I Have Reptiles to Thank for It

A Straz Center exclusive interview with National Geographic LIVE! wildlife photographer Shannon Wild.

On Jan. 21, our popular National Geographic LIVE! speaker series kicks-off with Australian-born photographer Shannon Wild. Caught in the Act writer Marlowe Moore caught up with Shannon via phone at her home in Africa, where Shannon is currently working on a documentary about one of the only white lions left in the wild. Her documentary on that cat’s cousin, Pursuit of the Black Panther, inspired the lecture she’ll give here next Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Ferguson Hall.

Shannon Wild

Here, Marlowe chats with Shannon about a shared love of all things reptile, animals and the ups and downs of her toothy but charmed career choice.

Marlowe Moore: I’m super pumped up to talk with you because we have a couple of things in common, and one is that we have a shared love and appreciation for reptiles. I very rarely come across another woman who is totally out of her mind in love with reptiles. Can we start talking about how you grew up and how did you realize you were in love with reptiles? What were your introductory reptiles?

Shannon Wild: I don’t know exactly where the love of reptiles came from. It’s always been there. It definitely didn’t come from my parents. [laughs] They don’t share the same love … They tolerated it as I was growing up. I guess I found reptiles fascinating. Being in Australia, there’s a lot of varieties, so maybe that has something to do with it as well.

I remember rescuing a blue-tongued lizard. I think I was maybe eight years old. That was my first attempt at reptile rehabilitation, which I went on to do years later as a volunteer in Australia. Reptiles got me interested in photography in the first place because I had pet reptiles. I had snakes and lizards and all sorts of things. I just started taking pictures of them for myself, then it led to the next thing of shooting for other people and magazines.

Then I thought, “Hmm, I could take this seriously.” I enjoyed it even more than what I was doing at the time, which was working as a graphic designer. Photography was a way I could combine my love of animals with my creative side, to combine them into one sort of show. It evolved into a career. It took a long time—especially to get to the point of earning any kind of living out of it. I definitely have reptiles to thank for it. That’s for sure.

MM: I feel 100% certain that’s what I’m going to title this interview: “I Have Reptiles to Thank for It.”

SW [laughing]: It’s so true … I like them so much.

MM: So do I. I just want to hug them all the time.

SW: Oh my God. I never meet people that feel the same way. It’s hilarious.

MM: I actually lived in Australia for a while, attending uni in Wollongong for my study abroad.

SW: Oh, that’s where my father lives actually.

MM: In Wollongong?

SW: Yeah.

MM: Wow! That is crazy. Did you grow up there?

SW: Small world.

MM: Right?

SW:  I have a bit of a complicated family history. I’m actually adopted. Later, I found my biological parents. It’s my biological father who lives in Wollongong, whereas I grew up in Queensland.

MM: Did you grow up around Brisbane?

SW: Yeah, I grew up on the Gold Coast. Then moved west. My dad was a farmer, so we ended up back out west on the land. Once I was old enough and graduated from high school, I moved to Brisbane for a while, nearly a decade. Then I was in Melbourne for about four years. Then sold everything I owned, and up and moved to Africa on a whim.

MM: I love that part of your story so much. It’s the dream of many of us, yet you actually did it. It’s exciting. So, you pack up, you leave Australia, you move to Africa. What’s your end game here?

SW: I mean, honestly, if there was any logic to it, I would not have done it. I’m usually a very analytical, careful person … but I don’t know. Everything fell into place. I was at a point where I was very restless where I was career-wise. I was already looking for opportunities to work and move overseas.

Then a few things happened that opened up that I go into in my talk. I threw caution to the wind and ended up in Africa. It’s an interesting and funny story, but it’s something that I go into in the talk. It’s how I met my now husband, and it’s quite funny.

MM: Well, we won’t spoil anything in this interview. People will just have to come see the show if they want to know how it turned out for you in Africa.

SW: Yes. The story has everything. There’s reptiles. There’s moving to Africa …

MM: We’re excited. You’ll find that Tampa such a receptive audience. They’re just going to love you.

SW: That’s great!

MM: So, I’m was looking through your social, and there’s a photo of you and a king cobra. Can you talk a little bit about that moment, or is that going to be in the talk, too?

SW: No. Is that where I was probably laying down and it sort of went up and flared its hood?

MM:  Yes.

SW: Okay, so it was actually an Egyptian cobra, and it’s here in South Africa where I am at the moment. I realize people are out there probably like, “This woman is crazy.” But, I know my gear and I know the animal. I’m used to interpreting body language. I know the strike distance.

Egyptian Cobra. Photo by Shannon Wild

The image depends on the angle of the camera. It might look really close, but I’ll go within a safe distance, and I have a lot of experience knowing where to be. I have myself positioned at a nice, safe distance, but I wanted that shot of where it’s hooding. One of the things with animal photography is you have to get down low. As low as possible. Hence, the reason I’m lying on the ground. It looks like I probably couldn’t get away very quickly, but I know it’s a safe working distance.

Also, I have to be careful because they’re one of the spitting cobras, so if you annoy it enough, it will try to spray the venom in your eye. This one was somewhat relaxed. It got to the point where it obviously showed who was boss and did the nice flare out of that hood, which is the shot that I wanted to get. It’s a beautiful snake. I get so excited, but most people are like “Why?” “You’re crazy.” [laughs]

MM: I know. It’s so hard to articulate the love of snakes, the magic of what it feels like to be around them.

SW: Oh, yes.

MM: What are some of your favorite snakes? Or not even just snakes, but what are the animals that you just like to be around?

SW: Reptiles definitely always take the top position … My favorite out of all reptiles is the monitor species, so obviously the Komodo dragon. Seeing them in the wild is the pinnacle. I’ve been able to photograph Komodos a couple of times now, which is amazing. They’re just so massive and strong, but they’re also so incredibly confident in their own ability. It’s like, eh. They don’t care. They know that they can mess you up if they really want to.

But, they also are so chill. It’s really an interesting kind of contrast. I think maybe the thing that people can’t wrap their heads around is that because they don’t really understand the body language of a reptile, they just assume that it’s trying to get them. Whereas those of us who have experience with reptiles and observe them enough are able to interpret those little bits of body language that are more subtle than, say, mammals. Then we can predict the animal’s next move—usually.

