Put Out the Light – and Then – Put Out the Light

Okay, okay, so Morsani and Ferguson Halls “going dark” for August may not be as dramatic as Othello in Desdemona’s bedchamber (who got the blog title reference?), but us taking a short time-out is important for a number of reasons. Want to know what secret stuff we’re up to in the big Straz venues? We’re happy to spill the beans.

Backstage sm_Rob Harris

A view from backstage in Morsani Hall, looking up. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

It’s no secret that our hems are a little frayed, alright? We’re thirty years old. Millions—millions—of feet have trod the carpets, butts flopped in seats, hands run along the railings. We’ve grown at the speed of time-lapse so yes, maybe, just maybe, some of our tech is retro in the wrong ways. But when you’re presenting thousands of performances in five theaters all year long, when do you have time to stop and darn the curtains?

So, good people, we are taking a breather in August and early September to attend to several exciting capital projects, most of which will happen in Morsani Hall and Ferguson Hall. Of course, Jobsite Theater kicks off its amazing 20th anniversary season with a return of Spencer Meyers in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Shimberg Playhouse during this time, so we do have other theaters that will be up, running and cranking out incredible shows.

From Aug. 6-Sept. 11 our facilities, information technology, food and beverage, and production departments will be furiously updating our operations, grounds, and services. Both Morsani and Ferguson stage floors and sound systems will be replaced as well as the Patel Conservatory sidewalk. We’re upgrading our stage lighting equipment to LED (yay!) as well as chucking our infrared listening system for a brand-new mobile connect assisted listening system (read: new Wifi and an app are involved). Our print signs are going digital, so you’ll soon be seeing more video around campus, and we’re bringing in 21st century portable staging to replace the old stuff that is probably a contemporary of the original Cats.


Stage lights in Ferguson Hall.

You’ll notice quite a few improvements around our cocktail activity with revamped concession stands, gleaming portable bars and new equipment at the Riverside bar. We have some non-sexy but crucial upgrades in stuff you probably won’t notice like new A/C coils, door replacements and spiffy new awnings. We’ll get automated rigging pipes in the Jaeb which makes heavy lifting and reconfiguration of set pieces easier.

So even though a few theaters will be dark, we’ll still be busy-busy making The Straz the stupendous experience you know and love. If you see any of our facilities or production staff on campus while you’re here for a show or a class, you may want to shock the life out of them by saying “good job” or “the new awnings look fantastic” since they are truly our unsung heroes and sheroes of The Straz.

As always, we thank you, good people, for your support of The Straz to fund these improvements that keep your experience magical and meaningful. We hope you’ll be as delighted with our shiny new hems as we are.


The view from the stage in Morsani Hall.

Tools of the Trade: Music

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on music.


Gouging Machine

Not just for medieval torture anymore, the gouging machine serves professional oboe players in the manual labor of their art—the making of reeds. Unlike clarinet and sax players, who can purchase pre-made reeds, oboists and bassoonists must learn to make their own. So, before practice comes the making of reeds, a time-consuming, meticulous process that involves a gouging machine which thins and contours the piece of cane that becomes the reed.


Drum Key

The glorious kettledrums, unlike many drums, must be tuned to specific notes – which is where this little gem comes in quite handy. The timpanist fits this key on the screws securing the drum’s head to the kettle and gives it a quick quarter-turn ratchet to adjust the tone. Originally a Middle Eastern invention, the kettledrum traveled around the world, entering Western symphonic music as the timpani around the mid-17th century.



Felt Wedge

While this handy little gizmo can double as a door stopper, the felt wedge has an important role to play in the life of a piano. Tuning a piano gets tricky because there are a lot of strings in that bad boy, and what happens if you accidentally hit the string next to the one you’re trying to tune? Well, then. If you have a felt wedge, you can mute the surrounding strings and get on with your business.


giphy (1)

Eight Dollars and Some Change

… will buy you a decent conductor’s baton, which happens to be the least expensive tool in any orchestra according to Detroit Symphony Orchestra harpist and blogger Patricia Masri-Fletcher. Of course, some batons run much more than that, like these Mollards, which we imagine choosing the conductor, much like a wand to a wizard. (“12 inches, cocobolo knob, birch shaft, pliable … ah, yes.”) With many conductors of major metropolitan symphonies making million dollar salaries, that’s quite a return on investment.


Tools of the Trade: Theater

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on theater.


