Picker, Grinner, Emmy -And Grammy- Award Winner

Steve Martin may have made his way to the spotlight as a star on Saturday Night Live and in films like The Jerk and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. But there’s a lot more to this wild and crazy guy than a genius knack for comedy.

This month, Jobsite Theater launched its new play season with Steve Martin’s give-you-a-stitch-in-the-side funny Meteor Shower. The troupe saw a raucous success staging Martin’s The Underpants a few seasons ago and Picasso at the Agile Lapin a few seasons before that, so they’re bringing in his most recent play to treat audiences to Martin’s signature mix of intelligence and hilarity.

A frequent contributor to The New Yorker – the paragon of excellent writing – Martin eclipsed his own celebrity as a comic actor when the arts establishment noticed he was a sublimely talented writer.

A triple threat, Martin pens plays, essays and novels, each of which requires a different skill set from the writer’s craft. Well, make that a quint-threat: he also writes songs and poems. His long-nosed character C.D. Bales famously states in Roxanne, Martin’s film adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, “tell her you’re afraid of words!” Regarding Martin himself, this line seems deeply ironic since he deep-dives into them all, no matter the shape, size, form or fashion.

His writing chops developed on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the 1960s, where he netted his first Emmy Award® for outstanding writing achievement. His first short film, The Absent Minded Waiter (1977) was nominated for an Academy Award®. For those of us in live theater, we were thrilled when his play Picasso at the Lapin Agile opened Off-Broadway in 1996 (of course winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play that year).

We were even more giddy when we found out, in 2014, that Martin and alt-pop-folk 90s wunderkind Edie Brickell were collaborating on a bluegrass musical. That show, Bright Star, opened on Broadway in 2016 and earned a subsequent Tony® nod for Best Musical in 2017.

Martin, who had implemented his impressive banjo skills as a gimmick in his stand-up, eventually quit playing around and came out as a serious student of bluegrass and a masterful banjo player in league with  the greats of the bluegrass tradition.

Prior to making Bright Star with Brickell, Martin released two acclaimed bluegrass albums of original songs, collaborated with stars The Steep Canyon Rangers and won the 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award. An ardent devotee of banjo history, stylings and experimentation, Martin created the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass which comes with an unrestricted cash prize of $50,000 through the Steve Martin Charitable Fund.

On Sep. 19 in NYC’s Town Hall Theater, Martin hosts a live concert of bluegrass all-stars which culminates in the unveiling of the 2019 Steve Martin Prize recipient.

Jonelle Marie Meyer (Corkey) and Jordan Foote (Norm). Photo courtesy Pritchard Photography.

Meteor Shower, Martin’s latest play, opened on Broadway in 2017 starring Amy Schumer, Laura Benanti, KeeganMichael Key and Jeremy Shamos. Schumer garnered a Tony® nomination and both she and Benanti – a perennial Broadway favorite – landed distinguished performance nominations from the Drama League.

Jordan Foote (Norm), Jonelle Marie Meyer (Corkey), Jamie Jones (Gerald), and Amy E. Gray (Laura). Photo courtesy Pritchard Photography.

To get your seat for Jobsite Theater’s production of Meteor Shower, playing in the Shimberg Playhouse Sept. 4 – Oct. 6, visit strazcenter.org.

Let’s Eat Chocolate

In honor of Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY opening in a month, we thought we’d give you a head start on some delectable chocolate recipes you can make at home. We asked our renowned pastry chef Jamie Paultre for his three favorites, and here they are.

We don’t mean to brag, but—well, we do; yes, we’re bragging—chocolate first arrived in the American colonies in Florida. That’s right. The mouth-watering, life-giving force introduced itself on our shores via a Spanish ship in 1641. By the time the Revolutionary War rolled around, cocoa beans were a major American import considered a utilitarian staple in pantries across the New World. Soldiers had chocolate in their rations.

The Aztecs and Mayans, early pioneers in assigning value to cacao beans, used the fruit as currency. They also served liquid chocolate to human sacrifices prior to said fate to cheer them up a bit. Civilizations in other parts of Latin America and Mesopotamia used the beans and fruit for eating and drinking. The Latin name for the cacao tree translates to “food of the gods” and today, in the United States alone, chocolate generates a 4-billion-dollar-plus economy. The average American eats about a half a pound of chocolate each month.

