Stompin’ Around

Everybody, everywhere’s got rhythm.

African juba.
Irish jig.
American tap.
African-American step.
Indian Kathak.
Argentine malambo.

Gumboot, chancleta, Spanish flamenco, Cuban flamenco, trash percussion (think STOMP).

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Tap dancing at the Patel Conservatory. (Photo: Marc Edwards)

From all the varied, colorful corners of our endearing and often baffling human society, rhythm dances emerge, catch on like wildfire and become a common language amongst us. Tribes ensconced in the rainforests and isolated deserts of this great planet stomp their feet on the ground to make an infectious, intricate inlay of beats that form a hey-this-is-us dance communication. There’s Riverdance and fraternity and sorority step shows. As you read this article, somebody in our country clacks out a shuffle-ball-change and another somebody somewhere pounds their shoe sole in time to frog songs or train wheels or the sound of an unlocked shutter knocking the side of the house.

This universal need for stompin’ around, making cool sounds with our feet and having those sounds mean something about who we are is about as utilitarian as you can get when it comes to the performing arts. Humans love to clap our hands and stomp our feet, as you can see in three-year-olds no matter what skin tone, shape, size, economic status or line of longitude that little one occupies. We seem to be born to make percussive dance. We love it. Some of us love it so much we make careers out of it.

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In the United States, the blending of African juba, originally West African sacred gioube dance, and Irish jigs birthed tap but not right away. A uniquely American art form, tap emerged during a three-hundred-year cultural exchange between enslaved Africans and Irish indentured servants who found themselves imperiled in the Caribbean sugarcane fields together under British rule. For a century, the two cultures, each heavy with a musical and dance identity, borrowed steps, rhythms and cadences until they fashioned something extraordinary – a new art form on its way to the American South.

An interesting anecdote to this relationship between Africans and the Irish occurred in New York City on March 17, 1781. The St. Patrick’s Day Rebellion, which led to the burning of British symbols of rule, was led by the free African Caesar and the Irish dance master John Cory.

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Farruquito, “the greatest flamenco dancer of the century” (The New York Times), performs at The Straz on Feb. 13.

Another interesting anecdote is that Irishmen launched the first successful blackface minstrel shows that mixed Irish and African folkloric traditions for the public. Later, an African-American dancer of unsurpassed skill named William Henry Lane trounced the reigning Irish-American minstrel dancer John Diamond to become King of All Dancers. Lane’s loose body on top of exacting percussive technique pulled from clogging and jigging launched the earliest known form of American tap dance.

As ragtime morphed into jazz, so did Lane’s style evolve into a dance somewhat recognizable as tap and jazz dance. Broadway defined syncopated jazz tap with Shuffle Along (1921) although the metal taps had yet to make it to the bottoms of the shoes. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson created a craze with his hoofing and wooden-soled shoes, and “tap dance” started showing up on the list of classes in reputable dance studios. The metal taps appeared in the 1930s, when the form skyrocketed in popularity on stage and in the movies. By the end of the 1940s, American tap dance was a thing, a very important badge of identity that arrived as the result of cross-cultural pollination between Africa and the United Kingdom.

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Like the percussive dance forms that came before, tap dance is essentially a street dance of the people. Now influenced by hip-hop and reflecting an impressive ability for infusions of other cultures like Indian Kathka and bellydancing, tap continues to shape-shift as new dancers and new cultures add sugar and spice to the form. Even tap gets pulled into other percussive dance forms or gets reflected in the heel-steps of flamenco or chancleta dance (a Caribbean dance using wooden flip-flops). As tap’s reigning King of Dance, Savion Glover noted, “They all come from the street – tap, jazz and flamenco. And the streets are always changing. If it comes from the streets, change is the only thing that’s consistent.”

Percussive dance is cool in that way: although humans, in our many corners of this world, make these dances separately, we see ourselves in the stomped-out rhythms of others. As we change, we remain a recognizable rhythm; in our own ways, we become music playing our bodies and the earth as instruments.

