Together, Wherever We Go

The Straz Arts Education’s Broadway Buddies program unites kids from different learning backgrounds.

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A little bit exchange program, a little bit Big Brother/Big Sister, a little bit theater boot camp and a lot of laughs – that describes the remarkable new program launched by Acting Director of Community Engagement and Education Programs Alice Santana and Lead Theater Teacher Matt Belopavlovich.

Inspired by Hillsborough County Schools’ PEERS program, which pairs a typical student with an IEP [Individualized Education Program] student to form friendships and social skills, Alice and Matt realized our Patel homeschool students wouldn’t be able to participate – and neither would one of our beloved partners, Pepin Academies, because they serve only IEP students.

So, the two made a logical leap – why not start a Straz peer program matching up our Patel Conservatory homeschool students with Pepin Academies students? They coined the program “Broadway Buddies” since the kids would be participating in a graduated curriculum based on theater appreciation. First, simple introductions; then, theater games and pre-and post-activities; the Pepin kids attended a Patel Conservatory kids’ production; the homeschool kids attended a Pepin production; then, they all went to see Anastasia together earlier this month with their new-found appreciation of musical theater and of each other. They even had a Broadway Buddies Barbecue planned prior to the matinee.

“The Broadway Buddies program supports the next generation of passionate arts practitioners and patrons by passing on theater etiquette skills and developing a love of the art form,” says co-creator Matt. “At the same time, it teaches them how to develop and thrive in a more equitable society.”

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All the buddies must agree to a leadership code before they can participate. Each student is expected to learn, practice and demonstrate leadership skills based on mutual respect, hard work, positive attitudes and responsive listening. “Part of an equitable society is making paths to leadership open to everyone,” says Matt. “There’s no better place to give and take direction or explore perspective and problem solve than in creating a work of theater. It’s wonderful to see the kids shine.”

This season’s Broadway Buddies also acted as a pilot group to see if the curriculum would work. Due to the success of the partnership, Alice and Matt hope to broaden the scope of Broadway Buddies next year to include more students and more community partner schools. Each Patel Conservatory student will need to apply for the program since it is designed for the success of young people who want hands-on experience with leadership skills and reaching out to others.

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“It’s the sweetest exchange,” Alice says. “Because going to a different school and being with people you’re not used to being with is hard – at any age. But humans have an inborn desire to find common ground, to laugh and play together, and teach and learn from each other. In this program, we’re guiding kids from different learning backgrounds to peer-support each other through one of the most fun mediums we have – musical theater.”

For more information on the Straz Center Arts Education and Community Partner programs, visit strazcenter.org.

For more information on the camps, classes and workshops in the Patel Conservatory, visit patelconservatory.org.

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Who in the World is Lucy Kirkwood?

Jobsite Theater’s current offering in their record-breaking season is a work by one of the Royal Society of Literature’s designees for their “40 Under 40” initiative—and one of the most exciting young playwrights out of the box in a long time.

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Christopher Marshall and Emily Belvo during tech rehearsal for Jobsite Theater’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Hedda. (Photo: Desiree Fantal)

Before she even graduated from University of Edinburgh, Lucy Kirkwood had caught the attention of Mel Kenyon, a literary agent known for representing Caryl Churchill, one of the most intellectually challenging and morally daring living playwrights.

Churchill also happens to be Lucy Kirkwood’s idol.

Kirkwood’s impressive talent and fearless deep-dives into the pool of human turmoil launched her into the UK’s theater scene, first at the Bedlam Theatre in Ireland with Grady Hot Potato (2005), then with experimental works in London. At 24 years old, she tackled an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, positing Ibsen’s beautiful, disaffected lead character Hedda in London’s modern-day Notting Hill neighborhood. Kirkwood’s close-to-the-source version, Hedda (the protagonist retains the matching set of pistols for which this play is known), premiered in 2008 to very favorable reviews, solidifying Kirkwood’s reputation as formidable, playful, unflinching and willing to make audiences uncomfortable enough to think about what they were witnessing without feeling violated. Seems as though Kirkwood picked up extraordinary tips from Ms. Churchill then made them her own for the current generation of theatergoers.

Last week, Jobsite opened Hedda in the Shimberg Playhouse with Jobsite veteran Emily Belvo in the title role. Another Jobsite recognizable, Stuart Fail, made his directorial debut with the company, chronicling his collaboration with Kirkwood on Jobsite’s blog. Kirkwood offered insights into Jobsite’s production, enthusiastically supporting their discovery processes as they uncovered what made Hedda and the rest of the dramatis personae tick. You may be relieved to know that Kirkwood’s reboot employs a bit more humor than Ibsen’s original story.

“We chose the play for a few reasons,” says Jobsite’s Producing Artistic Director David Jenkins. “We really like Kirkwood as a dramatist. At 35 years old, she’s already made a huge name for herself in Britain on TV and the stage. This script is unique in how it takes a known story, one of the theater titans, and tells it in an all-new way through this 21st century update.”

FUN FACT: For any of you fans of British television, Kirkwood’s epic tale of China-America trade relations, Chimerica¸ ran as a miniseries in April to rave reviews and involved a stellar cast. The play version, it’s worth noting, was commissioned for Kirkwood in 2006 right after she met with Mel Kenyon and opened on London’s West End in 2013 to sell-out crowds. Chimerica netted five Olivier Awards that year including Best New Play for Kirkwood.

