We Know the Mission

Straz Salutes is an organizational mission to make sure our military and veteran communities know they have a place at The Straz. We provide tickets, outreach programs and presentations for military, veterans and their families.

We’ve always had a soft spot for military, veterans and their families, which is why we’ve offered discounted tickets for our armed forces guests for years. Since 9/11, the country as a whole has seen more wounded warriors return home with visible and invisible injuries sustained in the line of duty. Since we regard our military with the utmost respect, we, like most civilian organizations, needed some first-hand guidance about how to say, ‘hey, we’re here for you in more ways than just tickets’ and still honor the warrior’s code of stoicism regarding pain.

We know people in the military and their families have chosen a tough path. It is our earnest desire to demonstrate that the performing arts can allow safe passage back to self and home.

We call our initiative in this endeavor Straz Salutes.

Cast of Diavolo’s The Veterans Project in rehearsal at The Straz.

As more research and media emerged explaining the positive effects of the arts for PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), we realized we had a duty to implement greater efforts to build stronger ties to our military community. Simultaneously, we explored national movements in arts and healing as well as worked with a creative arts therapy network for PTSD and TBI, Creative Forces, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs.

Soon after, the Straz Center community engagement department began direct efforts to initiate visual art, performance collaborations and community conversations with our military community. The Straz received a grant from Creative Forces to launch the VetArtSpan project with the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The project, spearheaded by our community engagement specialist Fred Johnson, resulted in the VetArtSpan website that includes podcasts, a visual art gallery, helpful information for civilians. The VetArtSpan project culminated in a live performance of veteran artists at The Straz on Aug. 30 this year.

Local veterans and dancers work together to create a meaningful and memorable performance with Diavolo.

These efforts—discounted tickets, our education from national organizations, direct community involvement as well as military-themed programming—converged into a united push to bridge any gaps between us, our military and their families. The different prongs needed unification under one initiative: thus, our over-arching program, Straz Salutes, was born.

The sum of our efforts to reach, meet and support the whole scope of the military community, Straz Salutes appears on the 2019-2020 season in many forms. Our Straz Salutes logo denotes specific performances relating to or of particular interest to our military community, including the United States Air Force Concert Band on Oct. 26 and longtime veteran advocate and country music star Aaron Tippin on Oct. 22. Our ongoing community engagement efforts resulted in some spectacular collaborations, most notably the Diavolo Veterans Project and the Medal of Honor visual art exhibit.

Veterans and dancers from the Tampa Bay area participated in a few weeks of intense dance training with Diavolo earlier this year.

Diavolo, a performance art group based in Los Angeles, made an open call for local dancers and veterans in the Tampa Bay area to participate in a two-week intensive to create a dance to be performed in Diavolo’s Oct. 25 show in Morsani Hall. The piece, A Long Journey Home, held to a demanding 5-hour-a-day, six-days-a-week schedule, and is slated to be the centerpiece of their eye-popping Straz Center program.

At the beginning of October, we unveiled our newest exhibit on the Riverwalk which features the visual art of students from the tri-county area who participated with us as part of the Medal of Honor convention being held in Tampa this year. The kids were given a virtue of the Medal of Honor—”the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force”—to depict upon a coin. The top seven artworks were reproduced physically and now hang upon the panels of the Riverwalk gallery to coincide with the Medal of Honor convention Oct. 22-26. The community engagement department also sent Fred Johnson, himself a veteran and artist who is heavily involved in the Diavolo project as well, to MacDill Youth Center to teach bucket drumming for the children living on MacDill Air Force Base.

Diavolo’s The Veterans Project aims to exemplify strength and emotion through it’s unique dance techniques.

Alice Santana, acting director for the community engagement and education programs, envisions growing more community partnerships through Straz Salutes, formally and informally. “Our job is to accomplish the goal of making sure our military and veteran community feels 100% welcomed here. Straz Salutes is also about equity. If we have something going on in these walls that can help these families get their minds off the past, current deployments or the strains of military life, we want them to have access to our performances, our programs, our campus. We are approachable, we’re open to suggestions and we are continually looking for input from active military and veterans on what we can do better,” she says.