We know if it’s uncomfortable or angry, or if it’s sort of relaxed, so we can act accordingly.

In terms of other animals I like to be around, oh my goodness. There have been so many incredible experiences, it’s hard to pull out a species, but, I mean, leopards are definitely up there. They’re stunning, but they’re very unpredictable as well—very dominant and strong.

The leopard is one of the most interesting cats because it’s so unpredictable. We have a saying here in Africa, the only predictable thing about leopards is their unpredictability. That’s it. You don’t mess with a leopard. I will walk where there are wild lions, but you do not want to surprise or corner a leopard. They say over here ‘it’s a hundred stitches a second.’ If you get attacked, I mean, oh my goodness. It’s all over. They’re insane. I have a lot of respect for them.

MM: I have a friend here who had a big cat sanctuary, so I was able to spend some time with his big cats, a tiger and some cougars. He knows a lot about leopard behaviors, but in captivity. I’m laughing as you’re saying all this because when we go and visit sanctuaries that have some of the big cats, whenever there’s a leopard, he’s just like, “Leopards are crazy, leopards are crazy.” But with the utmost respect.

SW: [laughing] Yes. It’s so true. We say the same thing. They literally are out of their minds crazy. I don’t know what it is that sets them apart from other cats because lions are so much bigger, but honestly if I didn’t have the safety of a vehicle, I would much rather stumble across a lion, which I have done on foot. 90% of the time they’ll run away. They’re like, “I’m out.”

Whereas with a leopard, it’s over before you realize what came out of the bushes. Thankfully, I was in a vehicle the whole time in India [photographing leopards], and we weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicle, which in Africa you can be in a lot of cases. I have a lot of experience filming on the ground. In India, it’s also a forest full of tigers. You’ve got tigers and leopards. You don’t want to get out of the vehicle.

MM: Just keep your hands and feet in the vehicle at all times.

SW: No sudden movements.

MM: Do not turn your back. [laughing] Shannon, will you talk a little bit about your life. It’s really cool. You’re doing it. You’re living the dream. You’ve been honest in your other interviews and on your YouTube videos about how hard it is. Just the grind that it takes to be able to have the life that you have … What inspires you to keep going because you’re facing a lot of circumstances where it would be easy to give up. What is it that keeps you out there?

SW: The passion for the animal. For me, when I’m out long term in the field, you don’t have basic amenities a lot of the time. You certainly don’t have luxuries. I’m a bit of a type-A person. I like to have things just so. It’s a real contrast to me to have to go out into the wild.

Shannon Wild with elephant

It was a real shift of mindset for me that I learned as I went. Honestly, I come back purely because of the passion for the wildlife, the happiness and contentment I feel when I’m out there in their presence regardless of how hard the conditions are. I’ve been shooting for 16 years, and I have so many situations where I could have given up, or I probably should have given up.

But, honestly, I feel like I’m so lucky that I get to do this job. It’s something I dreamed about doing, but somewhere in the back of my mind. It was too far away of a dream to actually acknowledge, the kind of dream you don’t even say out loud because it would never happen.

I’m so appreciative today. I feel like if I list all the troubles and challenges that I’ve had along the way, I’d sound like I was complaining, but there have been highs and lows. It’s a bumpy road. Two of my main challenges in the last kind of six years I go into in the talk. One is my cheetah attack, which I’m sure you’ve seen online.

MM: I did. We’ll save this conversation, too, so people have to come to see you if they want to find out about your cheetah attack.

SW: Yes, I tell you all about it. All the places I messed up. Why it happened.

MM: Did you at least end up with some really cool scars?

SW: I do. It’s been six years, and I still definitely have very visual scars, so if we per chance get to meet face to face, I can show you those. I’ve got clear bite-puncture wounds of the canines and stuff. It’s in an arc around my arm, but it’s healed surprisingly well because for the first two years, I had a very distinct arc indent where the mouth crushed my bicep. I was laughing the whole time—I was so embarrassed. You don’t understand. I knew how badly I’d messed up. If I get embarrassed, I get nervous, so I focus on making sure everyone else is super comfortable. I’m like, “It’s fine, it’s fine.” I just messed up so badly, but it’s healed pretty well, considering.

MM: Six years later, it’s totally cool. You have a totally cool cheetah scar.

SW: I don’t mind scars at all. They make great stories. I don’t know how much of a deep dive you’ve done into my social, but I also managed to break my back while I was out filming in India. I talk about that a little bit in the lecture, too. I just don’t go into a huge amount of detail because the lecture is about the actual panther and trying to create this documentary.

MM:  Oh my gosh, no. I didn’t come across the fact that you’d broken your back.

SW: I’m trying not to give it away, so people can be really surprised. There were a few challenges that went with trying to make this documentary [Pursuit of the Black Panther]. Not the least of which is that we’re trying to follow one very elusive animal in a massive forest that’s really dense. That was hard enough, but then there were definitely a few things along the way that made it, oh my goodness; I want to say one of the hardest films I’ve ever done, but what I’m working on at the moment is proving to be even more difficult. Oh my God. Why? Why do I do this? I don’t know.

MM: Can you talk a little bit about this new film, or is it classified information?

SW: No, no. It’s definitely not classified. We keep picking very difficult subjects. Our current project, this is my husband and I, we basically find the stories and pitch those. That’s what we did with the black panther. That’s what we’ve done with our current one for National Geographic, which is on white lions here in Kruger National Park. Like the black panther, there’s an abundance of them in captivity or in situations where they’re bred, but to appear naturally in the wild, there is only three in existence—ever.

They’re in our part of the world, so we’re trying to film them, but oh my Lord, it’s very difficult because one is an adult and he’s just … he’s old enough that he’s broken away from his pride and he’s trying to find his way, which means he has no set territory. We’re hoping that he settles down soon, but he’s crossing countries. Kruger’s right on the border of Mozambique, so he’s spending time in South Africa, then he just pops over into Mozambique. Then he comes back. There’s no collar, no tagging, so we have no idea where he’s going, when he’s going. Just the logistics of trying to find him and film the documentary with limited budget … we can’t be out in the field waiting on him.

This one particular lion is just … he’s all over the place.