Catch Hedda running now through June 2.

House of Karinska

How a Russian defector built couture fashion from ballet costumes during the rise of New York City Ballet

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Barbara Karinska. (Photo courtesy of Holly Hynes.)

Chanel. Gucci. Givenchy. These famous fashion houses earned notoriety for their signature styles, making their designs easily recognizable – the Chanel suit, the Gucci bag, the Givenchy dress.

In the golden age of American ballet, during the times of Agnes deMille and George Balanchine, one woman rose to the top of her field, making and designing dance costumes that combined form, function and artistry to create ballet’s line of couture. However, no one called it that at the time; the garments were still “just” costumes – but history, and the designers who came after, recognized right away that something special happened at the hands of this woman.

Barbara Karinska created fashions in ballet that are as easy to spot as a Chanel suit. Though her name may not precede her designs (there’s no “Karinska tutu” or “Karinska leotard”), once you know what she did, you start seeing her every time you look at classic New York City Ballet dances.

Born in the Ukraine as Varvara Andryevna Zmoudsky in 1886 to upper-class privilege, Karinska learned the skills of that class, including intricate embroidery. She studied law and volunteered in a women’s prison, eventually marrying a newspaper editor. When he died prematurely of typhus, Karinska assumed his post at the paper, a bold and shocking move for a woman at the turn of the century. With her eye on the bubbling political climate that would lead to the Russian Revolution, Karinska closed the paper and set up an embroidery shop in Moscow, meeting her second husband, Nicholas Karinsky, a government official. When the Bolsheviks seized power, Nicholas fled, leaving Karinska and their daughter in Moscow.

Interesting side note: Karinska assumed Nicholas died while on the run. She never knew that he drove a taxi in New York for 20 years.

The above photograph of Karinska’s original costume for Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony records volumes of American ballet history in just one image. You can make out “Karinska, New York” on the label and the names of two superstar NYCB ballerinas who donned this costume. Karinska designed the costume for Balanchine muse Maria Tallchief in 1952, and we can see that the final muse of his storied career, Suzanne Farrell, wore this piece when she performed Scotch Symphony. Her successor, Kyra Nichols, stepped into the tutu after Farrell retired. The stark contrast between the frayed label and the almost pristine condition of the costume around it displays the impeccable construction of Karinska’s work. Also, Nichols’ principal partner was our very own Philip Neal, the artistic director of the Patel Conservatory’s Next Generation Ballet.

Eventually, the communists offered Karinska a position in the government as the Commisar of Museums. She accepted the post, convinced the Bolsheviks she needed to further educate herself in Germany, then grabbed her daughter and orphaned nephew and escaped to Belgium. She sewed the last of the family jewels in her daughter’s clothes. The refugees eventually found a life in Paris, with Karinska setting up a small sewing shop. She earned a few cabaret commissions, creating a small reputation for herself.

That reputation was about to go global, however: in 1931, the artistic director of Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo – a gentleman named George Balanchine – commissioned Karinska to make the costumes for his upcoming ballet, Cotillion. She agreed. Thus began a relationship that would dominate the ballet costume landscape until 1983, the year she and Balanchine passed away six months apart.

“I think there was a love thing there,” says Holly Hynes, the award-winning designer who took over the NYCB costume shop two years after Karinska’s death. “I mean, not a romantic relationship. He had plenty of wives and ballerinas, but I think Karinska was head over heels for Mr. B. Balanchine, I think, loved stories about Karinska and loved when there was some conflict in the costume shop. He’d have to go calm her down, pat her hand.”

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Holly Hynes. (Photo: Rosalie O’Connor)

Hynes, who came on the scene with NYCB during the reign of Jerome Robbins, inherited Karinska’s house – the elite NYCB costume shop full of original costumes, Russians and other assorted people virulently loyal to Barbara Karinska. In her 20s and a native of Des Moines, Iowa, without a single word of Russian in her vocabulary, Hynes had a rather large tutu to fill. In time, she earned the respect of the costume makers and picked up enough Russian to impress a cocktail party,

“I started to totally respect Karinska,” Hynes says. “She was many things. She was an unbelievable ballet costume designer. She went to Hollywood to work with Ingrid Bergman on Joan of Arc and won an Oscar®. She did clothes for burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. She was a maker, she was a designer and she also was someone who was so good at interpreting somebody else’s design. Balanchine would bring in artists to collaborate with her on costume designs. One of the artists was Marc Chagall to talk about shapes and colors. Karinska knew how to make what the artist saw.”

With the costume patterns being secrets guarded as closely as Cold War intel to prevent theft, Hynes discovered the dressmakers’ notes impossible to decipher. “The draper [person who keeps the patterns and cuts the cloth] was Russian but understood Polish and could speak English and French beautifully,” says Hynes. “She would use all four languages and a combination of the languages on her notes so that nobody could read her pattern. It was like Morse code.”

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Details of Karinska’s designs for Western Symphony, exclusive from the “costume bible” of Karinska’s successor at NYCB, Holly Hynes.

