I Have Reptiles to Thank for It

A Straz Center exclusive interview with National Geographic LIVE! wildlife photographer Shannon Wild.

On Jan. 21, our popular National Geographic LIVE! speaker series kicks-off with Australian-born photographer Shannon Wild. Caught in the Act writer Marlowe Moore caught up with Shannon via phone at her home in Africa, where Shannon is currently working on a documentary about one of the only white lions left in the wild. Her documentary on that cat’s cousin, Pursuit of the Black Panther, inspired the lecture she’ll give here next Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Ferguson Hall.

Shannon Wild

Here, Marlowe chats with Shannon about a shared love of all things reptile, animals and the ups and downs of her toothy but charmed career choice.

Marlowe Moore: I’m super pumped up to talk with you because we have a couple of things in common, and one is that we have a shared love and appreciation for reptiles. I very rarely come across another woman who is totally out of her mind in love with reptiles. Can we start talking about how you grew up and how did you realize you were in love with reptiles? What were your introductory reptiles?

Shannon Wild: I don’t know exactly where the love of reptiles came from. It’s always been there. It definitely didn’t come from my parents. [laughs] They don’t share the same love … They tolerated it as I was growing up. I guess I found reptiles fascinating. Being in Australia, there’s a lot of varieties, so maybe that has something to do with it as well.

I remember rescuing a blue-tongued lizard. I think I was maybe eight years old. That was my first attempt at reptile rehabilitation, which I went on to do years later as a volunteer in Australia. Reptiles got me interested in photography in the first place because I had pet reptiles. I had snakes and lizards and all sorts of things. I just started taking pictures of them for myself, then it led to the next thing of shooting for other people and magazines.

Then I thought, “Hmm, I could take this seriously.” I enjoyed it even more than what I was doing at the time, which was working as a graphic designer. Photography was a way I could combine my love of animals with my creative side, to combine them into one sort of show. It evolved into a career. It took a long time—especially to get to the point of earning any kind of living out of it. I definitely have reptiles to thank for it. That’s for sure.

MM: I feel 100% certain that’s what I’m going to title this interview: “I Have Reptiles to Thank for It.”

SW [laughing]: It’s so true … I like them so much.

MM: So do I. I just want to hug them all the time.

SW: Oh my God. I never meet people that feel the same way. It’s hilarious.

MM: I actually lived in Australia for a while, attending uni in Wollongong for my study abroad.

SW: Oh, that’s where my father lives actually.

MM: In Wollongong?

SW: Yeah.

MM: Wow! That is crazy. Did you grow up there?

SW: Small world.

MM: Right?

SW:  I have a bit of a complicated family history. I’m actually adopted. Later, I found my biological parents. It’s my biological father who lives in Wollongong, whereas I grew up in Queensland.

MM: Did you grow up around Brisbane?

SW: Yeah, I grew up on the Gold Coast. Then moved west. My dad was a farmer, so we ended up back out west on the land. Once I was old enough and graduated from high school, I moved to Brisbane for a while, nearly a decade. Then I was in Melbourne for about four years. Then sold everything I owned, and up and moved to Africa on a whim.

MM: I love that part of your story so much. It’s the dream of many of us, yet you actually did it. It’s exciting. So, you pack up, you leave Australia, you move to Africa. What’s your end game here?

SW: I mean, honestly, if there was any logic to it, I would not have done it. I’m usually a very analytical, careful person … but I don’t know. Everything fell into place. I was at a point where I was very restless where I was career-wise. I was already looking for opportunities to work and move overseas.

Then a few things happened that opened up that I go into in my talk. I threw caution to the wind and ended up in Africa. It’s an interesting and funny story, but it’s something that I go into in the talk. It’s how I met my now husband, and it’s quite funny.

MM: Well, we won’t spoil anything in this interview. People will just have to come see the show if they want to know how it turned out for you in Africa.