We’re going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Roald Dahl’s classic tale of a poor boy lucking his way to a Golden Ticket might not have seen the same popularity had Willy Wonka owned a broccoli factory. Chocolate makes life delicious.

So, when we wanted to share some deliciousness with you to celebrate the brand-new Broadway production of Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY opening Oct. 8, our first thought was to track down the Straz Center pastry chef, Jamie Paultre. We asked him to reveal his three favorite recipes using chocolate as a main ingredient. He delivered these three whoppers, each requiring simple ingredients you may already have in your pantry.

1.    Chocolate Flan Cake

Yield: 1 flan cake

Hard Caramel

Caramel Weight – grams Volume
Sugar, granulated 200g 1 cup
Water 40g 3 tbsp
Corn syrup 22g 1 tbsp
  1. Bring sugar, water and corn syrup to a boil.
  2. Brush sides of pot with a brush to remove any sugar on the sides.
  3. Cook sugar mixture until amber color.
  4. Pour caramel evenly around the bottom of a bundt pan. Set aside to cool.

 

Flan

 Flan Weight – grams Volume
Condensed milk 800g 2ea – 14oz cans
Milk 560g 2 ¼ cup
Cream cheese 225g 8oz block
Eggs, whole 300g 6 eggs
Eggs, yolks 60g 4 yolks
Vanilla extract 14g 4 tsp
  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Blend using an immersion blender until smooth, being careful not to incorporate any air. Set aside.

Chocolate Cake

Chocolate Cake Weight – grams Volume
Cake flour 80g 2/3 cup
Cocoa powder 30g 1/3 cup
Baking soda 3g 1/2 tsp
Salt 2.5g 1/4 tsp
Dark chocolate 115g 1/2 cup
Butter 115g 1 stick
Buttermilk 130g 1/2 cup
Sugar, granulated 100g 1/2 cup
Eggs, whole 100g 2 eggs
Vanilla extract 7g 2 tsp
  1. Melt together butter and chocolate. Set aside.
  2. Sift together flour, cocoa powder baking soda and salt. Set aside.
  3. Whisk together buttermilk, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract.
  4. Whisk chocolate mixture into egg mixture.
  5. Mix the chocolate mixture into the flour mixture.
  6. Pour cake batter into the bundt pan.
  7. Fill the mold the rest of the way with the flan mixture.
  8. Bake in a water bath at 300 degrees F in a conventional oven. Cook until center reads 180 degrees F on thermometer, approximately 1.5 hours.
  9. Refrigerate overnight.
  10. Place plate or serving tray with a lip on the bundt pan and flip to unmold.

 

2.    Chocolate Passion Verrine

Yield: 12 2oz shot glasses

Chocolate Panna Cotta

 Chocolate Panna Cotta Weight – grams Volume
Milk 38g 2 ½ tbsp
Heavy cream 200g 7/8 cup
Sugar 50g 1/4 cup
Gelatin 3g 1 tsp
Dark chocolate 75g 1/3 cup
  1. Place milk in a bowl large enough to hold chocolate and heavy cream.
  2. Sprinkle gelatin over milk, let bloom for 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, combine sugar and cream in a separate pot and bring to a boil.
  4. If using chocolate bar/squares, chop into small pieces, then put into the bowl with milk and gelatin.
  5. Pour boiling hot cream mixture over the chocolate.
  6. Whisk till combined. Let cool to around 100 degrees F.
  7. Place 2oz shot glasses in a muffin pan at a 45 degree angle.
  8. Pour into glasses until it almost reaches one edge of the glass. Let set in fridge.

Passion Fruit Curd

Passion Fruit Curd Weight – grams Volume
Passion fruit puree 170g 2/3 cup
Sugar, granulated A 50g 1/4 cup
Egg, yolks 95g 6 yolks
Eggs, whole 100g 2 large egg
Sugar, granulated B 50g 1/4 cup
Butter 100g 1/3 cup
  1. Combine sugar A and passion fruit puree in a pot and bring to a boil.
  2. When almost at a boil whisk together yolks, whole eggs and sugar B in a bowl large enough to hold eggs and puree.
  3. Temper boiling puree into egg mixture.
  4. Return to medium heat and cook until thickened, while continuously stirring curd and scraping sides and bottom of pot.
  5. Once thick remove from heat and whisk in butter.
  6. Let cool to room temperature.
  7. Remove shot glasses from muffin pan and stand straight up.
  8. Pipe curd into shot glasses on top of the panna cotta, filling the glass the rest of the way.
  9. Let cool in fridge.