MM: How do you find out where he is? Is there a phone tree where somebody’s like, “I just saw him, get up here to Mozambique,” or somebody is like, “Hey, I just saw him down here in South Africa.” How are you keeping up with his movements?

SW: We’re using a lot of methods. We have contact with different lodges in the area that have certain access to different sections of Kruger. If he comes into that range and they have a sighting, they’ll let us know. Then it’s a matter of if we can get out quick enough before he’s left … There’s only a certain amount that we can film in Kruger National Park itself because it’s different permits and la-de-da. Then if he goes into Mozambique, we can’t do anything about that because we don’t have filming permits for a different country. It’s proving a bit more difficult than the black panther.

MM: Oh, man.

SW: The white lion is a very interesting animal, that’s for sure. Then the other two white lions are some cubs who popped up, which was very lucky because when we first pitched the idea to National Geographic and got it green-lit, there was only that one adult male.

We were basically like the panther trying to make a whole documentary around this one animal. Whereas, now with a couple of cubs in the mix, we have a bit more flexibility of telling a full-on story of different life stages of such a unique cat. It’s pretty exciting. Very challenging. We keep picking difficult subjects. We need to pick something easy … We only have ourselves to blame.

Shannon Wild filming in South Africa

MM: Right. Next time you’ll have to do pigeons in Central Park or something.

SW: [laughs] Where’s the fun in that?

MM: So, where do you go for vacation? What do you do on your time off? Do you have time off? Maybe that should be the first question.

SW: Not really. I mean, I’m freelance, so there’s no regularity. I’m constantly looking for the next job. Also, I’m very much trying to diversify, so that there’s some sort of regular income coming in because being a photographer is such a difficult way to earn a living. There’s definitely no financial stability. Even when we have a long-term project. Nobody gets into this industry for the money, that’s for sure. Also, it’s taken me so long to get to this point where I feel like I’m starting to make something of it after 16 years.

It’s been such a hard job to get here that I can’t switch off anymore. If I technically had time to take off, I can’t not do something or work. Feel like I’m doing something that contributes to some kind of stability in the future. It’s something I need to work on a little bit because my husband’s always like, “Shannon, you’re a wreck.” “Calm down.” “Stop it.” But, that’s a bit hypocritical of him because he doesn’t stop either, so he can’t really tell me that. We’re as bad as each other.

MM: Right, so it’s kind of like an ‘I’ll stop when you stop’ situation?

SW: Yeah. I can’t relax. I can’t sit still and not do anything. I have to be doing something productive.

I used to like everything just so, and now if I’m in a situation where I’m in one place for too long, I’ll find myself getting restless. All the experience over the last few years has really rubbed off and changed a part of my innate personality because I literally … I think I’d drive myself nuts if I had to be in one place for a long amount of time.

MM: You do a lot of work. We noticed you’re predominantly terrestrial. Would you ever think about underwater photography?

SW: I actually really love it. In April last year, I went to Fiji and spent a bit of time in the water, and did a little bit of filming, did some shots diving. It reminded me how much I really love the water because I’d been on land for so long. I work in a lot of land-locked countries, but I really want to do more underwater.

MM: Well, look Shannon, I’d love to keep you on the phone all afternoon, but we know that you have an upcoming call.

SW: Yes, I have my first live rehearsal with Nat Geo that I am doing it from memory.

MM: This will be the talk that you’re bringing here?

SW: Yes, so as of yesterday I’ve been able to do it from memory. Today’s my first time doing it live to the Nat Geo offices.

MM:  No pressure.

SW: [laughs]  I’m terrified.

MM: You’ll totally crush it.

SW: I hope so. You’ll find out.

MM:    We’ll find out January 21st. We cannot wait to see you.

SW: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I’m super excited. I wish I was going to Florida for longer. I have to see the Everglades.

MM: If you ever want to come to the Everglades, I’ll hook you up with all the awesome stuff. Alligator courtship season starts soon, so this time of year is the best time to be down there.

SW: 100%. It’s on my very long bucket list.

MM: Done. All right. Well, good luck with Nat Geo. We’ll see you next week.

SW: Thank you.

Black Panther in India

Want tickets to Shannon Wild’s presentation Pursuit of the Black Panther? We got ‘em.

Arts Legacy REMIX

What started as a conversation about celebrating the Tampa area’s rich artistic heritage turned into a free concert series drawing unexpectedly large crowds. The Straz Center’s Arts Legacy REMIX was a long time in the making and looks like it’s here to stay.

After a brutal warrior’s stint in Vietnam that gave him an ultimatum to become brutal himself or take a higher calling, Fred Johnson chose love.

A longtime jazz musician who’d played with Aretha Franklin and Lionel Hampton and opened for Miles Davis, Fred immersed himself in studying Sufi wisdom and musical-spiritual cultures around the world. He wove this knowledge into his streetwise philosophy of caring for the neighborhood through the sharing of talents.

Fred Johnson

Fred eventually left The Straz to take this philosophy on the road, traveling around the world working with artists and community organizations to find paths of common ground and opportunities to teach. “I always kept in touch with The Straz and felt connected to the work here. I always felt, on some level, no matter where I was, I was an ambassador for Tampa. My journey out into the world was an extension of the work we did here, looking into how profoundly arts and artists can serve as catalysts for real transcendence and transformation,” he says.

Judy and Fred reconnected in 2016 at a Creative Forces forum, an organization dedicated to exploring ways the arts help veterans with PTSD and effects of traumatic brain injury.

“Our conversations were about the fact that society as a whole sees the therapeutic benefits of the arts from re-attaining wholeness with veterans to the growing need to find common ground among people,” Fred says. “We had started that notion with the Community Arts Ensemble, and we are living in times very receptive to this idea now.”

“We wanted to amplify that commitment and make real ways for the public to have greater access to The Straz. That’s what Arts Legacy was born from.”

Fred returned in 2017 to spearhead the Arts Legacy initiative which built on the philosophical foundations of art’s profoundly transformative role in the human experience.

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

“Arts Legacy is about celebrating our community’s cultural impact,” says Straz Center President and CEO Judy Lisi. “Our community artists belong here, creating and having a place to be seen and appreciated. It’s very important that, as a community arts center, we represent the powerful sectors of culture right here. Fred took that notion and brought it to life; he’s always been great at working withdifferent members of the community to communicate and realize our commitment to all.”