SW: Yes. The story has everything. There’s reptiles. There’s moving to Africa …

MM: We’re excited. You’ll find that Tampa such a receptive audience. They’re just going to love you.

SW: That’s great!

MM: So, I’m was looking through your social, and there’s a photo of you and a king cobra. Can you talk a little bit about that moment, or is that going to be in the talk, too?

SW: No. Is that where I was probably laying down and it sort of went up and flared its hood?

MM:  Yes.

SW: Okay, so it was actually an Egyptian cobra, and it’s here in South Africa where I am at the moment. I realize people are out there probably like, “This woman is crazy.” But, I know my gear and I know the animal. I’m used to interpreting body language. I know the strike distance.

Egyptian Cobra. Photo by Shannon Wild

The image depends on the angle of the camera. It might look really close, but I’ll go within a safe distance, and I have a lot of experience knowing where to be. I have myself positioned at a nice, safe distance, but I wanted that shot of where it’s hooding. One of the things with animal photography is you have to get down low. As low as possible. Hence, the reason I’m lying on the ground. It looks like I probably couldn’t get away very quickly, but I know it’s a safe working distance.

Also, I have to be careful because they’re one of the spitting cobras, so if you annoy it enough, it will try to spray the venom in your eye. This one was somewhat relaxed. It got to the point where it obviously showed who was boss and did the nice flare out of that hood, which is the shot that I wanted to get. It’s a beautiful snake. I get so excited, but most people are like “Why?” “You’re crazy.” [laughs]

MM: I know. It’s so hard to articulate the love of snakes, the magic of what it feels like to be around them.

SW: Oh, yes.

MM: What are some of your favorite snakes? Or not even just snakes, but what are the animals that you just like to be around?

SW: Reptiles definitely always take the top position … My favorite out of all reptiles is the monitor species, so obviously the Komodo dragon. Seeing them in the wild is the pinnacle. I’ve been able to photograph Komodos a couple of times now, which is amazing. They’re just so massive and strong, but they’re also so incredibly confident in their own ability. It’s like, eh. They don’t care. They know that they can mess you up if they really want to.

But, they also are so chill. It’s really an interesting kind of contrast. I think maybe the thing that people can’t wrap their heads around is that because they don’t really understand the body language of a reptile, they just assume that it’s trying to get them. Whereas those of us who have experience with reptiles and observe them enough are able to interpret those little bits of body language that are more subtle than, say, mammals. Then we can predict the animal’s next move—usually.

We know if it’s uncomfortable or angry, or if it’s sort of relaxed, so we can act accordingly.

In terms of other animals I like to be around, oh my goodness. There have been so many incredible experiences, it’s hard to pull out a species, but, I mean, leopards are definitely up there. They’re stunning, but they’re very unpredictable as well—very dominant and strong.

The leopard is one of the most interesting cats because it’s so unpredictable. We have a saying here in Africa, the only predictable thing about leopards is their unpredictability. That’s it. You don’t mess with a leopard. I will walk where there are wild lions, but you do not want to surprise or corner a leopard. They say over here ‘it’s a hundred stitches a second.’ If you get attacked, I mean, oh my goodness. It’s all over. They’re insane. I have a lot of respect for them.

MM: I have a friend here who had a big cat sanctuary, so I was able to spend some time with his big cats, a tiger and some cougars. He knows a lot about leopard behaviors, but in captivity. I’m laughing as you’re saying all this because when we go and visit sanctuaries that have some of the big cats, whenever there’s a leopard, he’s just like, “Leopards are crazy, leopards are crazy.” But with the utmost respect.

SW: [laughing] Yes. It’s so true. We say the same thing. They literally are out of their minds crazy. I don’t know what it is that sets them apart from other cats because lions are so much bigger, but honestly if I didn’t have the safety of a vehicle, I would much rather stumble across a lion, which I have done on foot. 90% of the time they’ll run away. They’re like, “I’m out.”