Decoration (optional)

  1. Top with whipped cream
  2. Place piped chocolate decoration or chocolate shavings on whipped cream

3.    Chocolate Caramel Tart

Yield: 1 9in tart

Hazelnut Pate Sable

 Hazelnut Pate Sable Weight – Grams Volume
All-purpose flour 125g 1 cup
Sugar 40g 3 tbsp
Powdered sugar 20g 2 ½ tbsp
Butter, cold 120g 1/2 cup or 1 stick
Ground hazelnuts 50g 1/2 cup
  1. Combine all ingredients until butter is incorporated.
  2. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  3. Roll out 3mm thick.
  4. Place in greased tart pan.
  5. Bake at 325 degrees F until golden brown.
  6. Let cool set aside for later.

Caramel

 Caramel Weight – grams Volume
Sugar 200g 1 cup
Corn syrup, light 40g 2 tbsp
Water 40g 1/4 cup
Butter 75g 1/3 cup
Heavy cream 75g 1/3 cup
  1. Combine sugar, corn syrup and water in a pot.
  2. Bring to a boil. Brush side of pot with a wet brush to remove any sugar crystals sticking to side.
  3. Cook to 320 degrees F.
  4. Remove from heat and carefully whisk in butter and heavy cream.
  5. Return to heat and cook to 250 degrees F.
  6. Pour into tart shell. Let cool.

 

Ganache

 Ganache Weight – Grams Volume
Heavy cream 200g 7/8 cup
Dark chocolate 200g 1 cup
Sea salt As needed As needed
Hazelnuts 25g 1/4 cup
  1. Bring heavy cream to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, if using a bar/square of chocolate cut it up into small pieces, then put into a bowl large enough to hold chocolate and heavy cream.
  3. Pour over dark chocolate.
  4. Whisk together until smooth.
  5. Pour over caramel.
  6. Let cool.
  7. Finely chop hazelnuts and toast them.
  8. Once chocolate is almost set sprinkle with sea salt. On the edge of the tart, sprinkle with the finely chopped, toasted hazelnuts.

 

Let’s Do Something Amazing

Take the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, The James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and the Straz Center, add an epic effort in community engagement, and you get VetArtSpan. The year-long collaboration culminates this Friday in a free performance event in the TECO Theater featuring veterans, civilians and community leaders.

VetArtSpan_showpage

When military hospitals began integrating creative arts therapies into treatment for veterans with traumatic brain injuries and psychological health conditions, the success caused a double take in the medical establishment. Arts therapies worked, often when traditional talk or drug therapy plateaued.

The National Endowment for the Arts created a nationwide initiative for veteran healing called Creative Forces®: NEA Military Arts Healing Network. In partnership with the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs as well as local and state agencies, Creative Forces allowed different stakeholders in the veteran community to come together to implement simple, beneficial strategies to connect vets, their families, arts and the civilian community.

During a Creative Forces forum a few years ago, Straz Center president Judy Lisi and community engagement specialist/artist-in-residence Fred Johnson were inspired to birth the idea of VetArtSpan, a year-long program between The Straz and the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

Local veterans performing at The Straz in May. Marquis Diaz (top) and Becky Heissler (right) will perform again at the VetArtSpan Showcase on Aug. 30.

VetArtSpan, launched Nov. 15, 2018, is part of Community Connections, the NEA’s second phase of their Creative Forces program. The basic idea of VetArtSpan was to provide a creative bridge to healing, hence the “span” in “artspan.” VetArtSpan’s scope included creating a military cultural education curriculum, participating in the design of arts engagement programs, contributing to increased arts access and expanding arts providers’ understanding of Tampa Bay’s vast military and veteran populations.

In practical terms, the VetArtSpan project launched a website, hosted a series of podcasts on veteran experiences called Stories from the Field, curated interactive online galleries that linked to other creative resources for veterans. VetArtSpan also published stories surrounding veteran creativity and military experiences. The project hosted three veteran-civilian dialogues, closed-space guided conversations, to open doors of understanding between two segments of the population that often struggle with how to talk to each other about the military experience.