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TAP DOGS, coming to The Straz March 29-31.

Feet Beat @ The Straz
Try tap for the first time or return to the form if you’ve been away for a minute. Our Adult Tap classes meet Tuesday at 6 p.m. and Thursday at 6:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. The lovable, super-talented Susan Downey teaches all three classes. To take in a percussive performance, get tickets to Farruquito, the greatest flamenco dancer in the world for Feb. 13 in Ferguson Hall and TAP DOGS in Morsani Hall March 29-31.

A Bill By Any Other Name Would Not Smell As Sweet

The Stratfordians. The Oxfordians. Baconians and Marlovians. What sounds like the breakout of Illuminati frat houses is actually something a lot stranger. These sects war over a secret at the root of possibly the greatest cover-up in literary history: that William Shakespeare was, in fact, not the great author William Shakespeare and the aristocracy of the time knew.

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Artwork by Gregory Newcomb for Jobsite Theater.

The genius poet who penned the definitive catalogue of Great Theatre and whose turns of phrase cycle through everyday parlance (“it’s Greek to me,” “love is blind,” “forever and a day”) may have been several men. Or, maybe, just one man: Christopher Marlowe, the famed Doctor Faustus playwright who allegedly died in a tavern after a squabble over the bill pitched him on the business end of a dagger.

This confounding “authorship question,” as it’s known, dates to the 1800s when Delia Bacon, an American woman ironically unrelated to Sir Francis Bacon, argued convincingly that the philosopher was the true author behind Shakespeare’s works. Baconians, ergo, side with Delia that Sir Francis is the real genius behind the folios and sonnets. Delia’s blasphemy on the subject of authorship attracted another great blasphemer of the time, Mark Twain. He gathered the thread of Sir Francis Bacon as the real writer as a lark, something else to poke fun at, until the evidence against William Shakespeare, a farm boy with a grammar school education, seemed to suggest that Delia wasn’t another cockamamie American out to discredit the motherland. In his book Is Shakespeare Dead?, Twain ultimately concludes he can’t prove who wrote the works of Shakespeare, but he is “quite composedly and contentedly sure that Shakespeare didn’t.”

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Portrait of Francis Bacon by Paul van Somer I, 1617.

These allegations against The Bard – the man of the age who dominated the cultural landscape and determined the standards of the Western world’s artistic achievements – would not stand. Stratfordians, those who believe William Shakespeare was the genius of Stratford-upon-Avon, sounded a volley shot, decrying the Baconians as American snobs barking on with no convincing evidence. But there was nothing the Stratfordians could do to heal the damage to Shakespeare’s reputation. The authorship question raised too many other puzzling issues.

How did a rural child with no formal education create such astounding works of classical references and symbolism? Why do no records exist of a Shakespeare from Stratford being paid to write (there are records of other paid writers)? In the death record, Shakespeare from Stratford is noted as a “gent,” not a “playwright” or “poet.” Even his death went unnoticed. In his cunning and often eye-rolling attempts to throw petrol on the ever-smoldering coals of who-really-wrote-Shakespeare, filmmaker Michael Rubbo for PBS’s FRONTLINE series took to the lanes of England to interrogate experts from all factions.

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Portrait of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. This 17th century work by an unknown artist is thought to be based on a lost work of 1575.

According to Rubbo’s documentary Much Ado About Something, the Oxfordians answer the riddles by arguing that the Earl of Oxford – a poet and playwright – hired the Stratford actor William Shakespeare to be the public face of his work. As an aristocrat, the kind who would have a refined, classical education and first-hand understanding of the nuances of social and political machinations, the Earl couldn’t tarnish his social standing by rolling around in the common muck of public theater. Shakespeare would have made the perfect front. However, Oxford died before Macbeth and The Tempest, so he definitely wasn’t the only author if he was any “Shakespeare” at all.

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A portrait, supposedly of Christopher Marlowe, by an unknown artist in 1585.

