Let’s ROCK

Meet classically-trained Philly pop punk rocker Kevin Sitaras, director of the Patel Conservatory’s super popular Rock School.

Rock School at the Patel Conservatory puts together people who want to be in a rock band. The drummer may be a 65-year-old retiree, the guitarist a seventh-grader, the lead singer a recent transplant working her first professional job at a bank in downtown Tampa. The point is, Rock School is for anyone and everyone who wants to rock.

Caught in the Act is thrilled to introduce you to the director, Kevin Sitaras. You can come see Kevin and his Rock School crew shred at the End-of-Summer Music Blowout this Wed., Aug. 7.

Raised by his classically-trained opera singer mother and classic rock drummer dad, Kevin absorbed the best of both worlds, learning Strauss and Slayer, Giacomo Puccini and Getty Lee. He took to music like a duck to water, playing in metal and rock bands, then having dreams fall through like they do on the artist’s road. He walked away from music, but the move didn’t suit him well. Under the strong encouragement of his girlfriend who was tired of living with a musician not playing music, he looked for another band, hitting up the Philadelphia Craigslist until he found a pop-punk band who needed a drummer. Kevin traded a few emails with one of the members, then heard nothing for a year.

“So, a year later, I got another email from him out of nowhere,” Kevin says. “Their drummer wasn’t going to do a tour they were about to go on, so he asked if I’d tour with them. I said, ‘yeah, absolutely.’ I walk into the audition just as their drummer’s walking out. So, it went from ‘you’re going to be the touring drummer to well, it looks like you’re it.’”

Kevin playing guitar with his students during a Rock School Blowout performance at Skipper’s Smokehouse. (Photo: Soho Images)

The band, Rivers Monroe, had picked up some notice on the Philly circuit, landing a manager of some prominence – in the country music scene (he helped break Taylor Swift). Thus, the hard-drumming, happy anarchists found themselves sponsored by NASCAR, gigging at NASCAR tracks throughout the country. “It was so cool to do because I got to meet race car drivers and be on the track while the race was going on, but that’s a lot of fans to play to who don’t like your kind of music,” Kevin laughs. “In a weird way, we fell in love with it, and we did end up getting some fans from the NASCAR tour and our music on a NASCAR video game.”

Rivers Monroe graduated from NASCAR to what Kevin hails as the best diet in the world – the Warped Tour. In 2015, Rivers Monroe joined the two-week hell-on-earth that is dragging your hundreds of pounds of equipment across miles of parking lots to set up during the summer heat, sit out in the summer heat, then play in the summer heat, then break down your equipment and lug it back to the bus for the next town – in the summer heat.

Photo: Soho Images

“It’s physically demanding,” Kevin says about working the Warped Tour. “You’re outside for 16 hours a day in 100-degree heat. You do that for 10 days straight. You have gear, a merch table. You’re pulling your stuff up and down hills. I lost 15 pounds in two and a half weeks. It makes me think back to when I was a kid and would see guys on the Warped Tour. I’d stick around to talk to them and some of them weren’t that nice, but I get it. I’m not saying that’s okay because when fans came up to me I was always like ‘Thanks so much: I slept three hours last night, have a horrible sunburn, I’ve changed my clothes three times and it’s only four o’clock but thank you so much for coming!’ I’m just saying I got why Warped Tour musicians just wanted to get on the air-conditioned bus after their show.”

After a successful run on the Warped Tour with Rivers Monroe, Kevin returned to his passion for songwriting, going solo and meeting some friends along the way. A good pal moved to St. Petersburg, and Kevin, like any sane person, hates winter. The lure of a singer-songwriter life in the land of sunshine led him to this neck of the woods, and a rather unlikely perfect circumstance brought him to the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center.

Kevin with Rock School students during a performance in the Jaeb Courtyard earlier this year. (Photo: Soho Images)

Kevin, who also drives for Uber, picked up a ride one day in 2018 – a certain outgoing raven-haired theater teacher – shortly after he moved to the Tampa Bay area. They struck up a conversation. She mentioned she taught theater for a performing arts school in Tampa; he mentioned he was a musician and had taught at a rock school in Philadelphia. The woman turned out to be the Patel Conservatory’s Sarah Berland. “I told Sarah about working at the rock school in Philly and she was like, ‘oh, yeah, I think we’re looking for a Rock School instructor at The Straz.’ I gave her my email address and said ‘shoot me an email and we’ll talk.’ We went back and forth, she put me in touch with Dr. [Lauren] Murray [head of the music department], and I was hired. I was so happy. The Rock School program here is incredible, so this is a dream opportunity for me.”

Dr. Murray, who gave Kevin full license to shape the program from his scope and expertise, is more than happy to welcome her newest staff member aboard. “Kevin is pleasure to work with and has made a huge impact on our program,” she says. “He’s a terrific teacher, he genuinely cares about making a difference and his rock school students made amazing progress in such a short time. I can’t wait to see what the next year brings.”

