Witch Way

Halloween lurks and looms. Witch means (see what we did there?) it’s time to take a look at some really great harpies, hags, conjurers and spellcasters from stage and screen. Here’s a Ten List since we had too much toil and trouble trying to figure out how to rank the best witchy stories and characters ever.

Into the Woods

Into the Woods
You thought we’d start with Wicked, didn’t you? Ah-ha! A trick!

This Sondheim favorite would fall apart without the machinations of Witch, who plays a pivotal role in the entire plot (as witches do). When Into the Woods—which is a wild adaptation of Grimm and Charles “Cinderella” Perrault fairy tales—opened on Broadway in 1987, guess who played Witch? (Answer at bottom).

 

macbeth meme

Macbeth
As noted, witches tend to co-opt a story, sending hapless protagonists straight to madness and/or death. Nobody does it better that The Weird Sisters, Shakespeare’s trio of heath-living hags, who show up smack-dab in the middle of Macbeth’s victory lap to plant some pretty poisonous prophecies in his soldier’s brain. If anything, these ladies teach us eye of newt is not to be trifled with. Not at all.

 

Wicked Elphaba

Wicked
Here we are! Wicked. The Wicked Witch of the West gets a name, a backstory, a psychology, a friend. What is not to love about this show? And the original Broadway cast? Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Joel Grey, Norbert Leo Butz. Fuggedaboutit. So here’s another trivia question … Norbert Leo Butz, who played Elphaba’s love interest Fiyero, later starred on what Netflix series set in the Florida Keys? (See below.)

 

Narnia White Witch

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
No matter whether this tale comes to life on the page, on the stage, in animation or on the big screen, children everywhere remember the shameful temptation of Turkish delight thanks to the frosty witch of this classic. The White Witch solidifies, literally, her glorious evil by freezing Mr. Tumnus and then we feel great about hating her for the rest of the story.

 

Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus
So, this colorful little film turned 25 this year and is seeing a well-deserved anniversary celebration. After years with cult status, coven status?, the film’s characters landed lead roles in Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom, putting them in league with Disney’s witches, the Who’s Who of pop culture witchery. The poorly-reviewed Sanderson Sisters in the movie—powered by a buck-toothed Bette Midler, rubber-faced Kathy Najimy, and ultra-curvy “straight man” Sarah Jessica Parker—get their revenge at last, which, like destroying the main characters’ lives, also seems to be the destiny of great witch characters.

 

Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz
When you have an army of flying monkeys in jaunty fezes and matching capes, you are next level wicked. When you set fire to a straw person whose only desire in life is to have a brain, you are the worst. And then you threaten a dog. This is so much evil we can’t write another word about it.

 

the crucible

The Crucible
Okay, back up. Even though the characters in the Arthur Miller classic about falsely accusing people of being witches so they get killed is technically about fictional fake witches, the point of the whole story is that real humans can be eaten by fears that turn them even more evil than someone who ignites a scarecrow-man. Leave it to Mr. Miller to use witches as deconstructed symbolism that are no fun at all.

 

hermioneHarry Potter and the NOUN of NOUN
Where to start, where to start … J.K. Rowling’s global takeover with this story repackaged witchcraft and wizardry that made not only magic cool as all get out but also—school. Witch school was the place everyone wanted to be, even the disgusting warped force of soul-splintered evil driving the main story arc. The question here is, who’s your favorite witch—McGonagall? Bellatrix? Fleur? Hermione? Ginny? Ginny was the best, right? Or Nymphadora? Too many choices.

 

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time
A very huge shout out to any story that successfully mixes quantum physics and witches. The universe and its mind-bending sub-atomic particle activity is in the capable metaphysical, zen-like hands of Mmes. Who, Whatsit and Which. Here we have a trinity of good witches marshalling a girl to heroic super-heights in negative space and it’s an interesting read. That in and of itself is powerful conjuring.

 

the craft

The Witches of Eastwick and The Craft
We said ten list, but here we have an Eleven List. Another trick! Ha-ha!

