But What About All That Blockbuster Broadway Money?

Raising funds for a not-for-profit as large and ambitious as the Straz Center creates some interesting challenges for the people who run our development department. In this exclusive profile in honor of Give Day Tampa Bay and The Straz spring membership drive, Caught in the Act introduces you to some of the delightful people who build and maintain our vital donor community. Here, they wax philosophical on the number one challenge and why we need a donor community anyway.

Want to be a part of The Straz? We want you.

The biggest challenge:

“Believe it or not, most people don’t understand we’re a not-for-profit,” says Director of Special Events Sharon McDonald, who heads up Best of Tampa Bay, the food and drink fundraising festival on the Riverwalk each year. “My son’s girlfriend asked me if we did Best of Tampa Bay for charity, and I said, ‘yes—us!’ She paused for a moment then said, ‘The Straz is a charity?’ Oh, yes. When people think charity, they tend to think of shelters or cancer, these types of things. Not performing arts. But, the performing arts aren’t sustainable by just coming to see a show. With the big Broadway blockbusters, 70 cents of every dollar goes back to the show. People think we make all this money when we have The Lion King or Wicked, but we don’t. The majority of profits go to the show. We have to raise money for everything—education, outreach, our programming, everything.”

Sharon serves dual roles as Straz Center Director of Special Events and rabid Bolts fan.

Sharon (pictured with her husband, Jimmy) serves dual roles as Straz Center Director of Special Events and rabid Bolts fan.

“The most difficult challenge is having people see we’re a nonprofit. People don’t know what it really takes to bring high-quality arts and artists here. Not only that, but donors are vital to keeping our stages lit. Lights on, water running … that’s not the sexiest thing to give money for, but where would we be without it?” says Kim Bateman, manager of member relations and development systems. “Donors keep arts in this community.”

Kim Bateman

Here’s a pre-event selfie of Kim Bateman, glammed up to help donors have a spectacular time at the Straz Center Broadway Ball 2015.

“If we have grants and tickets, why donate? That’s a great question,” says staff grant writer Maggie DiPietra. “Well, we’ve got to raise about seven million dollars a year to break even. Seven million dollars to break even. We are very good, conscientious stewards of what we’re given, but people don’t realize we’re a nonprofit. The Straz Center started as a dream of the community; donors keep the dream alive. That’s what donors bring to the table. We simply can’t do it without them.”

Maggie Dipietra

Maggie is a favorite Tampa musician. Here she plays at Skipper’s Smokehouse with her husband Danny (on bucket) to open for Paul Thorn. Photo by Bridge Burke.

 Philanthropy and The Straz. Why do it?

“Because it makes you feel good. I really believe that. The world can’t survive without those who are generous and can give back. All the work we do at The Straz brings joy to others and is—authentically—an uplifting experience,” says Vice President of Development Julie Britton. “For me, I also think people don’t understand our work creates memories that last forever. What we teach here gives you discipline and skill sets that last your whole lifetime. I took free music appreciation classes at the museum in Toledo growing up. That was possible because of philanthropy, and that experience shaped who I am as a person. Having experiences in the performing arts makes for richer human beings as people learn to appreciate intangible things like beauty and goodness. Performances and classes, spending time at The Straz, creates a break in a frenzied world, adding a rich and rewarding dimension to life that is unique to the performing arts. Philanthropy for The Straz funnels right into our ability to create these experiences.”

Julie Britton with her husband Charlie at Best of Tampa Bay 2016.

Julie Britton with her husband Charlie at Best of Tampa Bay 2016.

“In the big picture, the Straz Center feeds the economic success and growth of all Tampa Bay,” says Bill Rolon, who helps cultivate our relationships with area businesses as our corporate relations manager. “It’s a ripple effect starting here for students taking theater classes, summer camps, dance intensives, any of the arts education programs. When people support arts training, most of the time they don’t even think about the fact that those kids are learning focus, team leading, collaboration, discipline and perseverance. You can’t put on a show without going through the long, hard, challenging process of getting it up and running, and, if you want to do it, you don’t quit. It’s all those life skills that the performing arts teach. I’m a prime example. I was an artist for 15 years, and that part of my life gave me every single skill that makes me valuable to a company today. Our students have the same training for life whether they go into a career in the performing arts or not, but the end result is that they have a work ethic to go until the job is done. And an understanding of how much they can achieve and what can be achieved when people work hard to a common goal. We don’t just teach performing arts, but character. Those students will become future employees, future business owners, future leaders. So the value of The Straz goes on and on.”