Fred assembled a team of diverse community members to give input on what this Arts Legacy initiative would be. “The Straz has a responsibility to be an active community member, to have a voice at the table when decisions are being made that affect people.”

”Our legacy is redefining the role of art — that understanding art and creativity are the foundations to manifest change, to make the world a better place,” says Fred. Through a network of community members, the Arts Legacy team built a series of performances highlighting certain cultures that themselves are foundations to the Tampa Bay area.

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

In essence, they got to the work of building bridges.

They got to the business of calling out to the heart and soul.

People answered.

The team took suggestions, made contacts, networked, organized and, in the end, produced six free concerts on the Riverwalk, drawing crowds of up to 500 people. They needed a name for the series and the Straz Center marketing team came up with Arts Legacy REMIX. “It’s hip, it’s inclusive,” says Fred, “and the success of Arts Legacy REMIX events was the outgrowth of reaching into the community and saying ‘hey, not only do we have one of the finest institutions in the world to present art, we also have this amazingly culturally and ethnically rich community that we can learn about from each other.’”

Last year, Arts Legacy REMIX hosted song, dance and drum performances around Hispanic heritage, Indian Diwali, Dr. King, Asian culture and global storytelling. Arts Legacy REMIX also hosted the Black Artists Film Series in the TECO Theater.

“It’s been really great just to see how excited people are about these performances and how much they look forward to it,” Fred says. “People are having an expanded relationship with The Straz and realizing how much we want to celebrate the arts and artistic traditions we have around us. It’s exciting to know we’re becoming more a part of people’s everyday lives by creating more opportunities for them to be on our grounds.”

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

“We’re open to suggestions and ideas. We have the line-up for the 2019-2020 season and six more performances, but we are excited to engage as many members of the community as we possibly can,” Fred says. “Now more than ever, the artist is really important in putting a different kind of stamp on the human experience. We welcome community theater companies, community organizations — any folk out there who love what we’re doing and who want to support what we do; they can email communityprograms@strazcenter.org

The next Arts Legacy REMIX performance will be an MLK Commemoration: Power of Storytelling on Jan 17.  performances take place on the Riverwalk Stage, free of charge.

The Two Best Reasons to See A Tuna Christmas Right Now

There are two stars in this Christmas story, and they’re actors Spencer Meyers and Derrick Phillips.

Derrick Phillips as Arles Struvie and Spencer Meyers as Thurston Wheelis. Photo by Rob Harris Productions

The first wave of the Tuna, Texas two-man laugh-a-thons roared through theaters in the 90s, drawing tons of attention to the original actors, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears. The guys concocted a series of stage plays about a fictional town and its deliciously eccentric inhabitants, traveling the country with Greater Tuna; Red, White and Tuna and the Straz Center’s current holiday gift to you, A Tuna Christmas. Two of the Tampa-area’s own comic geniuses—Spencer Meyers and Derrick Phillips—tackle the daunting script of 20+ characters. Caught in the Act grabbed a few minutes of their time to gab about the show.

Caught in the Act: What in the world made you audition for a show that has more than 20 characters but only two actors?

Spencer Myers: I love playing multiple characters in a comedy. I get such an adrenaline rush.

Derrick Phillips: These types of shows are dreams for actors. It is a wonderful challenge to take your training and apply so much of it into one show. Each character has a different physical, vocal and mental space. To be able to showcase that into one show is amazing. And who doesn’t like to do a show like this that is filled with so much fun and laughter as well as heart?

CITA: How many total characters do you play in the show, and which are your top two faves to play? What is it about those two characters that make them your favorite to perform?

SM:  I love all my characters in some way. My favorites are Bertha Bumiller and Inita Goodwin. Bertha’s storyline is wonderful and fully fleshed out. It’s nice to have one of my characters have a story arc and hit all the emotions. Sometimes I just want to give Bertha a big hug.

DP: I play 11 characters in the show. As the play has progressed, my favorites seem to change on a daily basis. They all have a special place in my heart. If I had to pick two … I think they would be Vera Carp and Petey Fisk. Vera is a favorite to perform because of the multiple layers of her personality. I have met this lady, not in Texas, but I have met her. She has sharp edges and interacts with not only the other actor on stage but the people who live in her house whom the audience does not see. Once you see the show, I think you will understand why Vera is fun to perform.

SM: Inita is just plain fun—a fantastic and energetic way to start Act Two. She’s mentioned in the first scene of Act One and not actually seen until the top of Act Two. Act Two is a whirlwind of quick changes for both me and Derrick. Fun and fast comedy in the beginning to then settle into some of the more heartfelt storyline conclusions of the characters of Act One.

DP: Petey Fisk is a pure and loving soul that has a lot of heart in this show. I enjoy performing as this character because he is different than the rest of the town (other characters even say that). He has a lot of hilarious lines, but they come from such an honest place. He’s quirky and will not only fill the audience with laughter but also warm their hearts. He is like an adult Tiny Tim.

I have to also mention how enjoyable it is to play Helen Bedd. She is one of the waitresses in the Tastee Cream and she is just a delight to play. Her demeanor and physicality are so fun to step into and live out.

CITA: Seems like this would be an easy show to blunder … have you ever gotten your characters’ lines confused, accidentally saying Helen Bedd’s line while you were playing Didi Snavely type of thing? Have any identity crisis stories or funny mix-up moments you’d like to share with our readers?

SM: Oh, now you just want me to give away secrets? Yes. The accents have blurred before. You sometimes have 15 seconds to change your costume completely before barreling onstage as another character. Bertha and her Aunt Pearl are very similar, and sometimes I have started the scene as the other. If it happens it’s usually a word or two. This has also happened in the rehearsal process with one scene where two of my characters fight with each other off stage. You can also imagine the looks people gave me while I was rehearsing this scene quietly to myself in public.

Spencer Myers as Bertha Bumiller and Derrick Phillips as Arles Struvie. Photo by Rob Harris Productions

DP: This is a show that if you didn’t have your backstage costume changers you could easily get mixed up. Sometimes the character changes are so fast that I have to really think about who am I next, where is my physical and vocal placement, what mental state am I at this moment. These are all considerations that the actor ha to make in 10-15 seconds. Most plays you have a moment off stage, not this one.