This Friday, Aug. 30, participants and collaborators in VetArtSpan appear in a free performance event in the TECO Theater at the Straz Center to showcase the depth and breadth of this multi-part, multi-disciplinary project. The program includes U.S. Air Force veterans Marvin and Melvin Coleman with spoken word, the Veteran Civilian Dance Ensemble performing their work, I am We, Together as One drummers, and two panel discussions—one concerning veterans and the impact of the arts and the other discussing the bridges built between veterans and civilians through the VetArtSpan project.

This celebration is open to the public, free of charge. We hope to see you there.

Collaborating with the Straz Center on the VetArtSpan project are the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, University of South Florida School of Dance, the Morean Arts Center, The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, the Brain Science Institute of Johns Hopkins University, the ArtThread Foundation and the Military Resilience Foundation

The Straz Center thanks the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces initiative for their generous $50,000 grant to develop the VetArtSpan Project.

 

Tampa Bay Theatre Festival 2019

The annual festival, founded by Tampa actor, writer and director Rory Lawrence, takes place at The Straz and other locations Aug. 30-Sept. 1.

Rory Lawrence

In 2013, Rory Lawrence stood on the eve of the inaugural Tampa Bay Theatre Festival. After attending similar theater festivals in Atlanta and D.C., Rory thought Tampa needed one. He had no idea if even ten people would show up to the weekend of plays.

To host such an event, Rory and his team, RL Stage, Inc., needed spaces. He approached The Straz, and we were eager to help him at RL Stage make their vision a reality. “Rory is so talented,” says Straz Center programming manager Jeanne Piazza. “He’s a playwright and actor who produced at least three of his shows in the Jaeb Theater here at the Straz Center prior to the festival. We knew how good his work was creatively and professionally. So, when he approached me about creating a theater festival here in Tampa, we were in full support of his efforts.”

That first year, Rory was shocked when actors, playwrights, theater lovers and arts patrons poured into the shows, thanking him for making the TBTF happen for the local community. Workshops, they said—the festival needs actors’ workshops, please. So, the next year, the TBTF had productions and actors’ workshops. Over time, Rory brought in professionals such as The Blacklist star Harry Lennix and Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? actress Tasha Smith for acting master classes and boot camps.

This year, The Straz is proud to host several TBTF events including the short play competition; acting, directing and writing workshops; Rory’s full-length play Fighting God and the final night’s awards party. A true community event, TBTF performances take place at several theaters in the area. Catch full-length plays The Consciousness, (RE)UNION and Filthy Gentlemen at Hillsborough Community College. The productions of Filtered, Bobby is Dead and CLAVICO! A Most Peculiar Musical Comedy appear at Carrollwood Players, and Stageworks Theater hosts Paper Walls and Black Women Walking.

plays_collage

“Our involvement and support of the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival helps foster their vision of uniting artists and theater lovers for an incredible weekend,” Jeanne says. “By opening both our stages and rehearsal spaces for various performances, competitions and workshops over the TBTF weekend, The Straz is able to fulfill our mission of being a place where local performers feel welcome and at home.”

For complete details of workshops, teachers, performances and locations, visit the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival schedule at http://tampabaytheatrefestival.com.

Find Your Perfect Match with The Florida Orchestra

TFO public relations manager Kelly Smith takes over our blog this week with some pro tips for finding your perfect concerts in the new orchestra season. The Straz is a proud partner with The Florida Orchestra, who holds many of its concerts here.

Guest blog by Kelly Smith, public relations manager, The Florida Orchestra

Deciding on an orchestra concert is a lot like dating. You’re looking for similar interests, that special something that makes your skin tingle and your heart race. On the morning after, no one wants to wake up disappointed. Since the Straz Center has more than 20 Florida Orchestra concerts to choose from when the season opens in September, here are five insider tips to help you find concerts you’ll love.

