The Seuss Is Loose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

green eggs and ham

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

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

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

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

dick and jane

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

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

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

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

“Cat” was first. Then, “hat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimme a Beat

Ultra fan fave Tap Dogs returns with new blokes, new moves and new drummers—the jaw-dropping duo of Warped Tour veteran Caitlin Kalafus and Final Fantasy percussionist Noriko Terada.

Tap Dogs drummers Noriko Terada and Caitlin Kalafus. (Photo from Instagram: noriko_terada_drumsume)

For those of us who were around in the 90s when Tap Dogs made its first tours in the United States, the sight of barrel-chested, be-jean-shorted Aussie beefcakes slapping their Blundstone work boots around a minimalist construction zone was a revelation of the form. Tap Dogs drilled down into the idea of percussion as a prosaic, pedestrian fact of life. The show deconstructed (if you will) tap dance and rebuilt the notion of how beat-making could look and sound. Industrial. Rough. There could be flannel involved—and water and working-class sight gags.

Naturally, the show skyrocketed in popularity. By 1997, four separate tours of the show traveled the world to meet the demand of folks wanting to see the blue-collar dance phenomenon from Down Under.

Photo from Instagram: @tapdogsofficial

Dein Perry, the show’s creator and choreographer (himself a former steelworker from Newcastle, Australia), tweaked the show as times changed, leveling up the moves, upgrading sets and stunts, continually modifying the show to keep it as exciting as those first tours. Today, Tap Dogs is seeing a revival of sorts; it seems as if the next generation of live performance audiences finally got a gander at the show.

No doubt the new incarnation of Tap Dogs is greatly enhanced by the percussive talents of the show’s drummers, who now perform onstage with the Dogs. One they hired fresh off her Warped Tour and stint as Cyndi Lauper’s drummer and the other is best known for her unforgettable work as the percussionist for all the Final Fantasy video games.

The two—Caitlin Kalafus and Noriko Terada—symbolize why Tap Dogs maintains its popularity: they are really cool. And, like the Dogs, neither is reserved in the least when it comes to full-on hammering away with their tools. Their maniacal glee matches the intensity of the rough-and-ready dancing to a T, often pushing the guys to their limits as the women drive a relentless, fun, and mind-blowing force of sound for the show.

Caitlin Kalafus started gigging as a drummer at 12 years old, playing in bars and eventually winning Disney’s Next Big Thing competition with her band Kicking Daisies.

Here’s some grainy footage of an unknown Caitlin crushing the drums at The Orange Ale House on Cinco de Mayo 2007. She’s 13 years old:

And here’s Caitlin twelve years later warming up before the curtain rises on Tap Dogs in Durham, NC, just a few stops from the show’s run in Morsani Hall March 29-31:

Caitlin landed a spot with Mother Feather on the Vans Warped Tour 2017, then gigged with Cyndi Lauper’s band while the 80s icon toured last year. Kalafus has appeared as a guest drummer on Late Night with Seth Myers and as a spokesperson for Zildjian cymbals. She rocks.

Kalafus’s counterpart, the Japanese wunderkind Noriko Terada, joined Tap Dogs in 2012 after a super successful career as the percussionist for Video Game Orchestra, featured in the Final Fantasy series. Terada’s training began at 3 years old with piano, but at 11 she discovered the drums and that was that. Terada—as you will see and hear in the show—can play anything that makes noise. She’s fun to watch, which you’ll discover at the show, too. She also rocks, gigs everywhere and represents Japan for Hits Like a Girl, the international, girls-only drum competition.

Check out the Tap Dogs official Insta account for some killer videos of Caitlin and Noriko rehearsing for the current tour, like this one:

Everybody Looks Good in a Tux

An Ivy League tradition shed the shackles of the patriarchy, gaining a glorious new talent with Sofia Campoamor.

Yale University’s formerly all-male a cappella group The Whiffenpoofs began in a delightfully Victorian upper-crust circumstance involving a local tavern, a freezing New England evening and a handful of Glee Club members with access to beer.

