Silver Linings

Opera Tampa, the resident opera company of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, celebrates its 25th anniversary season with three electrifying main stage performances.

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Tampa Bay Magazine. We are happy to have permission to reprint it for our blog, in honor of the upcoming performances of Opera Tampa’s  Carmen Feb. 7-9.

Carmen. Photo by Rob Harris Productions.

A 25th anniversary is symbolized by silver, a lustrous metal that carries the highest capacity to conduct heat and electricity. Such characteristic seem fitting for the current Opera Tampa season, the grand opera company’s 25th, which boasts productions of Carmen, The Pirates of Penzance and Aida for this hallmark occasion.

“We wanted this season to make a statement since we know how important opera is to this community,” says Straz Center President and Opera Tampa General Director Judy Lisi. “There are so many people who live here who grew up listening to great opera around a radio or record player with their parents and grandparents. We also have a new generation of young opera fans who know the music from movie scores, cartoons and popular remakes and are discovering the excitement of the original material. We are putting up an epic season to honor the best of what everyone loves about great opera.”

Lisi, a Puccini aficionado and classically trained singer, launched her first successful opera company in Connecticut with Maestro Anton Coppola acting as artistic director. The pair ushered in a revival of great opera for the Shubert Theater in New Haven, building a loyal following and stellar reputation for excellence in programming and production. The duo reprised this success in Tampa, when Lisi and Coppola created Opera Tampa, producing Madama Butterfly to complement a Broadway tour of Miss Saigon, a musical adapted from the opera’s story.

“When we introduced grand opera at The Straz, we knew we wanted to work with what audiences who may not be familiar with opera already knew and loved, which was Broadway,” says Lisi. “The first year we started with Madama Butterfly; the second year RENT was on our Broadway season so, naturally, we staged La Boheme, the inspiration for Jonathan Larson’s hit musical. Our original plan was to put up one opera a season, but we quickly found out we had a strong audience for the art form here. Before we knew it, we were staging three huge productions per season.”

Pirate King, Pirates of Penzance. Photo by Rob Harris Productions.

Over the years, Opera Tampa has drawn internationally-renowned singers to Morsani Hall in the Straz Center to portray the towering characters that populate the opera canon. For the past quarter of a century, the company breathed life into the masterworks of Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Rossini, Wager, Bizet and Donizetti with outstanding local talent performing onstage with singers from The Met and La Scala. As the reputation and popularity of Opera Tampa grew, the organization decided to institute an annual recognition to someone in the field. After Maestro Coppola’s retirement, Opera Tampa unveiled The Anton Coppola Excellence in the Arts Award, bestowed each year at the Grand Gala. Recipients include such luminaries as Placido Domingo, Denyce Graves, Sherrill Milnes, Diana Soviero, Carlisle Floyd and Paul Plishka.

In November 2019, Opera Tampa held the inaugural D’Angelo Young Artist Vocal Competition, helping to establish Opera Tampa as an entity that not only produces great opera but also cultivates the next generation of opera performers. Through their extensive arts education program, Opera Tampa has also cultivated the next generation of audiences by bringing professional singers into school classrooms to get kids excited about opera music and stories. “When I look back over the past 25 years and assess the ways Opera Tampa has impacted this area culturally, educationally and artistically, I almost can’t believe how much has happened,” says Lisi. “What started as a hope that people would like this art form has grown into a full-fledged cultural institution. We have a solid name in the professional opera world; our successes in one of the most acoustically gorgeous theaters in America has people sitting up and taking notice of what’s happening in Tampa. We couldn’t be happier to have reached our 25th anniversary season with such momentum and excitement about what’s to come.”

Aida. Photo by Rob Harris Productions.

Under the baton of newly-appointed artistic director Robin Stamper, who has been with Opera Tampa as a director, choral master and pianist for several years, the future of the company looks rosy. “I have seen so much incredible talent appear with Opera Tampa in my 4 1/2 years with the company, not just onstage but with our extraordinary production crew and musicians,” says Stamper. “I am deeply honored to steward this magnificent company and to direct us into an exciting future.”