Hynes unraveled the mystery of Karinka’s designs the old-fashioned way – she took them apart. “This art form is dying back, so I feel grateful that I got to have that experience to take old Karinskas – stockings, bodices, skirts, tunics or whatever – and examine why patterns were done a certain way, or why she chose to have the workmen do it a certain way. She was a genius, a sculptor of soft fabric.”

For costume design, and ballet costumes in particular, Karinska’s genius lay within her deep understanding of ballet as a whole. “She didn’t just draw or pin stuff on a mannequin,” says Hynes. “She went to the theater. She watched from the house. She stood back and looked at stuff in fittings. She studied how different lighting affected different colors and fabrics. She got a sense of what the audience would see and what the dancers would see looking down at themselves. She was all-encompassing.”

From this perspective, Karinska was able to make and design a few revolutionary changes that are common in ballet today. “She realized dancers have to breathe. The corsets were tight because they were the same as dress corsets. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, the tightest part was over the ribs. She cut fabric on the bias [diagonal] which allows the fabric to give,” says Hynes. This one small, ingenious idea allowed ballerinas to have tight bodices and the ability to take deep breaths. Seems impossible it ever would have been another way, right? Credit Karinska.

Straz staff and volunteers working on the Western Symphony costumes, on loan from Miami City Ballet whose costumers re-created Karinska’s original work, for Next Generation Ballet’s Pirates and Cowboys.

“Another Karinska signature was the creation of the ‘powder-puff tutu.’ The skirts have a droop,” Hynes says. Prior to Karinska, classical tutus – ‘pancake’ tutus – shot straight out, encircling the dancer’s waist like a frisbee. If the tutus collided onstage, the skirts tilted upwards, a look both unbecoming and silly. Because Balanchine’s early dancers were thicker with muscles in the thighs and buttocks plus his choreography was so bustling, Karinska developed a new, softer style of tutu that appeared to hug the hips.

Western Symphony, Balanchine’s “cowboy and saloon girl” ballet being performed by Next Generation Ballet this May, showcases this powder-puff tutu design, possibly in its greatest form.

Another example of the powder-puff tutu design.

“When I got to New York City Ballet in ’85, the Western Symphony tutus had never been cleaned,” Hynes says. “They were ripe. And they’d been hanging in wardrobe for 10 years, so they were full of dust. I’m looking closely, and I’m thinking we can take the skirts off the bodices and wash them. We did, and oh my god. Those tutus were beautiful. There’s a ruched-up ribbon that goes around the whole ruffle, and it’s very lightweight. Called ribbonzene. Somebody told me there were no renderings for Western Symphony, Karinska hired a person to come in and just ruche up hundreds and hundreds of yards of this ribbon. The workroom people told me there would be four-foot-high piles of ruched-up ribbon. I can’t swear this is true, but in their memories, this person ruched ribbon for a month. Then quit.”

The use of ribbonzene represents another Karinska trademark – the use of unexpected, lightweight materials to keep the dancers decorated but unencumbered. “There’s a trim called horsehair,” says Hynes. “They would use it traditionally in the ballet world inside a headpiece. It takes dye, so you could color it the color of a dancer’s hair then sew it in a hat. You’d pin the horsehair to your hair and not hurt the hat. Karinska wondered what it would look like under the lights and started experimenting. You can twist it and knot it, make bows out of it and all this other fun stuff. It really reads [from the stage], but weighs absolutely nothing.”

A look inside our costume shop at the Western Symphony costumes on loan from Miami City Ballet.

Karinska, unlike the other designers before her, changed yoke colors on the costume to give dancers a figure. The yoke, that band around the top part of the skirt, matched the bodice or skirt before Karinska. “She would do a bodice that’s lime green maybe. Then she has a colorful combination of net in the skirt that would be black and gray and magenta and turquoise. Then she would make the yoke a mink brown color. It didn’t match anybody,” Hynes says. “You go, ‘well, doesn’t that break up the line of the dancer?’ But it was like putting a belt on somebody; it immediately gave you this hourglass figure. It was so beautiful and so risk-taking.”

Karinska’s designs come to life when Next Generation Ballet performs their spring concert this weekend. The Western Symphony costumes are on loan from Miami City Ballet, whose costumers re-created Karinska’s original work for Balanchine. Pirates and Cowboys: Le Corsaire & Western Symphony appears in Ferguson Hall May 11 and 12.

“Miss Unknown” and Rise of the Anastasia Romanov Myth

The next Broadway blockbuster to hit Morsani stage is ANASTASIA, a tale of bravery and finding one’s place in the world spun from a shocking turn of events in 1920, a mere two years after the brutal assassination of the entire Romanov royal family.

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The Romanovs, 1913. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra sit in the center. Behind, from left to right, are their daughters Maria, Olga, and Tatiana. Their youngest daughter, Anastasia, is seated on the stool, and their son Alexei kneels in front.

2019 marks 100 years since the Bolsheviks murdered Russian royals Nicholas II and Alexandra Romanov, their five children and four servants in the basement of a Siberian country house. Out of this grisly horror emerged an immortal hope—a hope that sparked a series of theatrical tales about charming and precocious Anastasia, the youngest of the four Romanov girls.