The story goes that roughly a century ago, some Yale upperclassmen who happened to be in the Varsity Quartet ducked into Mory’s Temple Bar to escape the bitter New Haven cold. Needing very little liquid encouragement, the young men began singing and harmonizing, charming the barkeep and fellow patrons. The young men began meeting each week, gained a following and formed an a cappella group featuring the best singers Yale had to offer. Needing a name, quintet member Denton “Goat” Fowler suggested a mythical dragonfish from a common joke called a Whiffenpoof. Capturing the levity they wanted, “Whiffenpoof” stuck. In 1909, Yale University’s The Whiffenpoofs were born, staying the country’s oldest all-male a cappella group until 2018, when the Whiffs voted to open the group to Yale’s best singers, whoever they may be. (The university’s all-female group, Whim ‘N Rhythm made a similar vote.)

Composer and soprano Sofia Campoamor auditioned, landing a Tenor 1 spot and securing her place in Yale history as the first woman to don a Whiff tuxedo. Although assigned soprano parts, Campoamor’s range plummets to alto and bass when necessary or vaults to operatic head voice for higher soprano notes. In an article for Yale News, her singing peer Aissa Guidno quipped that Campoamor’s exceptional range “doesn’t really exist.”

Campoamor auditioned for The Whiffenpoofs with Sara Bareilles’s “Manhattan,” a popular tune that displays both a vocal and emotional range for a skilled singer who can capture very nuanced phrasing, pulling something a little extra out of the end notes. Campoamor impressed the judges, and now she joins the top tier of Yale singers as The Whiffs embark on their 2019 tour.

Whiffs go on national tour after their junior years, taking a leave of absence from their studies. They return to Yale at the end of the tour to start their senior years. So, each year, a new class of Whiffenpoofs charm the nation with their tradition of robust singing and wacky harmonizing. The Whiff class of 2019 arrives at The Straz Wed., March 27, to perform in Ferguson Hall.

While Whiffs ’19 may be the first co-ed class, efforts were made 30 years ago to lift the gender restriction as members realized they were withholding their resources and privileges from qualified singers. In 1987, Whiffenpoof David Code lobbied to open the group to women, a position that polarized the campus and sparked a debate that grew, as Code reported in The New York Times, “ugly and personal.” Yale itself went co-ed in 1968, the year Code cites as being the year The Whiffs should have also started auditioning qualified female singers. “Finally … meritocracy is here,” he told The Times. “I’m thrilled. I’m delighted.”

Sofia’s inclusion doesn’t strike the current make-up of Whiffs as political. “If people judge Sofia on her quality as a singer, they would reach the same conclusions that we have,” says current Whiffenpoof musical director Kenyon Duncan. “This class of Whiffenpoofs is exceptionally talented.”

Hear for yourself:

Get your tickets now before Poof! they’re gone.

How Did You Get That Shot?

Longtime Opera Tampa and Straz Center photographer Rob Bovarnick reveals the secrets behind capturing that Pearl Fishers photo.

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Cardboard box. Plastic bag. Three thousand white beads …

What sounds like either the making of a Mardi Gras costume or the making of a very bizarre murder comprised the basic backstage ingredients of one of the most popular graphic concepts in Straz history. Inspired by Annie Leibovitz’s iconic photograph of Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a tub of milk, the “face” of the Opera Tampa 2018-2019 season became, literally, a face. Seen everywhere from region-wide advertising to billboards along I-275, the “Pearl Fishers photo” has created an unexpected bit of buzz for its arresting, unusual beauty—very much like the opera itself.

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Behind the scenes of the photo shoot. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

The driving forces of The Straz’s in-house ad agency and PR firm are VP of Marketing Summer Bohnenkamp, Senior Director of Communications Paul Bilyeu and Creative Director Mei Crain. Prior to each season, they brainstorm with individual marketers to determine the creative “look” of opera, Broadway, Club Jaeb … everything. Last spring, Paul showed the photo of Whoopi for his pitch for the concept of a woman’s face emerging from a sea of pearls. It flew. He called longtime freelance photographer and friend Rob Bovarnick of Rob-Harris Productions, explained the idea and Rob began to visualize the shot.