Don’t miss our Straz Salutes performances and events this Oct. For tickets and more information, visit strazcenter.org

Let’s Get in Transformation

The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 29 on Friday. We’re celebrating with a free concert in Maestro’s Restaurant featuring incredibly talented local artists of mixed abilities. Let’s meet a few.

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On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law acknowledging the right of access and inclusion for people with disabilities. That monumental, historic demonstration of America’s commitment to equality turns 29 years old this Friday, and we are rolling out the red carpet with our friends from the Mayor’s Alliance for Persons with Disabilities and the Hillsborough County Alliance for Citizens with Disabilities to throw a party.

Part One: Let the Shameful Walls of Exclusion Finally Come Tumbling Down

In his public remarks that day, President Bush exhorted the world’s governments and directed American citizens to “let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

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President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the White House South Lawn on July 26, 1990.

After a brutal history of cloaking disabilities in shame and ostracism, America made a pioneering effort with the ADA to bring citizens with disabilities into the fold both socially and economically. It was supremely successful, driving business and leading to social improvements that benefitted everyone. Today, we have large print, automatic sliding doors, access ramps and beeping crosswalks thanks to the ADA. The notion of “disabilities” is being eclipsed by the understanding of “different abilities.”

Many years ago, as leadership at The Straz searched for ways to expand our own efforts at inclusion, we held a community round table to ensure we were doing our best to make the performing arts accessible for all. We made some great friends and partners during this process, one of whom is Brenda Clark, the project director and employment services coordinator for the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities at the University of South Florida.

If you come to the get-together Friday (the first part of the celebration is at the John F. Germany Library across the street starting at 3:30 p.m.), there’s no doubt you’ll see Brenda. Enthusiastic, excited about ways to implement inclusion and accessibility and a lot of fun to be around, Brenda worked with the Straz Center’s Acting Director of Community Engagement Alice Santana to hold the first-ever performing arts component of the annual ADA celebration.

Part Two: TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion

This year, the annual ADA anniversary celebration, titled TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion, takes place in two parts at two locations—The John F. Germany Library and the Straz Center—and features artists from Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

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“Our event is also partnered with Arts for All, which is a statewide visual arts competition,” says Brenda. “We’ll announce the awards with a first, second and third prize. The John F. Germany Library offered to host a gallery of the visual art. We thought, ‘This is so great! Let’s see what else we can do.’ It was my wildest dream to showcase our local pool of performing artists, and I wanted the performing arts involved so badly. When we met Alice, everything started falling into place. The Straz is so professional. It’s real. It’s not something that someone is doing as a handout. So, at the concert at The Straz, we’ll have a dance troupe. We have singers. We have a classical pianist. The Straz is providing an accessible stage, lighting, sound and Fred Johnson will emcee. We’re just super, super, super exited about it. I may be more excited than anyone.”

The celebration concert at The Straz starts around 6 p.m. We have a full roster of performers including drummers, spoken word and sign language performance artists. We thought we’d introduce you to a few to give you a taste of the awesomeness that will be this Friday night event. The entire 29th anniversary celebration of the ADA is called TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion and is entirely free. All are welcomed and encouraged to attend.

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MATT WEIHMULLER, jazz musician

“I will be presenting my ensemble as a jazz quartet, comprised of myself on saxophone, along with a rhythm section which includes, piano, bass, and drums. We will perform music that is representative of traditional straight-ahead jazz. We’ll also play my own modern interpretation of the genre in an original composition titled “Dots On a Page.” It means so much to me to be able to share this musical composition because I get to present it to an audience which the piece was intended for, and this is the ultimate goal of any performer.

I wrote the song “Dots On a Page” as a tribute to learning braille music. As a visually impaired musician, it has always been my goal to continue to champion the cause of braille literacy. Braille is made of a six-dot system, so it seemed appropriate to name my composition “Dots On a Page.” Performing music is freedom to me because playing jazz, which is an improvisational artform, means that there are no barriers for creativity. I hope I can inspire others through performing music to have the same outlook I try to have each day, to be able to turn any disadvantage they may have into an advantage through their disability.”

Stephanie
STEPHANIE SLAGLE, singer

“I will be presenting two of my favorite musical theatre songs for my performance: “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from The Phantom of the Opera and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady.