The 25th anniversary season promises to be lustrous with plenty of heat and electricity, starting with George Bizet’s Carmen in February, continuing with Gilbert and Sullivan’s madcap genius The Pirates of Penzance in March and concluding with Guiseppe Verdi’s iconic Aida in April. “We’re so grateful for the support and enthusiasm we’ve seen over the past two-and-a-half decades,” Lisi says. “We’re honored to be able to give such exemplary artistic works to everyone in this community.”

Arts Legacy REMIX

What started as a conversation about celebrating the Tampa area’s rich artistic heritage turned into a free concert series drawing unexpectedly large crowds. The Straz Center’s Arts Legacy REMIX was a long time in the making and looks like it’s here to stay.

After a brutal warrior’s stint in Vietnam that gave him an ultimatum to become brutal himself or take a higher calling, Fred Johnson chose love.

A longtime jazz musician who’d played with Aretha Franklin and Lionel Hampton and opened for Miles Davis, Fred immersed himself in studying Sufi wisdom and musical-spiritual cultures around the world. He wove this knowledge into his streetwise philosophy of caring for the neighborhood through the sharing of talents.

Fred Johnson

Fred eventually left The Straz to take this philosophy on the road, traveling around the world working with artists and community organizations to find paths of common ground and opportunities to teach. “I always kept in touch with The Straz and felt connected to the work here. I always felt, on some level, no matter where I was, I was an ambassador for Tampa. My journey out into the world was an extension of the work we did here, looking into how profoundly arts and artists can serve as catalysts for real transcendence and transformation,” he says.

Judy and Fred reconnected in 2016 at a Creative Forces forum, an organization dedicated to exploring ways the arts help veterans with PTSD and effects of traumatic brain injury.

“Our conversations were about the fact that society as a whole sees the therapeutic benefits of the arts from re-attaining wholeness with veterans to the growing need to find common ground among people,” Fred says. “We had started that notion with the Community Arts Ensemble, and we are living in times very receptive to this idea now.”

“We wanted to amplify that commitment and make real ways for the public to have greater access to The Straz. That’s what Arts Legacy was born from.”

Fred returned in 2017 to spearhead the Arts Legacy initiative which built on the philosophical foundations of art’s profoundly transformative role in the human experience.

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

“Arts Legacy is about celebrating our community’s cultural impact,” says Straz Center President and CEO Judy Lisi. “Our community artists belong here, creating and having a place to be seen and appreciated. It’s very important that, as a community arts center, we represent the powerful sectors of culture right here. Fred took that notion and brought it to life; he’s always been great at working withdifferent members of the community to communicate and realize our commitment to all.”

Fred assembled a team of diverse community members to give input on what this Arts Legacy initiative would be. “The Straz has a responsibility to be an active community member, to have a voice at the table when decisions are being made that affect people.”

”Our legacy is redefining the role of art — that understanding art and creativity are the foundations to manifest change, to make the world a better place,” says Fred. Through a network of community members, the Arts Legacy team built a series of performances highlighting certain cultures that themselves are foundations to the Tampa Bay area.

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

In essence, they got to the work of building bridges.

They got to the business of calling out to the heart and soul.

People answered.

The team took suggestions, made contacts, networked, organized and, in the end, produced six free concerts on the Riverwalk, drawing crowds of up to 500 people. They needed a name for the series and the Straz Center marketing team came up with Arts Legacy REMIX. “It’s hip, it’s inclusive,” says Fred, “and the success of Arts Legacy REMIX events was the outgrowth of reaching into the community and saying ‘hey, not only do we have one of the finest institutions in the world to present art, we also have this amazingly culturally and ethnically rich community that we can learn about from each other.’”