Whereas with a leopard, it’s over before you realize what came out of the bushes. Thankfully, I was in a vehicle the whole time in India [photographing leopards], and we weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicle, which in Africa you can be in a lot of cases. I have a lot of experience filming on the ground. In India, it’s also a forest full of tigers. You’ve got tigers and leopards. You don’t want to get out of the vehicle.

MM: Just keep your hands and feet in the vehicle at all times.

SW: No sudden movements.

MM: Do not turn your back. [laughing] Shannon, will you talk a little bit about your life. It’s really cool. You’re doing it. You’re living the dream. You’ve been honest in your other interviews and on your YouTube videos about how hard it is. Just the grind that it takes to be able to have the life that you have … What inspires you to keep going because you’re facing a lot of circumstances where it would be easy to give up. What is it that keeps you out there?

SW: The passion for the animal. For me, when I’m out long term in the field, you don’t have basic amenities a lot of the time. You certainly don’t have luxuries. I’m a bit of a type-A person. I like to have things just so. It’s a real contrast to me to have to go out into the wild.

Shannon Wild with elephant

It was a real shift of mindset for me that I learned as I went. Honestly, I come back purely because of the passion for the wildlife, the happiness and contentment I feel when I’m out there in their presence regardless of how hard the conditions are. I’ve been shooting for 16 years, and I have so many situations where I could have given up, or I probably should have given up.

But, honestly, I feel like I’m so lucky that I get to do this job. It’s something I dreamed about doing, but somewhere in the back of my mind. It was too far away of a dream to actually acknowledge, the kind of dream you don’t even say out loud because it would never happen.

I’m so appreciative today. I feel like if I list all the troubles and challenges that I’ve had along the way, I’d sound like I was complaining, but there have been highs and lows. It’s a bumpy road. Two of my main challenges in the last kind of six years I go into in the talk. One is my cheetah attack, which I’m sure you’ve seen online.

MM: I did. We’ll save this conversation, too, so people have to come to see you if they want to find out about your cheetah attack.

SW: Yes, I tell you all about it. All the places I messed up. Why it happened.

MM: Did you at least end up with some really cool scars?

SW: I do. It’s been six years, and I still definitely have very visual scars, so if we per chance get to meet face to face, I can show you those. I’ve got clear bite-puncture wounds of the canines and stuff. It’s in an arc around my arm, but it’s healed surprisingly well because for the first two years, I had a very distinct arc indent where the mouth crushed my bicep. I was laughing the whole time—I was so embarrassed. You don’t understand. I knew how badly I’d messed up. If I get embarrassed, I get nervous, so I focus on making sure everyone else is super comfortable. I’m like, “It’s fine, it’s fine.” I just messed up so badly, but it’s healed pretty well, considering.

MM: Six years later, it’s totally cool. You have a totally cool cheetah scar.

SW: I don’t mind scars at all. They make great stories. I don’t know how much of a deep dive you’ve done into my social, but I also managed to break my back while I was out filming in India. I talk about that a little bit in the lecture, too. I just don’t go into a huge amount of detail because the lecture is about the actual panther and trying to create this documentary.

MM:  Oh my gosh, no. I didn’t come across the fact that you’d broken your back.

SW: I’m trying not to give it away, so people can be really surprised. There were a few challenges that went with trying to make this documentary [Pursuit of the Black Panther]. Not the least of which is that we’re trying to follow one very elusive animal in a massive forest that’s really dense. That was hard enough, but then there were definitely a few things along the way that made it, oh my goodness; I want to say one of the hardest films I’ve ever done, but what I’m working on at the moment is proving to be even more difficult. Oh my God. Why? Why do I do this? I don’t know.

MM: Can you talk a little bit about this new film, or is it classified information?

