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.

Make it a Double: Bartenders Extraordinaire Diane Jones and Suzanne Rubin

This interview, the second in a two-part series on non-performing jobs in the performing arts, features two of our extraordinary bartenders: Diane Jones and Suzanne Rubin.

If you’ve been coming to The Straz for a few seasons, chances are you’ve found yourself face-to-face with the Straz Center’s dynamic duo of drink slingers hustling and jiving behind one of the bartending stations. This double act of mix mistresses is well-loved by our guests, so if you haven’t met them yet, seek out their station next time you’re here for a show. With 22 years of service to The Straz between them, they know a lot about what it takes to make guests happy (and it’s not the booze!—though that helps) and how to succeed and have fun in the service industry. We caught up with them to talk shop, which was, of course, a lot of fun.

Meet Diane Jones and Suzanne Rubin.

Diane Jones (left) and Suzanne Rubin (right) working at the bar in Morsani Lobby.

Caught in the Act: This series is about “non-performing jobs in the performing arts,” but would you argue that you are performing as a bartender? Do you feel like you’re a sister act?

Diane Jones: Every guest that walks up to our bar comes to The Straz expecting a show and an experience. That experience should start at the door and all staff, in whatever capacity, should continue that excitement. We just happen to take the guest experience and guest take-away very seriously. It is important to us to engage our guests in the theater ambience, and well, we really really really put in the effort … [laughs]. We certainly are a “sister act” of sorts. I introduce us to every guest I can and invite them back to our bar for a second beverage during the remainder of walkup or a pre-order for intermission—and a little more of The Diane and Suzanne Show. We’ve worked on many bars together for a long time, so we have the schtick and the moves down!

Suzanne Rubin: We definitely have to be “on” and in a good mood to make our guests feel welcome. As for the sister act, we complement each other well. Diane is more outgoing, and I am good with the set up and function of the bar.

CITA: How did you get involved with The Straz, and how long have you been around? What keeps you here?

SR: This is my 13th season. I applied here after a friend and ex co-worker told me about it. I stay because it’s a nice, pleasant, civilized atmosphere.

DJ: I came onboard from a suggestion that I’d love it by Suzanne. This is my ninth season. I started in the coffee bar for a couple seasons, then moved to bartending. I love being involved with the arts and creating experiences for the guests. If folks have fun, they come back … for more drinks and future shows. It’s our contribution to The Straz to perform in such a way that they want to.

CITA: What are your funniest tending-bar-at-The-Straz stories (that we can print)?

DJ: Since we always bar tend together, I’ll combine them. A few situations stand out as pretty funny. One time a gentleman accidentally handed us his medical marijuana card as his ID. Another lady tried to use her library card for payment. She kept swiping and swiping and wailing there had to be money there. One older guy insisted we card him and then accidentally flashed his AARP card. That one had everyone in line laughing and joking with him. AND IT WAS HIS BIRTHDAY!

CITA: How did you become a bartender? What are your fave aspects of the job and what are your fave drinks to mix?

DJ: I got involved with bartending during a stint at a catering company. I enjoy the witty repartee with guests and handcrafting beverages (especially martinis, cosmos and manhattans) that folks will feel good paying for and come back when they’re ready for another. It’s a fun atmosphere to meet a variety of folks with an even bigger variety of interests. There’s so much going on at The Straz. There is something for everyone, and the excitement keeps me coming back each season.

SR: I started helping out friends who worked in the industry when they were extra busy at events like Gasparilla and Guavaween. I stay because I like meeting new people, seeing events and being part of fun stuff like Broadway, concerts and yearly events. My favorite drinks to make at The Straz are margaritas, manhattans and sangria from scratch.

CITA: It may surprise some of our readers to know we have a huge Food and Beverage staff, we have to with as many patrons as we have. What’s your advice about how to get hired and be the best at the job?

SR: Interested and prospective candidates for any position in Food and Beverage should go online to strazcenter.org and fill out an application. This alerts Human Resources. The steps to joining our team all start online, and the possibilities are endless!

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If you’re interested in applying to be part of the Straz Center Food and Beverage team, visit the online job openings here.

SEQUINS!

Like peanut butter to jelly, like Siegfried to Roy, what would the performing arts be without sequins?