It all goes back to 1920, to a mysterious woman with eyes of “Romanov blue” who was fished out of a Berlin canal. Authorities dubbed her “Miss Unknown.” She wasn’t unknown, she’d tell the authorities—she was Anastasia Romanov.

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Painting of Peter the Great by Paul Delaroche.

Before we get there, however, we need to rewind to the man who started all: Peter the Great. If you dust off your training in Western Civ, you’ll recall this Russian powerhouse was the first Romanov, the man who launched the dynasty that would last 300 years, forge the lusty and ruthless Catherine the Great and establish Russia as a world superpower. Nicholas II, the father of Anastasia and the one who perished that fateful July morning in 1918 at the hands of a communist firing squad, was the last of the Romanov tsars, bringing their illustrious beginnings to quite an unfortunate and gruesome end.

Nicholas—as historians agree—did all things people hate in a ruler: he believed God put him on the throne, he married an outsider, he instigated bad wars, his arrogance blinded him to his unpopularity and, eventually, he cozied up to the “mad monk” Grigori Rasputin, a religious fanatic with no morals. The Russian people were fed up with the Romanov autocracy and ripe for revolution. Enter Vladimir Lenin, who led the revolution and created a communist power center. Nicholas abdicated the throne.

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Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia.

But now what?

At first, the Bolsheviks took Nicholas and his family to a posh castle where they lived in a manner in which they were accustomed. In time, the military moved the Romanovs to a country estate outside of the Ural mountains, when it was becoming glaringly obvious to everyone except Nicholas that the family’s execution was imminent. The Reds had already dispatched Rasputin with a combination poisoning/shooting/dumping-in-river murder plot, and Lenin knew there was no way to completely win the hearts and minds of the people without erasing the final traces of the autocracy that so oppressed Russia. The Romanovs adapted to country life, entertained by their actress-artist daughter Anastasia, who wrote her own plays, and, lacking proper resources for auditions, enlisted her little brother and older sisters into performing the other parts.

Their circumstance went from bucolic to bubonic in a matter of months, however, when, on July 17, 1918, at 1:30 a.m., their guards received orders to take the family and their attendants to the cellar under false pretenses then murder them all.

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The Ipatiev House, where the Romanovs and their servants were killed.

What happened next is the subject matter for a different type of show, or perhaps a Rob Zombie film, but let’s just note that the execution was bungled at best and twenty long minutes of unspeakable torture for the Romanovs at worst. The guards did not know that the royal diamond jewelry was sewn into the girls’ corsets and undergarments, so the bullets bounced off, merely breaking bones and creating internal hemorrhaging. Nicholas and Alexandra, his wife, as well as the servants, were the only ones to be killed in the initial volley of shots. In a panic, the guards—who had also hit each other with ricochets—resorted to bayonets and rifle ends to complete the mission. The burying of the bodies went even worse, with the poorly-thought-out-plans backfiring in bizarre ways until the commanding officer improvised a disposal scheme that involved sulfuric acid, gasoline, a gigantic hole and the off-loading of two of the kids in a different part of the woods.

Not much to sing and dance about, right? But these stomach-turning details didn’t see the light of day until the last few decades, when Russian officials finally released previously-hidden documents to Romanov biographers after the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters including Anastasia were discovered in the woods some miles from the country estate/crime scene in 1991. (The house had been bulldozed in the 1970s). The Russian Orthodox Church canonized the Romanovs in 2000, making some peace with this inglorious past, and laid their bodies to rest in the traditional tsar’s cathedral in St. Petersburg. The other two children’s remains—Alexi and Maria—were found and identified in 2007.

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On July 17, 1998, The Romanovs were laid to rest in the traditional burial place of the tsars, St. Petersburg’s Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, 80 years to the day of their murder.

Since the Bolsheviks wrapped up the details of what happened to the Romanovs and refused to proffer any details other than “the Czar is dead,” popular imagination filled in the blanks. Something seemed unacceptable … the Russian royal bloodline couldn’t be demolished, could it? If there’s no proof of death, someone could have survived, right?

A Tatiana popped up in rural England. An Alexi appeared in Poland. People wanted to believe one of the children escaped to somewhere else in Europe, but the claimants ultimately proved to be imposters.

Then, in 1920, Berlin authorities responded to a call that a woman had jumped into a canal, presumably as a suicide attempt. When they pulled her from the water, the woman carried no identification. Admitted to a mental hospital, she hid for months under her covers. There was something … familiar … about the way she looked, though.

Wait a minute, her fellow patients noted, she looks like grand duchess Tatiana Romanov! No, others said, she’s too short. Why, she must be Anastasia!

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Anna Anderson, who adopted the identity of Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia.

The woman, whose silence earned her the name “Fraulein Unbekannt”—Miss Unknown—reluctantly admitted she was, indeed, Anastasia Romanov. She revealed that the guard carrying her to the woods the night of the assassination realized she was unconscious, not dead, and spirited her away. She renamed herself Anna Anderson, took the guard as her lover, yet he perished in a street brawl. She looked like Anastasia. She had the eyes, the ears. Without being able to confirm or deny her identity, the public and the press flew into a frenzy.