SW: No, no. It’s definitely not classified. We keep picking very difficult subjects. Our current project, this is my husband and I, we basically find the stories and pitch those. That’s what we did with the black panther. That’s what we’ve done with our current one for National Geographic, which is on white lions here in Kruger National Park. Like the black panther, there’s an abundance of them in captivity or in situations where they’re bred, but to appear naturally in the wild, there is only three in existence—ever.

They’re in our part of the world, so we’re trying to film them, but oh my Lord, it’s very difficult because one is an adult and he’s just … he’s old enough that he’s broken away from his pride and he’s trying to find his way, which means he has no set territory. We’re hoping that he settles down soon, but he’s crossing countries. Kruger’s right on the border of Mozambique, so he’s spending time in South Africa, then he just pops over into Mozambique. Then he comes back. There’s no collar, no tagging, so we have no idea where he’s going, when he’s going. Just the logistics of trying to find him and film the documentary with limited budget … we can’t be out in the field waiting on him.

This one particular lion is just … he’s all over the place.

MM: How do you find out where he is? Is there a phone tree where somebody’s like, “I just saw him, get up here to Mozambique,” or somebody is like, “Hey, I just saw him down here in South Africa.” How are you keeping up with his movements?

SW: We’re using a lot of methods. We have contact with different lodges in the area that have certain access to different sections of Kruger. If he comes into that range and they have a sighting, they’ll let us know. Then it’s a matter of if we can get out quick enough before he’s left … There’s only a certain amount that we can film in Kruger National Park itself because it’s different permits and la-de-da. Then if he goes into Mozambique, we can’t do anything about that because we don’t have filming permits for a different country. It’s proving a bit more difficult than the black panther.

MM: Oh, man.

SW: The white lion is a very interesting animal, that’s for sure. Then the other two white lions are some cubs who popped up, which was very lucky because when we first pitched the idea to National Geographic and got it green-lit, there was only that one adult male.

We were basically like the panther trying to make a whole documentary around this one animal. Whereas, now with a couple of cubs in the mix, we have a bit more flexibility of telling a full-on story of different life stages of such a unique cat. It’s pretty exciting. Very challenging. We keep picking difficult subjects. We need to pick something easy … We only have ourselves to blame.

Shannon Wild filming in South Africa

MM: Right. Next time you’ll have to do pigeons in Central Park or something.

SW: [laughs] Where’s the fun in that?

MM: So, where do you go for vacation? What do you do on your time off? Do you have time off? Maybe that should be the first question.

SW: Not really. I mean, I’m freelance, so there’s no regularity. I’m constantly looking for the next job. Also, I’m very much trying to diversify, so that there’s some sort of regular income coming in because being a photographer is such a difficult way to earn a living. There’s definitely no financial stability. Even when we have a long-term project. Nobody gets into this industry for the money, that’s for sure. Also, it’s taken me so long to get to this point where I feel like I’m starting to make something of it after 16 years.

It’s been such a hard job to get here that I can’t switch off anymore. If I technically had time to take off, I can’t not do something or work. Feel like I’m doing something that contributes to some kind of stability in the future. It’s something I need to work on a little bit because my husband’s always like, “Shannon, you’re a wreck.” “Calm down.” “Stop it.” But, that’s a bit hypocritical of him because he doesn’t stop either, so he can’t really tell me that. We’re as bad as each other.

MM: Right, so it’s kind of like an ‘I’ll stop when you stop’ situation?

SW: Yeah. I can’t relax. I can’t sit still and not do anything. I have to be doing something productive.

I used to like everything just so, and now if I’m in a situation where I’m in one place for too long, I’ll find myself getting restless. All the experience over the last few years has really rubbed off and changed a part of my innate personality because I literally … I think I’d drive myself nuts if I had to be in one place for a long amount of time.

MM: You do a lot of work. We noticed you’re predominantly terrestrial. Would you ever think about underwater photography?

SW: I actually really love it. In April last year, I went to Fiji and spent a bit of time in the water, and did a little bit of filming, did some shots diving. It reminded me how much I really love the water because I’d been on land for so long. I work in a lot of land-locked countries, but I really want to do more underwater.