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Time to add the pearls! (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

“We determined early on we wanted to use real beads, not photoshop them in after the fact,” Rob explains. “We carefully discussed the size of the pearls because we wanted it to look correct, scale-wise. We always need enough room for all types of marketing uses. Whether it be on billboard, which is usually a longer horizontal format, or on a vertical brochure. So, we brought multiple sizes of cardboard boxes to the shoot. We found the right shape and height for the model’s head. Since we were “floating” her head within the box, we used a plastic bag to seal the box which made a pillow for her head to sit in. We made sure she didn’t have any strain on her neck; then once we got that adjusted, we could start adding the pearls.”

The model, Mischa Temaul, had to keep her head perfectly still while Rob took the photos, otherwise the shifting pearls would ruin the picture. “It was like going to get a CAT scan. You have to hold extremely still, but she did great. We found that the overhead view was more dramatic and more universal for a multi-use in advertising. You have to think about leaving enough space for copy.”

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A few of Rob’s favorite shots from his portfolio of Opera Tampa photos. Clockwise from top left: Lucia di Lammermoor (2009), Romeo and Juliet (2006), The Barber of Seville (2008), La Bohème (2013).

Rob should know. He’s been creating most of the Opera Tampa promotional photos since 2006, when he landed Romeo and Juliet as his first assignment for the company. “We love working with The Straz. We appreciate when there’s something different, and we have to figure out how to make it happen. I’ve been working with Summer, Paul and Mei and the rest of the staff for so many years, about 13 years. There’s a comfort level with having us just run with their ideas.

And it’s great for us, we love the problem-solving challenge of trying to create something really unique.”

Rob Bovarnick - Photo by Eric Swanson

Rob Bovarnick. (Photo: Eric Swanson)

Rob-Harris Name Explained
Many people think Rob Harris is one person when, in fact, it’s two. Here’s the story:

“I started my business in 1987 with my former University of Tampa college photography professor, Lew Harris. When we were coming up with ideas for company names, we both felt that Rob Harris had a better “ring” to it than Harris Bovarnick. Shortly after naming our company, we went to a local bank to open a business checking account. The first think the bank teller asked us was “which one of you is Rob Harris?” That’s when we decided to put the slash in between Rob and Harris: Rob/Harris. Since the beginning of the digital age, we have had to change the slash to a dash and add Photography and Video in addition to Productions for better search engine optimization.” – Rob Bovarnick

He Had It Comin’

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Belva Gaertner (L) and Beulah Annan (R)

The true story of the accused but acquitted Chicago beauties who inspired musical legends Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly

The Bob Fosse masterpiece we know and love today as Chicago the musical actually started with two real women and two real murdered men. In Chicago. In the Roaring 20s.

1924 to be exact.

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A headline from the Chicago Tribune on June 6, 1924 (L) and Belva Gaertner sitting with her defense attorney, Thomas D. Nash (R).

In March of that year, Belva Gaertner, a comely cabaret singer, happened to leave a bottle of gin in her parked car. Unfortunately, she also left a dead man and a gun in the car as well. Accused of killing said man—a young car salesman named Walter Law—Belva found herself in the Cook County jail, the subject of newspaper headlines and journalists who voted her “most stylish” in the clink. Decked out in ravishing bell hats, furs and delicately form-fitting dresses, Gaertner endured her trial as one of the two most famous faces of Murderesses Row. (It was really called that.)

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A headline from the Chicago Tribune on April 4, 1924 (L) and Beulah Annan with lawyer William Scott Stewart on her left and her husband, Al, on her right (R).

The other, 23-year-old Beulah Annan, found herself in Belva’s company on Murderesses Row in April. Called “the prettiest woman ever accused of murder in Chicago,” Annan, in a lapse in judgement, confessed to the murder of her manstress, Harry Kalstedt, later backtracking, stating she and Harry “both reached for the gun” during a quarrel. We bet you’ve figured out which character Beulah becomes in Chicago by now, but if you haven’t, Beulah also came with a faithful and extremely naïve husband who stood by her during the trial despite having found a dead man in his bedroom with his wife.