Last year, Arts Legacy REMIX hosted song, dance and drum performances around Hispanic heritage, Indian Diwali, Dr. King, Asian culture and global storytelling. Arts Legacy REMIX also hosted the Black Artists Film Series in the TECO Theater.

“It’s been really great just to see how excited people are about these performances and how much they look forward to it,” Fred says. “People are having an expanded relationship with The Straz and realizing how much we want to celebrate the arts and artistic traditions we have around us. It’s exciting to know we’re becoming more a part of people’s everyday lives by creating more opportunities for them to be on our grounds.”

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

“We’re open to suggestions and ideas. We have the line-up for the 2019-2020 season and six more performances, but we are excited to engage as many members of the community as we possibly can,” Fred says. “Now more than ever, the artist is really important in putting a different kind of stamp on the human experience. We welcome community theater companies, community organizations — any folk out there who love what we’re doing and who want to support what we do; they can email communityprograms@strazcenter.org

The next Arts Legacy REMIX performance will be an MLK Commemoration: Power of Storytelling on Jan 17.  performances take place on the Riverwalk Stage, free of charge.

The Two Best Reasons to See A Tuna Christmas Right Now

There are two stars in this Christmas story, and they’re actors Spencer Meyers and Derrick Phillips.

Derrick Phillips as Arles Struvie and Spencer Meyers as Thurston Wheelis. Photo by Rob Harris Productions

The first wave of the Tuna, Texas two-man laugh-a-thons roared through theaters in the 90s, drawing tons of attention to the original actors, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears. The guys concocted a series of stage plays about a fictional town and its deliciously eccentric inhabitants, traveling the country with Greater Tuna; Red, White and Tuna and the Straz Center’s current holiday gift to you, A Tuna Christmas. Two of the Tampa-area’s own comic geniuses—Spencer Meyers and Derrick Phillips—tackle the daunting script of 20+ characters. Caught in the Act grabbed a few minutes of their time to gab about the show.

Caught in the Act: What in the world made you audition for a show that has more than 20 characters but only two actors?

Spencer Myers: I love playing multiple characters in a comedy. I get such an adrenaline rush.

Derrick Phillips: These types of shows are dreams for actors. It is a wonderful challenge to take your training and apply so much of it into one show. Each character has a different physical, vocal and mental space. To be able to showcase that into one show is amazing. And who doesn’t like to do a show like this that is filled with so much fun and laughter as well as heart?

CITA: How many total characters do you play in the show, and which are your top two faves to play? What is it about those two characters that make them your favorite to perform?

SM:  I love all my characters in some way. My favorites are Bertha Bumiller and Inita Goodwin. Bertha’s storyline is wonderful and fully fleshed out. It’s nice to have one of my characters have a story arc and hit all the emotions. Sometimes I just want to give Bertha a big hug.

DP: I play 11 characters in the show. As the play has progressed, my favorites seem to change on a daily basis. They all have a special place in my heart. If I had to pick two … I think they would be Vera Carp and Petey Fisk. Vera is a favorite to perform because of the multiple layers of her personality. I have met this lady, not in Texas, but I have met her. She has sharp edges and interacts with not only the other actor on stage but the people who live in her house whom the audience does not see. Once you see the show, I think you will understand why Vera is fun to perform.

SM: Inita is just plain fun—a fantastic and energetic way to start Act Two. She’s mentioned in the first scene of Act One and not actually seen until the top of Act Two. Act Two is a whirlwind of quick changes for both me and Derrick. Fun and fast comedy in the beginning to then settle into some of the more heartfelt storyline conclusions of the characters of Act One.

DP: Petey Fisk is a pure and loving soul that has a lot of heart in this show. I enjoy performing as this character because he is different than the rest of the town (other characters even say that). He has a lot of hilarious lines, but they come from such an honest place. He’s quirky and will not only fill the audience with laughter but also warm their hearts. He is like an adult Tiny Tim.

I have to also mention how enjoyable it is to play Helen Bedd. She is one of the waitresses in the Tastee Cream and she is just a delight to play. Her demeanor and physicality are so fun to step into and live out.