MM: Well, look Shannon, I’d love to keep you on the phone all afternoon, but we know that you have an upcoming call.

SW: Yes, I have my first live rehearsal with Nat Geo that I am doing it from memory.

MM: This will be the talk that you’re bringing here?

SW: Yes, so as of yesterday I’ve been able to do it from memory. Today’s my first time doing it live to the Nat Geo offices.

MM:  No pressure.

SW: [laughs]  I’m terrified.

MM: You’ll totally crush it.

SW: I hope so. You’ll find out.

MM:    We’ll find out January 21st. We cannot wait to see you.

SW: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I’m super excited. I wish I was going to Florida for longer. I have to see the Everglades.

MM: If you ever want to come to the Everglades, I’ll hook you up with all the awesome stuff. Alligator courtship season starts soon, so this time of year is the best time to be down there.

SW: 100%. It’s on my very long bucket list.

MM: Done. All right. Well, good luck with Nat Geo. We’ll see you next week.

SW: Thank you.

Black Panther in India

Want tickets to Shannon Wild’s presentation Pursuit of the Black Panther? We got ‘em.

Talking With: Nick Offerman

You probably know him as Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation and as a sublimely convincing Dick McDonald in The Founder opposite Michael Keaton. Nick Offerman can also make a super fine cedar-strip canoe by hand out of his woodshop in east L.A., which you may not have known. He also co-wrote the book The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History with wife, actress Megan Mullally.

How did you get started in the business?

As a teen, I read the Gospel selections at Catholic mass in my local church. It was in the pulpit that I first noticed the efficacy of a deadpan delivery, and I was driven to entertain an even larger congregation, so I went to theatre school at the University of Illinois, formed a theatre company in Chicago with my fellow mountebanks (The Defiant Theatre), and rode my stage work to Los Angeles, where I have slowly but surely cultivated a string of jobs that allow me to continue in my pursuit of tickling audiences.

What’s always in your refrigerator?

Locally-sourced, properly-pastured meat.

What’s your worst quality?

I’m a workaholic … [and] I am extremely lucky to work at jobs that I love. So I have the bad habit of jamming my calendar full of said employment, rather than spending enough time strolling through the woods with my loved ones.

What music is on your playlist?

Nancy And Beth, Wilco, Laurie Anderson, Matt The Electrician, The Milk Carton Kids, The Decemberists, Neil Young, Nick Cave, Randy Newman, Tom Waits

Read any good books lately?

I love [reading] more than any other art form. I just re-read Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. Also The Library Book by Susan Orlean, How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

Cat person or dog person?

Dogs, decidedly. I grew up with dogs and cats, and I love all animals deeply, as I am a talented scratcher, but our dogs make our lives substantially more beautiful at home with my bride.

What’s your “guilty pleasure” television show?

My wife and I indulge in The Bachelor franchise. The fast food of TV – scientifically engineered to be immediately flavorsome, but ultimately delivering only a stomach ache.

Who or what inspires you?

My wife inspires me without ceasing. She is the most talented person I have met, and yet she also works harder at her craft than anybody else, which serves as a driving force whenever I apply myself to a project. I am also massively inspired by the writing of Wendell Berry and his perspective on the actions of humanity. If his words were required reading, our climate would be much more comfortable and our food would be much healthier and delicious.

What are your thoughts about our great state of Florida?

I have not seen enough of the paradisiacal parts to satisfy the Jimmy Buffett in me, but I have greatly enjoyed the flavors of Miami, as well as the more rural areas where the people remind me of folks I grew up with in the Illinois farmland. My favorite books about Florida are The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and Oranges by John McPhee.

What do you consider your greatest successes – personally and professionally?