Truthfully, we again faced insurmountable indecision. If this Halloween-y blog was worth its salt, we’d have a Thirteen List, wouldn’t we? However, our last two screen covens represent the perennial attraction of witches but to different generations. Beautiful women, unlimited power. Cher on the one hand, Neve Campbell on the other. Even Jack Nicholson couldn’t survive in a world of Susan Sarandon’s magic (may be factual), but let’s face it: Michelle Pfeiffer has zero trouble casting a spell. Zero.

witches of eastwick

 

We’ve tricked you a few times in this blog, so how about a treat? Come see other famous witches when the Opera Tampa Singers perform The Witching Hour on Oct. 26 from 7-8 p.m. in the Jaeb Courtyard. It’s FREE!

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How’d you do with your trivia?
1. Bernadette Peters played Witch in the original Broadway Into the Woods.
2. Norbert Leo Butz starred in Bloodline as the flighty youngest brother Kevin Rayburn.
3. Treat! Our favorite Potter witch is Nymphadora. No, Hermione. We mean Ginny!

Someone Rapping at the Chamber Door

Caught in the Act catches up with Jobsite Theater during rehearsals of their next exciting production, Edgar and Emily.

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Katrina Stevenson and Paul Potenza star in Jobsite Theater’s production of Edgar and Emily. (Photo: Pritchard Photography)

Edgar as in Allan Poe. Emily as in Dickinson.

Yes, the granddaddy of Southern Gothic literature winds up in the bedroom of the emdash enthusiastic belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson. Confined to this space, made all the more close and macabre thanks to his own gently-used coffin that Poe must tote around as part of his pact for being rescued from death by an otherworldly specter, the two writers square off in a tete-a-tete that is truly a remarkable work of theater.

Emily Dickinson meme

Penned by Ohio-based playwright Joseph McDonough, Edgar and Emily is both an American Lit wonk’s fantasy and a nuanced, complex examination of two people famed for their obsession with death. Combining an expletive-free Mamet-esque repartee with elements of slapstick (sight gags galore), unexpected vulnerabilities and moments of old-school horror tactics worthy of Vincent Price, Edgar and Emily accomplishes much in a relatively short script. Expect to be taken on a fun house ride with this offering—there are creepy parts, funny parts, and, of course, a very subtle trip through the hall of mirrors where you see Dickinson and Poe as distorted reflections of the stories we’ve been told about them; you may see yourself reflected therein as well.

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Katrina “Kat” Stevenson plays Emily against Paul Potenza’s Edgar. David Jenkins directs. This trio began working together in Jobsite in 1999, lauded for their record-breaking 2001 production of Dracula. Stevenson, a diminutive, sharp-eyed redhead, taught English for three years and, as Potenza notes admiringly, comes by her poetic delivery naturally. To prepare for the role, she immersed herself in Dickinson’s poems, reading hundreds of them to absorb the language, to glean what she could to deliver what she feels like is an honest portrayal of a giant in American literature about whom very little is known. Potenza traveled to Poe’s home in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx via a trip to Yankee Stadium. He stood in the rooms where the bedeviled genius worked and lived, himself absorbing something of the writer’s real life to bring to the role. Jenkins sent him a list of Poe’s physicalities based on accounts of Poe at the time (no such list exists for Dickinson who was famously reclusive), and over the course of rehearsals, Potenza has morphed into the writer who changed our notion of ravens forever.

Last week, Caught in the Act joined David, Kat and Paul at the top of rehearsal to chat about the play and bringing these literary figures to life. To hear them talk about the play, their process and the challenges and surprises along the way, listen to Rapping at the Chamber Door on our podcast, Act2.

Edgar and Emily opens Oct. 12 in the Shimberg Playhouse with previews Oct. 10 and 11.

Epic Theater Fails

Our new Broadway season opens in two weeks with the side-splitting comedy The Play That Goes Wrong. To celebrate, we found this collection of Broadway and musical theater blooper reels.

Crying.