CITA: Seems like this would be an easy show to blunder … have you ever gotten your characters’ lines confused, accidentally saying Helen Bedd’s line while you were playing Didi Snavely type of thing? Have any identity crisis stories or funny mix-up moments you’d like to share with our readers?

SM: Oh, now you just want me to give away secrets? Yes. The accents have blurred before. You sometimes have 15 seconds to change your costume completely before barreling onstage as another character. Bertha and her Aunt Pearl are very similar, and sometimes I have started the scene as the other. If it happens it’s usually a word or two. This has also happened in the rehearsal process with one scene where two of my characters fight with each other off stage. You can also imagine the looks people gave me while I was rehearsing this scene quietly to myself in public.

Spencer Myers as Bertha Bumiller and Derrick Phillips as Arles Struvie. Photo by Rob Harris Productions

DP: This is a show that if you didn’t have your backstage costume changers you could easily get mixed up. Sometimes the character changes are so fast that I have to really think about who am I next, where is my physical and vocal placement, what mental state am I at this moment. These are all considerations that the actor ha to make in 10-15 seconds. Most plays you have a moment off stage, not this one.

DP: There have been times as Vera, where I have meant to talk to Virgil (son not seen) and shouted at Lupe (the maid, also not seen). The dynamic of backstage and onstage really help not having any mix-up moments. There is a choreography on and off the stage that is necessary for a show like this.

CITA: What’s your favorite line in the show?

SM: This is too hard because I have so many. Bertha’s lines are some of my favorites. They have that Mama’s Family cadence to them. Okay, let’s see if I can choose one.

Bertha: “Oh Didi, it’s so hard to hold up when the entire town knows my husband is as useless as an ice tray in Hell.”

DP: This is a tough one – and I am sure it will change as the play continues.

Charlene: “I don’t want to waste my artistic integrity on a pathetic little shrub” … but to be honest, this is a very hard question. There are so many.

CITA: Let’s say you have to move to Tuna, Texas. Who are you going to get along with best? Who are you going to steer clear of?

SM:  I think I’d get along with Thurston and Arles. I WANT to be friends with Aunt Pearl and Dixie! There’s no way I could be friends with Vera Carp. We all know a Vera, bless her heart.

DP:  I would absolutely hang out with Helen Bedd. I would probably steer clear of Vera Carp at all costs [laughs].

Spencer Myers as Bertha Bumiller and Derrick Phillips as Arles Struvie. Photo by Rob Harris Productions

CITA: Finally, the major drama in A Tuna Christmas happens around the unholy desecration of the annual Yard Display Contest.  If, since you’re imagining living in Tuna, you had to create a yard display for this esteemed event, what would yours be?

SM: Let me tell you, there is some stiff competition in Tuna. I would love to see some of the displays that are mentioned in the show, especially Aunt Pearl’s display from the previous year.

I wonder if I could pull off a Christmas Haunted House? I wonder if that would stop the Christmas Phantom.

DP: Think National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but with sound synching to the lights. I also would want it to be as inclusive as possible. Maybe even a snow machine.

See Spencer and Derrick don the many faces—and accents—of Tuna, Texas from now until Dec. 22.

 

Guess What? We Made Our Own Custom Fabric Design for Nutcracker

A first for The Straz, the new fabric designs represent a wild collaboration between dance costuming and graphic design.

When people think of the graphic design department in a performing arts non-profit, they may imagine program layouts, banners, signage, logos and the like. They may not consider a couture collaboration to produce custom costumes specifically for dance.

The Straz Center houses an extraordinary ballet training program headed by Philip Neal, a retired principal dancer from New York City Ballet. Our pre-professional ballet company, Next Generation Ballet, stages a knockout production of Nutcracker each season, hosting famous guest artists in the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. (This year we’ve got Maria Kowroski from NYCB—the real dancer for the Barbie ballerina movies—and Aran Bell of American Ballet Theatre, who was featured in the Youth America Grand Prix documentary First Position).