Orange Stick

Nope, not for fingernails—for eyelashes. False ones, that is. False eyelashes make the eyes pop, so many actors apply a pair before hitting the stage so the audience can better “read” the performance. However, if you’ve never put on a pair, these difficult-to-hold benign spikes glued upon the lash line require the hands of a surgeon and the patience of a rock. Orange sticks, typically used to push back cuticles in a manicure, aid and abet an actor needing help fitting the lash precisely to the curve of the eye.


gaff tape

Gaff Tape

Ask a theater person—whether that pro is an actor, stage manager, theater owner or lighting tech—and she will tell you the go-to catch-all for any theater need is gaff tape. Originally used to tape or “gaff” lighting cables to the floor to avoid tripping over them, gaff tape proved to be useful for almost everything. Need a quick repair to a ripped costume hem? How about putting part of the set together? What to do about making a hat band, fixing a broken prop? Gaff tape. All of it. Just gaff tape. Everywhere.



Milk of Magnesia

Theater lights emit a lot of heat. So, even though you may always bring a sweater for a show, the actors are hammering their parts underneath rows of high-energy lights that create a giant French fry warmer. The key to minimizing face sweat is to apply a thin layer of Milk of Magnesia before donning show makeup. The MOM dries, creating a tight mask that keeps the sweat down and adds the bonus of preventing makeup from flaking.


giphy (3)

Pencils, Erasers, Highlighters, Pens and Throat Coat

The actor’s toolbox somewhat resembles the back-to-school supply list for winter term. Acting and putting on a show require so much preparation, and almost all professionals keep notes, mark scripts, highlight their lines or tech needs and copy out their lines to help with memorization. When performers go “off book,” or start to deliver their lines without using the script, rehearsals kick into high gear. Voices must be protected; after all, an actor with laryngitis is very bad for business. Enter Throat Coat. This herbal concoction of primarily licorice and slippery elm bark soothes the voice with something akin to a loving embrace of the esophagus.

Tools of the Trade: Dance

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on dance.


Rosin Box

Slippery dance shoes? Slick flooring? No problem, thanks to this useful trick-of-the-trade. Filled with small clumps of dried pine sap called rosin that break into sticky crystals, this box lurks in some corner of the stage or studio. Dancers crush the rosin on their pointes or jazz shoes to provide a much-needed grip in dicey dance conditions.


shoe prep

Pliers, Hammers, X-Acto Knives

Guess what? Ballet dancers literally have tools of the trade. These hand tools are must-haves to break in a new pair of pointe shoes. Pliers remove nails, hammers beat the box (the part where the toes go) into submission and X-Acto knives score the tips for traction.


taping toes

Athletic Tape

A dancer’s toes know. This tool of the trade belongs in studios and dance bags all over the world. Toes and feet need TLC and/or mending after hours hard at work in a pair shoes, be those shoes pointe, tap, salsa, ballroom or jazz sneakers. Barefoot dancers keep tape around for toes as well, often with a companion roll of gauze for blisters, broken skin and the occasional rehearsal sesh that involves parts of the foot’s skin falling completely off.


face cream

Preparation H

Dancers love to prepare, and perfection is often the goal. We’re probably going to get in big trouble for revealing that a trade secret (for actors and other performers as well), is using Preparation H on wrinkles before showtime to create a plump, youthful face. Gentle readers, this trick-of-the-trade may not be the best idea for treating your maturing skin at home, but it works for a minute onstage. Ah, there’s no business like show business.


The Song Goes on ‘Til the Break of Dawn

Now gallantly streaming on Spotify and Amazon Prime, America’s national anthem is a relatively new idea that found its legal place in our national identity as late as 1931.

sheet music

This 1814 copy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the first printed edition to combine the words and sheet music. Currently this is one of only ten copies known to exist, and is housed in the Library of Congress.

Imagine the White House burned to cinder.
The Capitol collapsing into smoke and char.
The lane between the two a soot-choked corridor of smoldering federal buildings.

If you can imagine that scene, then you know exactly what British troops left behind them as they marched from D.C. to Baltimore in the late summer of 1814, as the “War of 1812”—a trade skirmish that escalated into full-blown war—waged into its third year. The young nation, only recently liberated from Britain after the Revolutionary War, found itself on the brink of a royal thrumming by the war powers of England. Bankrupt, obliterated and with its government on the run from advancing British troops, the struggling republic toppled towards dissolution. If Baltimore fell, there would be no hope for America’s survival. With the Brits closing in from Canada, inching warships into the Patapsco River toward Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and marching 4,500 highly-trained soldiers to the city, the nation looked as though it would soon be back under British control.