Personally, I feel like I am so far making my parents proud by taking the values and work ethic which they imparted on me and crafting a fruitful life in which I’m able to deliver some entertainment to folks while I have not been convicted of any felonies. Professionally, my favorite “rating” to achieve is when I learn that I have helped inspire anyone to make things with her/his hands.

Nick Offerman: All Rise comes to the Straz Center Saturday, December 7 at 7 pm.

We Come from the Land of the Ice and Snow

National Geographic photographer Florian Schulz arrives with stunning images of his love affair with the Arctic.

As you know, we here at Caught in the Act usually bring you life-changing interviews with the speakers in our Nat Geo LIVE! series each season. But, these are busy people traversing the globe in herculean efforts to get humans to love our planet so much we work extra hard to keep it clean and safe.

This month, German photojournalist Florian Schulz arrives to kick off this Nat Geo season with his mind-blowing images of the rapidly-changing world of the Arctic.

A polar bear patrols the sea ice along the coast of eastern Svalbard, Norway.

(BTW, if you think Florida mosquitoes are bad … check out these pics of Arctic mosquitoes.) With Florian on assignment and somewhere out of cell range, we couldn’t catch him in time to talk about his upcoming lecture at The Straz.

However, we did come across this excellent interview he did with Eugénie Frerichs, the director of photography over at Patagonia. We wanted to share it with you so you’ll see what the hype is about with this young photographer’s vivid, unforgettable photographs.

This Peregrin Falcon uses the cliffs along the Utukok River for its nest. The remoteness of the Arctic wilderness once was the last stronghold of the bird as DDT crashed populations in the south. Utukok River, Western Arctic, Alaskan Arctic

Florian appears in Ferguson Hall with Into the Arctic Kingdom on Jan. 15.

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.

production

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.

Tech Theater-Annie_FameAtBlakeHS_TechTheater 021

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.

Bloody Hell, Mate

British Actors and Why We Love Them

Is it the accent? Perhaps some Stockholm Syndrome-like attachment to the crown? Aristocracy nostalgia?

Probably the accent.

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Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s The Crown.

But that doesn’t explain Charlie Chaplin, now does it? Or British siren Vivien Leigh, who played both Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, iconic (and Southern) American characters straight from our literary canon.

Today, look at another American not-so-literary canon, comic books, and many of the major superheroes — Spider-Man, Batman (the Christian Bale version), Superman, Doctor Strange, and of course, Professor X — reveal U.K. actors under the masks and capes of these good ol’American crusaders.

So, we love them without the accent. But with it?

We really love them.

Cast members of Downton Abbey read a scene from the show using American accents on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Laurence Olivier, Julie Andrews, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggi Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig, Hugh Grant, Idris Elba, the entire cast of the Harry Potter franchise … We can argue we accept their colonization of our Hollywood empire based on the number of British actors taking over major film roles, especially in recent years. (Though not everyone loves this change, especially as uniquely American stories, like 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln and Selma starred British actors and the upcoming roles of Steve Jobs, Ernest Hemingway and Herman Melville will all go to Englishmen).

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Another reason — outside of the accent — that Americans love British actors nestles in the subconscious appreciation of artistic craft. British actors train in theater (there’s a reason why we jokingly refer to the “THEA-tah” when we talk about stage acting) and screen techniques, and American actors who studied craft are often penned into Strasberg or Meisner molds. Critics of acting craft often cite that a Briton’s flexibility in a role ties back to learning how to physically and vocally master Shakespeare and Noel Coward, so balancing the absurdities of superhero popcorn films with seriousness of intent works well for someone who has classical training and a lifetime of watching American TV and films. Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s joke-theory, which is that British actors aren’t better, “they’re just cheaper than we are.”

So, going back to the source — British actors doing theater — we arrive at the pinnacle of audience experience. We get the execution of master craft delivered by that accent. (Would we love Benedict Cumberbatch as much if he talked like he was from Tarpon Springs or Carbondale, Ill.? Hm. Yes. We probably would.)

