy for all ages! A wide variety of flavors available at the candy bar.