Michael Francis conductor, The Florida Orchestra, Mahaffey Theater, March 23, 2019

If you love, love, love Beethoven
This is your happy place, supersized. Not only is Music Director Michael Francis celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, but he’s doing it with rare performances of the Mahler versions of both Beethoven’s Fifth (May 1) and Eroica Symphony (Oct. 11). What does that mean? Often called “Beethoven on steroids,” the Mahler versions are the original symphonies, with a few tweaks, powered by an orchestra much larger than Beethoven could have ever imagined in his day. It’s the Beethoven you know, just bigger, bolder. What’s not to love? Plus TFO will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (Feb. 21), Piano Concerto No. 3 (Jan. 17), and lots more. All part of the Tampa Bay Times Masterworks series.

Maximilian Hornung Photo: Marco Borggreve

If looks matter
This is a visually stunning concert you can see only one weekend in October, only with The Florida Orchestra. That’s when TFO debuts an exclusive art film to tell the story of Strauss’ Don Quixote (Oct. 11), combined with live orchestra and German cello soloist Maximilian Hornung. The film features paintings by local artist Geff Strik, who also illustrated Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night with TFO last season. Michael Francis conducts. Another concert to consider is National Geographic Symphony for Our World (Nov. 2), a full film of breathtaking wildlife scenes with live orchestra.

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If you’re into rock more than classical
Try REVOLUTION: Music of the Beatles – A Symphonic Experience (Oct. 4). If you’re looking for another Beatles tribute show, this isn’t it. This one uses hundreds of rare photos and video, along with top vocalists, to take you through the history of The Beatles as told through their hits, such as “Penny Lane,” “Get Back,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “Hey Jude.” Big bonus: Grammy winner and TFO Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik did all the orchestra arrangements using the original Abbey Road recordings. Part of the Raymond James Pops series.

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If you’re looking for great sax
Go ahead, name one classical orchestra piece that features saxophone. Yeah, not easy. Philip Glass’ lyrical Concerto for Saxophone Quartet is full of surprises, played by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, who has performed in all the major concert halls throughout Europe. A little secret to watch for: Members of the Rascher ensemble will join the orchestra ranks for Gershwin’s An American in Paris – another rare orchestra piece that includes sax. All part of TFO’s American Masters concert (Feb. 14), which also features Bernstein’s Candide Overture. Stuart Malina conducts.

Eric-Whitacre_1695-RGB_low-res1-800x534_Deep Field

If you need your space
With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this year, TFO is focused on the galaxies like everybody else. A stellar concert that might not be on your radar is Deep Field: A Cosmic Experience (Nov. 8) with Grammy winner and superstar composer/conductor Eric Whitacre. It goes deep into the stars with Whitacre’s symphonic Deep Field, featuring a film of Hubble Telescope images. There’s also Out of this World (Feb. 28), a Raymond James Pops concert with music from Star Trek, E.T., Holst’s The Planets and more. And if date night needs to turn into family time, try TFO’s new full-orchestra, interactive Family Concerts (Oct. 27), which kick off with One Giant Leap, featuring NASA video of the lunar surface and space-themed music, along with the Instrument Petting Zoo for kids to try out instruments.

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Make a date with us
Tickets to all Florida Orchestra concerts are on sale now at FloridaOrchestra.org. Some deals to keep in mind: Compose Your Own tickets are only $25 each when you mix and match three or more Masterworks and Pops concerts. Student and military tickets are $10, available 1 hour before the concert. Kids and teens get in free to all Masterworks concerts with a paying adult with Classical Kids & Teen tickets, available in advance through the TFO Ticket Office.

Let’s ROCK

Meet classically-trained Philly pop punk rocker Kevin Sitaras, director of the Patel Conservatory’s super popular Rock School.

Rock School at the Patel Conservatory puts together people who want to be in a rock band. The drummer may be a 65-year-old retiree, the guitarist a seventh-grader, the lead singer a recent transplant working her first professional job at a bank in downtown Tampa. The point is, Rock School is for anyone and everyone who wants to rock.

Caught in the Act is thrilled to introduce you to the director, Kevin Sitaras. You can come see Kevin and his Rock School crew shred at the End-of-Summer Music Blowout this Wed., Aug. 7.

Raised by his classically-trained opera singer mother and classic rock drummer dad, Kevin absorbed the best of both worlds, learning Strauss and Slayer, Giacomo Puccini and Getty Lee. He took to music like a duck to water, playing in metal and rock bands, then having dreams fall through like they do on the artist’s road. He walked away from music, but the move didn’t suit him well. Under the strong encouragement of his girlfriend who was tired of living with a musician not playing music, he looked for another band, hitting up the Philadelphia Craigslist until he found a pop-punk band who needed a drummer. Kevin traded a few emails with one of the members, then heard nothing for a year.