Naturally, there’s also a lot of booze in the backstories as well as another beautiful woman—innocent of any crime other than being a flagrantly biased journalist. This woman, Maurine Dallas Watkins, worked for the Chicago Tribune covering crime “from a woman’s perspective.” Watkins wrote very descriptive and judgy accounts of Belva and Beulah, then, when all was said and done, she took her ultra-popular crime articles to Yale University to finish studying playwrighting, which she’d abandoned for the Tribune gig. [It’s worth noting that Watkins started her studies at Radcliffe College and was in the same class as Eugene O’Neill.]

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Maurine Watkins, the Chicago Tribune crime reporter who went on to write the play Chicago, circa 1927. (Photo: Florence Vandamm, Vandamm Studio)

At Yale, Watkins turned the stories into a play.

You guessed it: Chicago, starring Velma Kelly—a comely cabaret singer—and Roxie Hart, the gamine beguiler with a dopey, impossibly faithful husband. The show landed a spot on Broadway, ran for 127 performances before closing, then years later fell into the hands of another comely cabaret singer. That woman, Gwen Verdon, happened to be married to Bob Fosse. “Bob,” we imagine her saying, “you gotta make this into a musical. It’s what I want … give in!” [Gwen played the devil Lola in Damn Yankees, so whatever she wants … you know the rest.]

Fosse tried to convince Watkins to give him the rights to the script, but she wouldn’t. Watkins was pretty amazing, which you can read about in this tribute by the Tribune.

When she died, though, her estate granted Fosse and Verdon the rights. Chicago the musical, starring Verdon and Chita Rivera as the most famous Merry Murderesses, was born. Belva and Beulah faded to the corners of Windy City history while Velma and Roxie hot honey ragged their way into musical history.

Catch Chicago when it razzle-dazzles The Straz next week.

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Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart (L) and Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly (R) in the 1975 Broadway production of Chicago, directed by Bob Fosse.

All That Glitters is Gold for Jobsite Theater

Jobsite Theater opens its 2018-2019 season with a return of Spencer Meyers in the lead role of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Spencer, who by day plays our unflappable group sales associate at The Straz, debuted as Hedwig in Jobsite’s 2013 production. Says Jobsite Artistic Director David Jenkins, “I always knew the prodigious talent inside of him, but it was amazing to watch Spencer blossom through the process to fully bloom during the run. His Hedwig is delicate, self-effacing, vulnerable, a true underdog. I think Spencer is even more prepared, more in his prime, than perhaps he was before. So, I’m very excited to get back in the rehearsal room with him to see how she’s [Hedwig’s] grown in this time.” Here’s what Spencer has to say about being Hedwig and returning to the show.

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Spencer Meyers as Hedwig, backed by The Angry Inch, during a technical rehearsal. (Photo: Brian Smallheer)

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Many people know you from your work with Jobsite and saw you in the first run as Hedwig in 2013. Are you nervous about coming back to the role? In what ways are you approaching your performance differently this time around?

SPENCER MEYERS: Tampa Famous! Of all the roles, it’s my favorite. Hedwig’s first preview was the first time I ever had stage fright, seconds before making my entrance; I literally was wondering how I could get to my car the fastest without being seen. We had a birthday in the audience that night of a long-time Jobsite supporter. I went out there, sang the birthday song like Marilyn Monroe’s JFK version and then, Hedwig took over. Now, I have a new set of nerves. Whereas the first time was, “can I do this?” This time, I know I can but I wonder – “can I live up to the hype of the last time? Or the hype that this show has had since its Broadway run/success?”

Preparation? Wait, I’m supposed to prepare? Memorizing those lines ahead of time, is the smartest thing I can do to prepare. Sections start coming back more than others. Although, I’m five years older, and it’s interesting how some moments have more meaning to me than others because of new life events.