Ironically, the name Anastasia is Greek for “resurrection.” The child, the young woman, the possibly escaped royal took on renewed life in the mind of the world. It was almost as if humanity reserved some small hope that innocence found a way to survive the brutality of the times; that, maybe, if Anastasia could persist to live another day, then all wasn’t lost? Couldn’t she symbolize everyone’s struggle to find their way back to who they really were—someone special, someone royal?

Anna Anderson maintained a tight grip on her claim as the Russian princess, never indicating she was anyone other than Anastasia Romanov. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after the real Romanov remains had been DNA tested, that scientists could prove Anna Anderson had zero Romanov blood. Those same analysts linked her to the Polish factory worker Franziska Schanizkowska, confirming a story about her real identity that circulated in Germany.

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The animated Anastasia (L) and Ingrid Bergman in the live-action film Anastasia (R).

Roughly around this time, 20th Century Fox released their animated version of Anastasia, a film inspired by the 1956 live-action movie of the same name starring the regal and captivating Ingrid Bergman. The hope inspired by the notion that Anastasia somehow survived the most terrifying circumstances continues to spark the modern mind, which is how we got the spectacular song-and-dance tale of an orphan discovering her true self in Broadway’s Anastasia, which opens May 7.

As Anastasia lyricist Lynn Ahrens told Town and Country magazine in 2017, “I think the legend of Anastasia has persisted for a century because we’re all romantics at heart, yearning for happy endings, especially in dark times. We want to imagine that the lost princess really did find ‘home, love, and family’ in the face of terrible odds.”

9 - Lila Coogan (Anya) and Stephen Brower (Dmitry) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

Lila Coogan (Anya) and Stephen Brower (Dmitry) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. (Photo: Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

Triple Threat

The Straz Center’s Manager of Special Events Nicole Stickeler dons a bum roll to change into her next role for Opera Tampa.

Nicole Stickeler in costume and make-up for Opera Tampa’s Madama Butterfly.

In show business, you’re considered a triple threat if you can sing, dance and act.

In the performing arts, you’re considered a triple threat if you can sing, act and raise money.

The Straz Center’s Manager of Special Events Nicole Stickeler plans TASTE @ The Straz, the Broadway Ball and the Opera Tampa Grand Gala as well as 27 other special events designed to raise money for The Straz’s many programs and educational efforts. Then she warms up, hits the Rehearsal Hall and auditions for Opera Tampa. A trained opera singer but also someone who has a full-time day job, she jockeys for roles in the chorus often landing a few roles a year. You’ve probably seen her over the past few seasons in Tosca, Romeo and Juliet, Madama Butterfly and Die Fledermaus although our costume department does a fantastic job of rendering her (almost) unrecognizable. This week, she suits up for the grand finale of the opera season, La Boheme, which runs Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Nicole’s first “audition” happened accidentally, when, on our President/CEO/General Director of Opera Tampa Judy Lisi’s birthday a few years ago, Nicole stood around the corner of Judy’s office and sang “Happy Birthday” dramatically in Italian while our VP of Development lip synched in the doorway. The gag worked like charm—it was a great birthday surprise, but the biggest surprise was the effect of Nicole’s voice. Nicole had just started a position as our development coordinator, so no one knew she could really sing. Judy, who happens to be a trained opera singer and Puccini expert herself, took Nicole’s arm and suggested she try out for the next chorus auditions for Opera Tampa.

Nicole did, embarking upon a pretty amazing side hustle. Caught in the Act sat down with Nicole to talk about her artistic life, her admin life, and what it’s like getting to perform her artistic passion while doing critical work for the performing arts as well.

Nicole at her “day job” at The Straz.

Caught in the Act: Where did you study? Did you have ideas for a vocal career, but then you ended up in fundraising? What was your path?

Nicole Stickeler: [dramatically] Well, it started on a snowy day in New Jersey … [laughs] No, I’m just kidding. I mean, that is actually how it started, though.

CITA: We’re intrigued.

NS: I probably really started singing in middle school.

CITA: Did you know you had a good voice?

NS: No. The first time I sang was fourth or fifth grade, and I auditioned for the chorus. It was literally like stand there and sing for the music teacher. I got in, but you could only do one extracurricular. I had already said yes to being a patrol, and so I chose being a patrol over being in the chorus.

CITA: A patrol? Like a hall monitor?

NS: Bus patrol.

CITA: Oh, okay. Yeah … we totally understand why you would want to choose that versus starring in a show …?

NS: [laughs] I guess I liked telling people what to do. But, in sixth grade, I chose chorus for my elective. That’s probably when I learned I had a good singing voice. I got my first solo in seventh grade and surprised my mom. I didn’t tell her that I got a solo.

CITA: Really?

NS: I was so nervous, but I got up there and sang. She was so surprised … You sing along when you’re doing stuff at home and all that, but I don’t think she knew I was a singer.

Nicole in costume for La Traviata.

CITA: Is she a singer?

NS: My mom is not a singer. My dad’s not a singer. My grandma sang, but there are not many musicians in my family. My sister did music. I think I saw her and thought, ‘oh she’s good, let me try it, too.’ For college, I ended up auditioning at the University of Florida, and I really liked their music school. I auditioned for vocal performance, which is classical voice studies. I had diction classes and music theory classes. I had my private voice lessons, and everyone had to be in a choir. Then I also took an opera workshop class. Every year we would do one big opera. I got a major role my sophomore year when we did Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.