To study with Kevin Sitaras and experience the face-melting joy of living to rock, go to patelconservatory.org and search under music classes.

Practice Makes Perfect, Performing Makes Professionals

The importance of recitals in arts education

Summer at the Straz Center means a windfall of students leaping, singing, tapping, tuning, rehearsing, running lines and taking selfies with beloved teachers in our many, many (many, many) summer camps and classes. We enjoy the nonstop energy all year long at The Straz, but the exuberance of everyone here for our summer arts education programs makes life sizzle with excitement on every floor of our performing arts school, the Patel Conservatory.

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Summer campers from Musical Theater Camp: Dancing with Props pose for a quick photo during rehearsal for their end of the week showcase, 2017.

A big part of our arts education curriculum involves a performance component—after all, we must put the “perform” in performing arts. We thought we’d take a closer look at an aspect of performing arts training that often goes unexamined: the recital.

Why do it? Are recitals really necessary?

“A recital gives us a place to share with an audience,” says Patel Conservatory Music Department Chair Lauren Murray. “In music, we have a ‘triangle’ of artistic collaboration: the composer, the performer who interprets the composer’s work and the audience. The recital allows for all those collaborators to come together in one place.”

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Private voice student performing in the Honors Recital, spring 2017. (Photo: Soho Images)

Recitals also provide a legitimate training ground for professional artistic development, and, ideally, the performance executed in a recital marks a new stage in the artist’s study of her craft. “When you study privately,” says Kavanaugh Gillespie, a voice specialist at the Patel Conservatory, “you are only performing for your instructor. The recital puts you out there in front of strangers, under the lights and in a new space. It is a different and exciting atmosphere. You cannot simulate that environment. Performing as a young musician helped me become more comfortable in front of others—I can credit my comfort in the classroom to performing as a child.”

The dreaded notion of stage fright enters the equation somewhere, as it’s a top fear akin to glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. Similar in nature, stage fright and glossophobia stem from a sense of feeling threatened (perceived ridicule, failure, or ostracism) and trigger the flight-fight-freeze response in the brain. Recitals, especially in a conscientious environment, are a great way for people of all ages to learn to overcome fear and gain invaluable self-confidence in presentations.

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Beginning Dance students performing in their first recital, spring 2017. (Photos: Soho Images)

“Many people, especially when they first start performing publicly, are nervous or worry about what people will think about them personally and their playing, that the audience will judge them harshly in some way,” says Murray. “Recitals can be stressful if the performer isn’t prepared or ready for public performance. As an instructor, it’s my job to make sure I’m sending my students into an environment that’s healthy and positive, and that they are prepared. Once they’ve performed live, it’s a bit addictive, and they’re ready to do it again! As time progresses, the fear of personal ‘failure’ becomes less, transforming into a hope that the audience will like or understand or enjoy the music you’re performing. I try to get my students to transfer the concern from themselves (“what if they don’t like me”) to the audience (“I love this piece, and I want them to love it, too”).”

“Overcoming and managing stage fright can be a challenge,” says theater instructor Audrey Seigler. “Building confidence through practice is a great way to work through feelings of stress and ‘butterflies.’ Committing to a goal and working hard to achieve that goal is the core behind all recitals and performances. It’s life lessons: teamwork, pursuing goals, self-discipline, humility. Learning to manage nerves is necessary to reach one’s true potential, and practice with performing is a great way to figure out how to handle your nerves.”

“The more you perform,” Murray adds, “the positive experiences begin to replace the negative scenarios your brain invents.”

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Students from Showstoppers, Jr – Thunder Mountain Revue performing at the end of their two-week summer camp, 2017.

Even if students do not pursue professional artistic careers, recitals and public performances build a critical professional skill set.

“The long- and medium-term preparation students put into performance all the way from the beginning stages of play and early technique to the weeks or months that might go into a particular performance help develop the sense of pride and a higher level of attention to detail that translates well to nearly any aspect of life—in any discipline,” says Dr. Catherine Michelsen, string specialist with the Patel Conservatory.

“We study and take lessons to get better,” says Murray. “Our performances are places where we experience the joy of our hard work. And, if we, as teachers, are doing our jobs well, the students want to perform in a recital or live in some way, to share that joy.”

Did you know that Patel Conservatory recitals are usually open to the public? Often free of charge, our recitals are a great opportunity for community members to play their part as the collaborators of the artistic triangle. Come be in the audience! Our performances are listed on the Patel Conservatory web page.

Not Throwing Away Their Shot

The Straz Center education program readies local high school musical theater talents for the big time with the Broadway Star of the Future program. Winners get a chance to wow Broadway producers and directors in NYC for their shot at the title – and potentially launch their careers with a Jimmy® Award.