Where this authorship question gets a bit DaVinci Code happens in the Marlovian camp. Marlovians assert that poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe faked his own death in the tavern to escape torture by the British court’s gestapo-esque Star Chamber. The Star Chamber specialized in medieval torture techniques against anyone cited for sedition or heresy. Marlowe was both seditious and heretical. More than that, he was a spy for the Queen, and his benefactor happened to be the Queen’s spy master. A network of connections supplied a real dead body to be “Marlowe” while the writer was secreted away to Italy. There, Marlowe wrote in exile, his manuscripts smuggled into London to be copied over so no one would recognize the penmanship. A player and business partner of the theatrical company, someone named William Shakespeare, took the manuscripts public. To keep Marlowe alive, everyone kept their mouths shut and let the thing play itself out. The case for Marlowe carries a lot of weight except no one has yet to produce undeniable proof Marlowe lived after the alleged killing in the tavern.

And that’s a pretty big hole in the plot.

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Stratfordians contend that without definitive proof to close the case, Marlovians continue to weave unnecessary myths and legends about the man from Stratford who should get his due without aspersions thrown upon his accomplishments. The Shakespeare/Marlowe debate led to the creation of the Hoffman Prize by late writer Calvin Hoffman, whose bestselling book The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare launched the modern case for Christopher Marlowe as the real author of works credited to William.

The prize, totaling one-half of the Hoffman’s substantial trust fund, goes to any scholar who offers “incontrovertible proof” that Marlowe was the real Shakespeare.

So far, no scholar has yet to proffer the definitive evidence.

Whether you be Baconian, Stratfordian, Marlovian or Oxfordian, you are welcome to Jobsite Theater’s productions of Shakespearian works. Othello is on stage now – Feb. 9 and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] runs March 13 – April 7 in the Shimberg Playhouse. For more of The Bard, catch the Tampa Bay Symphony performing Brush Up Your Shakespeare Feb. 24 in Ferguson Hall.

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You Know This Wise Guy

Chazz Palminteri took a moment of his childhood and parlayed it into the cultural phenomenon known as A Bronx Tale. We’ve seen him in The Usual Suspects, Bullets Over Broadway, Analyze This and as a cop, mobster or some form of tough guy in a ton of other film and TV roles. We caught up with Chazz on the phone in December to interview him for the “Behind the Persona” feature of INSIDE magazine and talk about the musical adaptation of A Bronx Tale coming to The Straz Jan. 29. [Note: Chazz isn’t in the musical but he did write the book and DeNiro directed.] During the conversation, we uncovered what he thinks is the greatest acting work he’s ever done—which happens to be a little film that not many people know about. And, shockingly, it’s not A Bronx Tale.

We published the whole interview on Act2, our official podcast, this week, and we’d love for you to hear the wealth of stories Chazz brought to the conversation.

For this blog, though, we’re going rogue. We’re going first person.

Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale on Broadway. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Hello, Strazzers. Marlowe Moore here, the senior writer for The Straz and normally the anonymous voice of this blog on behalf of our favorite performing arts center. I decided to step out from the fourth wall on this occasion because my conversation with Chazz revealed the kind of tales and insights that performing arts nerds like myself die a thousand deaths to know.

With Chazz, I died two thousand deaths—first, when he shared the anecdote about the time Arthur Miller (Death of Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, husband of Marilyn Monroe and my personal writing hero) gave him writing advice; second, when he disclosed that he believes his greatest acting work was his role as the father in Dito Montiel’s shattering and extraordinary film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

Chazz in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

In 2014, I met Dito Montiel at the Sanibel Island Writers’ Conference, which, by the way, happens to be one of the dopest writing conferences in the country. I went, not because I am dope but because I am frugal. SIWC is also in the sweet spot budget-wise for nonprofit mavens like myself. If you’re a writer, a dope person or frugal, you should check it out.