CITA: What role?

NS: I was one of the mean, old ladies—the ones who are mean to Susannah. I remember the line that was always really funny and ended the first act. At the church, they have this gathering, like a potluck, and everybody comes. Susannah brings black-eyed peas or something. At the end I’m like, [singing] “I wouldn’t touch them peas of hers!” Blackout! [laughs] My junior year we did The Magic Flute, and I was one of the three spirits, so that was fun. Two of my roommates and best friends were the other two spirits. So that was a lot of fun. My senior year we did Die Fledermaus. I was Prince Orlofsky. It was first “full pants” role. That was also a lot of fun.

CITA: Were you in Die Fledermaus here this season?

NS: I was. I was in the chorus.

CITA: Was that a full circle moment for you, or were you like ‘I was a better Prince Orlofsky’?

NS: [laughs] No. Sara [Nordin as Prince Orlofsky] was fantastic! But it was kind of full circle, like, ‘oh my gosh. I did this in school. It’s so much fun to be doing it again, and on a bigger stage and with a bigger audience’. It was neat just to relive the experience.

Opera Tampa’s Die Fledermaus. (Photo: Will Staples)

CITA: What about a career just in music? Did you consider that after college?

NS: I did think after undergrad that I was going to go to grad school and continue studying music. Then, it just didn’t work out that way. After I graduated I moved back home to Brandon. I got an email from UF that they were starting a graduate certificate program in Arts Administration via distance learning. It was all online courses, and I was kind of figuring out what I was going to do working my part-time job I had back in high school. I thought, well, why don’t I do this? The last course was doing a practicum in arts admin. That led me to start looking for internships, and I found one in development with the Orlando Philharmonic. During my interview process, the general manager noticed I had a background in opera. At the time, there was no opera company in Orlando, so the Philharmonic was putting on operas. They were getting ready to do Madama Butterfly. He had asked if I wanted to be a second assistant stage manager on it, which would start before my official internship with development there. So, I did.

CITA: It’s different being part of the crew on a show. It changes your understanding of the big picture, how hard it is to make a show work without incident.

NS: Yes, I have a huge respect for the crew. They have the biggest responsibilities. Actually, in that show, I had my first orchestral debut. But, then it got cut. [laughs] They wanted me to do the chains for when the ship comes in.

CITA: You were the chain player?

NS: I was, but I don’t know how to read percussion. I tried to move these heavy chains to go with the sheet music. I got to do it during the first dress rehearsal. Then the director was like, ‘Um … I think it’s better without it.’ [laughs] But I got to play with the Philharmonic, if we can call it that.

Invitations from just a few of the special events that Nicole has put on during her time at The Straz.

CITA: Did development speak to you in some way? Were you like, ‘wow, I’m good at this’ or ‘I like this’ or ‘oh my god this is an incredibly important part of arts administration’?

NS: Honestly, before doing the certificate program, I didn’t even realize that arts administration was a field to get into.

CITA: It might be common that people don’t understand arts administration is a thing.

NS: Yeah. There are so many different aspects to it, too. While I didn’t really know it was something that existed before the internship, I really learned to enjoy it. After my internship, I got a job there. I was their assistant director of development. That was a great experience, working with the Philharmonic and learning, not only about the ins and outs of arts admin, but also learning more about orchestra.

CITA: How’d you get from there to The Straz?

NS: I had previously met Frank McClain from Opera Tampa here. I was almost going to work for him but it was only a part-time, seasonal job, so I took the job in Orlando. But, when I saw the development coordinator position open, I applied. The rest is history.

Nicole’s Madama Butterfly costume.

CITA: Did you know that there were going to be performance opportunities if you took this development job?

NS: It was a bonus. I knew we had Opera Tampa here, but I didn’t know I would ever have an opportunity to work with them. When I got my first job with Opera Tampa, they were doing Madama Butterfly. It was the first opera I stage managed, or assistant stage managed, but the first professional opera I performed in, too.

CITA: That’s cool because it was the first opera that Opera Tampa produced for the Straz Center as well. So, your first performance with Opera Tampa was five years go because Butterfly was part of the 20th anniversary season, and we’re having the 25th anniversary next season. Have you done an opera with Opera Tampa for every season since, or you just pick it up when you can?

NS: I’ve pretty much done one or two operas every season, except last season because I had to organize so many events. We do a lot events around opera.

CITA: That’s true.

NS: What has been great is that even though I’m in this admin role, I’ve still been able to keep up with my singing. Getting to be on the stage, in an opera, and getting to wear the costumes and be with all of the people that love what I love is really special.

CITA: For anybody’s who’s going to read the blog who’s not an opera person: What does it mean to be in a chorus of an opera? What do you actually do?

NS: Basically, it’s the ensemble. If you think of a musical and all of the additional people on stage who are singing in a group format, that’s what the chorus is in an opera. In an opera, you’re not a choir, you’re not trying to blend and sound like one voice. Everybody’s their own individual person on stage. You don’t change the way that you sing just because the person next to you makes maybe their vowels a little bit different or something like that.

Nicole showing us the props for La Boheme.

CITA: What’s your costume for La Boheme?

NS: I have two costumes.