“So, a year later, I got another email from him out of nowhere,” Kevin says. “Their drummer wasn’t going to do a tour they were about to go on, so he asked if I’d tour with them. I said, ‘yeah, absolutely.’ I walk into the audition just as their drummer’s walking out. So, it went from ‘you’re going to be the touring drummer to well, it looks like you’re it.’”

Kevin playing guitar with his students during a Rock School Blowout performance at Skipper’s Smokehouse. (Photo: Soho Images)

The band, Rivers Monroe, had picked up some notice on the Philly circuit, landing a manager of some prominence – in the country music scene (he helped break Taylor Swift). Thus, the hard-drumming, happy anarchists found themselves sponsored by NASCAR, gigging at NASCAR tracks throughout the country. “It was so cool to do because I got to meet race car drivers and be on the track while the race was going on, but that’s a lot of fans to play to who don’t like your kind of music,” Kevin laughs. “In a weird way, we fell in love with it, and we did end up getting some fans from the NASCAR tour and our music on a NASCAR video game.”

Rivers Monroe graduated from NASCAR to what Kevin hails as the best diet in the world – the Warped Tour. In 2015, Rivers Monroe joined the two-week hell-on-earth that is dragging your hundreds of pounds of equipment across miles of parking lots to set up during the summer heat, sit out in the summer heat, then play in the summer heat, then break down your equipment and lug it back to the bus for the next town – in the summer heat.

Photo: Soho Images

“It’s physically demanding,” Kevin says about working the Warped Tour. “You’re outside for 16 hours a day in 100-degree heat. You do that for 10 days straight. You have gear, a merch table. You’re pulling your stuff up and down hills. I lost 15 pounds in two and a half weeks. It makes me think back to when I was a kid and would see guys on the Warped Tour. I’d stick around to talk to them and some of them weren’t that nice, but I get it. I’m not saying that’s okay because when fans came up to me I was always like ‘Thanks so much: I slept three hours last night, have a horrible sunburn, I’ve changed my clothes three times and it’s only four o’clock but thank you so much for coming!’ I’m just saying I got why Warped Tour musicians just wanted to get on the air-conditioned bus after their show.”

After a successful run on the Warped Tour with Rivers Monroe, Kevin returned to his passion for songwriting, going solo and meeting some friends along the way. A good pal moved to St. Petersburg, and Kevin, like any sane person, hates winter. The lure of a singer-songwriter life in the land of sunshine led him to this neck of the woods, and a rather unlikely perfect circumstance brought him to the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center.

Kevin with Rock School students during a performance in the Jaeb Courtyard earlier this year. (Photo: Soho Images)

Kevin, who also drives for Uber, picked up a ride one day in 2018 – a certain outgoing raven-haired theater teacher – shortly after he moved to the Tampa Bay area. They struck up a conversation. She mentioned she taught theater for a performing arts school in Tampa; he mentioned he was a musician and had taught at a rock school in Philadelphia. The woman turned out to be the Patel Conservatory’s Sarah Berland. “I told Sarah about working at the rock school in Philly and she was like, ‘oh, yeah, I think we’re looking for a Rock School instructor at The Straz.’ I gave her my email address and said ‘shoot me an email and we’ll talk.’ We went back and forth, she put me in touch with Dr. [Lauren] Murray [head of the music department], and I was hired. I was so happy. The Rock School program here is incredible, so this is a dream opportunity for me.”

Dr. Murray, who gave Kevin full license to shape the program from his scope and expertise, is more than happy to welcome her newest staff member aboard. “Kevin is pleasure to work with and has made a huge impact on our program,” she says. “He’s a terrific teacher, he genuinely cares about making a difference and his rock school students made amazing progress in such a short time. I can’t wait to see what the next year brings.”

To study with Kevin Sitaras and experience the face-melting joy of living to rock, go to patelconservatory.org and search under music classes.

Of Tangled Webs and Putting the Work in Network: Information Technology Superhero Sam Luis

This interview, a bonus in our series on non-performing jobs in the performing arts, features one of your friendly neighborhood performing arts center IT guys, Sam Luis.