I had no idea who Dito Montiel was, but screenplay writing happens to be my favorite form, and Dito was slated to talk about how he managed to land A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints in Hollywood. I found a seat in the small classroom, then a shaved-head, thick-shouldered New Yorker ambled through the door, taking a small space on the side of the room. “Hey, everybody. I’m Dito,” he said. “I’m not really sure I’m qualified to give this workshop, but here goes.”

Dito and Dwayne Johnson filming Empire State.

Often gazing at his shoes or shifting his eyes toward the doors and windows, Dito unfolded his life story. A kid in Queens. A bad neighborhood. A best friend. An affront by a rival gang member. A baseball bat.

Dito got out. He wrote. He played music. He kept his head down after his boy got a life sentence and found a way to Los Angeles. But he lived with the ghosts. To make peace with them, he doodled a graphic memoir during a day job in an audio lab. He titled it A Picture Guide of Saints.

“This is really good,” a friend told him. “Hey, did I ever tell you I know Robert Downey, Jr? Bob? I think I could get this to him. This is the kind of weird shit he loves.”

The doodles made it to Bob. Bob made it to Dito. They became friends. In 2001, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Dito’s memoir of his friends in Astoria, gets published. In 2006, RDJ—along with Sting and Trudie Styler—produce the film.

“A lot of it was luck,” Dito told us during the workshop. “Bob and I are weird in the same way. It just worked out. I didn’t even know how to write a screenplay. I thought the ‘EXT’ for exterior shot meant ‘exit’ like the character was leaving the scene. I didn’t know. But I wrote the screenplay. I directed it. Things went from there.”

I realized at the end of the workshop that Dito Montiel is, by nature, a shy guy. I don’t believe he meant for the big take-away for screenwriters to be “hope you know a random person who knows Robert Downey, Jr.” Although, I do believe that’s probably honest writing advice. I think he wanted with his whole heart for his story to be known because he had—in his heart—a debt to pay to a friend he loved. In the weird way stories work, it found its way because Dito wouldn’t give up on it.

If you know anything at all about Chazz Palminteri and how Robert DeNiro ended up making A Bronx Tale into a film, you’ll understand why Chazz fell in love with A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

After the conference, I went home and checked out A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints from the public library. I was expecting the typical Mean Streets tropes, but this movie is different.

In the film, Robert Downey plays the adult Montiel with Shia LaBoeuf playing the younger Montiel in Queens during the flashback sequences. Antonio, Montiel’s best friend who ends up with life in prison, is played by Eric Roberts, whose acting in this film is The Pope of Greenwich Village-level. Just stellar. The young Antonio acting opposite LaBoeuf? Channing Tatum. Tatum, whose performance skills I’d just studied intensely in multiple viewings of Magic Mike and knew from his work in the Step Up franchise, changed my life. The fact that he can take himself to the place he had to go to for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints makes me even angrier about Jupiter Ascending. Nobody better talk junk to me about Channing Tatum’s acting skills. Nobody. We just need Dito directing every time I guess.

Dito’s foil, his antagonist, his god and his oppressor take the form of his emotionally complex father Monty, played by Chazz. “I’ve done 60 movies,” Chazz told me, “and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is one of my favorite all-time movies. I think it’s probably my best performance,” Chazz told me.

Hands-down I think it’s Palminteri’s best performance, and I believe his work as Sonny in A Bronx Tale is so sublime his gestures alone should win an Oscar. But what he does as Monty is whatever actors do when they go to that place beyond performing. When Monty enters the scene, my heart races, my blood pressure spikes, I feel so much loss for Dito that I can barely keep my seat.

The film conjures the thing we never talk about when we talk about tough guys, when we glorify their violence in films: that boys get sucked into a world that buries love in anger so thoroughly that, as men, they cannot function for their confusion about how to care for themselves and the people they love. “At the end of the film,” Chazz said, “when my voiceover is talking about, ‘Don’t worry, Dito. Antonio didn’t have anybody [to care for him]…’ Oh. I think about it even now, and I can cry.”