This performance is special to me for many reasons. The Straz Center itself is special to me; I have many beautiful memories of seeing shows at The Straz, and I’ve performed here for an All State conference in the concert choir and participated in a couple of Patel Conservatory’s summer classes. Being here to help celebrate the ADA 29th Anniversary is amazing! The ADA is so important because it gives opportunity and support to people who need it. When I give my performance, I want it to be representative of the amazing things the whole community can do for people—those with disabilities and those that have helped them grow to success beyond their wildest dreams.”

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JOHNATHAN DAVIS, pianist/vocalist

“Johnathan is so grateful for the opportunity to perform at The Straz! Although he is autistic and blind since birth, he has developed his talent and loves to share his gift. His joy in life is making people happy. He does this through his music. Johnathan is an accomplished pianist/vocalist and will hopefully touch the hearts of our guests at this special event.” –Cheryl Worsham, Spokesperson for Johnathan Davis

Seasons of Love

Adults around the world offer inspiration to LGBTQ youth through the It Gets Better Project.

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A scene from It Gets Better. Photo: Morten Kier.

In 2010, a series of teen suicides shocked the news cycle, shoving the real-life consequences of tormenting classmates into the national spotlight.

Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old violinist and freshman at Rutgers University, leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly Facebook live-streamed Clementi in a romantic encounter. Seth Walsh, 13, of California, and Billy Lucas, 15, of Indiana, hanged themselves after non-stop verbal abuse by their middle school classmates. Asher Brown, 13, from Texas, shot himself for the same reason.

There are other stories across the generations, all equally horrifying, all the direct results of school bullying of kids who happened to be gay.

The psychological effect of ridicule, especially in middle school years, shapes the brain and taps into one of the greatest human fears: the fear of abandonment (being outcast from one’s community). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) young people, who report that they often have no adults in their lives who they can talk to about personal problems*, must face this hostile school world day after day after day. And, let’s face it, middle school and high school can be rough enough socially without the added pressures of dealing with someone else’s arbitrary judgment about sexual orientation.

It can seem, trapped in a well of ridicule, that life will never get better, that there’s no way out.

These LGBTQ suicide reports fell across the desk of syndicated columnist Dan Savage, who survived middle school and high school as a “semi-out gay man” and went on to create a really great life for himself. He decided to carry a very important, very vital message to the next generation of young people toughing it out in the often cruel heteronormative ball of confusion that is middle school and high school: it gets better.

Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, created a simple video, posted it on YouTube, and it went viral instantly. The It Gets Better Project was born, and adults around the world saw their chance to step up and offer hope to LGBTQ kids. The list of celebrity testimonies grew, as did the corporations who valued diversity, creativity and inclusivity: Apple, Google, Pearson Education, Pixar, Facebook and NASA all taped videos for the It Gets Better Project. So did the Fire Department of New York, the Austin Police Department and Lt. James “Jim” Young of Orlando PD.

In time, It Gets Better went on tour, stopping in cities around the country for week-long residencies with local LGBTQ youth to create a concert based on the unique experiences of those young people.

It Gets Better evolved from a simple message of hope to an entire out-and-open community specifically lifting up LGTBQ young people who need support making it through their toughest years. Community serves as a source of strength, and adults built a visible, accessible network through It Gets Better as living proof that every wonderful, vibrant, creative and resilient fiber of an LGBTQ person has a place in the world somewhere, with something unique and valuable to offer.

As NASA says in their video: “You are necessary.”

This year, It Gets Better arrives in Tampa, with a performance here at The Straz on March 24.


For more information on the show and tour, take a look here .

*from the Human Rights Campaign’s report “Growing up LGBT in America: HRC Youth Survey Report Key Findings.”

Frock On, Sisters and Brothers!

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Kinky Boots tour.

We’re celebrating the arrival of the Broadway blockbuster bromance Kinky Boots and wanted to take a minute to talk about how much drag queens have contributed to the joy that is the performing arts.

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Actor, drag queen, model, author and recording artist RuPaul.

And transgender folks.

