You Better Work

Yas, queen. We’re talking about the history of drag.

 So much more than just a man in a dress or a suspiciously large woman, drag has reached stiletto-heights of popularity since RuPaul’s Drag Race packaged it as a reality competition show and gave Anytown, America a scintillating look into what it really takes to be the next drag superstar. No matter how you identify, the world of drag welcomes anyone who has a sense of irony, a theatrical flair and a desire to present a gender illusion that somehow manages to convey your true self.

A consummate theatrical art form, drag combines spectacle, fantasy, singing, dancing, acting, character study and performance art with technical skills like hair, makeup and costuming. People love it now, and people have loved it for a really long time. We’re gonna take you on a crash course through drag history which is by no means comprehensive—but we have included some links to more in-depth articles so take a click at those if you want a farther trip down this deliciously interesting rabbit hole.

For anyone who’s been introduced to Shakespeare, we know that men and boys played roles of women, and this is a great place to start a convo about the word “drag” and its history as something linked to gender-bending. In Victorian England, males played female roles because women were prohibited from working in the theater. Because female costumes included skirts and petticoats that dragged the floor, costumes for a woman character became known as “drags.” This theater term made its way to everyday parlance by 1870, when party hosts asked guests to come “in drag, which means men wearing women’s costumes.”

OUT @ The Straz’s Mean Girls pre-party event featured bearded queens Adriana Sparkle and Aquariius, as well as Ripp Lee, who explore more abstract ways to present themselves.

So, this theatrical context explains the modern use of “drag” to mean a man performing in women’s clothes, even though the original Shakespearean actors didn’t perform “in drag” per se; they happened to be men in dresses because it was illegal for women to hold those jobs.

However, by the early 1900s, a legit female impersonator, Julian Eltinge, often billed as “Eltinge,” became one of the highest-paid actors in the world. Careful to make sure the press saw him smoking cigars and boxing when he was out of costume, Eltinge still managed to parlay himself into America’s original drag superstar. In 1912, a 42nd Street theater in New York named itself the Eltinge Theater, and Eltinge was everywhere from Broadway to films like Maid to Order and Madame Behave. She was adored and admired as what would be considered today a social and beauty influencer from coast to coast.

Julian Eltinge in the Broadway production of The Fascinating Widow (1911).

In the late 1920s and 1930s, the “moral crackdown” on female impersonators and anything homo-suspicious ruined a lot of people’s lives by criminalizing homosexuality. However, it’s here that linguists suspect “drag” became inextricably linked with gay culture through its appropriation to Polari, a secret gay code language developed in Britain. A pidgin of theater terminology and Parlyaree, a mix of Italian rudiments with Mediterranean sailor-speak, Polari originated in London’s West End theaters and spread through gay communities including female impersonators.

By 1927, as Drag Race: All Stars 3 winner Trixie Mattel explains in the video below, the Manual of Psychiatry defined drag as “an outfit of female dress worn by a homosexual” or as “a social gathering of homosexuals at which some are in female dress.” That was that: drag belong to the gays.

Driven (even further) underground during this criminalization period, LGBTQ+ culture relied on its resourcefulness and creativity to keep themselves alive and well in safe spaces—such as the drag ball, pageant or clandestine gay bar, where queens and all others were allowed to perform and whatnot out of the reach of law enforcement.

So, here’s the irony of ironies: because people love drag performers so much, these secret, underground clubs got insanely popular, launching a period called “The Pansy Craze,” as female impersonators were a.k.a. pansy performers.

During The Pansy Craze, much was also made of women presenting as men; of course, women appeared in drag prior to this moment, but Marlene Dietrich’s iconic photos in tuxedos galvanized the drag king image. As drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys explained to Time magazine, drag occurs when someone is “putting on clothing that is considered to be not appropriate to them, and then wearing it with some type of ironic distance.” The “ironic distance” being a key marker of what makes drag drag and not cross-dressing or gender identification. As Jeffreys continues to explain, “drag is when someone goes into a dressing room, they put this thing on, they go out on stage and they perform … [after the show] they take it off.”