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The 2016 National High School Musical Theatre Awards. (Photo: Henry McGee)

We all know you get to Carnegie Hall with practice, practice, practice, but the joke omits the part about breaking into the business, which may be the most confounding part of wanting to be a working performer. Between a hefty mythologizing about the la-la land of show business and the often unknown paths leading to the Great White Way if you’re distanced from the Big Apple, musical theater students often feel overwhelmed by the size of their dream.

A long-time champion of the Florida State Thespians, a chapter of Education Theatre Association which supports excellence in theater education, The Straz established the Broadway Star of the Future award, a prize to two performers during the Thespians’ week-long annual festival at The Straz. These two winners, one female and one male, get a chaperoned, all-expense-paid trip to New York City to participate in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards presented by the Broadway League Foundation and created by legendary Broadway producer and theater owner James M. Nederlander.

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The Jimmys®, as they are affectionately known, is no mere red-carpet event. Oh, no. It’s a national competition, Broadway-style, which introduces aspiring musical theater performers to the demanding, week-in-the-life experience of a working actor. They have nine days to learn songs, choreography, medleys and cues for a two-hour, ticketed, live competition show at the Minksoff Theatre. They are ranked in secret by judges during rehearsal week solo performances, then the highest-ranking students are judged again during the full-cast medley sections of the Minskoff show. Scores are tallied, and four finalists are announced for a nail-biting final competition round, performing their solos once again to a packed Broadway house. One male and one female win a Jimmy, which includes a $10,000 check and guaranteed visibility with some of Broadway’s most respected vocal coaches, choreographers, directors and producers.

Realizing that the thespian pool did not reflect the talent in smaller or underserved schools, leadership at the Patel Conservatory decided to change things up a bit, separating the Broadway Star of the Future program from the Thespian Festival, which will still happen every spring at The Straz.

The exciting development this year involves our very own workshop-and-awards-show, a live, ticketed performance of the Broadway Star of the Future Awards Showcase in Ferguson Hall.

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Throughout the year, two to three credentialed, professional reviewers travel to local high schools in a four-county radius that applied to have their musicals and performers judged for several award categories. These reviewers nominate Outstanding Musical as well as Outstanding Actress and Actor, and these area schools and individuals collaborate in a one-day workshop to create the awards show for Broadway Star of the Future.

Then it’s places! Curtain! . . . and by the end of the show on June 4, we will know which two high school musical theater performers will be heading to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for rehearsals and their shot at the 2017 Jimmy Award in the Minskoff Theatre.

“Hosting this Broadway Star of the Future program widens the net of who we can celebrate,” says Vice President of Education Suzanne Livesay. “Any school with grades 9-12 can apply for review, which is so exciting for us. We get to see the bigger picture of who is out there and give them an opportunity to get to New York if that’s where they want to be.”

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2012 Broadway Star of the Future and Jimmy Award winner Joshua Grosso. On the left, Grosso performs at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards in New York.

Naturally, there are no guarantees, just opportunities – but the Straz Center’s 2012 Broadway Star of the Future, Joshua Grosso, won The Jimmy that year and was featured in the PBS documentary about the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, Broadway or Bust.

“We’re expecting this show to be a glitz and glamour affair,” Livesay says. “We have exceptional talent in this area, and they deserve a taste of the professional life that The Straz can give them from a live competition showcase in a fantastic theater. The winners will be prepared to go to New York, and we will have an incredible annual event to look forward to as a thriving, high school musical environment that makes real, professional inroads for our children.”

Bravo, Straz Education!

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Former Broadway Star of the Future winners, from top, left to right: Katrina Kiss & Adam Glickman (2010); Christian Thompson & Emily Hart (2011); Joshua Grosso & Samantha Schneider-Behen (2012); Tim Hart & Chandler Morehead (2013); Staci Stout & Nathanael Hicks (2014); Kylie Heyman & Kamari Saxon (2015); Blake Lafita & Francesca Iacovacci (2016).

Want to see the 2017 Broadway Star of the Future Awards Showcase? You can find the performance information here.

It Takes a Village to Raise an Audience

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Early childhood research reveals the critical developmental need for youngsters to participate in the arts, and many performing arts schools ensure there will be a future generation of outstanding American artists. What we sometimes forget to talk about is who, if anyone, will be in the theater seats when this next generation takes the stage. In other words, the best way to secure an audience for the performing arts is to make sure we’re raising one.

The advent of movies and television radically changed the role of live performance in American culture. The rapid developments in screen technology that paved the way for inexpensive, easy and amateur entertainment set the performing arts on a rapid parallel  evolution competing for audiences in the digital age. In the past 40 years, critics and social theorists have questioned whether or not the performing arts will be able to sustain patronage as the generations become more acculturated to screen entertainment at home and less likely to spend the money on tickets to a live show.