We were crying by the time we picked out this video mash-up of Broadway mishaps for your viewing pleasure for the Straz Center blog this week. As you know, our Bank of America Broadway at The Straz season launches Oct. 16 when The Play That Goes Wrong opens in Morsani Hall. As you may not know, The Play That Goes Wrong is about a show that goes completely off the rails … well, it never starts on the rails; the wheels fall off before the curtain rises. Trust us—the show is howlingly funny in that it’s nonstop physical humor that indulges in gag-after-gag of the greatest actor’s nightmare: forgotten lines, breaking props. Oh, and a lead who’s been accidentally knocked unconscious.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The Play That Goes Wrong National Tour. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

A scene, a show, a line—these things can go sideways in live theater. Perhaps you’ve been in the audience when Dracula, grappling with townsfolk, accidentally rolled too far and tumbled over the proscenium into the orchestra pit (we saw this once). Or maybe you were there that fateful night in 2005 when a 97-pound Kristin Chenoweth didn’t know she was supposed to take only a half-Vicodin for her injured vertebrae, took a whole one, and arrived as Glinda in Wicked feeling like a reeeeeeeeeeeeally good witch. Too bad her tongue and face muscles weren’t cooperating with her brain although she notes that some fans regard that show as her best.

Things happen. People fall down. Props break or don’t get put on stage at all. Wardrobes malfunction. People fall down. Actors “go up;” i.e. blank on their lines. People fall down. Sometimes actors miss cues and don’t arrive onstage—at all. What’s left to do when the horrifying prospect of something going wrong becomes reality? Well, laugh. And, honestly, why is people falling so funny? Why?

Here’s a short video of productions from Broadway to middle school that captures the precisely hilarious moments when the plays go wrong.

Not theater but still funny: Sometimes You Sneeze into Your Trombone

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).

preshow shave & eyebrows

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.

Confessions of a Costumer

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. This week, we sat down with Straz Center costumer Camille McClellan, who costumes dance and musical theater productions for the Patel Conservatory, to find out the story.

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Camille working in the costume shop.

Caught in the Act: What does it meant to be a costumer in the performing arts?

Camille: Well, it’s a lot more than just sewing. When you start off on a production, the team gets together and we talk about concept and we talk about, you know, is this a period piece, is it not a period piece? Was it written as a period piece but we’re putting it in modern times? Are they humans that you’re dressing? Is it animals?

Also, budgets are a big thing that most of us don’t think about. We think, oh this is a wonderful creative job, and it is, but you have to do all the administrative stuff, too, and stay within that budget, keeping in mind what you’re spending and what you’ve got to spend.

There is that administrative bit as well as once you start getting into the actual production of the show. You have to decide whether or not you’ve got things in stock that you can use—what you’re going to have to create brand new or what you can repurpose. For instance, we got a bunch of evening dresses donated that just happened to land in the costume shop about six weeks before we were doing Hello, Dolly! So, we took those dresses and repurposed a lot of them for the Harmonia Gardens scene when the ladies are all dressed up and guys are in tailcoats and that sort of thing. If you’re making something brand new, you sit down at the drawing board and do some sketches, and renderings, and then show that to the director to see if that’s what they’re really looking for.

Pretty much any regional theater, or community theater, or academic theater like at Patel, you’re going to be pulling your costumes from all sorts of sources as well as producing some of them.

Glenda Wizard of OZ Patel 2018

Costume for Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.

CITA: So, are you custom making some costumes to fit the Patel kids?

CMc: Some. Yes. For instance, for The Wizard of Oz, I didn’t have a lot of places to pull child-size lead costumes. Or even teenage-size for Glinda, the Lion, the Tin Man, Scarecrow. Usually those are full-sized adults in that show so we had to do a lot of creating. Same thing with Aristocats. It was all children. Third through eighth grade. A lot of that show had to be produced because of the size of the actor. When you’re creating something new, you have to think about making the costumes very alterable so that the next time you need them, you’ve got some length that you can add to them, or you can let a hem down, or side seams that are a little bit bigger and that can be let out so that it can be changed. Typically, you can change the size of a garment by three sizes up or down, and that’s what you need in a theater situation, especially when you’re building stock so that you can use those resources again. You’ve spent money on them. You want to be able to repurpose that, and then repurpose what you’ve repurposed. Or use it on a different-sized cast.