2013 Angry Inch band

The 2013 band is pictured in the top photo (L to R: Woody Bond, Amy Gray, Spencer Meyers, Jonathan Cho, and Jana Jones). The bottom photo shows the 2018 band (L to R: Nader Issa, Jeremy Douglas, Woody Bond, Spencer Meyers, Mark Warren and Amy Gray).

CITA: We heard through the grapevine that your acting has been strongly influenced by the style of Miss Piggy. True? If so, is there anything you’re bringing to the role of Hedwig that has a little Piggy in it?

SM: Okay, this grapevine has been on my Instagram (I have a side by side comparison photo of me and Piggy–we could be related). My favorite Muppet has always been Miss Piggy. She’s loud, she’s funny and always manages to steal the scene. She’s the number one reason I love The Great Muppet Caper. Haven’t seen it yet? Watch it and see Hedwig, who shares the same diva-like qualities as Miss Piggy and some physical traits like the big smile and head tilt–as well as some aggression towards those who try to steal her light. It’s Hedwig’s show, she’s the star–never forget that.

CITA: It’s a tough, demanding role. Hedwig is always onstage, talking or singing, and swinging through a million emotions. How do you keep your energy up throughout an entire run?

SM: It’s exhausting–I’m barely a human being for the first 20 minutes after the show closes. My preparation before each show consists of a series of events the second I arrive to the dressing room. First, I shave my face, then paint my nails, wipe my face with alcohol wipes and start putting on the many layers of garments (pantyhose, fishnet stockings, Spanx slip, fishnet top).

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First step to get ready for the show: shave and glue down the eyebrows.

Then it’s time to warm up with the band (“Origin of Love”), then back to the dressing room for makeup. The makeup will usually take until close to showtime (that’s right, I’m still putting on my face as you enter the theater and get comfortable). At about 10 minutes to places, I put on both layers of my costume, the cape and then finally, the wig.

It’s a 90-minute show of Hedwig singing and telling a beautifully tragic and cheeky story of her life. As you said, a million emotions. The wonderful thing about this character as an actor is the mask you wear with the makeup. I can’t see any resemblance of myself once the makeup is completed. I’m able to let her take over, and it’s an adrenaline rush all the way until the end. The moment after I take my bow, I dash to the bathroom to take everything off and throw on comfortable clothing. So, if you are waiting for me to come out, I will–just give me a quick minute.

Spencer and Lindsay, makeup designer

Lindsay MacConnell (L) designed the makeup for the 2013 production of Hedwig and is back again for this production.

CITA: Favorite part of playing this character?

SM: Everything except the Spanx and glitter. Seriously, I love everything about her. Her story is tragic, funny and relatable. We’ve all experienced the moments of her life. We’ve had the first loves that didn’t work, distance from family members at times, heartache and that moment that we search for our place in the world. The music is what made me fall in love with the show. Honestly, I think the songs connect us all in the human experience. We cry and laugh for and with her, she’s human–like us.

photo shoot BTS glitter

A behind-the-scenes look at Spencer getting glitter-ized for the promotional photo shoot.

CITA: Hedwig makes plenty of inappropriate remarks to audience members as a part of the show—most of which is ad libbed during the performance. How do you know who to target and how far to push the envelope?

SM: Don’t bring the kids unless you want to explain a lot of things on the drive back. I’ll admit that the inappropriate lines are some of my favorite things in this show. As I mentioned before, she likes to take over and I gladly let her. She’s like the alter ego of mine that I never knew existed. So completely different than me in my every day. Those ad libs shock me sometimes. If you get offended by something I say in the show; it wasn’t me, it was her. The first run, my biggest fear was having to ad lib and have no fourth wall because every audience will react differently.

So, you want to know my secrets on how I choose my audience participants, huh? Well, it took the first preview to know who to target. It’s a tricky game. A lot of the ad libs happen by the third song of the show, “Sugar Daddy” (prepare yourselves, I will leave the stage and come to you if chosen). By this time in the show, I know who’s into it and who isn’t. I look for the laughers. There are a lot of inappropriate jokes and funny bits early on in the script, so I take note of those who are living for it. Eye contact is important as well. If they are having a good time and not looking away when I make eye contact, then they are potentially going to get more attention throughout the show.