DP: There have been times as Vera, where I have meant to talk to Virgil (son not seen) and shouted at Lupe (the maid, also not seen). The dynamic of backstage and onstage really help not having any mix-up moments. There is a choreography on and off the stage that is necessary for a show like this.

CITA: What’s your favorite line in the show?

SM: This is too hard because I have so many. Bertha’s lines are some of my favorites. They have that Mama’s Family cadence to them. Okay, let’s see if I can choose one.

Bertha: “Oh Didi, it’s so hard to hold up when the entire town knows my husband is as useless as an ice tray in Hell.”

DP: This is a tough one – and I am sure it will change as the play continues.

Charlene: “I don’t want to waste my artistic integrity on a pathetic little shrub” … but to be honest, this is a very hard question. There are so many.

CITA: Let’s say you have to move to Tuna, Texas. Who are you going to get along with best? Who are you going to steer clear of?

SM:  I think I’d get along with Thurston and Arles. I WANT to be friends with Aunt Pearl and Dixie! There’s no way I could be friends with Vera Carp. We all know a Vera, bless her heart.

DP:  I would absolutely hang out with Helen Bedd. I would probably steer clear of Vera Carp at all costs [laughs].

Spencer Myers as Bertha Bumiller and Derrick Phillips as Arles Struvie. Photo by Rob Harris Productions

CITA: Finally, the major drama in A Tuna Christmas happens around the unholy desecration of the annual Yard Display Contest.  If, since you’re imagining living in Tuna, you had to create a yard display for this esteemed event, what would yours be?

SM: Let me tell you, there is some stiff competition in Tuna. I would love to see some of the displays that are mentioned in the show, especially Aunt Pearl’s display from the previous year.

I wonder if I could pull off a Christmas Haunted House? I wonder if that would stop the Christmas Phantom.

DP: Think National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but with sound synching to the lights. I also would want it to be as inclusive as possible. Maybe even a snow machine.

See Spencer and Derrick don the many faces—and accents—of Tuna, Texas from now until Dec. 22.

 

People Get Ready

Club Jaeb artist Kyshona Armstrong talks about the music that made her and her journey from a music therapist into a singer-songwriter in this exclusive interview.

Caught in the Act caught up with folk musician Kyshona Armstrong while she was on the road to Missouri for a gig. She appears next Monday, Dec. 16 as our featured Club Jaeb artist for December.

Caught in the Act: Let’s talk about the South. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your life there.

Kyshona Armstrong: I grew up in a town called Irmo, South Carolina, and it’s right outside of Columbia. We used to run around in the woods. We spent a lot of time in the house or playing out in the yard or whatnot. My grandpa played guitar and sang in a gospel quartet, and my dad is the same. In the house, my dad was always practicing, so we would hear him playing old gospel songs on his electric or playing “People Get Ready.” [sings] People get ready, for the train’s coming. [laughs] He was always playing that or the solo from Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Those were his go-to songs. Anytime I hear them, my brother and I are like, we think of Daddy.

When I was young, Mama put me in piano, and that was my escape. I loved telling stories through the music alone. I loved creating a soundtrack to whatever was going on in my mind. Whatever Beethoven or Mozart song, I always had a movie in my head when I was practicing and playing. That’s how I always wanted to emote.

I feel like singing wasn’t something that I grew up doing, though. I preferred getting an emotion across just through my hands. Even when I was playing the oboe, I wanted to tell a story through the music alone. I wasn’t wanting to use my voice. When I went off to college and studied music therapy, music became this ‘oh, we can create in the moment. I don’t have these notes right in front of me that are telling me what to play and what dynamic to play it and what speed to play it, but I’m able to create in the moment with my patients and with my other therapists or with my classmates.’

It got back to what I experienced with my grandfather, with my dad, of creating in the moment with others and creating an environment with the music.

CITA: Was there any particular reason why you didn’t think about singing as a part of who you were as a musician? Did you not want to speak? Did you feel like you didn’t really have anything to say?

KA: I definitely was a very shy kid, very much an introvert. I did not want to be the center of attention. I never want anybody looking at me. I didn’t want focus on me at all. Please ignore the fact that I’m in the room. [laughs].

But I didn’t really have anything to say, either. What I’ve always prided myself on, though, even when I was shy and the ultimate introvert, was the ability to convey an emotion through song. I wanted to give people the experience of going on a musical journey. I wanted to play Fur Elise by Beethoven completely different than anybody else did because I wanted the listener to have a different experience. I’ve always connected to wanting to give people a different emotional response.

But as far as me using my actual voice to do that, though … I didn’t find my voice until I was having to use it for my patients, and it was just my patients saying, ‘your voice is very soothing, your voice is very calming.’

When someone is telling you that, and they’re a person in a hospital bed, then that’s how I’m going to use my voice from then on. If someone has said ‘your voice comforts me,’ I’ll use it again in a comforting way. Slowly, I started to own the voice that was coming out.

My voice has changed for sure over the years from a quiet, comforting voice to one that is gritty. I growl a lot more. I yell a lot more, but I think that’s also because I’ve walked through the world a little bit more and I’ve seen so much more.

CITA:  Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into musical therapy as a job?

KY: I went to the University of Georgia. It was one of the oldest music therapy programs. Because I had so many years under my belt as a pianist and as an oboe player, I knew that if I was going to go to college and needed scholarships, music had to be the way to do it. I was also very fascinated with psychology. My junior year in high school, I met this guy at the cotillion for my church, and I was just talking about, yeah, I need to do music and I’m in the marching band so I know I’m going to have to major in music somehow.

He was like, well you know, there is this profession called music therapy. I leaped on it and started doing research, and I found the American Music Therapy Association organization’s website. There was a music therapist in Columbia who worked at Baptist Medical, and I shadowed her. I followed her around for my junior year class project, and at that point I was like, ‘I think I know what I want to do.’ It sounded awesome—to combine music with psychology and the ability to help people through music.

CITA:  Then you ended up working in some really hardcore situations, in prisons and with people who had mental illnesses. You went straight into what you’ve referenced before as “really heavy circumstances.” Did you feel called to be there? At any point were you aware that you were gathering materials as an artist, or did the work feel more like spiritual healing?

