Shock Absorbers

Under a tight schedule, it takes eight weeks to replace one stage floor. Last summer, we had only five. And two enormous stages.

Life is not fair.

But, if you have a good sense of humor, it is funny.

Running The Straz takes an enormous amount of effort on what we call the “back end,” or, the aspects of show business that take place outside of the spotlights. The back-end includes building maintenance, groundskeeping, upgrading and repairing equipment, changing the umpteen thousand lightbulbs, replacing broken concrete on the walkways and other such things. We do our best to execute the work of the back-end during moments that are least disruptive to guests. Often, we get a slight lull in the action over the summer when we are between seasons. We dive into this lull tools a-blazing to address major projects, so when you arrive for the brand-new season you’re not greeted by backhoes, cherry-pickers and gates of orange construction netting. Instead, all is sparkly, shiny and ready to envelop you in a radiant bubble of wonderment, which is exactly why we’re here for you.

Last summer, we faced one of our greatest challenges yet. Because both stages sustained an exciting amount of action last season (compounded by the countless seasons before), replacing Ferguson and Morsani stages with upgraded materials landed on the top of the to-do list for summer chores.

Both stages. Ripped up, carted away, new flooring installed with tech upgrades, repainted and ready to rock and roll by Sept. 11. Which would have been okay if construction crews and our operations department had been able to start in June like normal. But, because we had Broadway summer shows and other gigs booked, the stages didn’t empty until the end of July.

Brand new Ferguson stage floor prior to being painted.

That circumstance left our intrepid and uber-busy Director of Operations C.J. Marshall staring down the barrel of a five-week deadline to replace both main stage floors on time and on budget before the biggest season in Straz history.

Insert sense of humor here.

“The first time we replaced Ferguson [stage], we had eight weeks to do it,” C.J. said. “So, yeah. It was a very, very tight timeline.”

C.J. sat down with pen and paper, sketching out a schedule of how to make it happen. He’d need three crews working about 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Then, maybe, the stages’ paint would be dry in time for Chicago to load in and the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show to set up on Ferguson.

Maybe. But there was no way they could do it if they had to complete the demolition, clean-up and prep before starting to lay the wood. “The flooring company normally sends about eight people to do the job. We had 22 people on-site. Once we demo’ed the initial 10 feet, the installers started working behind the demo team, starting to lay the new floor before the rest of the floor had been completely removed.” In this building-the-bridge-as-we-cross-it manner, crew relieving crew relieving crew, they steadily raced against the deadline that tick-tick-ticked on C.J.’s calendar with all the charm of the Doomsday Clock.

As with most theoretical calculations, C.J.’s were based on a perfect world. In addition to being unfair, life is also not perfect. “There’s so much of the floor we couldn’t see – everything that was underneath the top planks. As we demolished, we uncovered sections that had to be leveled or cleaned and re-cleaned. The crew would open the floor, and I’d see the condition and think that’s another three days; that’s another four days, all the while the date pushed closer to Chicago’s load-in. Would we make it in time? We had to. Somehow.”

Florida’s humidity, especially in the summer, invites mold and mildew like its throwing a block party. C.J. and his operations crew built a tent over the entire stage to create a negative vacuum; inside, they ran several air scrubbing and air sucking machines that cleaned the air of all dangerous spores. This set-up meant that not only were the floor crews sweating it out under an ambitious and possibly laughable deadline, they were doing it in Hazmat suits and respirators.

August came and went.

September arrived, bearing down on the looming arrival of Chicago. When the director of the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show arrived ten days before their event to check on the progress of the Ferguson stage replacement, he saw a giant plastic tarp draped over what appeared to be a half-finished stage – read: the other half was a rectangular hole – filled by men lumbering around in Tyvek suits using power tools. In essence, a scene straight from The X-Files. C.J. assured him all would be well, and the early days of September raced by.

“During this whole project,” C.J. says, “ … there were a lot of sleepless nights. But we made it on time.”

In fact, C.J. and his crews put forth so much effort, they finished two days ahead of schedule. There was plenty of time for Roxie, Velma and the outstanding small-business people of Hillsborough County to strut across our freshly painted, very dry, immaculately installed stages.

This cross-section of the Morsani stage shows the design details of a sprung floor.