CITA: When people read this blog, we want them to know how much effort and how much labor goes into the costumes that they see in dance and theater. It’s not that a truck rolls up with a pre-packaged show that unloads the sets and costumes, and you’re just darning and altering to fit the size of the students that we have. It’s mostly you working in the costume shop with helpers, right? So when people come and see a Patel show or a Patel ballet performance, they’re looking at original work that’s coming from you in our costume shop.

CMc: It is. For the most part, 80% of the time, yes. There are times that some costumes are rented, and then we have to fit and get those on the stage. A great effort is made to make it look cohesive. But mostly it’s us. For Aristocats, we pretty much built or bought everything. We had to build 34 tails … so then that meant 68 ears. There was a two-week period where that’s all we were doing were building ears and tails.

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CITA: How did you get into this career. Did you know that you wanted to be a costumer in a theater? Did you go to school to study it?

CMc: I did, but it started off when I was six-years-old, and I went to elementary school on a college campus. They had a sliding opera department, this college did. And they needed children to populate the village scenes of the opera. It was for Hansel and Gretel, and they needed kids to be the gingerbread men. And I auditioned. I was on stage for eight years before I ever did anything costuming-wise. But also, at six-years-old, for four generations in my family, you learned how to sew. Both my children know how to sew and were taught at six.

I was raised to sew couture style. Beautifully finished inside and out … you should be able to walk down the street with your garment inside out and nobody knows it because it’s so beautifully finished. I spent many a day at my mother’s elbow just watching her and sewing.

CITA: Was your mom a seamstress?

CMc: No. She was a mom and a secretary. And her mother taught her. My grandmother lived just across the road; she basically took me in one summer and every day we sewed. Both my father’s side of the family and my mother’s side, women at one point or another made their living sewing. Most of it was taking in alterations and things like that in their home. So, the transition for me from being on stage to being a costumer kind of just naturally happened. I went to college for theater and my sophomore year, one of the directors realized that I knew how to sew and asked me if I wanted to design a show. And I said, “Sure.”

CITA: What show was it?

CMc: An opera. Monetti’s sci-fi operetta Help, Help, the Globolinks! We had to come up with aliens. But it was fun. You know, it was like oh my gosh, this is so much fun.

CITA: That put you on the path to become a costumer, and then did you get a degree in costume design?

CMc: Yes. Yeah.

Acteon original design Patel YAGP 2016-17

An original design and construction Camille created for a Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition.

CITA: Then how did you end up in Tampa at the Patel Conservatory?

CMc: Well, I grew up in Alabama. Met my husband at the university there in my home town. He did his graduate work in Dallas, and I moved out there and did some theater work, some costuming, but for the most part since he was in graduate school worked a regular job and kept life going there.

Dallas is important because I got hired to do some finishing work at the Dallas Ballet. They were finishing up Swan Lake, and because I knew how to tailor, I was finishing the men’s costumes for them, the jackets, the decoration of it, the fit of it, that sort of thing.

Then I was hired on for the rest of the season—and that is where I learned how to make a tutu. The woman who taught me how to make tutus was 68 at the time. She had been a professional dancer at The Royal Ballet in London, and then had moved into costuming after that.

I was the first person she ever taught. It’s a guilded craft; you can’t really go to school to learn to make tutus. There are a lot of workshops that are offered out there, but I don’t really think you can learn to make the tutus that I make in a weekend workshop. Just as I learned how to sew from an expert, I learned how to make a tutu from an expert.

And it was a gift, both were gifts to me. If I hadn’t been in Dallas at that moment, I probably would have never learned how to make a tutu. And I’m fascinated by dance. The Dallas Ballet was the first place that I worked specifically with dance. Fabrics are very fascinating to me—how they move. In dance, that is the most important thing, choosing the right fabric, and if it’s going have hang time when they leap; if it’s going ripple and do what you want it to do, that kind of thing.

But, when you build a tutu, it is construction. It’s like building a house. If you get the gathers too heavy on one hip, it can take a girl off her point when she does a turn. You know, it’s just net. You wouldn’t think that it’s heavy, but if it’s not, if things aren’t evenly distributed, she will lose her balance.

Circus Polka cast photo w me and Philip Patel 2017

Camille pictured with Philip Neal and our Patel Conservatory ballet dancers who performed in Circus Polka, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Often in ballet, the costumer is required to follow guidelines that detail how the costumes must look in order to present the ballet. If the shade, value and tone of the three colors weren’t right the piece could have been pulled from our repertoire.