KA:  I definitely was not aware of gathering any kind of materials. I think it was more self-centered than that.

For me, if somebody says, ‘this is a population that is hard and it might be difficult for you, we don’t know if you can handle it,’ then I’m always like, ‘cool.’ That’s what I want to do.

My senior year, we ended up doing some clinical work in the jail that was a couple counties away. I loved the challenge, and the patients challenged me all the time. They kept me engaged. It started off like ‘I dare you to tell me I can’t work with this population because you think I’m too quiet and I’m too sweet and I’m too nice. That’s not who I am.’ After a while, I found out that I actually had the tools and the patience and the desire to go where a lot of people don’t want to go. I enjoy going into places that are difficult for me. I enjoy going into dark spaces with others. I like being stumped. I like sometimes not having the answer.

But, I also found that what I liked about going into those into the hard places was just the fact that not everybody had a positive voice for my patients. Not everybody was seeing them in a positive light.

I found I was able to truly be an advocate for those people who the medical team might have given up on. My work as a musical therapist helped me realize I have the heart and the tools to show up and speak for these people.

CITA: We’re super intrigued by what you just said about being an advocate. We’ve been thinking about your evolution as an artist. In your other interviews and in your Ted Talk, you speak about finding your voice as something that must be an advocate for all people. Is that an evolution that you felt consciously, that your voice needed to be an advocate for healing in these troubled times?

KA:  It was an evolution for sure. What made me pull back from music therapy was the fact that I realized I was getting walls thrown up in front of me when all I was trying to do was good.

The more I spoke up for the kids, the more heat I got from the team. What I realized was, the moment I stepped away from the institution of it all, from the rules and the hierarchy, I could do more work by coming in from the outside. It’s almost like I have more credibility, too. I feel like I can reach people on a deeper level because I’m not confined by any kind of position. I’m not worried about my job at this point. Now, my job is to come in and be a voice. That’s it.

CITA: Who are your big musical influences?

KA:  I’m all over the place. As far as what they stood for and their mission with their music … Definitely a major fan of Nina Simone. Also Sam Cook. I’m listening to Hozier right now because he’s doing the same thing. His music has a meaning and there’s a purpose behind it. He’s trying to create change through it, but sonically it feels so good.

I love that Nina [Simone], her whole thing was that it is the point of the artist to be a reflection of what is happening in this country. That is a responsibility on the songwriter, on the artist to tell the story, of what is really happening in the world. I feel like she’s been definitely an influence of how I walk through the world with this new hat that I wear.

CITA: When we were watching your “Same Blood” video, we wondered if you had any inspiration from Nina Simone. It seems like what she was doing at the time she was visible is very similar to the times that we’re in right now and what you are doing. We’re in a social moment we’re we can no longer assume people are going to have a rational response. Because of that, we’re seeing the kinds of public social violence Nina confronted. Do you feel that too?

KA: Absolutely. Also, from the videos that I’ve seen and interviews that I’ve have heard of hers, her audience was also very similar to mine. It was mainly a white audience, and so she was a reflection of what else was happening, the other side. That’s something that I have to think about every time. Oftentimes, I show up to performing rooms, and I’m the only one who looks like me. Therefore, I try to make sure that I get it right, or as right as possible, and I speak truth.

I don’t have the comfort to just pull up in a gas station, especially if I’m in middle Georgia or South Carolina. I can’t just pull up anywhere. Oftentimes, I’ll pull up to a gas station and be like, ‘oh no, this isn’t a safe spot.’

But people think, oh, you’re a songwriter, you’re out on the road, that must be magical. Yeah, and a little dangerous at times.

I have to really think about where I am and where I’m going to rest my head. That’s not a reality people think about when it comes to what it must be like being a songwriter and storyteller. Some people see it as this awesome experience, but I’m also seeing real America, and not only am I experiencing those moments of ‘is this a safe place for me and a safe space? Can I say what is on my heart and what I’ve experienced?’

We’re currently right now driving from Nebraska. We were in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, and that experience … I got to see a different part of America that not many get to see. These are the people who are feeding America. You know what I mean? Their wants and needs are different, their desire is different, and I’m playing in rooms where there was no one there that looks like me. These are towns of 200 and 300 people. I’m a representation of a people, another way of living in a region that they don’t know. But the thing that I’d like to get across to them, too, my storytelling, I always start off by talking about my family and where I come from, because that’s something that many of us have in common—we have roots. We have people who fed into us. We have someone who inspired us, either from traditional or nontraditional families.

That’s something in common. I might look different than you, but somebody raised me and instilled me with qualities and with a purpose and with morals. That’s where I start, and by the time I get to the end of the show, we’re talking about how we’re walking through the world and how are we seeing one another. Are we being truthful with one another and kind with one another? I’m telling the stories of everyone that I’ve met that is incarcerated, that is dealing with mental illness, that is walking around quote unquote free in this world, but in their own prisons because of the wounds they’re carrying and the trauma they’re walking around with.

Yeah. In that way I find I have to always look back at the work that people like Nina Simone and Mavis Staples have done in just telling the stories and singing the songs and keeping the thread going. That’s the only way to bridge the gap between all the regions and all the different ways that we live, not only in this country, but in the world.

CITA:  It’s a hard walk to be true, so we’re glad you’re doing it. How do you let off steam? How do you care for Kyshona?

KA: [laughs] That’s a very good question. I just got a membership at Massage Envy.

CITA: Good idea because Massage Envy is everywhere.

KA: But this is something I’m trying to work on because I’m in a season where I’m working really hard. I’m gone a lot. I’m fortunate for it, I’m grateful for it, but the same thing that happened to me when I was a music therapist has happened. I stopped taking care of myself. I’m feeling again a little run down and a little heavy. I’m trying to just take little moments of joy. When I go home, I shut down. I might turn on some trash television. My new thing has been Schitt’s Creek, catching up on what I’ve missed over the years and just trying to find a way to zone out and maybe not think about anything. A couple of weeks ago I tried to really stand in the privileges that I have, and I went on a because-we-can trip to Barcelona for four days.

CITA: Did you love it?

KA: I did. We had no plans, other than to walk around and eat food and drink wine.