CITA: Are you a poor bohemian, or do you get a fancy costume?

NS: In the second act, where it’s Christmas Eve and everyone’s in the plaza, it’s a grand time. I am a flower vendor, so my costume is pretty nice. It’s green with a high neck and giant hat. I mean giant hat, so, that one’s a little fancy. Then in Act III, I’m a milkmaid. There are only six of us doing that, so it’s fun to get to do something a little bit different. Now that costume is frump city. Of course, there’s always the petticoat with the overskirt. That costume doesn’t have the bum roll, but the first costume has a bum roll.

CITA: Oh, you get a bum roll! We’re jealous.

NS: Yeah. For the second costume, no bum roll. There’s just a super baggy frumpy dress that also doesn’t reach the floor. It’s too short.

CITA: Poor, French milkmaid.

NS: Then there’s the apron to put over that. There’s this coat with a scarf, and then these gloves without the fingers. Then, this little bonnet.

CITA: It does sound adorable but not at all sexy.

NS: No, it’s not.

CITA: So people can get their milkmaid fantasies right out of their heads this moment.

NS: Indeed.

One of Nicole’s costumes for La Traviata.

CITA: Of all the operas you performed, which has been your favorite?

NS: That’s a good question. I feel like just because it was also the first, Madama Butterfly, and it was also Puccini, which it was just … He’s got beautiful melodies and everything. Plus, getting to the makeup for Madama Butterfly was fun because it’s all the white powder, and the eyeliner, and the red lips. Getting to do the party scenes La traviata was fun as well.

CITA: Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to get into the opera world but maybe doesn’t want to be a career singer? Somebody who wants to be like you? How would you advise that person to achieve their dream?

NS: Ultimately, getting a voice teacher, a voice coach, that’s always a great first step. They’ll help you learn and hone your craft. They’ll know what’s best for your voice, what type of voice you have, what to learn for your voice, and all of that. The bottom line is: If it’s something you’re passionate about and you want to make the time for it, go for it. While sometimes when I’m in it, and I’m putting in these long days of working and rehearsals, I wonder why I do it. In the end, it’s just so great to be on the stage. That feeling you get when the curtain rises and the lights are shining on you … it’s worth it.

See Nicole and all the hardworking people of La Boheme this weekend. The opera runs for two performances only, so catch it while you can.

Wink, Wink; Nudge, Nudge

Broadway offers a passel of snortingly good times with its unending parade of parodies. The latest on our roster of roastables is Spamilton: An American Parody, which opened last week and runs until May 12.

Behind every iconic work of entertainment lurks a laughing matter waiting to be born. Whether those matters manifest as films like Airplane! or stage productions like our current hit Spamilton, a nothing-but-love full-length jibe at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus, the parody stands as an art form all its own—and one that has seen a spike in popularity since the shocking success of Evil Dead: The Musical.

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The cast of DISENCHANTED in Tampa, 2014. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

At The Straz, we’ve hosted quite a few of these side-splitting skewerings. Maybe you saw 50 Shades! The Musical Parody, or its distant cousin, Spank!. We produced DISENCHANTED, a peppy, adults-only side-eye of a show geared towards examining the princess culture of a certain animation company. This list also includes the one-or-two-man-complete-works-of spin-off parodies like Potted Potter (all the book plots performed by two guys), and Charles Ross, who launched One-Man Star Wars and One-Man Dark Knight, both of which played in the Jaeb. Ross also created One-Man Lord of the Rings and performs all the shows under the One-Man Trilogy package, which manages to heroically blaspheme the major fantasy canons of the 20th and 21st century in one fell swoop. (Batman pun intended.)

The general rule seems to be that if something is really popular, then someone should probably make fun of it. Ergo, Off-Broadway has seen shows riffing on Friends (Friends!: The Musical), Back to the Future (That 80’s Time Travel Movie), Harry Potter (Puffs: Seven Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic about the Hufflepuff house) and Game of Thrones (Shame of Thrones: The Rock Musical—An Unauthorized Parody).

 

Of course, we return to that parody of parodies, the old chestnut Forbidden Broadway, which takes uproarious pot shots at our beloved blockbusters from the Big Apple. We love the show—most Broadway buffs do—so much we’ve brought it to Tampa several times over the years and had the show here last in 2017.

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Despite its rib-poking and raspberry-blowing nature, the parody must, to some extent, be a love letter to the source in order to hit the right notes with the audience. You’re having fun at the original’s expense without hurting anyone’s feelings. The parody is like the annoying little brother, chasing after the big sibling he admires so much. With no genuine respect for the source, a parody transforms into a vicious satire, which may be funny, but satires generally leave us feeling smug whereas the parody leave us feeling a little happier about things in general.

To wit, LMM blessed Spamilton just as Sam Raimi, director of the titular film, blessed Evil Dead: The Musical.

So, it’s okay laugh; although, with a parody, you never need permission. And, that, dear readers, is part of what makes them so much fun.

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The Seuss Is Loose

Approaching 30 years since his death, Dr. Seuss sits poised to publish a new book from his perennial throne on the bestseller lists (WHAT.). Meanwhile, the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory musical theater department rehearses Seussical, Jr. down stairs from the blog office for its run in the TECO theater April 25-28. Why do we love this whimsical rhyme-every-time mastermind?