Bill performs in a musical revue as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Bill performs in a musical revue as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Nicole Stickeler, our bi-lingual development coordinator, explains:

“Las artes escénicas traen cultura y proveen una  vía para que los estudiantes y adultos  puedan expresar y entretener su lado artístico,” ella dice. “Al asistir a un evento las personas crean recuerdos que pueden conducir a un vínculo emocional con un lugar como el Straz. A través del apoyo de la comunidad, podemos ofrecer obras de alta calidad, educación gratuita de las artes, extensión a la comunidad, y mucho más. El apoyo del público es una parte integral de nuestro éxito y es necesario para que todos los clientes, estudiantes y adultos por igual, puedan soñar, llegar a, y celebrar las artes.”

In other words:

“The performing arts bring culture and provide an outlet  for students and adults to express and entertain their artistic side,” she says. “Patrons come here to attend an event and they create memories which can lead to an emotional attachment to a place like The Straz. Through the support of the community, we are able to provide high quality performances, tuition-free arts education, community outreach, and so much more. Their support is an integral part of our success and is needed so that all patrons, students and adults alike, can dream, reach, and celebrate the arts.”

Nicole, a trained singer, performs sometimes with Opera Tampa. Here she appears as a gypsy from La Traviata.

Nicole, a trained singer, performs sometimes with Opera Tampa. Here she appears as a gypsy from La Traviata.

If you’re interested in making a difference for the lives of the next generation and having the unique experience of being a part of our donor community, please visit us.


The Straz Center @ the Riverwalk offers a medley of interactive objects encouraging everybody to stop by and play with us.

Music Bench by Rob-Harris-1666

Detail shot of Why Sit When You Can Play? musical bench created by The Urban Conga. Photo by Rob/Harris, Inc.

For 27-year-old architect Ryan Swanson, the moment of clarity came when he stood alongside his pop-up public art installment that included a 12-foot beach ball in downtown Tampa. A homeless man approached Ryan and his business partners for money.

“I said, ‘man, we don’t have any money, but you can play with our stuff.’ At the time, I was working for a firm, we’d all just graduated from the University of South Florida architecture school, and were doing these pop-up installations in our spare time because we were poor, trying to transform underutilized public spaces. We took the guy over to the beach ball, introduced him to the family who was playing with it, a middle-class family. Everybody was skeptical at first, then we left them to it. Next time I looked over, they were all like little kids, batting the ball to each other. I saw it: play breaks down barriers. It was just … people playing. I said to myself, I’ve got to designate more time for this.”

Ryan playing musical bench

Ryan Swanson, of The Urban Conga, demonstrating how to play the musical bench.

Ryan quit his job and The Urban Conga, a creative collective determined to transform static public spaces into interactive play places, was born. The vision, started as Ryan’s graduate thesis at USF, resurrects the idea of public space as a locus for human interaction. People can participate in something cool together, as a community, the way we used to in the good old days before screen devices became our primary social partners. “It’s been a hurdle to convince the old guard around town that building a park in and of itself isn’t going to draw people to it. Look at Curtis Hixon Park, for example. It’s beautiful. But people really only go there when there’s an event, some draw. It’s hard for the older generation to understand we live and experience in a completely different way now, though they’re seeing our stuff work. As with our ping pong tables at Gaslight Park. People looked at them like they were alien spaceships, now people are bringing their own paddles out at lunch. So, it’s getting somewhat easier for people to understand the importance of our designs, of our philosophies and ideas that play works to bring people together, to make a conversation happen.”