Most patrons of the arts can pinpoint a specific childhood influence that instilled their love of the arts — whether it was a grandparent who listened to opera,  a mother who loved musicals or a school trip to see a regional production of Annie or Romeo and Juliet. Because theater activates a multi-sensory imaginative experience, children make wonderful audiences who may have a formative moment with the performing arts that will last a lifetime.

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As trends in public education continue to edge out creative arts in favor of STEM benchmarks, the need for community support to bring young people to the performing arts grows. Most shows, for kids and adults, offer specially discounted student tickets, which is a wonderful practice although many theaters suspect students do not know they have the option for more affordable seats. Schools, home school programs and  organizations benefit from group discounts. In general, at The Straz, group rates apply to any gathering of 10 or more people, so younger adult audiences who may be ineligible for student discounts may also have access to less expensive group rates if they can come with friends. The Straz Center’s field trip performance series is a special season of weekday performances for children throughout the school year. These performances usually take place at 10:30 a.m. in Ferguson Hall and are a perfect way to begin to build the foundation for a vivid imagination — and a lifelong patron of the performing arts.

The best way to instill a love for enjoying live performing arts is to start audiences young, raising them to appreciate the thrill and transformative experience one can find only in  the theater. Today’s patron of Wee Folk, Kid Time or field trip performances may be tomorrow’s patron of new works from the next generation of Tony®- winning playwrights.

Why Arts Education Matters (We Couldn’t Have Said it Better Ourselves)

We started to write a blog about why arts education matters, but we found we could not have stated it any more plainly than Tony Award-winner Ms. Judith Light in her blog “Why Arts Education Matters,” which first appeared on the National Endowment for the Arts website.

Ms. Light echoes why we work so hard to make community outreach programs, our field trip series, scholarship opportunities, and create jobs for extraordinary local teaching artists. The Straz Center is always looking for members to help us bring performing arts education, outstanding programming and community outreach to all people.

Students in a Suzuki Violin class at the Straz Center's Patel Conservatory.

Students in a Suzuki Violin class at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory.

You have a standing open invitation to join us in inspiring audiences and artists to dream and discover, create and celebrate.

The following is excerpted from a Judith Light’s “Why Arts Education Matters” blog on the National Endowment for the Arts website.

Why Arts Education Matters

My mother taught me when I was three years old to memorize and recite “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Everybody laughs, but it’s absolutely the truth. My mother was my first teacher of the arts, and I performed “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” for my father, so he was my first audience. Even at that young age, I had a child’s intuition, which I would now say was a simple understanding of how art and culture affect us as human beings and how we can connect to each other through the arts. That understanding is something that defines my life to this day.

When I was growing up, my parents supported my interest in taking acting classes and doing community theater. My father drove me to the rehearsals every day after school, whenever I was doing community theatre productions, and I went to a performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania. I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and my parents even allowed me to go on the train to New York City when I was a young teen to study theater.

My parents’ faith in me at that young an age—and the kind of professional training I was getting from my theater teachers—gave me a sense of purpose, a sense of self-confidence, a sense of discipline. I learned what artistic achievement actually was, what hard work the business was. I didn’t have this rosy picture of what our business was. I was really learning what it would require for me to become a professional.

I was also learning about life. … I learned about having faith in myself and about developing humility. Most people know that this business is all about not getting everything you want when you want it. Since success comes with such incredible gifts, many people don’t realize that, for an actor, most of our lives are actually filled with recognizing that we can’t control things. So I’ve learned, and am still learning as this is an active process, to simply be grateful for what I’ve been given. Those are very, very precious life skills that were all part of my arts education.

I became an actor, but arts education isn’t just about preparing our young people for a career in the arts. I’m on the board of several organizations that work with young people in the New York City area through theater education, including MCC Theater and LeAp OnStage. I recently went to a LeAp OnStage class, and I talked to some of the kids participating. Some of them want to work in theater, and some of them don’t. The program teaches them theater skills, but they also learn about the world around them. They learn about discipline and hard work and what’s required and what they have to do to bring themselves to the work. They learn how they can be of service in the world through the arts. They learn how to elevate the people around them. They learn how to work with a team. By studying the arts, these students are exposed to worlds and lives that they might not have any other way of knowing about or any other way to connect with in their lives the way they are right now. Arts education expands their horizons.

These young people are our legacy. We are passing the torch to them. And I think that’s one of the most important reasons why we need to foster the arts. … I think when we get into the arts as young people, it tends to be pretty much about us and our egos. But as we really learn about the arts we discover that it is all about being of service and all about supporting others in seeing things they would not otherwise see—about themselves as well as other people.