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s experience by making them feel uncomfortable. Some people do not like having audience interaction while watching a show. I can understand that. If you are one of those people, sit at least three rows back in the main seating bank (I’m not going to crawl over people, CenterBills and drinks just to get to you).

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Spencer, in all of Hedwig’s glory, during a technical rehearsal. (Photo: Brian Smallheer)

A Director of Production Services TELLS ALL!

The performing arts are big business. In this industry, we have a lot of super important jobs for people who love the theater but who may have no interest in performing professionally. This week, we sat down with Gerard Siegler, Straz Center director of production services, who plays a huge part in making sure the shows work and the forty-billionteen details of a live performance have been handled.

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Gerard Siegler, director of production services for The Straz.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: What are production services? What do you do? Take us through a typical day in the life.

GERARD SIEGLER: Sure … there’s no typical day. The gist of my job and the job of any production manager is to deal with all the backstage needs. This would be the technical elements like making sure that we have equipment that shows need. Sometimes it means getting hospitality, booking hotel rooms, booking transportation, either to or from the airport and even sometimes air flights and things like that.

It’s a wide range of duties, sometimes it’s as simple as a speaker needing a microphone or AV equipment all the way to Broadway shows—making sure that their set is going to fit within our space and making sure we have the equipment they need.

CITA: How does this work? Let’s say we book The Phantom of the Opera, and you get the memo that Phantom is coming. Then what happens on your end?

GS: Sure. Every touring show has what we call a “rider.” A rider is basically a bible of what the show comes with, what labor they need, meaning stagehand labor—that’s something else we’re in charge of—what equipment they bring, and then what equipment they need. It also specifies how long it takes to load in a show, how long the show is. The riders are sometimes so in depth it goes into what kind of candle an actor needs for their dressing room.

When Phantom is put into the books, one of the production managers is assigned to the show. They go through the rider, make sure that we can accommodate everything that the show needs. What we can’t accommodate, we either supplement or we can redirect them to what we have and then come up with alternatives—if it’s a smaller rental. If they’re adamant about, “I need this amp for my guitar.” Then we will rent stuff if we don’t have it.

That production manager will work through the show. Normally the advance happens anywhere between a month to three months out, depending on how large the show is.

For Broadway shows, it normally takes about anywhere between 10 and 16 hours to load in a show. Most Broadway shows load in Monday, and we have our first performance on Tuesday. They’ll load in the entire show, they’ll do soundcheck, and then they load out … The production manager is usually the first person in and the last person to go. My typical day when I’m doing a show starts around 7:00 a.m. and gets done at 1:00 a.m. the next day.

CITA: You do that for four days in a row?

GS: Yeah, four days in a row. The Broadway shows are one of the easier shows to do. Morsani Hall is considered a roadhouse. A roadhouse means that we have most of the things that happen within Morsani, so it’s self-contained. For example, Phantom comes with everything they’re going to need. Broadway shows, for the most part, come with everything they need besides a few little odds and ends. They tend to be the easy ones. It’s the rentals, and the one-offs, and the concerts that sometimes end up being the most difficult for us.

CITA: Why is that? It seems like you’ve got a concert, you just get a mic, you plug in a sound system, you’re good to go.

GS [laughs]: It’s typically not like that. For instance, some of the smaller concerts just bring the artist and the artist’s guitar, and we supply everything else. What you see on stage is maybe 20% of the actual equipment it takes to run the concert. All you really see are the back line, the piano, the drums, a monitor … but to get all of that to work, it takes a while to load in.

Your dance shows even take longer sometimes, so your modern dance shows, like MOMIX, are very light[ing] heavy. We load in their lighting before they even show up. The day before they come in, we’ll have crew on that will set their lighting which is something that’s dictated by the show. MOMIX sends us a rider with a lighting plot, and we set the lighting plot even before they arrive. Sometimes what is a two-hour show takes three days to put together.