CITA: How did you get from Dallas to the Patel?

CMc: Well, Miami City Ballet opened in 1988 I think. They didn’t have a tutu maker, and they were starting off from scratch. They had no stock. At the beginning of the second year, they actually called the woman who taught me how to make tutus to see if she would move to Miami to be their tutu maker, and she wasn’t interested. She sent me. From Miami we moved back up to Lakeland where my husband is from, started a family. I did the Gasparilla Ballet as a one project deal that was performed in Ferguson. That director suggested me to Peter Stark [former director of Next Generation Ballet at the Patel Conservatory] who was looking for a wardrobe manager for Nutcracker. Peter brought me on, and that was about seven, eight years ago.

CITA: If there’s a child out there, somebody reading this and saying, “I really want to be a costumer but I didn’t think I would be able to make enough money or I don’t know how to do it,” what advice would you give to that person?

CMc: You do have to have the right training. You do have to know that it is hard work. It’s long hours. But anything in theater is. It’s unusual hours. You can’t go into it because you want to make a million dollars, because you’re probably not going to. For the most part, you do it because you’re driven, because you’re passionate about it, because it really makes you happy.

To go about getting into it, you do need some education. Then you need to start seeking out opportunities to just help out in the costume shop and learn, learn, learn. From there you might get to be an assistant designer on something, or you might work in a big shop, maybe working for a designer that does the five main stage shows, and there might be an opportunity to a second stage show eventually. You also need to have some sort of drawing skills.

Pan shadow

Camille and her team built 12 of these shadows for Peter Pan. They flew the children and Pan, and moved set pieces as well as were up to general mischief during the show.

CITA: In your years of being at the Patel, do you have some favorite productions?

CMc: You know, people ask me, ‘What’s your favorite show,” or, “What’s your favorite setup for costumes.” I always want to say “the next.” But, that’s kind of a canned answer. I’m pretty much always excited by the next challenge. I’m really proud of the shows that I’ve done this last season.

With Nutcracker, there’s 350 costumes to put on these people. Even though that is basically a standard set of costumes, every year we’ve changed something. Every year we’ve added something.

For Peter Pan, we didn’t have a fly system, so we could not fly the actors typically like they are in other theaters. The director came up with the idea of having people fly them. Then the idea came up the people who are flying them should be dressed as Pan’s shadows. So, you know, that becomes an exciting thing. And how exciting for me as a costumer to get to go, “Oh, okay. Well we can do this.” And it turned out really great. But then also in that same show, we had a crocodile and a dog. You know? So that’s more sculpture than it is sewing. As a costumer, you have to figure out how to address that costume need and still make it functional for the actor to do what she or he needs to do.

Beginning of Croc PeterPan at Patel 2018

Beginning stage of creating the crocodile’s head for Peter Pan.

Crock head

Finished crocodile head for Peter Pan.

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Crocodile’s body for Peter Pan.

CITA: Camille, we want to wrap up with some quickie questions. First: what happens if a costume breaks on stage, or there’s a costume malfunction? Are you there to fix it or is this something that the actors are just going to have to figure out and the show must go on?

CMc: Okay. Well, the show must go on, and that truly is a realism in theater. There’s always somebody backstage that’s got safety pins nearby, that’s got a needle or two threaded. I have had to sew somebody into a costume in between a scene because a zipper broke. They’re usually moving when we’re having to do this because they need to be back onstage. I’m like, “Okay, two more stitches, two more stitches. How much time have you got? How much time have you got?” I’m like, ‘In two more stitches. All right. Knotting it off, knotting it off. All right. Go!” And then they run out onstage.

It’s quite fun back there. I love live theater, and this is why I love live theater. It’s never the same show. Always something is happening. Always something wonderful happens. Always something interesting happens backstage or on the stage. I have offered board members or directors, or even civilians, just come backstage and just watch. Just stand there and watch. You don’t have to help. Just see what happens.

CITA: Quickie question number two. So you are sewing moving people. You’re around a lot of machines with fast moving needles, and you’re just around a lot of needles all the time. How often do you get hurt on the job?