Last year, Straz Center Director of Programming Chrissy Hall approached The Urban Conga about activating some space around the Straz Center. “We have this wonderful location on the Riverwalk, we’re here for our community, and we want to be a destination where people come hang out, even if they’re not coming to see a show,” she said. “The Urban Conga has the right thinking we need to help make The Straz a place where people participate in our campus – a place where they can play and enjoy themselves.”


bench_open house kids

Kids playing the musical bench at our Open House event.

After hours designing, welding, carving and revising, The Urban Conga installed Why Sit When You Can Play?, a bright-blue xylophone bench on the Riverwalk. Six steel segments comprise the 1.5 ton structure, a permanent installation, although the multi-colored sound blocks are made of hardwood maple and loosely affixed to give the blocks reverb to transmit sound. Anyone can sit and enjoy the bench. Or, pick up a mallet and give it a whack.

“We were so excited The Straz was open to us and our ideas for the musical bench. It’s a great feeling to come down here and see people playing it, or sitting together and talking while strangers walk up and start hitting it. It’s about musical collaboration, conversation … but all our work is a constant experiment to see how people engage,” said Ryan.

The success of Why Sit When You Can Play? prompted Chrissy to invite The Urban Conga, a trio that includes Mark Perrett and Brennen Huller as well as Ryan, to construct The Cube, an interactive, community graffiti-art project that happened at The Straz this winter.

Cube 1

Local artist Angel Corela was the first to paint The Cube on January 20, 2016.

Cube 2

After being up for only one day, our community had already left their mark on The Cube!

The Cube was fantastic,” Chrissy says. “We are in such an exciting time of change for The Straz as we make these huge efforts to offer easy ways for the public to feel a sense of pride and ownership in their performing arts center. We’re seeing the mission of the Straz Center in action, responding to social evolution. The role we’ll take in the future of this community is shaping itself before our eyes.”

Cube 3

Local artist Cory Robinson paints another layer on The Cube on February 18, 2016.

Cube 4

The Cube has moved to different locations around our campus. Here it is in the courtyard outside of the Jaeb Theater on April 16, 2016.

The next interactive exhibit hits the Riverwalk at The Straz April 30 and May 1 when Australia’s kid-centric imaginarium-makers Polyglot Theatre stage We Built This City, a free, family-friendly event featuring thousands of cardboard boxes that can be used to build any sort of cityscape participants desire.

With rocking music from an on-site DJ to fire the imagination and offer some creative hype, children of all ages can design, build, tear down, walk through and play in a city of their own making. The only rule is to have fun. Polyglot’s team will be in the mix guiding participants, acting as construction workers and hilarious characters and setting the tasks to bring people together.


More Hands-On and On-Site Fun

Fin Harp – Los Angeles-based performing art collective String Theory provided that dolphin-inspired Fin Harp that attaches to the roof of Morsani Hall. It was designed and built by Luke Rothschild. Read more about this permanent installation in this blog article.

Who We Are: Faces of Tampa Bay – French-American photographer Daniel Chauche spent two weeks in residency photographing portraits of the Tampa Bay area community from all walks of life. The photographs are on display through May 2016 along the Tampa Riverwalk. Read more about this free, outdoor exhibit on our website.


Somos Todos Tampeños

The Tampa-Cuba cultural connection


Floridano Sexteto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Susan Greenbaum.

There was a time not so long ago when Tampa belonged, in heart and mind, to Cuba. In late 19th century Ybor City and West Tampa, Cuban immigrants recreated  their homeland, to the best of their ability, while they powered the burgeoning cigar-making industry. Cuban-flavored Spanish rippled through the factories as the lectors, whose only job was to read to the cigar workers, sat on their platforms and performed the day’s text: newspapers and literary prose, often with revolutionary tones. Afro-Cubans, who contributed the indelible mark of African percussion to the Cuban sound and inspired the creation of the national music, son, and the development of rumba rhythms and dances, labored with their compatriots to establish the first real wealth in this area — economically and cross-culturally.