“Ahead of schedule and on budget,” says C.J. “and we were able to install sprung floors on both stages as well as run about 12 miles of cable under Morsani stage to bring it up to digital standards, to give it a data and electrical infrastructure. Shows need connectivity on stage now, and we have it.” The sprung floors mean that a flexible brace under the planks provides “give,” like mild shock absorbers, to protect dancers’ muscles and joints from abrupt impact. The connectivity allows for access to power and network jacks without having to run temporary cables from set pieces to wall outlets. “I have to give a lot of credit to Ron Stevens of Trident Surfacing, who was our project manager, and Dave Reynolds, a Straz carpenter, who was our point person and really did a great job of keeping the crews going. We also couldn’t have done this project without the hard work of our production electricians, Leslie Bindeman and Jesse Perkins. We’re super excited about the new floors.”

So what happened to C.J. when they crossed the finish line 48 hours early?

“I left town and went and sat in the woods of North Carolina with no cell phone, no internet, no nothing for a week with my wife,” he laughs. “It was wonderful.”

Extraordinary Factoids about Our New and Improved Stage Floors

• Basketball courts also have sprung floors.
• The Morsani Hall stage floor can hold 9,000 pounds per square foot, about 50-70,000 pounds total.
• Both stages are Canadian maple.
• The Morsani stage is 9,500 square feet; the Ferguson stage is 5,000 square feet. That’s 14,500 square feet replaced in five weeks.
• The new floors should last about 20 years.
• Sprung floors also contain a little layer of neoprene, the same material of a wetsuit.
• The Morsani stage gets painted about four times a year because we have so many shows. There were 70 layers of paint on the old stage when they demolished it, adding up to almost a quarter inch.

A Director of Production Services TELLS ALL!

The performing arts are big business. In this industry, we have a lot of super important jobs for people who love the theater but who may have no interest in performing professionally. This week, we sat down with Gerard Siegler, Straz Center director of production services, who plays a huge part in making sure the shows work and the forty-billionteen details of a live performance have been handled.

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Gerard Siegler, director of production services for The Straz.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: What are production services? What do you do? Take us through a typical day in the life.

GERARD SIEGLER: Sure … there’s no typical day. The gist of my job and the job of any production manager is to deal with all the backstage needs. This would be the technical elements like making sure that we have equipment that shows need. Sometimes it means getting hospitality, booking hotel rooms, booking transportation, either to or from the airport and even sometimes air flights and things like that.

It’s a wide range of duties, sometimes it’s as simple as a speaker needing a microphone or AV equipment all the way to Broadway shows—making sure that their set is going to fit within our space and making sure we have the equipment they need.

CITA: How does this work? Let’s say we book The Phantom of the Opera, and you get the memo that Phantom is coming. Then what happens on your end?

GS: Sure. Every touring show has what we call a “rider.” A rider is basically a bible of what the show comes with, what labor they need, meaning stagehand labor—that’s something else we’re in charge of—what equipment they bring, and then what equipment they need. It also specifies how long it takes to load in a show, how long the show is. The riders are sometimes so in depth it goes into what kind of candle an actor needs for their dressing room.

When Phantom is put into the books, one of the production managers is assigned to the show. They go through the rider, make sure that we can accommodate everything that the show needs. What we can’t accommodate, we either supplement or we can redirect them to what we have and then come up with alternatives—if it’s a smaller rental. If they’re adamant about, “I need this amp for my guitar.” Then we will rent stuff if we don’t have it.

That production manager will work through the show. Normally the advance happens anywhere between a month to three months out, depending on how large the show is.

For Broadway shows, it normally takes about anywhere between 10 and 16 hours to load in a show. Most Broadway shows load in Monday, and we have our first performance on Tuesday. They’ll load in the entire show, they’ll do soundcheck, and then they load out … The production manager is usually the first person in and the last person to go. My typical day when I’m doing a show starts around 7:00 a.m. and gets done at 1:00 a.m. the next day.

CITA: You do that for four days in a row?

