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.

What Is Up With Not Sitting Down

A humorous look at the rise of the standing ovation … guess this is just what we do now.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet directed by Matthew Warchus, Plácido Domingo in a solo concert of arias, the premiere of Neil Simon’s Rumors, the launch of Broadway’s Footloose, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Firebird with *the* Virginia Johnson as Firebird – this recognizable, mostly legendary list (sorry, Footloose, you weren’t legendary, but we still liked you) shares an interesting feature: not a single one ended with a standing ovation. We know because we were there.

These were fantastic shows—amazing, jaw-dropping, soul-igniting performances, all hitting the boards in the late 90’s and all worthy of sitting ovations. Standing ovations happened during rare, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. They signified an honoring of the highest possible achievement. An artist or performance had to surpass perfection.

Twenty years ago we didn’t stand for Sir Ian McKellen (a.k.a. Gandalf, Magneto) in a one-man Beckett play, but today we jump to our feet as soon as the third place winner from American Idol finishes a set of radio cover songs. Nowadays, attend any performance from the meh to the miraculous and it matters not: the audience stands, ovating, some even walking and clapping to get to the parking lot before everybody else.

What’s changed over the years? Is it the end-of-show equivalent of an A for effort? Is it, as some psychologists have argued, our attempt to justify paying for a live experience now that we’re spoiled by so much free online entertainment? Or maybe that same online entertainment is such rubbish we leap in gratitude by seeing decent art? Perhaps we are just more enthusiastic supporters of performing arts than our possibly more stiff-shirted predecessors.

We attempted researching this change, starting with the history of the standing ovation, yet we found no clear answers. The most interesting factoid, though, traced back to Roman times. After war, any leader who racked up the most impressive battle victories returned to Rome for his “triumph,” a parade celebrating his clear victories and spoils. The guy who came in second-place for battle greatness earned an “ovation,” a parade acknowledging he did alright out there and deserved props for whatever destruction, pillaging and land usurpation he wrested by force. A sheep (“ovis” in Latin) died in bloody sacrifice to his win, thus the origin of “ovation.”

What we did, find, however, were some very clear, hilariously vicious opinions penned by theater critics here and abroad scorching the now common practice of standing to clap at the end of a show.

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Ben Brantley, the well-known theater critic at The New York Times, wrote an urgent call for the return of the sitting ovation after he witnessed the audience staying seated *gasp* for a perfectly good Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 2012. “Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions whose zookeeper has arrived with a bucket of fish,” he wrote in his column “Theater Talkback: Against Ovation Inflation.” His argument, snarky as it is, ends with noting that “staying seated has become the exceptional tribute.”

London, England’s theater critics mince no pies about who is to blame for this moral deterioration (Broadway—a notable scapegoat for moral deterioration). They make Brantley look p.c. in their direct seat-shaming over the normalizing of the “s.o.”—a “curse,” as critic Michael Henderson noted in The Telegraph, and “an unwanted tradition spreading from America,” as if the s.o. is an STD (socially transmitted disease). Michael Billington, a British critic from The Guardian, likewise points his blame finger across the pond: “I am all for spontaneous enthusiasm but the standing ovation is a filthy American habit that I think should be discouraged.”

Henderson explains that Britons, proud of their ability to curb the need to overly-reward actors, reputedly did not stand for Laurence Olivier, except upon the notification of his death in 1989, which Dustin Hoffman delivered to an audience in attendance of The Merchant of Venice. At this point, Hoffman muttered that the only way to get a standing ovation in England was “to f—ing die.” Henderson, whose article “The Curse of the Standing Ovation,” claims “it is … a gesture of self-reward … this canker in our theatre-going is also rooted in a narcissism that has spread through all parts of life. …Me, me, me. It’s all about me.” Sitting still, sitting quietly, he concludes, reflect the “old virtues,” a time before all this “blubbing and cheering, like stroppy teenagers.”

For Billington, the infection of the American need to present the s.o. to everything evokes probing issues of identity. “What’s come over us?” he asks in his 2008 theater blog “The Standing Ovation is a Filthy American Habit.” “Is it a result of rising ticket prices, the touchy-feely society in which emotions have to be displayed, or simply a product of a show-off culture in which you have to prove you can ovate more noisily than your neighbour? The argument against the standing ovation is simple. If you do it for virtually everything, it soon becomes valueless.”

The Brits are great at a cutting remark, but former St. Paul critic Dominic Papatola once quipped that “Minnesotans would give a standing ovation to a Schwan’s truck.” Ouch. We hope the beloved audiences in MN aren’t bleeders. Later, though, Papatola came clean about his feelings as he aged and had a little perspective. In the Duluth News Tribune, he said “now it’s not one of those things I can really let myself get worked up about . . . Mainly I am grateful that there are people in the audience at all.”

Mostly likely, we’re in an evolution of response. We don’t snap like the old Greco-Roman or Beat days. Maybe the standing ovation is returning to its Roman origins and is acknowledgement of a job well done, a hearty thank-you for participating in something not many others do.

If so, sitting for the performers at the curtain becomes what? A triumph?

How It Works: Rodgers+Hammerstein’s Cinderella

Big, blockbuster Broadway musicals come with singers, dancers, fabulous costumes … and many trucks. How do those whopping set pieces end up on Carol Morsani stage? The answer is lots of (literal) manpower. We took some after-hours and behind-the-scenes photographs of the “load-in,” which is the usually very quick turn-around time between when the show trucks arrive to when the curtain rises on the opening performance. Here is a look at the shape a Broadway musical is in when it gets to town.

Two trucks arrive at the Straz Center on the first day of load-in for Cinderella.

Two trucks arrive at the Straz Center on the first day of load-in for Cinderella.

The view from the back of the trucks in the loading dock, and onto Carol Morsani stage. The loading dock at the Straz Center is truck-level and stage-level. This allows for easier load-in and load-out of shows.

The view from the back of the trucks in the loading dock, and onto Carol Morsani stage. The loading dock at the Straz Center is truck-level and stage-level. This allows for easier load-in and load-out of shows.

Preparing the stage lights on day one of load-in for Cinderella.

Preparing the stage lights during day one of load-in.

More trucks arrive for day two of load-in for Cinderella.

More trucks arrive for day two of load-in for Cinderella.

Looking into the trucks parked in the loading dock.

Looking into the trucks parked in the loading dock.

The horses arrive in one of the trucks on day two of load-in.

The horses arrive in one of the trucks on day two of load-in.

Close-up of the horses.

Close-up of the horses.

I spy a pumpkin hiding in a pile of props!

I spy a pumpkin hiding in a pile of props!

Putting set pieces and props together for Cinderella.

Putting set pieces and props together for Cinderella.

More Cinderella stuff off the trucks!

More Cinderella stuff off the trucks!

A vegetable cart for the tour of Cinderella.

A vegetable cart for the tour of Cinderella.

Set pieces and props for the tour of Cinderella.

Set pieces and props for the tour of Cinderella.

A look into the orchestra pit on day two of load-in for Cinderella.

A look into the orchestra pit on day two of load-in for Cinderella.

Setting up more scenery for Cinderella on day two of load-in.

Setting up the scenery for Cinderella on day two of load-in.