 

This is what the stage in Morsani Hall looked like when Wicked was loading in, 2017.

CITA: Right. A lot of what creates the magic and creates the illusion of theater is what production and costuming does. It’s the stuff that the audience doesn’t have to think about consciously. They can absorb lighting and music subconsciously and feel the feelings that they create. The catch-22 for you all is that nobody knows if you’re doing a good job unless you do a bad job.

GS: Exactly. We don’t get compliments, we get criticism. The only time you actually know we’re there is when something goes wrong.

CITA: Alright readers, so that means our production staff needs more compliments when you see a good show. When you see Gerard around, tell him that he did a good job. So Gerard, how did you end up here? First of all, tell us how long you’ve been at The Straz and then how does somebody get involved in theater production?

GS: I’ve been at the Straz … April was nine years. I started with the Patel Conservatory. I was one of their production people then moved over as a production manager to The Straz about five years ago. Last June, I became the director of production services.

I started out as an actor. I did theater in high school and performed on Ferguson Stage as a thespian. When I moved to college, I started a theater track for acting and needed a part time job, so I started doing work in the college tech shop. My technical director at the time took me under his wing and said, “You can make a whole career out of just doing this.” My sophomore year, I changed directions and did more technical theater.

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Gerard Siegler hangs lights for Blake H.S.’s production of FAME.

CITA: Were you at USF?

GS: No, I went to Flagler College in St. Augustine.

CITA: Did you find that you enjoyed the technical side more than you did the acting side?

GS: I did. I could see the product progression more, and that satisfied me more. But it’s more pressure because, like I said, you do one wrong thing and it makes or breaks a show. For me, though, building the set, running sound, running lights, putting all that together, that really interested me.

CITA: And then you got a degree in theatrical production?

GS: Yeah.

CITA: Then what happened to you?

GS: After Flagler, I went to the Shawnee Playhouse in the Poconos for summer stock. I was the assistant technical director. One of my friends who graduated with me, we both decided that since we were already in Pennsylvania, we should move to New York City for a year. That’s what I did. I moved to New York for a year, did some odd jobs, picked up some theater stuff here and there, and then moved back to the Tampa Bay area to get married. My wife, who is in the theater department at the Patel, said “Why don’t you just come out and be a summer intern for Patel?” The day before I came in for my interview for the summer internship, the technical production person for Patel had put in his one month notice that he was leaving.

CITA: Whoa!

GS: I was hired for that position, and that was my start.

CITA: And the rest is history.

GS: Exactly.

CITA: Okay, so here you are, and you’ve been doing this for a while. You got seasoned out there in the world on your career trajectory. Do you still get nervous before a show goes up? Do you ever have feelings of, “Oh my gosh, I hope nothing goes wrong. I hope we did the lighting just right, I hope—”

GS: I get nervous the morning or the night before, thinking “What did I miss? What is going to go wrong?” Really, all it takes is for one little thing to go wrong and it can throw the whole day, especially when you’re dealing with different personalities. I’m dealing with local stagehands anywhere from … Three is normally our smallest crew, to some Broadway shows where you’re looking at 75-80 labor hands. Not to mention the actual tour, they’ve come with their own staff. So there’s always that sense of “What did I miss? What happened? What’s going to happen?” [laughs] It doesn’t matter how much pre-planning you do. When you get here and you get on the grounds, half the time the plan gets thrown out the window within the first 30 minutes.

CITA: Show business can get a little frustrating sometimes.

GS: As for the show itself, the only time I get nervous is when we’re falling behind. With The Straz being as well-known as we are, we sometimes get the first stop on tours. Once, a Broadway show had issues with their automation track. The floor that you see for Broadway shows, sometimes it’s painted elaborately, and that’s not actually our stage. It’s another deck that gets put on the stage. Sometimes they have what’s called an “automation track,” which is grooves within the stage that moves the furniture on and off.