GS: Yeah, four days in a row. The Broadway shows are one of the easier shows to do. Morsani Hall is considered a roadhouse. A roadhouse means that we have most of the things that happen within Morsani, so it’s self-contained. For example, Phantom comes with everything they’re going to need. Broadway shows, for the most part, come with everything they need besides a few little odds and ends. They tend to be the easy ones. It’s the rentals, and the one-offs, and the concerts that sometimes end up being the most difficult for us.

CITA: Why is that? It seems like you’ve got a concert, you just get a mic, you plug in a sound system, you’re good to go.

GS [laughs]: It’s typically not like that. For instance, some of the smaller concerts just bring the artist and the artist’s guitar, and we supply everything else. What you see on stage is maybe 20% of the actual equipment it takes to run the concert. All you really see are the back line, the piano, the drums, a monitor … but to get all of that to work, it takes a while to load in.

Your dance shows even take longer sometimes, so your modern dance shows, like MOMIX, are very light[ing] heavy. We load in their lighting before they even show up. The day before they come in, we’ll have crew on that will set their lighting which is something that’s dictated by the show. MOMIX sends us a rider with a lighting plot, and we set the lighting plot even before they arrive. Sometimes what is a two-hour show takes three days to put together.

 

This is what the stage in Morsani Hall looked like when Wicked was loading in, 2017.

CITA: Right. A lot of what creates the magic and creates the illusion of theater is what production and costuming does. It’s the stuff that the audience doesn’t have to think about consciously. They can absorb lighting and music subconsciously and feel the feelings that they create. The catch-22 for you all is that nobody knows if you’re doing a good job unless you do a bad job.

GS: Exactly. We don’t get compliments, we get criticism. The only time you actually know we’re there is when something goes wrong.

CITA: Alright readers, so that means our production staff needs more compliments when you see a good show. When you see Gerard around, tell him that he did a good job. So Gerard, how did you end up here? First of all, tell us how long you’ve been at The Straz and then how does somebody get involved in theater production?

GS: I’ve been at the Straz … April was nine years. I started with the Patel Conservatory. I was one of their production people then moved over as a production manager to The Straz about five years ago. Last June, I became the director of production services.

I started out as an actor. I did theater in high school and performed on Ferguson Stage as a thespian. When I moved to college, I started a theater track for acting and needed a part time job, so I started doing work in the college tech shop. My technical director at the time took me under his wing and said, “You can make a whole career out of just doing this.” My sophomore year, I changed directions and did more technical theater.

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Gerard Siegler hangs lights for Blake H.S.’s production of FAME.

CITA: Were you at USF?

GS: No, I went to Flagler College in St. Augustine.

CITA: Did you find that you enjoyed the technical side more than you did the acting side?

GS: I did. I could see the product progression more, and that satisfied me more. But it’s more pressure because, like I said, you do one wrong thing and it makes or breaks a show. For me, though, building the set, running sound, running lights, putting all that together, that really interested me.

CITA: And then you got a degree in theatrical production?

GS: Yeah.

CITA: Then what happened to you?

GS: After Flagler, I went to the Shawnee Playhouse in the Poconos for summer stock. I was the assistant technical director. One of my friends who graduated with me, we both decided that since we were already in Pennsylvania, we should move to New York City for a year. That’s what I did. I moved to New York for a year, did some odd jobs, picked up some theater stuff here and there, and then moved back to the Tampa Bay area to get married. My wife, who is in the theater department at the Patel, said “Why don’t you just come out and be a summer intern for Patel?” The day before I came in for my interview for the summer internship, the technical production person for Patel had put in his one month notice that he was leaving.

CITA: Whoa!

GS: I was hired for that position, and that was my start.

CITA: And the rest is history.

GS: Exactly.

CITA: Okay, so here you are, and you’ve been doing this for a while. You got seasoned out there in the world on your career trajectory. Do you still get nervous before a show goes up? Do you ever have feelings of, “Oh my gosh, I hope nothing goes wrong. I hope we did the lighting just right, I hope—”

GS: I get nervous the morning or the night before, thinking “What did I miss? What is going to go wrong?” Really, all it takes is for one little thing to go wrong and it can throw the whole day, especially when you’re dealing with different personalities. I’m dealing with local stagehands anywhere from … Three is normally our smallest crew, to some Broadway shows where you’re looking at 75-80 labor hands. Not to mention the actual tour, they’ve come with their own staff. So there’s always that sense of “What did I miss? What happened? What’s going to happen?” [laughs] It doesn’t matter how much pre-planning you do. When you get here and you get on the grounds, half the time the plan gets thrown out the window within the first 30 minutes.

CITA: Show business can get a little frustrating sometimes.

GS: As for the show itself, the only time I get nervous is when we’re falling behind. With The Straz being as well-known as we are, we sometimes get the first stop on tours. Once, a Broadway show had issues with their automation track. The floor that you see for Broadway shows, sometimes it’s painted elaborately, and that’s not actually our stage. It’s another deck that gets put on the stage. Sometimes they have what’s called an “automation track,” which is grooves within the stage that moves the furniture on and off.

For this show, we’re the first stop. Five minutes before I was supposed to open up the house and have the audience come in, their automation track broke. This is opening night of the first show of this new Broadway tour. I have to hold opening the house until we can get the track fixed because if we don’t get it fixed then the effect doesn’t work. That was nerve-wracking.

CITA: Did you get the automation track fixed in time for the show?

GS: Yeah. We were 20 minutes late opening up the house. We have a great usher staff and front of house staff that helped with the audience. We started only five minutes later than we would normally start.

CITA: We love these behind-the-scenes stories because it’s the show that people don’t see. It’s the high drama, the high tension of getting it to go flawlessly, or start on time. When you have all of these moving pieces in live theater, you don’t get a do over. Is that kind of excitement what drives you as part of technical production?

GS: I get my most joy from show to show. If you’re an actor touring, doing the same role for a year and a half, you’re doing the same role for a year and a half. Whereas, within a year and a half as a production manager, or the director of production services, I’m in charge of a couple hundred shows a year. I have a team, so it’s myself and there are three other production managers. Between the four of us, we are in charge of all the theaters except TECO theater.

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Gerard Siegler works shows from all genres which includes being backstage with one of the dinosaurs from Erth’s Dinosaur Petting Zoo.

CITA: Which is almost unbelievable, that a staff that small can do that many shows. Because we don’t book shows in just the theaters. We’ve got Live and Local, we’ve got Straz Live in the Park, we’ve got Fourth Friday. We have so many other events that are happening outside of the theaters, too, that just the four of you make happen.

GS: Yeah. It’s not just the shows themselves. For instance, opera has two performances that they do, but the average opera takes anywhere between two to three weeks on the physical stage to go through. You’ve got a week of loading in the set and lighting and a week of tech rehearsals. Then you have two performances, and then you load it all out in one day and you’re on to the next one. That to me is what gets me going. It always changes. Hamilton is going to be here for four weeks this season. At each show there will be some new challenge that pops up, whether it’s, “My costume ripped” or “We ruined a costume.” Or, “The washing machine went out.” You’re always on your toes.

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Close-up view of a sound board.

CITA: For people who want to be in the theater but not on stage, how do they get to where you are?

GS: I started in high school. I was one of three boys in my high school theater department, so I did a lot of stuff onstage, but I also did a lot of tech prep work. I helped with the sets, helped with the lights, even though I didn’t think about it as a career until college. If you really, really, really want to get a job nowadays behind the scenes, you either become an audio engineer or something with video. Those are the two things that are not going anywhere right now. We’re always looking for someone in audio, visual and lights. You have to be very good at what you do because as much as the actors are onstage doing their best, sometimes we’re the ones that break the performance because mics are popping.

CITA: Or you make the performance flawless.

GS: Exactly. Yes.

CITA: We have classes in technical theater here, right? Workshops for students?

GS: Yes. Patel has a stage management class and we’re going to try to work with them this year to make a technical theater class that deals with a little bit of everything. I give tours all the time to college and high school groups, especially that are technical theater oriented to come. They look at our stage; they can go into the booths.

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Inspiring the next generation of production managers, Gerard and his son Maddon on Carol Morsani Hall stage.

CITA: That’s cool.

GS: They go up to the fly rail—10 stories up. CJ Marshall, who’s our director of operations, has really tried to spearhead getting younger people interested in technical theater because when you go to a high school program, you get 30 kids who want to be actors and maybe two or three who want to work back behind the scenes. We’re trying to invest in the future.

CITA: That’s fantastic. Do you love your job?

GS: I do love it. Like I said, it’s a new thing every day. It always keeps me on my toes. This summer we’re updating and renovating a lot of our old equipment. We’re excited in the production department. We’re taking on a lot, especially with the next season almost here. It’s always fun.

testing the new hearing system at Paw Patrol

A family affair – Audrey Siegler, Patel Conservatory theater department managing director and Gerard’s wife, with their daughter Ellie, Gerard and son Maddon. Gerard is testing the new assisted listening system while the family enjoys Paw Patrol.

Confessions of a Costumer

The performing arts are big business. In this industry, we have a lot of super important jobs for people who love the theater but who may have no interest in performing. This week, we sat down with Straz Center costumer Camille McClellan, who costumes dance and musical theater productions for the Patel Conservatory, to find out the story.

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Camille working in the costume shop.

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

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

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

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

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

Glenda Wizard of OZ Patel 2018

Costume for Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CITA: Was your mom a seamstress?

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

CITA: What show was it?

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

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

CMc: Yes. Yeah.

Acteon original design Patel YAGP 2016-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circus Polka cast photo w me and Philip Patel 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pan shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finished crocodile head for Peter Pan.

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Crocodile’s body for Peter Pan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CMc: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

Put Out the Light – and Then – Put Out the Light

Okay, okay, so Morsani and Ferguson Halls “going dark” for August may not be as dramatic as Othello in Desdemona’s bedchamber (who got the blog title reference?), but us taking a short time-out is important for a number of reasons. Want to know what secret stuff we’re up to in the big Straz venues? We’re happy to spill the beans.

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A view from backstage in Morsani Hall, looking up. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

It’s no secret that our hems are a little frayed, alright? We’re thirty years old. Millions—millions—of feet have trod the carpets, butts flopped in seats, hands run along the railings. We’ve grown at the speed of time-lapse so yes, maybe, just maybe, some of our tech is retro in the wrong ways. But when you’re presenting thousands of performances in five theaters all year long, when do you have time to stop and darn the curtains?

So, good people, we are taking a breather in August and early September to attend to several exciting capital projects, most of which will happen in Morsani Hall and Ferguson Hall. Of course, Jobsite Theater kicks off its amazing 20th anniversary season with a return of Spencer Meyers in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Shimberg Playhouse during this time, so we do have other theaters that will be up, running and cranking out incredible shows.

From Aug. 6-Sept. 11 our facilities, information technology, food and beverage, and production departments will be furiously updating our operations, grounds, and services. Both Morsani and Ferguson stage floors and sound systems will be replaced as well as the Patel Conservatory sidewalk. We’re upgrading our stage lighting equipment to LED (yay!) as well as chucking our infrared listening system for a brand-new mobile connect assisted listening system (read: new Wifi and an app are involved). Our print signs are going digital, so you’ll soon be seeing more video around campus, and we’re bringing in 21st century portable staging to replace the old stuff that is probably a contemporary of the original Cats.

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Stage lights in Ferguson Hall.

You’ll notice quite a few improvements around our cocktail activity with revamped concession stands, gleaming portable bars and new equipment at the Riverside bar. We have some non-sexy but crucial upgrades in stuff you probably won’t notice like new A/C coils, door replacements and spiffy new awnings. We’ll get automated rigging pipes in the Jaeb which makes heavy lifting and reconfiguration of set pieces easier.

So even though a few theaters will be dark, we’ll still be busy-busy making The Straz the stupendous experience you know and love. If you see any of our facilities or production staff on campus while you’re here for a show or a class, you may want to shock the life out of them by saying “good job” or “the new awnings look fantastic” since they are truly our unsung heroes and sheroes of The Straz.

As always, we thank you, good people, for your support of The Straz to fund these improvements that keep your experience magical and meaningful. We hope you’ll be as delighted with our shiny new hems as we are.

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The view from the stage in Morsani Hall.

The Theater Above the Theater

Fly systems, rigging systems, whatever you want to call them, just know there’s a very serious show happening in the 60-plus feet of air above the show on stage.

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Looking up into the “fly space” on the side of the Morsani stage. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

One of the wondrous aspects of theatrical life, even from its beginnings, is the delightful mix of labor, craft and personalities required to pull off a show soup to nuts. In the performing arts world, the blue collar meets the sequined collar, toe shoes meet steel-toed boots and the Type A work ethic unites all the players from the star of the show to the spotlight operator. If you understand theater as a living organism, you understand that everyone is equally vital.

However, what remains seen on stage normally gets the lion’s share of attention. But what about what (and who) you can’t see?

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A micro-view of the intricate knots used to anchor the Morsani Hall fly system. Theater fly systems were modeled after seafaring lines and rigs used for large sailing vessels. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

A show – especially at the scale of Broadway and grand opera – simply cannot happen if the “theater magic” isn’t engineered with mathematical precision. Often, enormous, heavy set pieces float up and down, in and out of scenes to denote setting changes or to enhance show numbers. For fans of The Lion King, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, you know the primal thrill of seeing the beloved characters take flight, spin through the air, leap across rooms or glide into the show via umbrella.

These theatrical feats execute through the fly system, or rigging system, which is an elaborate superstructure of ropes, pulleys, bars, weights and fasteners that make lighting, scene changes and flying people possible. From the audience, the fly system remains invisible, but if you’ve ever wondered why professional theaters are so ungodly tall, that’s why: there needs to be a tremendous amount of space above the stage to store the show’s pieces out-of-sight, suspended over the stage to be released and hoisted on cue during the performance. We have about 70 feet of “fly space” in Morsani Hall to accommodate the large-scale theatrics of Broadway and opera.

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Along the side wall of Ferguson Hall stage, you can see the ropes and weights on the flyrail.

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Further up the wall, almost to the top of the fly system.

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At the very top of the Ferguson stage “fly space” are all of the pulleys.

Our production team, the “boots on the ground” who rig each incoming show, sends a schematic called an “advance” to the show that outlines the technical capabilities of Ferguson or Morsani (or whatever house the show will be using). The show, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I which will be in Morsani May 2-7, then gives our team a detailed blueprint, similar to an architectural rendering, of measurements, dimensions, set pieces, weight of each set piece, etc., so our team will have a heads-up for what to expect when the show loads in.

Here’s where it gets mortally serious.

Rigging a show – that is, hooking hundreds or thousands of pounds of equipment to hang over the heads of human beings walking underneath – is no joke. The riggers themselves (often noted as the cowboys of theater) often must work at death-defying heights to secure the heavy set pieces, hang lighting and load counterweights for each metal bar that brings objects in and out of scenes.

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Side lights hanging from a bar.

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About half way up to the grid above Ferguson stage.

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Almost to the top of the “fly space.” You can see the metal bars and curtains hanging and the grid directly above.

“Communication is very important between the flyman, the carpenter on the deck, the weight loaders and the rigging crew to work safely and not hurt anyone,” says Straz Center flyman Dave Reynolds. “Many of these moves are made during the show, and they’re done in blackouts with cast and crew on stage. Any massive piece of scenery that moves needs to be coordinated properly for safety. I get to do something I love every day as well. I take my job here very seriously and strive to be one of the best flymen the country.”

The most dangerous job in theater is setting up the rigging for a show and taking it down at the end of the run. If an opera uses a 700-pound backdrop, that backdrop is hung on a “pipe” or metal bar that is controlled by a rope or “line.” The line needs 700 pounds of counterweight on it to achieve what is called a “balanced load.” The rigger sets a hand brake on the line to secure it in place. When it’s show time, the flyman pops the brake, guiding the line with the balanced load, and the audience sees the smooth, light entrance and exit of a 700-pound backdrop. What the audience never sees is the extreme safety precautions riggers take to make sure they never drop 50-pound counterweights from a catwalk 45 feet in the air or drop pipes from the same height. Or miscalculate and drop a 700-pound backdrop on Lieutenant Pinkerton.

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View of the side of Ferguson stage looking down from the grid at the very top of the “fly space.” See that tiny piano on the stage?

So, the effortless appearance of scenery or characters swooping in from the wings or down from the “ceiling” actually requires quite a bit of effort, engineering, safety expertise and chutzpah from men and women who don’t get dressing rooms but do get to star in one of the most important roles in any theater production.

An Incredible Sound Feeling

The fascinating story of acoustics in Morsani Hall

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“…The curtains hanging up can retract to the attic or come down to dampen the echo for amplified shows. Wood is the best acoustical background for sound, so that is why the seats are wood….” – Mike Chamoun, director of production services at The Straz, on the acoustically-designed elements of Morsani Hall.

Next time you take in a concert or opera in Morsani Hall, also take in the acoustical secrets that hide in plain sight–the doors, the interior chambers between the lobby and the hall, and the cavity at the top of the theater. All of them work in their own orchestra of acoustic perfection that makes an evening in Morsani Hall one of unforgettable, incredible sound.

Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Straz Center, and you will find design marvels camouflaged as everyday objects: a seat back, a bare floor, a slightly-discolored seam separating Morsani Hall from Ferguson Hall.

These seemingly insignificant – or merely decorative – details belie the meticulous planning that started the moment a world-class performing arts center became a reality for Tampa.

“The people involved in conceiving the Straz Center wanted the best,” says Mike Chamoun, director of production services and veteran of The Straz since the day it opened. “They were very clear in their desire to deliver the very best performing arts center possible. So, they got the best.”

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Russell Johnson, part of the original team of planners for our performing arts center in Tampa, revolutionized the quality of sound in hundreds of concert halls all over the world.

In the case of acoustical design, the best was Artec Industries, led by famed acoustician Russell Johnson, whose inspiring creativity forged some of the world’s most celebrated modern performing arts venues. Johnson, who died at 83 in 2007, joined the original team of planners and designers tasked with creating a state-of-the-art modern facility for Tampa.

Johnson and the Artec team planned the sound capabilities of the mainstage concert hall around the classic European design, knowing that the hall would host grand opera and the multi-tonal needs of full symphony orchestras. They included a foam “acoustical seam” to be incorporated in the foundation of the building and running up through the walls between Morsani and Ferguson so that sound would absorb in the foam seam before leaking into the other concert hall, contaminating the performances. This detail explains why audiences at the Carolina Chocolate Drops show in Ferguson Hall cannot hear the thunderous applause of the audience next door in Morsani at the end of the Itzhak Perlman concert.

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A view from the stage in Morsani Hall. (Photo by Rob Harris)

“Even down to the bricks,” Chamoun adds. “Construction sand was poured into the three holes of every single brick laid to make this hall.” The sand prevents sound from circling inside the holes and dissipating. In fact, the driving concept was to hold the energy of the sound inside the hall, engulfing audiences inside the sound, giving them the sensation of sitting with the musicians or the musicians sitting among them.

“The whole room is the orchestra. There is no typical ‘shell’ on stage that has to be moved, as you find with most multi-purpose halls. The acoustical shell is the hall itself,” Chamoun says. “There is no carpeting to dampen the sound. The curtains hanging up can retract to the attic or come down to dampen the echo for amplified shows. Wood is the best acoustical background for sound, so that is why the seats are wood. As you move up the tiers, the seat backs get taller to capture sound properly and keep patrons in the proper posture for best listening capability.”

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The sound canopy – or cloud – suspended above the audience in Morsani Hall.

The crowning glory in Morsani Hall usually goes unnoticed by audiences: the 18-panel acoustical canopy, or cloud, suspended over the audiences’ heads. The panels adjust to fine-tune the hall for the specific performance: opera has different acoustic needs than a cellist and accompanist or a Broadway show. “The canopy changes the sound image,” says Chamoun. “The entire design creates an incredible sound feeling that is rarely matched anywhere else in the world.”

In the professional performing arts world, the acoustical purity of Morsani Hall garnered a reputation that precedes it. “We’re one of the largest theaters in the country,” Chamoun says, “and we hear all the time about how coming to perform here is like going on vacation. It’s a luxury hall but it’s accessible to everyone. The very best seats for music are in the third tier, that’s where the best sound collects thanks to these acoustics.”

A View from the Feet

By guest blogger Carol Cohen, Mother Matryoshka performer for 5 years

Mother Matryoshkas on Morsani Hall stage at the Straz Center during Next Generation Ballet's Nutcracker.

Mother Matryoshkas on Morsani Hall stage at the Straz Center during Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Among the whip-thin ballerinas performing grand jetés and assemblés in the Russian Imperial ballet of the Nutcracker, loom the rotund, bouncing figures of the Mother Matryoshkas—eight Russian nesting dolls, appearing in descending order of height and girth. The Matryoshkas–meaning “little mother” in Russian–appear on stage in the dream sequence along with their “children,” the polichinelle acrobats.

Different productions of The Nutcracker include a Mother Ginger—typically performed by a tall, male performer with loads of make-up, and wearing a huge hooped skirt—from which the children run out. But the Nutcracker production at the Straz Center utilizes the nesting dolls as their symbol of family and holiday togetherness.

The Matryoshka costumes are constructed of a plastic web framework covered with 2 inch thick foam padding, elaborately painted on the outside. Inside at the top is a hardhat with a chin strap—in essence, the performer balances the costume on her head and steers with two door handles mounted on either side. Vision is limited to an eight-square-inch piece of mesh—the face part of the costume.

Visibility of those in the Mother Matryoshka role is limited to the mesh opening of the costume.

Visibility of those in the Mother Matryoshka role is limited to the mesh opening of the costume.

The largest of the dolls, the Mother of all mothers so to speak, has blinking eyes (operated by a lever inside) and an opening through which the performer flutters a fan at her entourage. The performer in this role can best practice by patting her head and rubbing her stomach in a clockwise motion.

Matryoshka dolls actually originated in Japan or China—depending on which website your cursor lands on—but their attraction is universal. Type “Matroyshka” into your search engine and you’ll find the dolls spanning all cultures and emblazoned on items as varied as nail files, measuring cups and iPhone cases.

Matryoshka dolls are one of the most popular souvenirs associated with Russia in the world today, as evidenced by their frequent appearance at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Giant inflatable Matryoshkas topped the snowy slopes of the skiing and snowboarding competitions, and special TV segments took viewers behind the scenes to Matryoshka factories.

So what does it take to be a Mother Matryoshka in Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker?

Top-notch dance skills? Well, not so much. Given the girth of each Mother M and a leg opening that is only 20 inches wide, movement is more akin to marching albeit with pointed toes. More subtle movement is lost on the audience, so there is a lot of rotating, some tilting and a few basic tap steps. More animated movements would be a recipe for disaster—conjuring up nightmare scenes of rolling off Morsani Hall stage in front of 2,000 audience members.

Inside of the Mother Matryoshka costume; the performer wears the hardhat --essentially balancing the costume to wear it.

Inside of the Mother Matryoshka costume; the performer wears the hardhat –essentially balancing the costume to wear it.

Long for the spotlight? All right, get your ankles ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille. Because your feet and ankles are the only body parts that can be seen on-stage. Tell family and friends which number in line you arrive on stage to get your fair share of applause.

Prone to bouts of claustrophobia? This role is not for you. One of the costumes is brought into the auditions in September, expressly for this purpose. Seven of the eight Mother M roles are typically filled by adult students from the Patel Conservatory open dance program, with the smallest Mother M being a male dancer from the Patel Conservatory Youth Ballet.

Can’t commit to rehearsals? Nuh-uh—not going to work. Mother M’s have weekly rehearsals from September through October and then three times a week minimum up until performance time. While the steps are simple, performing on stage with limited visibility and mobility, and with sound cues muffled—in unison with seven others takes a lot of practice. Just as with all other performers, Artistic Director Peter Stark demands perfection.

Valerie Hirvela assists Karen Heinemann into her Mother Matryoshka costume for rehearsal.

Valerie Hirvela assists Karen Heinemann into her Mother Matryoshka costume for rehearsal.

So why, in the midst of a busy holiday season, take the time to be a Mother Matryoshka? Because it is an honor and a privilege to be part of a cast that provides a beloved holiday tradition for so many people. And it is a mother lode of fun!

Carol Cohen is a writer, marketer and hoarder of high-quality paper goods. She has been employed by the Straz Center for more than six years, and currently is the Communications Specialist in the Marketing Department. Carol has been an avid student of dance, theater and music at the Patel Conservatory since it opened in 2004. She and her husband Brad run a small business – MindMeld Marketing – that covers a myriad of projects. Carol never misses an opportunity to dress in costume. Ever.