Maybe you think it’s all tights, pancake makeup and “take it one more time from the top” over here, but the Straz Center relies on massive amounts of technology to run our organization and run our shows. That’s right—even Morsani and Ferguson stages have network connectivity now so shows can digitally control their sets, lighting and sound. We’ve got internets, intranets, emails everywhere from New York to Dubai, apps, snaps, hashtags, servers and an organizational text messaging alert system so we get the latest info on emergencies that affect The Straz. Although tech might be far from folks’ minds when they think about the performing arts, we are linked, synched, wi-fied and wired over every square foot of this joint. That’s why you’ll see our IT team literally running from one part of the campus to the next—they have that much to take care of in and around The Straz. They’ve got a big job to do here, and we’d like to introduce you to one of them.

Meet Sam Luis.

At rare moments, Sam can be found at his desk working on various tasks from networking and building Wifi to data security.

Caught in the Act: All right, Sam. Get us started with your path to IT, and if you will, explain what IT is.

Sam Luis: Sure. I think when you say “IT,” in general, people think it’s a guy fixing your computer.

CITA: Yes, that’s exactly what we think it is.

SL: There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes things that IT does, though. We make sure that our data’s secure. We also pull together reports in certain data for the business to make decisions, we present that in a consumable fashion.

CITA: What does that mean exactly? Can you give a specific example?

SL: Sure. A person in the organization might say, “Hey, I really want to visualize ticket purchases, but we don’t really know where they’re coming from or how we’re getting these tickets sold.” That’s where my other counterparts on my team, they go through the data and massage the data to make it more presentable. In other words, we analyze the hard data, then say, “Okay, this zip code has a lot of people coming to Show X, but this zip code has a lot of people coming to Speaker Y.” So on and so forth. That kind of visualization is what IT does. We facilitate practical interpretations of hard data the computer captures.

CITA: That makes a lot more sense.

SL: Then, how I started my career … Actually, I was fortunate enough, back when I was in middle school, that I won the magnet school lottery here in Hillsborough County.

CITA: Cool!

SL: It was a program where you would get diverted into a technology school. It’s now called Ferrell Middle Magnet School so that’s where I came from. It used to be called Middleton Middle Magnet School for Technology. We were completely immersed in technology from middle school, and it was a very early pilot program. That’s where I started, then I just kept on going and going and going in the field. Technology has always been my passion. I loved computers before I won the lottery, but that just kind of set me on my track to IT.

CITA: But this happened at a time when technology wasn’t quite as prevalent as it is as a career path today.

SL: A hundred percent. Then, when I went to the magnet school, there was a lot of, “Oh, it’s a fun little tool to play with. You should learn typing in case you want to type in a typewriter,” kind of attitudes. We were right on the cusp of the birth of the internet, so I actually got to witness that progression from having to dial in to get internet service to now. It just amazes me every day. So, yeah, I grew up with the birth of the internet.

CITA: Then what happened? Did you graduate and go to USF? Did you stick around here?

SL: I didn’t think conventional college was the right way for me. I went to a technical school. I went to ITT Tech. They’re defunct now, but I think education is what you make out of it. ITT really helped me base my overall technology standards, to learn about all the different technologies.

Sam is often called to troubleshoot connectivity issues in different areas of the building. This small closet houses audio and video connections for several of the halls and his most valuable tool in places like this is his flashlight.

CITA: You ended up at the Straz Center. How?

SL: It was very interesting. I was working at ITT as a support technician. The HR lady over there knew the HR person that was over here. I was looking to spread my wings. In IT, we move a lot, but I’m not that way. I like to stay where I’m at, so I was with ITT for about four or five years and they started mentioning, “Hey, there’s a position coming up at the Straz Center.”

I was like, what technology at the Straz Center? Four or five computers? It’s a performing arts center. They don’t have computers. Then I got interviewed, and I realized there was a lot of technology needs that just weren’t up-to-date. That excited me. It was a challenge. “Oh, I could really optimize this and change this and do this …” Fortunately, I was hired.

CITA: Mm-hmm (affirmative). When did you get to the Straz?