For this show, we’re the first stop. Five minutes before I was supposed to open up the house and have the audience come in, their automation track broke. This is opening night of the first show of this new Broadway tour. I have to hold opening the house until we can get the track fixed because if we don’t get it fixed then the effect doesn’t work. That was nerve-wracking.

CITA: Did you get the automation track fixed in time for the show?

GS: Yeah. We were 20 minutes late opening up the house. We have a great usher staff and front of house staff that helped with the audience. We started only five minutes later than we would normally start.

CITA: We love these behind-the-scenes stories because it’s the show that people don’t see. It’s the high drama, the high tension of getting it to go flawlessly, or start on time. When you have all of these moving pieces in live theater, you don’t get a do over. Is that kind of excitement what drives you as part of technical production?

GS: I get my most joy from show to show. If you’re an actor touring, doing the same role for a year and a half, you’re doing the same role for a year and a half. Whereas, within a year and a half as a production manager, or the director of production services, I’m in charge of a couple hundred shows a year. I have a team, so it’s myself and there are three other production managers. Between the four of us, we are in charge of all the theaters except TECO theater.

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Gerard Siegler works shows from all genres which includes being backstage with one of the dinosaurs from Erth’s Dinosaur Petting Zoo.

CITA: Which is almost unbelievable, that a staff that small can do that many shows. Because we don’t book shows in just the theaters. We’ve got Live and Local, we’ve got Straz Live in the Park, we’ve got Fourth Friday. We have so many other events that are happening outside of the theaters, too, that just the four of you make happen.

GS: Yeah. It’s not just the shows themselves. For instance, opera has two performances that they do, but the average opera takes anywhere between two to three weeks on the physical stage to go through. You’ve got a week of loading in the set and lighting and a week of tech rehearsals. Then you have two performances, and then you load it all out in one day and you’re on to the next one. That to me is what gets me going. It always changes. Hamilton is going to be here for four weeks this season. At each show there will be some new challenge that pops up, whether it’s, “My costume ripped” or “We ruined a costume.” Or, “The washing machine went out.” You’re always on your toes.

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Close-up view of a sound board.

CITA: For people who want to be in the theater but not on stage, how do they get to where you are?

GS: I started in high school. I was one of three boys in my high school theater department, so I did a lot of stuff onstage, but I also did a lot of tech prep work. I helped with the sets, helped with the lights, even though I didn’t think about it as a career until college. If you really, really, really want to get a job nowadays behind the scenes, you either become an audio engineer or something with video. Those are the two things that are not going anywhere right now. We’re always looking for someone in audio, visual and lights. You have to be very good at what you do because as much as the actors are onstage doing their best, sometimes we’re the ones that break the performance because mics are popping.

CITA: Or you make the performance flawless.

GS: Exactly. Yes.

CITA: We have classes in technical theater here, right? Workshops for students?

GS: Yes. Patel has a stage management class and we’re going to try to work with them this year to make a technical theater class that deals with a little bit of everything. I give tours all the time to college and high school groups, especially that are technical theater oriented to come. They look at our stage; they can go into the booths.

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Inspiring the next generation of production managers, Gerard and his son Maddon on Carol Morsani Hall stage.

CITA: That’s cool.

GS: They go up to the fly rail—10 stories up. CJ Marshall, who’s our director of operations, has really tried to spearhead getting younger people interested in technical theater because when you go to a high school program, you get 30 kids who want to be actors and maybe two or three who want to work back behind the scenes. We’re trying to invest in the future.

CITA: That’s fantastic. Do you love your job?

GS: I do love it. Like I said, it’s a new thing every day. It always keeps me on my toes. This summer we’re updating and renovating a lot of our old equipment. We’re excited in the production department. We’re taking on a lot, especially with the next season almost here. It’s always fun.

testing the new hearing system at Paw Patrol

A family affair – Audrey Siegler, Patel Conservatory theater department managing director and Gerard’s wife, with their daughter Ellie, Gerard and son Maddon. Gerard is testing the new assisted listening system while the family enjoys Paw Patrol.