Which is precisely what I did at the moment Chazz refers to here. For reasons I still struggle to articulate, my natural reaction to the conclusion of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints was to run in the bathroom, shut the door, fall on the floor and bawl. I lived alone at the time, so I had no reason to do any of those things. I could have cried in bed, but I was running from or to something that I needed to experience privately despite the fact that I was already alone; I don’t know. Dito—and Chan, and Bob, and Chazz and Shia—made me look at something so deeply sad about men trying to love in their culture of violence and being oblivious to the fact that they were trying to love at all that stayed with me all this time. There is something about men’s love and the debts they feel towards each other that I don’t understand. Dito’s story cracked some understanding inside of me, and I believe that’s what art is for, why we doodle our ghosts into existence. I consider myself profoundly lucky to have had a few moments to talk about it with someone in the film.

Please see Chazz in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Then check out the interview with him on the podcast. And see A Bronx Tale the musical. Chazz promised you’ll love it.

Thrilling new Jaeb show asks: What would you do if you only had a Hundred Days with the love of your life?

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Let’s say one morning you hustle into your favorite coffee shop, order your regular, and as you’re dawdling by the pick-up counter, you happen to make eye contact with someone at the high-top in the corner who happened to look up the same time you did. An exchange occurs in that moment: you capture each other, an undeniable knowing that you are supposed to be together passes between you. You brave the unknown; you travel the 8,000 miles across the coffee shop to speak. A conversation leads to a date that leads to a long weekend where you wake up Tuesday to discover yourself in love.

You become that skipping, smiling, whistling, happy happy joy joy supernova of a besotted lump experiencing what it feels like to be the most favored in the universe. Nothing could throw a hitch in your skip.

But news arrives you didn’t expect – a diagnosis, a deployment, something that sets your time together against the clock. You found the love of your life, yes. But, you’ll only have one hundred days with that person.

Three and a half months.

How would you choose to live each and every one of those days? So goes the premise of Abigail and Shaun Bengson’s autobiographical punk-folk-indie-rock-electronica blues show, Hundred Days, which runs in the Jaeb Theater Jan. 15 – March 24.

Hundred Days New York Theatre Workshop

The show, which reveals their love-at-first-sight story and the crazy events that followed, does so through a rock concert structure, almost like a reverse musical.

Hundred Days is a concert that tells a story – a very personal, very extraordinary, very funny story about the make-or-break need to become vulnerable if you want to make love stay.

Professional singer-songwriters, the Bengsons wrote all the songs for show, pulling from their favorite theatrical forms to get Hundred Days exactly where they wanted it to be: leaving audiences wishing the show itself lasted at least as long. The show has been a huge hit in New York and San Diego, where it ran before the Bengsons packed up their guitars and drums and headed to Tampa.

Our INSIDE magazine caught up with Abigail and Shaun during their opening weekend at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego to talk about Hundred Days, family life and their upcoming Florida debut at The Straz.

 

INSIDE MAGAZINE: Tell us a little bit about this show. It’s a departure from the traditional musicals we normally have at The Straz and it’s not a jukebox musical or a concert. What is it?

ABIGAIL AND SHAUN: It’s true that Hundred Days is not your standard musical theater fare. We started out as musicians and moved into the world of writing for theater because of our passion for telling stories and the ability theater has to bring people together for big moments of shared emotional catharsis. So, our music pulls from a wide variety of genres that inspire us, like folk, punk, indie rock, blues and electronica. We also pull from a lot of different theatrical styles when it comes to building the structure and form for the stories we want to tell, including folklore storytelling, documentary, concert and stand-up comedy. Our core collaborators Sarah Gancher, Anne Kauffman and Sonya Tayeh have also been hugely instrumental in creating this new, music-theater hybrid. They helped us push the form and the sound as well as weaving in more traditional theatricality throughout our work. And really, the truth is, even with all of the ways in which we are trying to break the mold, at its core, Hundred Days is a story told through music just like any other piece of musical theater! It’s all in the service of building an emotionally compelling story that we hope will resonate with our audiences.