The notion that drag is a public performing art form surfaced again in the 1950s when comic Milton Berle often frocked-up as Mildred and, in the Land Down Under, Barry Humphries launched Dame Edna, who would be world-famous on stage and screen for four decades.

In the drag underground in New York the 1950s and 60s, the name Mother Flawless Sabrina was everything. Flawless’s impact on the LGBTQ+ scene as a drag powerhouse can’t be overstated, and we could write several blogs on her alone. She started the National Academy, a nationwide drag organization, in 1959, staging as many as 46 pageants and competitions a year until 1969. Flawless cultivated and preserved drag during a time when anything not hetero was considered illegal and an illness.

The drag superstar in the 70s, Divine, grew up under Flawless’s tutelage. With her breakout role in John Waters’s 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingoes, Divine took what she learned in the New York pageant scene and created a glamour-grotesque that redefined drag for the general public. As usual, people couldn’t get enough of their era’s reigning queen, and Divine had a successful career as an onscreen personality.

The 1980s shaped drag as we see it today—drag heavily influenced by RuPaul who was heavily influenced by the New York gay scene when he moved to the Big Apple. We simply must mention the queen who traveled from Atlanta with Ru to New York—Lady Bunny. Lady Bunny created Wigstock in 1985, which was a bold queens-in-broad-daylight drag festival that became an overnight success and staple of the NY drag scene.

During the 80s, Harlem also created a vibrant drag ball culture famously documented in the film Paris is Burning. The House of LaBeija, founded in 1977 by the legendary queen Crystal LaBeija, is the oldest, and continues to influence the contemporary world of drag with chapters in Russia, Paris and Mexico. Throughout the modern age of persecution of LGBTQ+ people, drag maintained a steady presence as both a healing art form and as a fabulous wayfinder into self and a chosen family.

Meanwhile, if ever there were people who looked like they were in drag but weren’t, it was the B-52s, that wacky Athens, Ga., band who went mainstream in 1989 with their hit “Love Shack,” which cast RuPaul as a dancer in the video.  Seven hundred feet tall in a white two-piece halter suit with a ginormous Afro wig, RuPaul sort of made the video, which paved the way for her own hit, “Supermodel” three years later.

And once RuPaul happened … well, we’re living that part of the story.  

RuPaul’s Drag Race created performing careers for queens like Bianca Del Rio, who has performed to packed crowds at The Straz.

As history proves, drag performances are crazy popular, and we have more evidence here at The Straz, where our local drag promoters often rent our theaters for sellout shows. We’ve presented Ginger Minj and Bianca Del Rio, both made famous by runs on Drag Race, and host a series of drag diva brunches and drag performers for our OUT @ Straz events. Stay tuned to Caught in the Act in the next few weeks for more on OUT and tickets to our upcoming drag brunches.

Why the Paul Taylor Dance Company is a Must See for Any Fan of Live Performances

We enlist the help of Paul Bilyeu, our senior director of communications and the former lead publicist for dance at The Kennedy Center, for a little dance appreciation 101 about this must-see modern dance company.

1970s Omaha, Nebraska. Not exactly a progressive hotbed of boy ballet students, but there our senior director of communications Paul Bilyeu stood, working his feet through fourth position, a junior high schooler well on his way to a career in the performing arts. He took the class at the insistence of a gal pal who needed a dance partner for the end-of-year recital and discovered he took to ballet like a duck to water.

Paul Bilyeu and ‘gal pal’ Kelly Nielson Ramm during a high school production of Oliver!

“I found that I had a natural movement ability and could pick up the steps and technique quickly,” Paul remembers of those early days as the lone male at the barre. “By the time I was in high school, we were three or four boys strong, so we were being asked to dance more and perform in the community. I was a kid, so of course I harbored dreams of being a professional dancer, but I always knew that I never would have done more than be in the back of a medium-sized company. I loved being in the studio, at the barre, but I didn’t love being onstage or performing in recitals … which is somewhat critical to a successful performance career,” he laughs.

The right opportunity met his right skills in Washington, D.C., where Paul landed an internship in public relations at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts eventually becoming the fulltime publicist for all the theater and dance programming.