CITA: Well, what other plans do you need in Barcelona?

KA: [laughs] Right? That’s the other thing that music has done for me is pulled me into different countries, which I never thought I would be able to do as a child, or even as a young adult. I never thought I would get to travel the way I have because I have a guitar and stories and songs to share. It was great to travel to Barcelona and experience a whole other culture and a whole other way that people live, to have no job other than receive, right?

CITA: We’re pumped that you’re bringing your music to Tampa. Is this your first time to this part of Florida?

KA: No. I’m actually down there often. The first thing that brought me to the Tampa area was a songwriters’ festival that I did in Safety Harbor, Florida.

CITA:  Oh wow! Yeah, that’s right up the road.

KA: Yeah, I’m always in 30A for this 30A Songwriters’ Festival. and I’ll just keep on coming south. I was just in the area a few months ago to play at Fogertyville.

I’m playing house concerts, which are nice, intimate songwriting series that are in these communities people just built up, and they’ve created a really cool network in Florida, especially around the Tampa, Clearwater, Safety Harbor Area. Florida has surprised me by their love of the singer-songwriter and their love of storytelling

CITA: Well, we’ll be glad to see you here soon.

KA: See you soon!

Learn more about Kyshona Armstrong when she appears live and in person at Club Jaeb next Monday night, Dec. 16.

Guess What? We Made Our Own Custom Fabric Design for Nutcracker

A first for The Straz, the new fabric designs represent a wild collaboration between dance costuming and graphic design.

When people think of the graphic design department in a performing arts non-profit, they may imagine program layouts, banners, signage, logos and the like. They may not consider a couture collaboration to produce custom costumes specifically for dance.

The Straz Center houses an extraordinary ballet training program headed by Philip Neal, a retired principal dancer from New York City Ballet. Our pre-professional ballet company, Next Generation Ballet, stages a knockout production of Nutcracker each season, hosting famous guest artists in the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. (This year we’ve got Maria Kowroski from NYCB—the real dancer for the Barbie ballerina movies—and Aran Bell of American Ballet Theatre, who was featured in the Youth America Grand Prix documentary First Position).

Next Generation Ballet students rehearsing for Nutcracker

If you’ve attended NGB’s production of Nutcracker, you already know it is lavish, sumptuous, magical and full of exquisite classical ballet technique. The production’s costumes star as some of the most fun eye candy in this Land of the Sweets, with their detailed faux fur trims, delicate embellishments and delightful array of bold colors. If you haven’t been to Nutcracker yet, then get your tickets for the show this weekend  because you’re in for a treat.

This past summer, NGB costumer Camille McClellan brainstormed with Philip about the possibility of producing designed fabrics that she could customize for NGB dancers. If they could find a local company to print directly to spandex blend textiles, then we could potentially have bolts of fabric for affordable, sustainable, unique-to-NGB costumes.

Costume Designer Camille reviewing plans for one of the new designs for Nutcracker

Philip and Camille decided to revamp the four leopard and 11 butterfly costumes using print-to-fabric technology, which would allow Camille to hand draw the new look Philip envisioned. What they needed to complete the project was the aid of graphic designers to trace Camille’s pattern in Photoshop, convert it to a digital print file and send it to the printer who could ink the design onto stretchable fabric. Then Camille could cut the patterns and sew the costumes together, add embellishments and have them show-ready by this weekend.

To see their idea become reality, Camille and the dance department partnered with Straz graphic designers Joseph LaCrue and Roderick Taracatac to take her designs into the digitally print-ready world.

Camille and Graphic Designers review samples of the custom printed designs.

“What was fun for me,” says Joseph, who worked with Camille for the new butterfly costumes, “was that Camille has been in the costume industry for years, so she automatically started off the project thinking about what the costume would look like under theater lights, how it would read from the back of the audience. That’s where I was really impressed. She’s thinking of not just the dancer; she’s thinking about the audience member … can they see it? Is it going to read? I thought that was really cool.”

Camille estimates she spent about 200 hours over the summer getting the design and measurements of the costumes perfect then painstakingly calculating the exact positions of where the designs needed to be on the fabric so they would line up properly when she cut out the parts and sewed the costume into one piece. She determined she would need three different-sized costumes to accommodate the diversity among the size of the dancers, which meant that she had to repeat the laborious calculations and draw the costume, in full, on graph paper with tick marks denoting where the pattern was to meet upon sewing.

Camille spends countless hours fine-tuning the details to each costume that will be seen on stage during the Nutcracker performances

Joseph then scanned the three life-sized costume drawings, reduced them to scale, hand-traced over them in Photoshop, colorized them and saved the work to a digital file to send to the printer. The anxiety-producing aspect of this project was that there was no margin for error. The calculations, drawings and tick marks had to be perfect, otherwise the pattern wouldn’t align, ruining the entire costume.

“This project was extremely technical. For me, it was two hours to draw the petite, two hours to draw the medium, two hours to draw the tall. This is about as couture as I think you can get in this day and age,” Joseph says. “We talked about why wouldn’t you do this with just dyed fabric and an applique, but the theory is that if we invested in this technology now, we’ll have these costumes for generations to come. I know this was a labor of love for Camille. I think we all learned a lot on this project. It was fun.”

Butterfly costume design for Nutcracker

“The dance department is thrilled to be using this technology, and the graphic designers have been great to work with,” says Camille, who hand-sewed the 15 new costumes, adding arm sheers to the butterflies and gem embellishments to the leopard unitards. “The butterflies were such a challenge because of the scattered design that wraps around the body and a ribbon element that had to match at the side seams in five different locations. I wanted something fantastical for the leopard print and found the inspiration from a Versace ad I saw in a fashion magazine. I gave that to Roderick and said ‘this!’”

“I have created prints and patterns for projects in the past, but never anything that was used for performing art on stage,” Roderick says. “This collaboration was a blast. Camille is a very detail-oriented artist, who had a strong vision of what she wanted the final piece to look like. That took a lot of the guesswork out of the project and really streamlined the creative process. Once the colors were finally nailed down, there was some back and forth on scale of the print, and before we knew it, we had the final product done and out to the printer. Camille named this print Confetti Leopard.”