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Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Dr. Seuss,” working on a drawing for How The Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957.

Okay, so first we’re going to call out a line from Dr. Seuss and then you say what book it’s from (answers at the bottom, no cheating!)

“Don’t give up! I believe in you all. A person’s a person no matter how small.”

“I will not eat them in a house. I will not eat them with a mouse.”

“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

“And then something went BUMP! How that bump made us jump!”

How’d you do? We’re willing to bet you know you got at least three of them right without even having to check.

green eggs and ham

If you were ever a toddler in America, some grown up introduced you to the world of Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Dr. Seuss,” partially to build your reading comprehension skills and keep you entertained but, also, that adult wanted a socially acceptable reason to be reading The Cat in the Hat. We spend a lot of time in the world of Dr. Seuss, as children, students, teachers, parents … chances are—if you’re a parent of small children reading this blog at home—you can look up and see Geisel’s early childhood canon littered along the floor.

Seuss gave us the Lorax, Things 1 and 2, Mulberry Street, Horton, Daisy-Head Mayzie, Yertle, a fox in socks and a wocket in a pocket. He helped us discover the joys of feet, sleeping, learning our ABCs and the myriad ways to hop on Pop. Seuss extolled the places we would go and taught us the very valuable adage regarding those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

Seuss’s first success, like many creative folks of his era, was in advertising. He won a big contract for Flit, an insecticide. His tag line, “Quick, Henry, get the Flit!” went viral, becoming a popular phrase at the time. He entered the waters of children’s lit with And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, a story he invented on a cruise ship as he started writing in his head to the sound of the engine.

What happened next in Who-ville was nothing less than a carefully calibrated literary coup de grace overthrowing insipid Dick-and-Jane primers for more imaginative, more important teaching texts. In 1955, the book Why Johnny Can’t Read debuted, exposing the scandalous data that European children outpaced and outperformed their American cohort at alarming rates. In the United States, schools used Dick and Jane readers that were, as noted in Why Johnny Can’t Read, “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, [and] tasteless” pictograms of unnaturally clean white children experiencing “dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-IQ activities.”

dick and jane

Why Johnny Can’t Read explained the fundamental problem: America believed children learned language through memorization only. Incorrect. Children needed phonics—the ability to group and comprehend words built on common sounds. That way, when a new reader encountered an unfamiliar word, she could draw on contextual knowledge of like-sounding words to memorize meaning faster than memorizing in a vacuum.

After all, this was Cold War 1955, and there was no way in hell American children were going to be dumber than the Russians, especially with the launch of Sputnik on the horizon and threats to democracy everywhere. Not gonna happen. American kids needed to get smarter, like, now.

Houghton Mifflin publisher William Spalding directed their education division when Why Johnny Can’t Read made headlines. Spalding invited Geisel to dinner, gave him several of the first-grader word lists printed in the back of Why Johnny Can’t Read and begged Geisel to give him a page-turner for a seven-year-old. Keep in mind that Dr. Seuss already had the two Horton books and a few notable others under his belt by this working dinner with Spalding. However, he’d never been issued such a challenge before: Spalding wanted him to write a whole kid’s book only using limited words from the lists. Spalding planned to sell the book to school systems as a reading textbook—a reader that would enthrall first graders and rocket boost their intellect.

Geisel chose 199 words, realized he couldn’t get an entire story out of the ones he chose, so he added twenty-one others of his own. The tasked proved almost too much for the great Dr. Seuss. Flummoxed, frustrated and on the verge of quitting, Geisel decided he’d make the title out of the first two words he saw that rhymed.

“Cat” was first. Then, “hat.”

As New Yorker writer Louis Menand noted in his excellent 2002 article on this subject, “The Cat in the Hat is 1,702 words long, but it uses only 220 different words. … Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force.” Most notable, Menand concludes, “it killed Dick and Jane.”

The takeaway here, people, is that Dr. Seuss not only wove us into his psychedelic world of trippy trees and loveably drawn cat-people with socially conscious messaging, but he obliterated a reading method that did not work. He tried, using all the gifts he possessed and then some, to give us the opportunity to make ourselves better by being smarter, more caring of ourselves and our environment (social and natural) and rhyming like our lives depended on it.

Audrey Siegler, the theater managing director working on the Patel Conservatory’s production of Seussical, Jr. says, “Dr. Seuss’s works speak to a vast audience ranging over all ages and backgrounds. His stories promote social and educational skills while challenging readers to expand their imaginations and explore a world of new possibilities. Some sad, some nonsensical, some inspirational; Seuss integrates emotion with language through unique characters and invites readers to learn through play. Producing Seussical, Jr. is a complete joy.”

The other egg about to hatch (Horton reference) in Seuss-land is Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum, the next in a series of seven Dr. Seuss books published posthumously. The original but incomplete manuscript was found in Geisel’s La Jolla home in 2011 and features the illustrations of Andrew Joyner, who used Geisel’s sketches to bring the book to life. Random House plans to release Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum on Sept. 3, 2019.

Let’s hope the rhymes center around “horse” and not “museum,” yes?

Answers:
1) Horton Hears a Who; 2) Green Eggs and Ham; 3) One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish; 4) The Cat in the Hat