“That time of my life was a remarkable experience,” he says of his decade-long tenure at America’s national performing arts center. “I got to lead all the PR for Suzanne Farrell’s ballet company, and she was Balanchine’s muse. I was there for the Bolshoi Ballet’s huge U.S. tour in 2000. My time studying ballet came in very handy because I knew the vocabulary and dance history, so I could translate what was happening in the rehearsal studio for the photographers and reporters.” During that time, he also saw the best and most experimental modern dance companies in the world, often in the company of such geniuses as Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Moses Pendleton, Katherine Dunham, Debbie Allen and Bill T. Jones.

“You’re trained in this profession to maintain a neutral mask no matter how famous or legendary the person standing next to you is,” Paul says. “But I’ll confess that outside of Suzanne Farrell, the one dancemaker who had me like oh my God was Paul Taylor.”

That’s because, as far as lineage goes, Paul Taylor had trained under the best of the best: he learned at the feet (and hands) of Martha Graham, the grand dame of American modern dance, and Jose Limon, the great master who would revolutionize dance by incorporating more everyday human movements into his works. Paul Taylor mixed Graham with Limon and a graceful, balletic style to create something unlike anything else anyone was doing. Taylor’s work was funny, breathtaking, contemporary and unabashedly American, even when he honored composers and themes from other nations. Taylor had something to say in a way that no one had seen before; his dances captured the same sensations of glimpsing the humbling expanse of the Grand Canyon, watching the winning run of the World Series and strolling through Times Square all at the same time.

“To see Taylor in person … he was just average,” says Paul. “Average height, average build, average looks. But because I knew who he was, and I had seen so many of his dances that were glorious, hilarious, ingenious works of art, I was in awe.” For the past 20 years, Paul’s had a photo of a Paul Taylor dancer as his screen saver, a photo that was taken during the Kennedy Center days and brought here, to The Straz, to symbolize the best of what the performing arts can be.

Paul Bilyeu’s desktop photo

“He was a genius for the people,” says Paul. “What I love about the Paul Taylor Dance Company is that once you see a few dances and understand what Paul Taylor was about, you can see his signature so deeply in every dance he made. He was so unique in that he had the ability to make high art that sits so easy on the audience. Everybody loves Paul Taylor dances, even if you don’t like dance.  I get it when people say they don’t like modern dance. All art is an acquired taste, and some modern dance is so experimental, so out-there, that it’s really hard to understand. Paul Taylor isn’t like that. His pieces are often beautiful to watch with laugh-out-loud moments of humor. His genius has a universal appeal because it feels familiar while managing to surprise us at the same time. If you’ve ever felt joy in watching kids run around a playground or birds in flight or maybe you’ve taken dance and have a technical understanding … whatever you’ve seen in the world that gives you an appreciation of the joy of motion—that’s what you’ll get in a Paul Taylor dance.”

Paul Taylor died in August 2018, just a year and a half before the premier engagement of his company at The Straz. “So, we’re not that far away from Paul Taylor’s direct lineage,” Paul says. “We’ll have dancers here who learned from the master. Those dancers will be teaching our Patel Conservatory students in a workshop here. We’re getting, most likely, the last class of his direct descendants in this performance at The Straz. So, this is a really important moment for us in performing arts history.”

Paul Taylor

“And what’s also cool about this engagement is that we’re getting a greatest hits program,” says Paul. “Company B is arguably his most popular work, which looks at the mixed messages of 1940s America set to all Andrews Sisters songs. Piazzolla Caldera is an unforgettable and magnificent tribute to the tango and Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Then there’s Esplanade¸ which is this colorful, joyous celebration that has been a huge crowd-pleaser for 40 years and counting. It’s a magnificent showcase of what Paul Taylor did best.”

The Paul Taylor Dance Company performs in Morsani Hall Wednesday, March 4. 

Wiggle Room

The Straz Center’s Wee Folk series is designed specifically for the toddler set. Welcome to the room where wiggling is allowed.

You may not know this, but on the ground floor behind Morsani Hall, we have a large, tall rehearsal room that regularly sees Opera Tampa rehearsals, ballet classes, chamber music practices and the occasional special event.