IM: How “true“ is the “based on a true story” part of Hundred Days?

A&S: It is embarrassingly true! We really did have our first date, then three weeks later, we were hitched. Something about the moment of our falling for each other shattered any illusions of youthful invulnerability we had, made us realize the pain of placing so much of our hearts into such a fragile vessel. Some details and events are changed in the show in order to fit it all into 90 minutes, but any change that we made was designed so that the show would better convey what it felt like to go through that time – the joys and the terrors that we felt. There is a scene in the show that is an actual transcription of a conversation we had. It’s in there in all its glory and its humiliation.

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Photo from Instagram: @hundreddaysny

IM: You all spend a lot of time together. What’s your secret to staying a happy, healthy and productive family?

A&S: Yes, we do spend a whole lot of time together. We’ve actually really worked for many years to be able to build a life in which we could be together as much as we can possibly be. It is truly the blessing and the joy of life that we get to. This is the exact opposite of how we’ve handled pretty much every other relationship in our lives. We’re both huge introverts and usually need a great deal of personal space. But, it’s just not like that with each other. There is certainly a lot that we needed to figure out in terms of combining and balancing family and work and it’s a daily practice to try and get it right. Finding that balance has become even more true since the birth of our son two years ago. We really thought we were already operating at full capacity, but, man, we can’t believe how many plates we have to spin at once trying to keep the art going and raise our boy in a way we feel good about. If there is any secret at all, it’s being as open and honest with each other as we can, trying always to talk things through, really working to try and hear and support each other. That can be easier said than done, but it really does come down to that for us.

IM: Share some of your musical influences and mentors … how do you create the Bengson “sound“ in this show?

A&S: We grew up listening to all sorts of music and we hope that it comes through when you listen to our tunes. We’ve been writing this show for more than a decade, and you can hear a lot of the different styles of music that we’ve been writing and listening to from over that time. The core of our music is really all about folk, both American folk music as well as from places all over. We grew up listening to a lot of ‘60’s folkies like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Odetta and Ewan MacColl. There’s a lot of music being made right now that inspires us a lot too that draws on that folk tradition – Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, Sharon Van Etten. We also really love it when that folk sound meets punk music (The Pogues, Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly). We are also huge fans of big vocalists and singers from Motown, soul, and Latin music like Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Caetano Veloso. The newest elements that we have loved playing with is using big heavy electronic beats and playing with interesting electronic sounds and textures like The Flaming Lips, Björk, Kanye, James Blake. Everyone onstage in Hundred Days plays an instrument and sings, so this blend of acoustic and electronic elements with a big choral sound is what this show is about for us.

IM: Hundred Days is the kind of show that really touches the heart. Do you often have audience members sharing stories with you? Would you mind sharing one or two touching moments you’ve had with fans?

A&S: We have heard a lot of sweet stories from people! Our favorite thing is getting to hear stories from both the brand-new young couples in the house as well as from couples who have been together 50-60 years. There was one older couple in their 80s who were sitting beside our associate director, Caitlin Sullivan, and she couldn’t honestly tell what they were thinking about the show. But, as they were leaving, she heard the woman say, “That is exactly what it felt like to be young and in love. That is just what I remember.” That really meant a lot to us.

IM: What do you hope audiences will get out of this show?

A&S: In many ways, these are frightening and confusing times we are living through. We find that it’s easy to get beaten down, to numb yourself out, to give up. This show is about the power of fear and the ease with which it can prevent us from living. This show is our way of continuing to challenge ourselves to love and to live and to not give in even when the stakes feel insurmountable. And also – we hope everyone will enjoy the awesome music and hilarious jokes.

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In the studio recording the cast album. Photo from Instagram: @hundreddaysny.