CMc: Well … I mean there’s “hurt” and there’s hurt. The worst thing that has happened is, and it was because it was a long day, a long night, it was way too late. I was working on an industry suture, and I let it veer off track. It ended up running over a steel bone in a bodice, and that machine just basically exploded. Oil went everywhere. I mean needles flew, steel bones flew. Luckily, I had goggles on. That happened about 20 years ago, so I’ve learned past a certain time you really do have to stop working and go home and get some sleep.

And I sort of jest, but I don’t. I get my tetanus shot on a regular basis because you are sticking yourself with a needle all the time or a pin. I wear glasses now, so if a needle breaks on a machine and it goes flying I have had one hit the glass of my glasses and nick it.

CITA: Which sounds like a lot of people’s worst nightmare. Rogue needles flying at eyes.

CMc: Yeah. And we use very sharp little scissors—I call them snippy scissors—to cut threads, or to take something apart. I’ve cut little Vs in my finger before because I was trying to get at something so close and I’m pressing from the back with the other finger. Accidents happen.

CITA: People need to know in the world of costume and theater, when we say blood, sweat, and tears, it is literal.

CMc: It is.

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Camille, left, with one of our summer apprentices, Katie Richards, in the costume shop.

CITA: Now the last question: If somebody from the public wants to come tour the costume shop, can they do that?

CMc: They can for the most part. But, you know, if there are six of us in there and our heads are all down in the sewing machines, it may be two days before we open on something … and we may not be as welcoming as other times. You know?

CITA: That’s such a kind way to put it. Yes.

CMc: But almost always we’re thrilled to share the shop with people and let them see what’s there. We do ask that they try not to touch a lot of things because for instance, with the Nutcracker costumes, that’s literally a multi-million-dollar set of costumes. Most of the things are made out of silk. And I don’t know what your hand has touched just previously, but I don’t want you to touch my silk dress. “Touch with your eyes. You’re welcome to look.” But yeah, we love for people to be able to see our work and come in and ask questions. We’re proud of the beautiful things that we get to work on and create. We like to share that. We do everything with love for the viewing public.

Tools of the Trade: Theater

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on theater.

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Orange Stick

Nope, not for fingernails—for eyelashes. False ones, that is. False eyelashes make the eyes pop, so many actors apply a pair before hitting the stage so the audience can better “read” the performance. However, if you’ve never put on a pair, these difficult-to-hold benign spikes glued upon the lash line require the hands of a surgeon and the patience of a rock. Orange sticks, typically used to push back cuticles in a manicure, aid and abet an actor needing help fitting the lash precisely to the curve of the eye.

 

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Gaff Tape

Ask a theater person—whether that pro is an actor, stage manager, theater owner or lighting tech—and she will tell you the go-to catch-all for any theater need is gaff tape. Originally used to tape or “gaff” lighting cables to the floor to avoid tripping over them, gaff tape proved to be useful for almost everything. Need a quick repair to a ripped costume hem? How about putting part of the set together? What to do about making a hat band, fixing a broken prop? Gaff tape. All of it. Just gaff tape. Everywhere.

 

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Milk of Magnesia

Theater lights emit a lot of heat. So, even though you may always bring a sweater for a show, the actors are hammering their parts underneath rows of high-energy lights that create a giant French fry warmer. The key to minimizing face sweat is to apply a thin layer of Milk of Magnesia before donning show makeup. The MOM dries, creating a tight mask that keeps the sweat down and adds the bonus of preventing makeup from flaking.

 

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Pencils, Erasers, Highlighters, Pens and Throat Coat

The actor’s toolbox somewhat resembles the back-to-school supply list for winter term. Acting and putting on a show require so much preparation, and almost all professionals keep notes, mark scripts, highlight their lines or tech needs and copy out their lines to help with memorization. When performers go “off book,” or start to deliver their lines without using the script, rehearsals kick into high gear. Voices must be protected; after all, an actor with laryngitis is very bad for business. Enter Throat Coat. This herbal concoction of primarily licorice and slippery elm bark soothes the voice with something akin to a loving embrace of the esophagus.