Camille’s originally named ‘Confetti Leopard’ custom printed fabric

You can see the debut of these new costumes this weekend when NGB’s Nutcracker  dances onto Morsani Hall stage.

Girl Power

The Straz Center arts education partnerships program with Tampa’s The Centre for Girls

In addition to our many performances, lectures, classes and workshops, the Straz Center hosts a super cool outside-of-the-spotlight arts education partnership program which brings us into fruitful, fun and inspiring relationships with many organizations around the area.

This semester, one of our musical theater teachers extraordinaire—Sarah Berland—traveled to The Centre for Girls each Thursday afternoon to give an afterschool theater workshop on the theme of “soaring to great heights.”

Sarah works with various organizations through the Straz Center partnerships

Sarah built her curriculum around the upcoming Broadway show ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, a calypso retelling of The Little Mermaid story, which features a courageous young heroine, Ti Moune, who risks her soul to save a man’s life. Interweaving Caribbean island history, drum and dance culture and fundamentals of storytelling, Sarah and a few guest artists guided the girls into a tight-knit ensemble who wrote and performed their own stories of personal courage. This Thursday, they’ll all attend ONCE ON THIS ISLAND as the culmination of their work together.

“Our partnership with The Straz has been nothing short of amazing,” says Sartura Shuman-Smith, director of The Centre for Girls. “Our girls are so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with professionals in the various areas of performing arts. Through the Straz Center’s program, the girls are not only given an “up close” view of the inner workings of performance, but they are also gaining knowledge in public speaking and confidence building.”

The Centre for Girls exists to create positive change for girls ages 5-14 through innovative programs in fine arts, STEM-based instruction, fashion and ceramics. The center offers a safe place for girls in highly formative developmental years to find empowerment and constructive outlets for self-expression.

Guest artist leading a Caribbean dance class at The Centre for Girls

“Through our arts education partnership program, the participants at The Centre for Girls get a glimpse of all three performing art mediums—music, theater and dance—as well as an unforgettable experience with a mainstage production where Caribbean culture is represented and celebrated,” says Heather Clark, our community partnership coordinator. “We are thrilled to be able to encourage these girls to find expression through the performing arts.”

Past, Present & Future

The 2019 D’Angelo Young Artist Vocal Competition honors Opera Tampa’s dedication to nurturing new artists. On a more personal note, the competition represents Opera Tampa League Board Chair Gina d’Angelo’s commitment to continuing her parents’ love of music through philanthropic support.

Dr. George and Mary D’Angelo

When Straz Center donor and Opera Tampa League chairperson Gina d’Angelo was in college, a fortunate series of events led to her parents hosting a dinner party for Luciano Pavarotti at their home in the hamlet of Erie, Penn. Tasked with pressing the wrinkles from the famed tenor’s tux, Gina and her sister Joanne set to their chore with giddy delight. Joanne, an actress, knew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a costume when she saw it.

She pulled on Pavarotti’s tux, brandished its white handkerchief, then launched into her best impression, small white flag a-wave, as though she stood on the stage at La Scala.

Pavarotti and Gina at a D’Angelo dinner in Erie, Penn.

As charismatic and larger-than-life as Pavarotti was, it wasn’t the two D’Angelo daughters who were most enamored with the Italian singer — that was George D’Angelo, the girls’ father, who happened to be Erie’s homespun impresario and a devoted fan of fine music and inspired artists. Dr. D’Angelo, a heart surgeon, also presided over the Erie Philharmonic and had befriended Pavarotti’s manager in the hopes of convincing him to get Erie on Pavarotti’s performance calendar. A few years passed until, one day, Dr. D’Angelo received a call.

“Pavarotti’s going to be singing in Cleveland on Friday,” the manager tells him. “If you want him on Sunday, he’s yours.”

That’s how Joanne D’Angelo ended up in Pavarotti’s tux while the rest of the house was in a tizzy getting ready for the post-concert reception for the world’s greatest tenor.

“It’s funny,” Gina remembers, “because when you host an event like that, everybody comes through the front door. My parents were very social, and because they were such lovers of great music and subscribers to The Met, we had quite a few singers at our house in those days. But Pavarotti — he came through the back door, through the kitchen. He started talking to the cooks, tasting the food. He was just a normal guy. A pretty large normal guy.”

George D’Angelo came to his appreciation of the arts through Gina’s mother, Mary. “It all started with my mother,” Gina says. “She was classically trained. She had a beautiful voice. She first got involved with the Erie Philharmonic, eventually convincing my dad to get involved as well. Those initial investments of time grew into so much more.”

Mary D’Angelo with Granddaughters Olivia and Alexa

The D’Angelos ultimately funded the D’Angelo School of Music at Mercyhurst University and the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center. Eventually, they saw the need to take an active role in developing new talent, so the couple conceived of and created the annual D’Angelo Young Artists Competition in Erie, awarding the winners substantial prize money and a performance opportunity.

When George D’Angelo passed away in 2014, Gina felt a profound sense of responsibility to live up to and honor the example her parents had set as contributors to their community. “I thought, if my dad could be a surgeon working 18- hour days and be president of the philharmonic as well as giving to so many other charities, then I can do that, too,” says Gina. She became the chair of the Opera Tampa League in addition to her full-time job and various other obligations, deciding, last year, to revive the D’Angelo Young Artists Competition for Opera Tampa. “I think Dad would be proud of me. I contacted the winners from when we hosted the event in Erie. I asked them, ‘what did winning the competition do for your career? How did it impact your life?’ The responses I got convinced me we needed to bring it back.”

Dr. George D’Angelo with Pavarotti

This season, Opera Tampa celebrates its 25th anniversary — an auspicious milestone for enacting the inaugural D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition. Purely a competition for upcoming singers, this event demonstrates Opera Tampa’s unwavering commitment to finding operatic talent and developing their careers. The winners receive prize money to further their studies and careers and also earn the opportunity to perform in an Opera Tampa production. “For me, bringing back the competition is an extension of what my parents did. Mom and Dad instilled in me that giving back is just what you do. I am trying to live by their example,” says Gina.

The D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition finale takes place on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 4 p.m. in the TECO Theater. Winners will be announced, and prizes awarded. To see these upcoming opera stars, rsvp@strazcenter.org.