A Note to Fans from Abigail and Shaun:
If anyone is curious to hear the music before the show, we just released the official cast album. You can find it on iTunes, Spotify, wherever you go for your music. We worked hard on it, and we are proud to get it out there and share it with folks. We are so honored to get to be coming to Tampa, to be welcomed into this theater and this community. We are looking forward to meeting all of you!

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.

Here We Come a-What-ssailing?

We carol. We wassail. Well, we used to wassail; but, we still carol about wassailing. Why? And what is a wassail, anyway?

The Wassail Bowl by John Gilbert, 1860

The performing arts are such an integral part of the holiday season that we hardly even remark about how much this time of year we spend going to shows, singing with family, performing in church, singing in temple and holding community Kwaanza song and dance events. Singing, dancing and acting go hand-in-hand with this season.

One holiday performing art form that goes way back is caroling and its companion, wassailing. Interestingly, the whole shebang that we know as Christmas caroling started in medieval France and England with a court dance—the “carole.” The dancers would respond in a refrain to a song-leader’s verse, creating a call-and-response singing dance. Think “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”/”Fa la la la la …” and you get the picture. In time, dancing fell from the tradition, but roving bands of singers remained.

However, it’s worth noting that the whole shebang as history knows it started with the pagans dancing and singing around stone circles for the winter solstice, usually around Dec. 22nd-ish. These praise songs, also called “noels,” happened for the pagans for all the seasons, not just winter, although noels in winter survived with great notoriety.

As Christianity took hold of the Western world, especially in Italy, nativity plays started around the winter solstice and used songs to deliver part of the storyline. The idea was that the audience would sing along, and the popularity of the nativity play spread throughout Europe, birthing many of the carols we know today. By the Victorian era, celebrants took to the streets to sing carols in public

Enter, “Here We Come A-Wassailing!”

Among the leaves so green, folks needed a toast. Because let’s face it; if you’re out in the cold singing, there’s a good chance somebody’s packing a toddy. In Old Norse, this toast was ves heil, and passed through Middle English as waes haeil, both meaning “be healthy” to wish someone well before a drink. The phrase morphed into wassail, eventually settling into a verb meaning “reveling with booze” though the connotation of wassailing is somewhat more elegant than, say, a similar thing happening at Gasparilla. Or maybe not … some historians point to the enthusiastic wassailing of the 17th century that led British and American Puritans to ban carols and, well, celebrating Christmas at all. Obviously, that went over like a lead sleigh.

A king being presented with a cup of wine and the salute Was hail.

We get eggnog from early wassail, the noun form, meaning “a spiced yuletide beverage for celebrating Christmas in particular.” Another cool, weird morph from the early wassailing days is what we know of as the Christmas bonus and tipping our supers, mailperson, and other people who provide services to us throughout the year. Back in the wassailing heyday, the drinking carolers and others in the serving class carried clay boxes; the wealthy were expected to share their bounty during Christmastide and so deposited money into these boxes. Ergo, “Boxing Day” evolved in Canada on Dec. 26 (the giving of Christmas boxes of money and such to workers) and our current practice of the Christmas bonus.

Though wassailing with traditional wassail has become almost obsolete in our modern holiday traditions, drunken singing of carols is alive in well in many homes and neighborhoods throughout the land. Elsewhere, celebrants in more reverent and wholesome practices still participate in caroling though that formal practice is fading as well. It seems that as humans change the way we live, we adapt our caroling and wassailing with us.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too.
This blog goes on holiday next week
but we’re sending you
a Happy New Year,
We send you a Happy New Year!

Next Big Thing: Evan Tyrone Martin

The young Chicago-based singer-actor appears in the Jaeb Theater for his acclaimed holiday concert—and guess what? His mom lives in Tampa and will be at every show. If you want to be there, you better get tickets soon because they’re hotter than chestnuts in an open fire right now.