Next Generation Ballet students rehearsing for Nutcracker

If you’ve attended NGB’s production of Nutcracker, you already know it is lavish, sumptuous, magical and full of exquisite classical ballet technique. The production’s costumes star as some of the most fun eye candy in this Land of the Sweets, with their detailed faux fur trims, delicate embellishments and delightful array of bold colors. If you haven’t been to Nutcracker yet, then get your tickets for the show this weekend  because you’re in for a treat.

This past summer, NGB costumer Camille McClellan brainstormed with Philip about the possibility of producing designed fabrics that she could customize for NGB dancers. If they could find a local company to print directly to spandex blend textiles, then we could potentially have bolts of fabric for affordable, sustainable, unique-to-NGB costumes.

Costume Designer Camille reviewing plans for one of the new designs for Nutcracker

Philip and Camille decided to revamp the four leopard and 11 butterfly costumes using print-to-fabric technology, which would allow Camille to hand draw the new look Philip envisioned. What they needed to complete the project was the aid of graphic designers to trace Camille’s pattern in Photoshop, convert it to a digital print file and send it to the printer who could ink the design onto stretchable fabric. Then Camille could cut the patterns and sew the costumes together, add embellishments and have them show-ready by this weekend.

To see their idea become reality, Camille and the dance department partnered with Straz graphic designers Joseph LaCrue and Roderick Taracatac to take her designs into the digitally print-ready world.

Camille and Graphic Designers review samples of the custom printed designs.

“What was fun for me,” says Joseph, who worked with Camille for the new butterfly costumes, “was that Camille has been in the costume industry for years, so she automatically started off the project thinking about what the costume would look like under theater lights, how it would read from the back of the audience. That’s where I was really impressed. She’s thinking of not just the dancer; she’s thinking about the audience member … can they see it? Is it going to read? I thought that was really cool.”

Camille estimates she spent about 200 hours over the summer getting the design and measurements of the costumes perfect then painstakingly calculating the exact positions of where the designs needed to be on the fabric so they would line up properly when she cut out the parts and sewed the costume into one piece. She determined she would need three different-sized costumes to accommodate the diversity among the size of the dancers, which meant that she had to repeat the laborious calculations and draw the costume, in full, on graph paper with tick marks denoting where the pattern was to meet upon sewing.

Camille spends countless hours fine-tuning the details to each costume that will be seen on stage during the Nutcracker performances

Joseph then scanned the three life-sized costume drawings, reduced them to scale, hand-traced over them in Photoshop, colorized them and saved the work to a digital file to send to the printer. The anxiety-producing aspect of this project was that there was no margin for error. The calculations, drawings and tick marks had to be perfect, otherwise the pattern wouldn’t align, ruining the entire costume.

“This project was extremely technical. For me, it was two hours to draw the petite, two hours to draw the medium, two hours to draw the tall. This is about as couture as I think you can get in this day and age,” Joseph says. “We talked about why wouldn’t you do this with just dyed fabric and an applique, but the theory is that if we invested in this technology now, we’ll have these costumes for generations to come. I know this was a labor of love for Camille. I think we all learned a lot on this project. It was fun.”

Butterfly costume design for Nutcracker

“The dance department is thrilled to be using this technology, and the graphic designers have been great to work with,” says Camille, who hand-sewed the 15 new costumes, adding arm sheers to the butterflies and gem embellishments to the leopard unitards. “The butterflies were such a challenge because of the scattered design that wraps around the body and a ribbon element that had to match at the side seams in five different locations. I wanted something fantastical for the leopard print and found the inspiration from a Versace ad I saw in a fashion magazine. I gave that to Roderick and said ‘this!’”

