A small but mighty coterie of Straz staffers gathers the selections that make each year’s season announcement a much-anticipated event.
At the start of every year, as sure as the Florida gardenias blossom, The Straz announces a new season. Every year that season blends old and new, funny and serious, musical and non-musical, spectacular and intimate. Even well-known and unknown.
The 2021-22 season announcement came a little late, but with fingers crossed and a watchful eye, the performing arts center has switched on the lights and offered up a hearty bill of fare, with a variety of performances in its smaller venues having already debuted in the spring, and its Morsani Hall-housed Broadway series kicking off in October with audience favorite Tootsie.
But how do they do it? By what alchemy does Straz management, season after season, throw every possible live entertainment into a pot, stir briskly, and somehow scoop out just the right selection to provoke patrons to speed-dial the box office?
And how did they do it now, on the heels of a global health crisis and with still more uncertainty in the air?
Knowing your audience
“It’s not perfect, it’s not a science,” says Straz Chief Programming and Marketing Officer Summer Bohnenkamp. Much of the selection process comes down to the programmer’s gut, Bohnenkamp admits, to long experience and deep familiarity with what kind of content grabs a Tampa Bay audience—and what doesn’t.
With more than 23 years at The Straz, Bohnenkamp’s instincts are well-tuned, as are those of her programming partners, Director of Programming Jeanne Piazza (an 18-year Straz veteran) and Senior Programming Manager Joel Lisi (eight years in).
In truth, there’s a little science at work. The Straz runs revenue management software that considers ticketing records, financial projections and other data to determine which past shows performed best, and to predict the likely performance of new shows based on past shows they resemble.
The output serves as a reality check for, and backup to, the programming team’s collective gut.
Snagging the right tour at the right time
Before choosing can commence, the team must learn which entertainments will be available, and when.
For example, as soon as a Broadway tours begin taking shape, Piazza collaborates with theatrical agents offering likely Straz dates along the tour’s proposed route.
As one of the biggest performing arts centers in the country, The Straz has plenty of leverage to score the shows its patrons are most eager to see. The complex gains yet more advantage by investing in tours and in new Broadway-bound shows and receiving in return a preferred position for those shows at tour-booking time.
But tours are bound by practical routes. A show can’t leap from Seattle to Tampa to Boston; it will make its Florida stops, or at least its southeastern stops, contiguously—touring happens by truck, not plane.
Given this restriction, Straz programmers may find that two shows they want for Morsani Hall are available only in overlapping timeframes, or that a desirable show can swing through Tampa only at an undesirable time of year.
Hard choices get made, based on discussion and numbers and instinct. The show judged most likely to do well, and the one that pairs best with other shows already booked, and the one that’s a best fit for the time of year wins the slot. The other gets penciled in for the next season.
“We evaluate what’s touring, see what would be a good fit and a good-quality product, happening at a good time of year,” Bohnenkamp explains. As Piazza says, “It’s like putting a puzzle together. That’s what I like about it.”
Timing is (almost) everything
Certain types of content play best in certain seasons. For example, the Broadway series subscription opener in October performs best when it’s lighter, fun fare, such as past openers A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and The Play that Goes Wrong.
Family-friendly plays and classics often perform best in the summer, Bohnenkamp says, likely because the lack of early-to-bed school nights gives families more flexibility for a night out. The Straz often books such shows outside the subscription series to play in the warmer months, as it did with The Little Mermaid in 2017 and Rock of Ages in 2019.
Programmers avoid certain dates when local theatergoing is historically weak. Piazza says The Straz often is dark the weekend after Thanksgiving and during the High Holy Days, and Saturday matinees are typically scrubbed on the day of the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, given the scant available downtown parking on that afternoon.
Then again, sometimes programmers will compensate for a historically weak date range by filling it with a bulletproof property, a show sure to be so popular that audiences will be motivated to show up anyway, poor timing be damned.
“People will work a little harder to come to certain shows,” Piazza says. “They’re more willing to overcome obstacles” to catch shows that always draw a fervent crowd in Tampa Bay, such as Wicked or The Lion King.
Of course, there’s a lot going on at The Straz besides the Broadway series, including stage companies Opera Tampa and Jobsite Theater. The season selection process differs by company.
The Straz-run opera company has its own artistic director (Robin Stamper), who chooses the season in collaboration with Judy Lisi (Opera Tampa general director, in addition to her Straz presidency) and with input from the programming team. Resident theater company Jobsite, on the other hand, is entirely independent and chooses its season in its own way, with neither input nor interference from Straz management.
As for the cornucopia of comedy and musical acts booked into single-night or short runs, such programming falls mainly on the desk of Joel Lisi, who negotiates with a myriad of agents to bring in a balanced and attractive stream of acts to most of The Straz’s many venues large and small. That includes the popular Riverwalk Stage inaugurated mid-pandemic to provide a safe, outdoor entertainment space while the rest of the complex was in mothballs.
Among other events at the Riverwalk, Lisi books the popular Live & Local series in which local music and comedy acts play free shows ahead of indoor events. Live & Local provides a platform for Tampa Bay artists while giving patrons a reason to arrive early for Straz events, beating the heavy traffic and scoring handy parking.
Lisi has taken advantage of the recent disruption to expand the venerable Club Jaeb series. Long a popular vehicle for folk and singer-songwriter acts in the intimate 300-seat Jaeb Theater, Club Jaeb is now branching out to a broader range of musical genres and more diverse acts featuring more performers of color, performers with disabilities and LGBTQ+ performers.
“We want to make sure we’re representing America,” Lisi says.
The programmers’ new normal
Did the last year and a half change how The Straz programmers operate? The simple answer is: not really. Once The Straz laced up its tap shoes and committed to putting on a full 2021-22 season as robust as any before, the programmers mostly crafted the season as they always had. Check out all what Summer, Jeanne and Joel have booked for this season at strazcenter.org.
The one difference, Bohnenkamp admits, is the need to stay amply flexible in the face of fluid circumstances: “You need plans A through Z ready!” Unanticipated change was always part of programming. It’s only more frequent today than it was two years ago.
An unexpected upside
Alongside the disruption and uncertainty of the last 18 months came a sweet silver lining: abundant goodwill.
“Our guests have all been very gracious,” Bohnenkamp says. Many patrons, rather than accept refunds they were due for cancelled performances, left their balances on the books as credit, to help see The Straz through. And agents worked more flexibly and collaboratively with The Straz than ever before.
Piazza says The Straz membership in the Florida Professional Presenters Consortium, a networking and advocacy group for Florida entertainment venues, enabled her to gain encouragement and advice from colleagues all over the state who openly shared their experiences and frustrations with pandemic programming. Piazza learned that “We’re in this together. We’ve got each other’s backs.”
“The entire industry came together,” says Joel Lisi. “I hope that continues.”
It has no choice but to continue. The Straz already has a season penciled in for 2022-23 and even a few shows in place for 2024.