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Wendy Carlos, born Walter, wrote scores for A Clockwork Orange and Tron. She is considered one of the greatest music innovators of the 20th century.

Oh, and cross-dressers. And gender-benders.

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Grace Jones is known for her unique look at least as much as she is for her music, acting and modeling career.

Of the many perks of life in the performing arts is the singular power of theater life to allow people to be who they are—and who they’re not. A theater world’s magic brims with exploration of identity, and for many centuries, humans have used the stage as a forum and refuge, a liminal space where character, reality, fantasy and persona blur into performance. LGBT identity historically challenges the arbitrary definitions of normal gender behaviors and sexuality for society at large, but LGBT is LIFE in the performing arts, part of the norm that adds its own value to the mix.

Mainstream movies tend to typecast drag queens as a comic device for sexual gags and variations on the bitchy glamorpuss, though it’s worth noting that in popular films like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and its American counterpart, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, as well as in Kinky Boots, drag queens continue to teach audiences the value of tolerance in a world too charged by judgment and violence.

Long a “fringe” performing art form, drag is making its way, slowly, as normative. In Kinky Boots, Lola is a complex character, not the schtick comic in a double act working off (literally) the straight man. Lola’s ambiguous sexuality in Kinky Boots remains one of the cooler parts of the musical often overshadowed by the fun of it all. Is she gay? Straight? Does it matter? And why are we so preoccupied with a man in a dress’s sexuality anyway? Can’t a person just be happy in a dress?

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Johnny Depp in a scene from Ed Wood, a 1994 biopic about the cult filmmaker, directed by Tim Burton.

So, keep rocking the frocks, brothers and sisters, and we’ll see you stage side.

Patron alert: the Straz Center continues to see more fake ticket agencies pop up on the internet, selling our shows for far more than our ticket price, especially for the Broadway series. Be sure you get your tickets for Kinky Boots at strazcenter.org. Any other website is a ticket scam.

Diversity in Ballet

Many performing arts lovers shouted “Bravo!,” “Finally!” and “What Took So Long?” when American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland broke the oft-unspoken color barrier in the European-standards of ballet to become an international star. Her recent commercial for Under Armor went viral, forcing people to rethink their notions of ballet dancers as athletes and also as white women in tutus. Fortunately—for ballet and for all the dancers of color who want solo and prima places in ballet companies—Misty Copeland’s rise to public prominence has brought a new respect to the art form and a more public conversation about the experience of black and brown dancers in the world of ballet. Caught in the Act came across this recent article on Mashable to address the history and social challenges of this fact of life in American dance—one that, with our understanding and changing ideas—will hopefully soon turn into history instead of reality.

NEW YORK, New York — In three to five years, no one will be talking about diversity in ballet.

That’s according to Virginia Johnson, a founding member and artistic director of New York City’s famed Dance Theatre of Harlem. In a few years, she thinks it will be a boring topic “because it will have happened,” she says in a light but commanding voice. Soon, she says, the largely white world of ballet will be populated with dancers of color.

Soon — but not today. Not in 2015.

Today, the ballet world still has a race issue. Brown ballerinas are almost invisible, rarely in the spotlight. Pools of talent are left untouched, as major dance companies glide over people of color in favor of white dancers. Dancers of color don’t often get coveted principal or soloist roles, and browsing through the corps de ballet roster of renowned institutions like the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet shows that diverse swans are in short supply.

Johnson rests comfortably in her three- to five-year theory, though. She is in a position to push that change forward. Along with companies like the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is a well-known entity in the ballet world, founded in 1969 “shortly after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the site declares. Its mission statement is clear: “To present a ballet company of African-American and other racially diverse artists who perform the most demanding repertory at the highest level of quality.”

“Right from the beginning, this company started making people think different about ballet,” says Johnson.

She remembers her early days at New York University, cramming in church basement ballet classes on the weekend with dancer Arthur Mitchell. Once she found out he was starting his own company, she took a leave of absence from college and joined him at his Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was a bold idea in a tense dance era for people of color.

“People had told us, ‘You can’t do this,'” Johnson recalls. “All of us were in that place as warriors, who were like, ‘Yes we can, just give us a chance.'”

She’s been with the company 27 years now.

For the whole article, read here.