SL: I’ve been here seven years. I had a little hiatus for about a year between that so I was here, I think, 2013, I believe? I was here for about a year, I left for about a year, and then I came back and I’ve been here ever since.

CITA: That’s awesome. Let’s go back to something that you said, “It’s a performing arts center and they don’t have computers.’ That seems like a common belief about performing arts centers, that they’re not tech-savvy, but we cannot live without technology.

SL: A hundred percent. Five hundred percent.

CITA: It’s our ticket sales. It’s our communication tool. Our entire internal operations.

SL: Our lighting control system. I mean, just everything for the organization. It’s really amazing because I interview people for my team, and one of applicants’ top questions is ‘What technology do you guys have here?’ They think it’s just a couple of computers for the admin assistants and that’s it. Then, when we do the tour, and I show them all the controls and all the systems that we manage and maintain and secure, they’re like, ‘Wow. I would have never thought there’s that much technology behind a performing arts center.’

The IT Department has spare parts and wires on hand at all times so they can answer and fix almost any emergency.

CITA: In ticket sales alone, the importance of data security is paramount. People don’t know how far ahead of the game you guys have to be all the time. Then, our new stage floors had to be tech-ready because so many shows now rely on connectivity and technology.

SL: Correct. A lot of shows come in and they’ll require dedicated internet for their shows for automations. If that isn’t there, the show is not going to run because a lot of the automations are controlled, actually, from their headquarters in New York or Chicago. It’s a good feeling for a lot of the touring shows to not have to worry about running over wi-fi, which can be unreliable, because we have a dedicated internet network just for them.

CITA: What keeps you here versus heading to San Francisco or somewhere where people more readily associate big tech and big money?

SL: I think it’s the culture, right? Not-for-profit and the performing arts—it’s a very amazing culture. During my little hiatus when I was gone for a year, I went to a big health care firm, and I felt like just another cog in the wheel. You just kind of missed that personality and the lightness of people, just the atmosphere at The Straz. It’s a totally different animal when a show’s on. When there’s a show in you can just feel that energy of the show, and in the for-profit world you don’t have that. That’s why I like it here. I like my peers. I like working here. I like the atmosphere.

CITA: Now that you’ve been here for about seven years, do you feel compelled to get on the stage? Do you feel the itch to be a star?

SL: Unless I want to wake every dog in the neighborhood with my singing, no way. I’m more of a logical thinker. That’s just my brain. I’ve been to plenty of performances here. I’ve actually talked to my wife about, later in my years, once the kids are out of the house, picking up guitar or something like that, you know, we offer classes here. It’s crossed my mind but, I don’t know, I feel like I don’t the right mind for it. [laughs]

Sam’s tool bag is filled with everything from networking cables and scissors to screwdrivers and his flashlight.

CITA: Just so everybody is aware, you are really, really super busy as part of the IT team at the Straz.

SL: Correct.

CITA: This isn’t like you’re just sitting at your desk waiting for a call.

SL: No, I’m not playing Maytag repairman here. No, no. I have three guys underneath me. We’re in charge of support, infrastructure and security, so anything’s that’s plugged into the network, we manage. Any security issues, we manage. And then, just supporting day-to-day, “My computer broke, I need a new keyboard, emails,” All that stuff, we work on.

I think we ran a report last year, and we averaged about 10 to 12 work orders a day between the team. People go, oh, well that’s only 12. Well, one work order might take two or three hours. If you put that into context, we’re pretty busy. That’s not even including projects.

CITA: When you multiply it out over 365 days a year, then it really starts to add up.

SL: Oh, yeah. Yes.

CITA: All right, Sam, so what else do you want to tell our readers about your job here and what if they’re interested in joining you guys in IT? Do you have interns?

SL: We do. We actually have an intern position coming up. I don’t know the exact scope of the work, but I know that we are going to be hiring or getting an intern. In regards to joining the team, I know we’re potentially growing as the center grows, so definitely check the HR website. It’s a good, family team. We all pitch in together, and you don’t often find that in IT. I think that’s one of the other reasons I stick around is we’re all a team, where in bigger organizations, you’re just doing your own thing. I like that, the departure from the normal IT experience.

Called away from his desk yet again, Sam heads backstage for his next IT adventure.

If you want to intern with the Straz Center Information Technology department or explore career possibilities, visit our “Careers” page.