2016 marks more than 500 years of relationship between Tampa and Cuba, starting with the Spanish colonial appropriation of both Florida and Cuba in the 1500s. The two purloined lands shared a Spanish governor, Hernando de Soto, whose name became something of a Florida brand for parks and counties. In the early 1800s, a thriving settlement of Cuban fishermen lived on the shores of what is now Bayshore Boulevard. Years later, when Vincente Martinez Ybor and others built the lucrative cigar industries in Ybor City (originally “Cuba Town”) and West Tampa (originally “Cuba City”), donations from their workers funded the legendary Cuban fight for independence from Spain headed by José Marti and Antonio Maceo. Marti, beloved poet, patriot, revolutionary and orator, spent much time in Ybor stoking the fires for independence and equality. “Somos todos Cubanos,” he would say, walking with his trusted friend and lauded activist Paulina Pedroso down the streets of Ybor. We are all Cubans; his motto for the right attitude necessary for Cuban unity. This historical foundation so inextricably tied Tampa and Cuba that Pedroso Park on 8th Avenue in Ybor City is still owned by the Cuban government, who purchased the land because of its historic significance prior to the U.S. and Cuban governments’ fall-out in 1959.


Tampa’s Cesar Gonzmart, a talented violinist, performed with famed Cuban composer and pianist Ernesto Lecuona.

“For much of Tampa’s history, Cuba was the dominant partner,” says USF Professor Emeritus of History and author of The Immigrant World of Ybor City, Dr. Gary Mormino.

In Tampa, we possess the legacy of not only being the seat of Cuban independence, but also as a seat of trans-culturation that happened in the formation of Tampa as an American city.

“The sheer amount of creativity coming out of the social clubs was astounding,” Mormino says. The clubs, structured mutual aid societies that included health care and social opportunities, included ballrooms and theaters. Long before The Straz, plays, concerts and select performances of opera singers took place in the Cuban clubs — as well as in their Spanish, Italian and German counterparts.

In fact, Tampa’s first theatrical venue was a wooden cigar factory Martinez Ybor gave to his workers who repurposed it as El Liceo Cubano, a theater for arts, politics, education and cultural activities. El Liceo mounted the very first theatrical performance of any kind in Tampa — a performance of Amor de Madre in 1887.


A performance at the Cuban Club. Photo courtesy of USF Special Collections.

Many cigar makers moonlighted as playwrights, actors and directors. Regular Spanish-language plays ran at La Sociedad La Union Marti-Maceo as well, many of them socially-conscious works including a production of Hambre (Hunger), an attack on ruling class exploitation of poor people. In the Depression Era, Tampa-Cuban actress Chela Martinez opened a theater company featuring well-known actresses Carmen and Pilar Ramirez, and many of our Cuban thespians joined Tampa Federal Theatre Project, the only Spanish-language theater to come out of the New Deal.

Cuban music and dance, a complex cuisine of multi-cultural influences, was dished out in the streets and social clubs of Ybor City and West Tampa. The most potent flavors — son, danzon, bolero, rumba, cha cha cha and the lesser-known sacred Afro-Cuban Santeria songs and rhythms — traveled from the island to Tampa. Cigar maker Ramon Padron played part time with Floridano Sexteto, one of the most popular local Cuban ensembles, and famed Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (who wrote “Melaguena”) often spent time in Ybor City. The clubs hosted regular gatherings of local and touring Cuban artists, filling Tampa with the incomparable spirit of Cuban culture.

Now, as the political fetters fall away, we are in a unique position to rejoin the beloved island that gave us so much music, dance and theater. Cuba helped shape us culturally as an extension of its vibrant sound and exuberant energy, bringing to Tampa its exquisite artistry and giving birth to our identity in America.


The Habana Compás Dance company was founded in 2004 under the direction of dancer and choreographer Liliet Rivera.

Habana Compás Dance

We celebrate the Tampa-Cuba connection with the American debut of Habana Compás Dance on April 22 in Ferguson Hall. Direct from Havana, this electrifying company showcases the new artistry emerging in Cuba, a mix of tradition and vision that exalts the rhythmic complexities of the culture.


Many thanks to Dr. Susan Greenbaum, professor emerita of anthropology, University of South Florida, and author of More than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa, for photos and her insightful contributions to this article.