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The Straz Center often has artists at the cusp of breaking out in their careers, like the time we hosted Jon Batiste and Stay Human (who?) only months before they landed their gig as Stephen Colbert’s house band (oh, them!). We have another of those acts lined up for a Christmas show as part of our cabaret series—Evan Tyrone Martin, whose show An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas strikes a perfect holiday harmony of golden-age nostalgia and youthful earnestness.

We caught up with Evan on the phone just a few days before the show started its holiday tour, which lands in the Jaeb this Thursday for five performances through the weekend.

The show originated last year, playing to packed audiences in St. Louis. The success of the show encouraged the producers to put Evan on the road the subsequent holiday season, and here we are.

“This is the first opportunity that I’ve had to tour with something that is my own, that actually features me,” says Evan, whose extensive performance career in Chicago included everyone from Jesus to King Triton. “Producers Michael and Angela Ingersoll had been looking for a new kind of show for Artists Lounge Live. Because they do so many iconic singers, they had been thinking about Nat King Cole for a little while. And they were kind of nervous about trying to find someone who could take on that particular catalog. It’s a very specific voice. It’s one that everybody holds near and dear. If you meet someone, they know about Nat King Cole and are probably a fan. If you hear a bad version of ‘The Christmas Song’ … it kind of angers you, you know?”

Evan, however, had an ace up his sleeve about landing the gig even though he himself didn’t know he was being considered to take on Nat King Cole for Artists Lounge Live. “They [the Ingersolls] called me and said, “We heard that you sound a little like Nat King Cole. Are you familiar with his catalog?” And I just about fell out of my chair because I grew up listening to Nat King Cole. He was one of my grandmother’s favorite artists.” Evan, who’d come to the Ingersoll’s attention by way of a music director who worked with him and the Ingersolls for separate projects, submitted a clip of “Smile” and was on contract by the end of the evening.

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Evan performing in HAIR. (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

Although—as you’ll see at the show—Evan not only sounds like Nat King Cole, he also looks like Nat King Cole. An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas is not about Evan impersonating the great singer, however. The show is Evan taking us through a musical memoir of sorts, balancing Cole’s songs with his own family stories. “My goal was to hearken back to him as much as possible in the way that I present his music, the way that I sound, the way that I move, so that people felt as though they were at one of his concerts,” Evan says. “Throughout the concert, they could not only get to know a little bit more about him through me talking about his life, but they could get to know a little bit more about me because our trajectories, as far as music and performance, are kind of similar. We kind of had similar upbringings.”

Evan’s grandmother passed away while he was in high school, so she never got to see her grandson step into the legacy of her favorite singer. For Evan, though, performing the songs of someone so important to the greater Martin family helps him stay connected to his grandmother and others. “[Performing this show] brings me a little bit of joy to be able to hearken back. Both of my grandmothers taught me so much about music and all of it. And, my dad, who I actually recently lost this year,” he says “I’m able to hearken back and pay tribute to all of those people who taught me so much about performance. And they were non-professional performers, for the most part. But, I’m able to tie them into the show that would have meant so much to all of us and weave them into the fabric of the show. It means so much to me. I get to sing a song to and for my grandmother every time we do the show.”

“There’s something that changes in a singer’s voice and presence when there’s such an emotional connection to the music,” Evan says. “You can love a song, but when you feel as though you are literally connected to a song, that takes it to an entire different level in your performance and in the way that people feel it. I think that the fact that I can feel my family with me on stage and can dedicate certain songs to them specifically, I think that makes the connection just that much deeper and richer for both myself and the audience.”

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Evan’s mother, herself a singer and Tampanian, plans to be at each of the five shows. “She’s putting together a cabaret show, knee-deep working on it now. She joined a couple bands in Tampa but moved to Alabama to take care of some family. [She’s back in Tampa now] so she really does just want to get back into seeing what’s possible. I’m excited to have her in the audience and maybe, maybe I can convince her to get up on stage one of those times,” he laughs.

To see An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas starring Evan Tyrone Martin (and maybe his mom), get your tickets for any seats still available this weekend.