With these high stakes, the citizens of Baltimore threw their might against the British, banning together to reinforce the harbor and the city. As the 4,500 redcoats advanced on the city, they were met by 15,000 American citizens manning an unexpectedly impressive defensive earthworks. For 25 hours, the formidable British navy lobbed bombs and artillery at Fort McHenry trying to force a surrender that never came. When the sun rose in the morning, American soldiers hoisted a 42-foot-by-30-foot American flag, known as the star-spangled banner, over the fort as the British beat a grudging retreat.

The raising of that enormous flag symbolized the triumph—and the hope—of a new nation that refused to bow to tyranny.


Engraving of the bombardment of Fort McHenry by John Bower.

Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old Maryland barrister and gifted amateur poet, witnessed the attack from the water. He’d been held aboard a British ship negotiating the release of an American POW, Dr. William Beanes. A raging storm added to the drama of the attack during the night, and the sight of an American flag rising with the bright, new dawn so inspired Key to grab the back of a letter and pen a verse of poetry as he and the other Americans were released:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Later that night, Key would write the remaining three verses. The poem, first titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” appeared in two Baltimore papers shortly after the victory along with a melody Key had chosen to accompany the lyrics. The song caught on, and by November 1814, only two months after the Battle of Baltimore, America had “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

F Scott Key

Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript copy of his “Star-Spangled Banner” poem, now on display at the Maryland Historical Society.

Ironically or fittingly, depending on your perspective of American history, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is set to the tune of a British drinking song made popular by a London gentlemen’s club called The Anacreontic Society. The club adopted Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet specializing in drinking songs and hymns, as their emblem, and composed their own drinking hymn called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The melody, written by John Stafford Smith, would be almost note-for-note copied by Key for the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Here’s “To Anacreon in Heaven,” nicknamed “The Anacreontic Song” for the club that made it popular. You can sing our national anthem in your head over the rather saucy and now hard-to-make-sense-of original words:

“The Star-Spangled Banner” landed in league with other patriotic songs of the times including “Yankee Doodle,” “Hail, Columbia” and “My Country “Tis of Thee” (whose melody is a repurposed “God Save the Queen,” the British national anthem). The song wasn’t as popular as the other three until the Civil War, when the notion of national unity took on a deeper meaning. A cursory review of history seems to indicate that—despite divisive moments—America’s true hope is to be truly united states. With this current of feeling dashing through a traumatized populace, post-Civil War sentiment embraced “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a statement of American identity.

As often happens with music, dance and other performing arts, they serve an irrevocable purpose of capturing feelings and meanings of enormous social and historical value. So it was for Key’s soaring tribute to a new nation’s fortitude and lofty aspirations for freedom for all people.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. military regularly used “The Star-Spangled Banner” for ceremonies, especially those involving the lowering or raising of the flag. In 1918, during a World Series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, the military band on hand launched into the song during the seventh-inning stretch. The Chicago Federal Building had been bombed the day before, and America was amidst the turmoil of World War I. At the sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” players and fans joined in an impromptu saluting of the flag in silence.

1918 World Series

Photo from a 1918 World Series game at Comiskey Park. (Photo: http://www.mlb.com)

Again, the moment took hold of national feeling, and playing the song while saluting—or putting the right hand over the heart—in silence became common practice at sporting events. What’s interesting is that “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t even the national anthem in 1918. The song entered the lawbooks on March 3, 1931 thanks to Maryland representative John Linthicum, who lobbied for “a national song to give expression to its patriotism,” which, naturally, was met by much resistance from citizens who did not feel that laws were needed to make people patriotic. However, the bill passed, and Herbert Hoover signed off on it despite common feelings that the song was too hard for normal people to sing. That complaint, to this day, remains valid, as we all know if we’ve ever been to an American sporting event.

Though a drinking song melody of our oppressors, the American national anthem enjoys its big day this week as July 4 marks our 242nd year of independence from British rule. It commemorates a moment when America was hanging onto itself by the skin of its teeth, and we almost lost our republic except for the valiant efforts of everyday people to fight for what we could be.

Happy Fourth of July.