“I have created prints and patterns for projects in the past, but never anything that was used for performing art on stage,” Roderick says. “This collaboration was a blast. Camille is a very detail-oriented artist, who had a strong vision of what she wanted the final piece to look like. That took a lot of the guesswork out of the project and really streamlined the creative process. Once the colors were finally nailed down, there was some back and forth on scale of the print, and before we knew it, we had the final product done and out to the printer. Camille named this print Confetti Leopard.”

Camille’s originally named ‘Confetti Leopard’ custom printed fabric

You can see the debut of these new costumes this weekend when NGB’s Nutcracker  dances onto Morsani Hall stage.

Girl Power

The Straz Center arts education partnerships program with Tampa’s The Centre for Girls

In addition to our many performances, lectures, classes and workshops, the Straz Center hosts a super cool outside-of-the-spotlight arts education partnership program which brings us into fruitful, fun and inspiring relationships with many organizations around the area.

This semester, one of our musical theater teachers extraordinaire—Sarah Berland—traveled to The Centre for Girls each Thursday afternoon to give an afterschool theater workshop on the theme of “soaring to great heights.”

Sarah works with various organizations through the Straz Center partnerships

Sarah built her curriculum around the upcoming Broadway show ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, a calypso retelling of The Little Mermaid story, which features a courageous young heroine, Ti Moune, who risks her soul to save a man’s life. Interweaving Caribbean island history, drum and dance culture and fundamentals of storytelling, Sarah and a few guest artists guided the girls into a tight-knit ensemble who wrote and performed their own stories of personal courage. This Thursday, they’ll all attend ONCE ON THIS ISLAND as the culmination of their work together.

“Our partnership with The Straz has been nothing short of amazing,” says Sartura Shuman-Smith, director of The Centre for Girls. “Our girls are so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with professionals in the various areas of performing arts. Through the Straz Center’s program, the girls are not only given an “up close” view of the inner workings of performance, but they are also gaining knowledge in public speaking and confidence building.”

The Centre for Girls exists to create positive change for girls ages 5-14 through innovative programs in fine arts, STEM-based instruction, fashion and ceramics. The center offers a safe place for girls in highly formative developmental years to find empowerment and constructive outlets for self-expression.

Guest artist leading a Caribbean dance class at The Centre for Girls

“Through our arts education partnership program, the participants at The Centre for Girls get a glimpse of all three performing art mediums—music, theater and dance—as well as an unforgettable experience with a mainstage production where Caribbean culture is represented and celebrated,” says Heather Clark, our community partnership coordinator. “We are thrilled to be able to encourage these girls to find expression through the performing arts.”

Just the Treats, Please

The Straz Center’s self-serve candy station in Morsani Hall is a year-round Halloween dream come true. No tricks here. It’s just all candy all the time, and we love it.

Colorful Jelly Bean options up for grabs at the Candy Bar in Morsani Lobby.

Each year, we buy about 2,100 pounds of candy. That much candy is roughly the weight of two full-sized grand pianos.

Each month, our guests consume around 175 pounds of candy –about the average weight of a six-foot-tall man.

Guest get creative choosing their favorite candies to add to their candy boxes. Photo by Rob Harris.

The four favorites for Straz guests are M&Ms, peanut M&Ms, Swedish fish and a long strip of candy called a blueberry sour belt.

Erika Elias, our concessions manager chooses which candies go in the station. She does take employee suggestions to change up the selections from time to time.

Some experimental candy choices over the years included red hots, gummy sharks, warhead sour tears and candy pebbles.

Occasionally, Straz donors get to pick a few new candies for the jars. Their picks included banana candies, black licorice bites and cappuccino Jelly Bellies.

Erika rolls with the seasons, so candy corn may be in there this month and peppermint will appear for the holiday season.

Candy for all ages! A wide variety of flavors available at the candy bar.

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

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

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

Meet Sam Luis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CITA: That makes a lot more sense.

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

CITA: Cool!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SL: A hundred percent. Five hundred percent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SL: Correct.

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

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

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

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

SL: Oh, yeah. Yes.

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

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

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

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