Children enjoying a show in our Wee Folk Series.

However, three times a year we roll out a cart filled with multi-colored foam squares and interlock those bad boys on the floor of the rehearsal hall for one of our favorite audiences: toddlers.

If you or anyone you know has ever tried to perform for kids—especially tiny tots designed to meltdown easily and go into wild mode with a little bit of sensory overload—then you know it’s a tough gig in show biz. Getting a fun, smart, successful act together for two-to-four-year-olds requires a special skill set, a special personality and a special sense of humor.

Fortunately, we have some great local performers who do an excellent job with this age group, so we book them for our youngest theater-goers. The Wee Folk series features clowning, storytelling and song in a way that little ones love. Plus, we set up the whole environment in the rehearsal hall specifically for performing arts patrons who love to get up and run around, make crazy noises and are relatively new to the whole life-on-earth business. Toddlers get to be toddlers, and parents get a super-affordable live performing arts experience for their kids without the weird social pressure for their kids to behave like adults in public. It’s a win-win.

Lippo The Clown

“The Wee Folk series is as much for the parents as it is for the kids,” says Joel Lisi, who programmed the Wee Folk series for several years, now serves as the Straz Center’s senior programming manager and is the proud parent of a seven-year-old. “We know parents want to bring their children to live theater, but this age isn’t meant to sit still in a dark theater and be quiet. So, we created this three-performance series and designed it with toddlers and parents-of-toddlers in mind. It’s a safe space, you don’t have to be embarrassed if your kid gets up and runs. Or shouts. Or screams. There are other toddlers there, so parents are free to not worry and let the kids be kids.”

This Saturday, we have the second Wee Folk show of the season, Lippo the Clown’s One-Man Family Circus.  “Lippo’s got a certain classic art,” Lisi says. “He’s not creepy, let’s put it that way. He comes from a classic vaudevillian sensibility that shows the beauty of clownship, as it were. He’s a real character that the kids just gravitate to, and he’s great. We’ve also had his other show, The Franzini Family Science Circus here, so we appreciate his philosophy of teaching children while entertaining them on their level. He’s just a class act.”

Katie Adams, Animal Safari Stories

Another Wee Folk hero, storyteller Katie Adams, wraps up the series in May with one of her best-loved programs, Animal Safari Stories.

“All these performers are specialized,” says Lisi. “They don’t get shook because the audience might get a little unruly. Their shows are interactive, short and they know the tricks of the trade for managing an audience of toddlers. It’s really a fun experience for everyone.”

Silly Sam The Music Man

To get your seat on the foam floor, visit strazcenter.org. Our other Family Fun series, Kid Time, is for ages five to eight and graduates kids to Ferguson Hall. If that’s of interest, check it out here.

Mean Girls 101

The essential guide to cult classic catch phrases

This week, Caught in the Act welcomes guest blogger Alex Stewart, media relations manager for The Straz and a big fan of the Mean Girls movie. Our resident subject matter expert on the most memorable lines from the film, Alex agreed to take us through this Mean Girls primer to get us ready for the upcoming musical adaptation.

By Alex Stewart

Get ready to leave the real world and enter Girl World when Mean Girls comes to the Morsani stage February 18-23. The Broadway musical is based on the 2004 film, both written by Tina Fey. The film, now almost 16 years old, has become a modern cult classic and one of the most quotable movies of our time. In honor of the upcoming burn fest, we wanted to share some of the most fetch phrases from the film – because when it comes to quoting Mean Girls, the limit does not exist.

 “On Wednesdays we wear pink.” – Karen Smith

Arguably one of the most recognized and quoted lines from the movie, Karen excitedly tells Cady Heron what to wear in order to sit with the Plastics (the most popular girls in school) the next day at lunch. This line has inspired an insane amount of merch, as well as countless women across the internet documenting a week they spent living by the Plastics’ rules, which are as follows:

  1. You can’t wear tank tops two days in a row.
  2. You can only wear your hair in a ponytail once a week.
  3. You can only wear jeans or track pants on Fridays.