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If you’re someone who loves British actors doing theater, remember that our National Theatre Live series continues with Game of Thrones’ Salladhor Saan actor Lucian Msamati playing Mozart in Amadeus. Then you can see a passel of British actors (with some Yanks thrown in for good measure) tackle American epic Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2.

Finding the Art in Nature

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The Callanish Stones on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. (This photo of Callanish Standing Stones is courtesy of TripAdvisor.)

Art and the performing arts are, at their basic level, a means of creating community and expressing our understanding of the world and ourselves. They have been interwoven with our natural world since human beings evolved to make art – our unique language of creativity that has incredible power.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, evidence for both visual arts and performing arts dates to roughly 40,000 years ago, although, quite unexpectedly, in separate parts of the world. The Stone Age cave paintings of Sulawesi in Indonesia and the bone-carved flutes found in Europe emerged concurrently. Both early artifacts record humans’ reflection in and use of nature. Nature inspired our artistic abilities, encouraging our creative minds to flourish in painting, sculpture, music and dance. Humans used art to honor animals, sacred places and celestial events. We then applied our talents to ceremony and ritual, inextricably weaving our self-expression to nature and to the heavens.

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Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are among the oldest of their kind. (Photo: Maxime Aubert/Griffith University/Australia)

Not much has changed for many artists who still draw inspiration from nature and use natural themes and materials to communicate their ideas and impressions of our world. Today, the National Park Service includes an artists-in-residence program, encouraging the continuation of humanity’s vital artistic interaction with the natural world. From Isadora Duncan’s early modern dance work in nature to Asadata Dafora’s 1932 landmark Awassa Astrige/Ostrich dance that introduced traditional African nature dances to American audiences, choreographers have drawn on natural phenomena to explore dimensions of the human experience. Nature herself provided humans with a built-in instrument, the voice, which scientists argue was our first experiment with music-making some 530,000 years ago.

But, over the past few thousand years, humanity’s relationship to nature drastically changed our environment and our way of thinking about it. Art is how we see life, so as growing concerns over clean water, loss of species, climate change, natural resources and overdevelopment affect our future, many artists responded by offering art and the performing arts as part of global discussions on such concerns.

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Photo: Straz Center Instagram (@strazcenter)

In 2008, artists and scientists gathered in Europe and Asia as part of the Connect2Culture Initiative to begin talks about the intersections of art and sustainability and how the arts and performing arts can create a new way of thinking about the natural world. Around the United States, universities are offering classes in arts and the environment, and new fields of study—such as dance ecology and music ecology—specifically deal with bodies and sounds as they relate to nature. Students of these artistic-ecological meldings produce exquisite examinations of movement and sound that delight audiences and uphold humanity’s artistic origins.

Our own backyard is chock-full of people unearthing the primal visceral power of art and nature to connect us to each other, ourselves and our world. In November 2014, St. Petersburg hosted Blue Ocean, a film festival and conservation summit, and the Springs Eternal Project in Gainesville creates partnerships between advocates, artists, scientists and researchers to inspire Floridians to revere and protect our fragile springs water systems. Kuumba Drummers and Dancers, Tampa’s only African dance ensemble, continues Dafora’s work in preserving traditional folkloric African dances used to communicate between performers, audience and aspects of nature.

Attendant to the performing arts’ ability to unite with science to help propel humanity into new perspectives is the basic, fundamental power of nature’s own artistry to heal the human heart and mind. In Florida, we are privileged to experience the choreography of flight in a flock of white ibis by doing nothing more than heading to the nearest body of water. We can go further in the Florida wilderness to witness the terrific symphony of bull alligators bellowing during mating season. In our backyards, we have the great belching chorus of frogs and toads that so enriches the dramatics of a sky full of stars.