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If the performing arts were a country, the flag undoubtedly would be made of gaff tape and sequins. What material would befit the banner of our happy little nation-state more? When we think about a few American performing arts icons – 1) Marilyn Monroe 2) Diana Ross 3) Liberace and 4) Elvis, we think sequin 1) red dress, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 2) 8 out of 10 costume changes 3) everything and 4) capes and jumpsuits.

This perfect plastic paillette adds shimmer, glamour, depth and a failsafe wow factor to all sorts of costumes. This spring, sequins trended in everyday wear, adorning t-shirts, shoes, belts … proletariat fashion hasn’t seen this much day-to-day glam since the ‘70s. Let’s face it. Everybody loves a sequin.

But from whence came this glittering gimcrack, this decorative doo-dad?

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Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch, circa 1480-1482.

The sequin seems to have emerged from the world’s cultures’ collective subconscious, as examples of sparkly disks sewn to clothes and accessories appeared in King Tut’s tomb, 2500 B.C. India, and in parts of ancient Asia. The notion of attaching coins to clothes for status caught on almost everywhere, and lo and behold, Leonardo da Vinci invented a sequin-making machine that, like his airplane, only made it to the sketch phase. However, it bears repeating: da Vinci sketched a sequin-making machine. The man who gave us Mona Lisa and The Last Supper also dreamed of full-scale sequin production.

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Metal sequins lasted until the 1920s, which meant all those flapper dresses were a heck of a lot heavier than they looked. Later that decade, the world discovered the many uses of gelatin, one of which happened to be pressing it into sheets and punching out hundreds of lightweight, easy-to-color sequins. However, gelatin dissolves and melts, a problematic fact of life for these vegan-unfriendly decorations. Another method of back-plating acetate (clear plastic) with silver emerged thanks to Kodak and the ingenuity of a New York spangle-maker named Herbert Lieberman, who later, naturally, relocated his sequin-production operation to Florida. The acetate proved too brittle – unless, as Lieberman discovered, it was coated on both sides with Mylar.

Voila! Lieberman invented modern-day sequins that could withstand a round in the washing machine. Today, we use vinyl plastic sequins which are cheaper and more durable but not as sparkly as their acetate, divine-light-channeling counterparts. The next stage in sequin evolution will hopefully be for a glorious dot of high-reflective power that biodegrades. Stay tuned.

Shock Absorbers

Under a tight schedule, it takes eight weeks to replace one stage floor. Last summer, we had only five. And two enormous stages.

Life is not fair.

But, if you have a good sense of humor, it is funny.

Running The Straz takes an enormous amount of effort on what we call the “back end,” or, the aspects of show business that take place outside of the spotlights. The back-end includes building maintenance, groundskeeping, upgrading and repairing equipment, changing the umpteen thousand lightbulbs, replacing broken concrete on the walkways and other such things. We do our best to execute the work of the back-end during moments that are least disruptive to guests. Often, we get a slight lull in the action over the summer when we are between seasons. We dive into this lull tools a-blazing to address major projects, so when you arrive for the brand-new season you’re not greeted by backhoes, cherry-pickers and gates of orange construction netting. Instead, all is sparkly, shiny and ready to envelop you in a radiant bubble of wonderment, which is exactly why we’re here for you.

Last summer, we faced one of our greatest challenges yet. Because both stages sustained an exciting amount of action last season (compounded by the countless seasons before), replacing Ferguson and Morsani stages with upgraded materials landed on the top of the to-do list for summer chores.

Both stages. Ripped up, carted away, new flooring installed with tech upgrades, repainted and ready to rock and roll by Sept. 11. Which would have been okay if construction crews and our operations department had been able to start in June like normal. But, because we had Broadway summer shows and other gigs booked, the stages didn’t empty until the end of July.

Brand new Ferguson stage floor prior to being painted.

That circumstance left our intrepid and uber-busy Director of Operations C.J. Marshall staring down the barrel of a five-week deadline to replace both main stage floors on time and on budget before the biggest season in Straz history.

Insert sense of humor here.

“The first time we replaced Ferguson [stage], we had eight weeks to do it,” C.J. said. “So, yeah. It was a very, very tight timeline.”