Don’t forget that hoop earrings are Regina’s thing, and you wouldn’t buy a skirt without asking your friends first if it looks good on you, right? And in the Plastics’ world, if you don’t follow the rules …

“YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!” – Gretchen Wieners 

The ultimate representation of girl-on-girl crime and bullying, Gretchen shouts this line at Regina when she walks up to the table wearing sweatpants on a Friday, which is against the rules of the Plastics. We’d bet that most people have jokingly shouted this line at someone, many without even knowing it’s from Mean Girls.

“On October 3rd, he asked me what day it was. It’s October 3rd.”

Thanks to this iconic line, October 3rd has unofficially become Mean Girls Day. Cady Heron is so into Aaron Samuels that she notes the exact day that he asked her what day it was, obviously making it one of the most important days of the year.

“She doesn’t even go here!” – Damian Leigh

One of the most well-known references in the film, Damian shouts this at an all-girls assembly wearing a hoodie and sunglasses in reference to a girl who doesn’t go to their school but won’t stop talking. The best part about this line? There are so many ways to integrate it into daily life:

Did someone give an opinion no one asked for? SHE DOESN’T EVEN GO HERE!

Is there a rando interrupting your conversation? SHE DOESN’T EVEN GO HERE!

Now, you try.

“That is so fetch!” – Gretchen Wieners

Even though Regina told Gretchen to “stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen!”, fetch did happen, despite the odds. Now it’s part of our vernacular, thanks to the film.

“Four for you, Glen Coco. You go Glen Coco! …And none for Gretchen Wieners.” – Damian Leigh

In the film, Damian, dressed as Santa, is handing out candy cane grams to students in class. Glen Coco receives four candy cane grams from someone, while Cady receives one from Regina and Gretchen receives none. This is part of the plan to take down the Plastics – and while Glen Coco has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, the delivery of this line has made him live in infamy.

Fun fact: Glen Coco was played by David Reale, who was uncredited in the film. Reale was not cast; he walked onto to the set to watch the filming and get free lunch. You go, David Reale!

“Get in, loser. We’re going shopping.” – Regina George

This iconic phrase has inspired endless memes. From dogs and llamas in cars (our favorites) to Dr. Who and the TARDIS to so many more. The possibilities for using this phrase are endless.

“Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries.” – Regina George

One of the most relatable quotes from the film for pretty much anyone, Regina declares this after she says she’s only eating foods with less than 30% calories from fat. We’ll take cheese fries over math any day.   

“I’m not like a regular mom. I’m a cool mom.” – Mrs. George, Regina’s mom

Regina’s mom says this line to Cady after the Plastics are invited to Regina’s house. A suburban housewife, Mrs. George tries to maintain her youth by wearing hip clothes, partaking in plastic surgery and offering to allow the girls to drink alcohol—if they do so in the house.

One of the most quoted phrases by moms of humans and pets alike, this line has cemented itself in modern culture. There are currently over 20,000 Instagram posts with the hashtag #ImNotaRegularMomImaCoolMom.

“It’s like I have ESPN or something.” – Karen Smith

This phrase is solely responsible for making ESPN grool. Karen, described as “one of the dumbest girls you’ll ever meet,” explains to Cady that she has a fifth sense. Mixing up the psychic ability ESP with the sports channel ESPN, this is one of the most obvious and ridiculous jokes, making it one of the most quotable phrases in the film.

“That’s why her hair is so big, it’s full of secrets.” – Damian Leigh

Used today by beauty influencers everywhere, this phrase is another brilliant line delivered by Damian. He uses it to describe Gretchen, whose dad invented the Toaster Strudel.

There you have it. Now that you’ve brushed up on the most fetch Mean Girls quotes, don’t forget to grab tickets for the show.

Silver Linings

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

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

Carmen. Photo by Rob Harris Productions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aida. Photo by Rob Harris Productions.

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

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

Arts Legacy REMIX

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

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

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

Fred Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

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

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

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

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

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

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

People answered.

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

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

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

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

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

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

The Two Best Reasons to See A Tuna Christmas Right Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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