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Photo: Daffodil’s Photo Blog

We, too, flock to the beaches, congregate on riverbanks and witness, every year, a great migration of human beings to the Sunshine State. Why? Because, deep within us, lies our undeniable connection to the beat of life. We participate in the art of nature whether we know it or not, and we draw together in the many expressions of our artistic celebration of living on this earth. There are tracings of many human hands surrounding a prehistoric deer on a cave wall in Sulawesi to prove it.

Building Instrumental

 

A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

 The Straz Center invited Los Angeles-based performance ensemble String Theory to turn the riverside corner of Morsani Hall into a working harp with 200-foot strings. This original, site-specific Fin Harp is on display with demonstrations through May 3.

Look closely at the design of the newly-installed wooden harp on the river side of Morsani’s lobby, and you may recognize the shape. Inspired by certain loveable and highly-intelligent marine mammals, Luke Rothschild, one of the founding members of the multi-genre performance group String Theory, designed this harp specifically as an outdoor art/music installation for the Straz Center.

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

“I knew we wanted to incorporate the Riverwalk and more community engaging work here at the center,” says Straz Center Director of Programming Chrissy Hall. “I’d met the agent for String Theory at a convention, so I asked about the possibility of an outdoor long term installment. The agent put me in direct contact with Luke, and we worked on coming up with a concept that would work out in the elements.”

“I’ve been spending a lot of time surfing, and the shape for the soundboard kind of emerged naturally,” says Luke.

His creation, the Fin Harp, takes its curvilinear shape from the dorsal fin of dolphins—perfect for this time of year in Tampa when dolphins and their calves feed in the Hillsborough River. The harp, comprised of cherry wood, red oak, maple, black walnut and shellacked like mad with boat varnish, can withstand the afternoon rains and soaring mid-day spring temperatures.

 

Stages of the Harp: Sketch, Mock Up, In-Progress, Finished

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FIN HARP one_life size mock up

 

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finished fin.s

Installation began at 10:30 a.m. on March 31st as a team effort between String Theory members and The Straz facilities department. Using several ladders and a fair amount of derring-do, the teams secured the 14 brass strings to the Straz Center roof, running them the 200 feet to the instrument bolted to a platform on the grass below. They completed the installation about 4 p.m. that afternoon.

Logistics

fin harp install w ladder

photo by jeremy scott photography

strings to Straz

photo by jeremy scott photography

Outside of the time, financial and logistical constraints of creating a unique, outdoor instrument, another challenge altogether was how to get the Fin Harp on the plane from Los Angeles to Tampa. “The harp needed to be able to come apart and fit into a very specific size keyboard case approved by TSA,” says Luke. “The base of the harp is in 10 pieces and is quite different from what I thought it would be, different from any other design I’ve done before for other harps. So, the soundboard fits into one 88 note keyboard case, the base breaks down and fits into another identical case. The brass wire, tuning blocks and tools go in a rolling case.” Voila! Ready for travel.

FIN case 1

 

The harp is played by stroking or plucking the strings with rosin-coated gloves which provide the “tooth” (grip) to create a compression wave—a vibration—which resonates in the soundboard.

During the reception, patrons tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

Patrons also tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

When our time is up to have this incredible instrument, the Fin Harp will return to Luke at the String Theory headquarters in California to be used in future performance installations. The Fin Harp is on display through Riverfest, May 3, and will return to California on May 4.

Many thanks to Luke Rothschild for the use of his personal photographs, except where noted, and his help with behind-the-scenes info for this blog.

To see a free demonstration of the harp and to hear this unique instrument, see the schedule below:

Fin Harp Demo Schedule

April 17- 7pm-9pm (before and during the intermission for Pippin)

April 18- 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 19 – 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 23 – 6:30pm-8pm (before Mythbusters)

April 24- 7pm-8:30pm (before TFO Pops concert)

April 25- 6:30pm-8pm (before Celtic Woman)

April 26- 3pm-4:30pm (before Tampa Bay Symphony)

May 1- 7pm-8:30pm (before Florida Orchestra)

May2- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest

May 3- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest