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.

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.

Cool Facts About Performing Arts: Entrainment

Have you ever heard that clocks ticking at different beats will eventually synch up to tick in time? Well, it’s true.

Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch physicist who first identified this process using pendulum clocks, called this curiosity ‘the sympathy of the clocks,’ although what he actually identified was the phenomenon of entrainment, an exceptionally cool rhythmic synchronization that also happens to humans and animals: fireflies lock into a same beat, humans adjust their rhythmic speech patterns to each other in conversation and our brain waves, when entrained with certain frequencies, create in us states of deep peace and tranquility.

So, if you’ve ever wondered just what “it” was that made that concert feel like one giant, shared experience, why we’re so euphoric when we leave … well, we were entraining with the rhythm, and, by definition, with each other. In a bio-musical sense, we literally became the same rhythm. For a brief amount of time, a thousand humans in Ferguson Hall can synch into one giant, molecular pulsing phenomenon—one thousand clocks ticking in time. Entrainment makes us feel good, it can propel us to trance states, it explains why our ancient ancestors used drums to connect to the Great Spirit, to amp up for war, to celebrate life and death.

When researchers began to describe the phenomenon of entrainment, they assumed that “beat induction,” a component of entrainment that makes it possible to synch up to the beat in different tempos, was a unique human ability. Of course, it’s not. It turns out this sulphur-crested cockatoo, named Snowball, knows perfectly well how to entrain to a beat, and we’d be willing to bet he’s not the only one.

Entrainment reminds us that the performing arts—music, dance—were never created purely for entertainment purposes. They are as vital to human life as our other biological processes. Think about it: what is rhythm, anyway, except the replication of a beating heart?

Many thanks to ethnomusicologists Martin Clayton, Rebecca Sager and Udo Will, whose 2004 article, “In time with the music: The concept of entrainment and its significance for ethnomusicology,” was indispensable in informing this blog. Here’s the whole article, for your reading pleasure: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/experience/InTimeWithTheMusic.pdf