C.J. sat down with pen and paper, sketching out a schedule of how to make it happen. He’d need three crews working about 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Then, maybe, the stages’ paint would be dry in time for Chicago to load in and the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show to set up on Ferguson.

Maybe. But there was no way they could do it if they had to complete the demolition, clean-up and prep before starting to lay the wood. “The flooring company normally sends about eight people to do the job. We had 22 people on-site. Once we demo’ed the initial 10 feet, the installers started working behind the demo team, starting to lay the new floor before the rest of the floor had been completely removed.” In this building-the-bridge-as-we-cross-it manner, crew relieving crew relieving crew, they steadily raced against the deadline that tick-tick-ticked on C.J.’s calendar with all the charm of the Doomsday Clock.

As with most theoretical calculations, C.J.’s were based on a perfect world. In addition to being unfair, life is also not perfect. “There’s so much of the floor we couldn’t see – everything that was underneath the top planks. As we demolished, we uncovered sections that had to be leveled or cleaned and re-cleaned. The crew would open the floor, and I’d see the condition and think that’s another three days; that’s another four days, all the while the date pushed closer to Chicago’s load-in. Would we make it in time? We had to. Somehow.”

Florida’s humidity, especially in the summer, invites mold and mildew like its throwing a block party. C.J. and his operations crew built a tent over the entire stage to create a negative vacuum; inside, they ran several air scrubbing and air sucking machines that cleaned the air of all dangerous spores. This set-up meant that not only were the floor crews sweating it out under an ambitious and possibly laughable deadline, they were doing it in Hazmat suits and respirators.

August came and went.

September arrived, bearing down on the looming arrival of Chicago. When the director of the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show arrived ten days before their event to check on the progress of the Ferguson stage replacement, he saw a giant plastic tarp draped over what appeared to be a half-finished stage – read: the other half was a rectangular hole – filled by men lumbering around in Tyvek suits using power tools. In essence, a scene straight from The X-Files. C.J. assured him all would be well, and the early days of September raced by.

“During this whole project,” C.J. says, “ … there were a lot of sleepless nights. But we made it on time.”

In fact, C.J. and his crews put forth so much effort, they finished two days ahead of schedule. There was plenty of time for Roxie, Velma and the outstanding small-business people of Hillsborough County to strut across our freshly painted, very dry, immaculately installed stages.

This cross-section of the Morsani stage shows the design details of a sprung floor.

“Ahead of schedule and on budget,” says C.J. “and we were able to install sprung floors on both stages as well as run about 12 miles of cable under Morsani stage to bring it up to digital standards, to give it a data and electrical infrastructure. Shows need connectivity on stage now, and we have it.” The sprung floors mean that a flexible brace under the planks provides “give,” like mild shock absorbers, to protect dancers’ muscles and joints from abrupt impact. The connectivity allows for access to power and network jacks without having to run temporary cables from set pieces to wall outlets. “I have to give a lot of credit to Ron Stevens of Trident Surfacing, who was our project manager, and Dave Reynolds, a Straz carpenter, who was our point person and really did a great job of keeping the crews going. We also couldn’t have done this project without the hard work of our production electricians, Leslie Bindeman and Jesse Perkins. We’re super excited about the new floors.”

So what happened to C.J. when they crossed the finish line 48 hours early?

“I left town and went and sat in the woods of North Carolina with no cell phone, no internet, no nothing for a week with my wife,” he laughs. “It was wonderful.”

Extraordinary Factoids about Our New and Improved Stage Floors

• Basketball courts also have sprung floors.
• The Morsani Hall stage floor can hold 9,000 pounds per square foot, about 50-70,000 pounds total.
• Both stages are Canadian maple.
• The Morsani stage is 9,500 square feet; the Ferguson stage is 5,000 square feet. That’s 14,500 square feet replaced in five weeks.
• The new floors should last about 20 years.
• Sprung floors also contain a little layer of neoprene, the same material of a wetsuit.
• The Morsani stage gets painted about four times a year because we have so many shows. There were 70 layers of paint on the old stage when they demolished it, adding up to almost a quarter inch.

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.

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.

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?

587px-Ted_Geisel_NYWTS

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