Did You Know It Almost Wasn’t Called Fiddler on the Roof?

Fiddler on the Roof is arguably one of the most important musicals ever staged. Let’s talk a little about this show, and then we have some Fiddler fun facts we’d love to share. The show opens here on Nov. 5.

The Cast of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“You want us to put up how much money for a show about a Jewish shtetl in 1905 Tsarist Russia? Get outta here.”

That’s more or less how we imagine the conversation at Sardi’s going when Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick pitched their latest creation to the producer set. In the early 1960s, they got a lot of no’s, let’s just put it that way. But we can guarantee you all those no-men were kicking themselves later when that same show, under the direction of Jerome Robbins and starring Zero Mostel of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum fame, became the most successful musical on Broadway for the next eight years. For every dollar original Fiddler investors put up, they earned $1,574.

The script, first titled The Old Country then renamed Tevye; Not So Long Ago, Not So Far Away; Where Poppa Came From and, finally Fiddler on the Roof¸ was based on a series of stories by Jewish writer Solomon Rabinovich who used the pen name Sholem Aleichem ( “peace be with you”) to create page-turning tales about an irrepressible Jewish Everyman named Tevye.

The musical born from Aleichem’s Tevye stories hit America at exactly the right time and in exactly the right way. The show, whose original run lasted for a staggering 3,242 performances, many of which were sold out, is epic on many levels outside of its box office stats.

It was the first monumental commercial success of modern American Jews defining Jewish identity on their own terms. Much has been written in the annals of Broadway history about Jerome Robbins awakening to his own ethnic identity while immersed in Fiddler. The show allowed Robbins to explore the Jewish heritage he had long denied and profoundly changed the great choreographer-director’s life. Robbins fiercely guarded the portrayals of Tevye et al., refusing to let any of them be reduced to vaudevillian caricatures, as Jewish people had been portrayed on stage and screen prior to Fiddler.

Much has also been written about the beef between Robbins and Zero Mostel, who had absolutely no qualms at all about his blinding Orthodox pride. The two men despised each other, but their mutual love of the Tevye stories and grudging respect for the other’s artistry allowed them to bury the hatchet temporarily to get Fiddler on the boards. The upside of their towering personalities being at odds was the authenticity it brought to the central conflicts in the musical:  identity vs. assimilation, traditions vs. modernity, family vs. self-actualization, tragedy vs. comedy. It’s hard to imagine any other odd couple bringing Fiddler to life the way Jerry and Zero did on Broadway.

The universal appeal of these central conflicts propelled Fiddler to international fame. Tevye is every parent who wants the best for a child growing up in a world changing too fast. Tevye’s daughters are every child who wants something more out of life but doesn’t even know where to start looking. Golde, Tevye’s wife, is every woman who has had to sacrifice more than her fair share for love and her family’s safety.

In other words, Fiddler is every bit as relevant this minute as it was in 1964 when it opened. It transcends cultural, racial and economic boundaries. The show is a slice of life from the human story. The show is us.

Important as Fiddler is both in performing arts history and human history, there are some fun tidbits from its legend that we wanted to share as we prepare to present the show this November.

Here are a few factoids we think you might find interesting. We sure did.

1. What’s Marc Chagall got to do with it?

The famous modern painter pitched in for friends in New York, designing costumes for Balanchine at New York City Ballet and such. Jerome Robbins, a huge Chagall fan and personal friend, approached the painter about doing set design for what was then called Tevye. Chagall regretfully declined, as he was too busy with other projects. However, his painting, The Fiddler, is noted as the inspiration for what eventually became the show’s title and the image forever associated with this musical.

2. What’s Gene Wilder got to do with it?

Technically, nothing. But, since we just had Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory onstage, we thought we’d mention Gene (Willy Wonka in the movie version) auditioned for Motel the Tailor in Fiddler but didn’t get the part. Later, though, he starred with Zero Mostel in Mel Brooks’s film The Producers.

3. What’s Bea Arthur got to do with it? 

So, you probably just saw our announcement for That Golden Girls Show. Dorothy, a.k.a. Bea Arthur, originally tried out for the role of Yente, the matchmaker, but Robbins thought she looked too modern. Eventually, she got the role. However, Robbins earned the dubious distinction of being the only director to ever break Bea and make her cry. By now, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that a lot of folks had beef with Robbins. You are correct.

4. What’s Japan got to do with it?

One of the oft-told tales proving Fiddler’s universal truths goes back to Tokyo. The show is outrageously popular in Japan, having been mounted in the country more than 1,300 times. The story goes that a well-known Japanese producer asked Fiddler writer Joseph Stein, “do audiences understand this show in America?” Stein, puzzled, replied yes, that they wrote it for Americans—why? “Because it’s just so Japanese,” he said.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF opens in Morsani Hall Nov. 5, 2019 and runs through the weekend.

The Cast of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What The Heck Is A Spymonkey?

This Q&A from the cast of Hysteria sheds a little light on the renowned British troupe and will hopefully get you even more excited to see this exclusive United States debut at The Straz.

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The cast of Spymonkey’s Hysteria. (Photo: Jane Hobson)

How would you describe Spymonkey to a stranger?

Aitor Basauri (joint artistic director, performer): Spymonkey is a unique and original form of funny theatre. You see a theatre play, but you laugh a lot, too.

Toby Park (managing artistic director, performer): A glorious bunch of idiots who like to make seriously ridiculous theatre.

Stephan Kreiss (associate artist, performer): Spymonkey is a highly precise and accurate depiction of what Europe seems to feel like at the moment. Two European countries (Spain and Germany) represented by – two idiots! The U.K. – represented by – two idiots! Three men = three idiots! One woman – also an idiot! But the difference is – we know and have shown to each other on numerous occasions that we are idiots and therefore get along pretty well these past two decades … The world would perhaps be a nicer place if people would admit to their foolishness.

Bill Barberis (performer): Stupid idiots pretending to be wonderful dramatic actors. Or the other way around? Anyway, you’ll laugh your heart out.

Anne Goldmann (performer): Clown, physical comedy, surrealist slapstick, raunch melodramatic Da Da-ism, the-real-edge-of-edgy. Pure delight, a gut-wrenching laugh factory. Everything I always wanted to see a group of people do on stage. World-class brilliantly idiotic performance art theatre group.

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L to R: Aitor Basauri, Toby Park, Stephan Kreiss, Bill Barberis, Anne Goldmann.

Is this Spymonkey’s first time performing in the United States? If not, where could Straz audiences have seen you before?

Toby: Our first visit to the U.S. was in 2001 at the Aspen Comedy Festival (disco dancing with George Lucas anyone?) and at the tiny Theatre LaB in Houston with our show Stiff. We spent two years living in Las Vegas, being the clowns in Cirque du Soleil’s burlesque show Zumanity, for which we created the comedy numbers. And we took our Complete Deaths (four clowns perform all the deaths in Shakespeare in one night) to Chicago Shakes a couple of years ago.

Aitor: I very much enjoyed the time we had in Houston and every time we have played in the U.S.A. So, I am really looking forward to playing in the U.S.A. again as I feel there is a real appetite for comedy at the moment.

Stephan: When I lived in Las Vegas 16 years ago, I did regular late night shopping at Vons at East Tropicana Avenue – so maybe some members of The Straz audience who visited Las Vegas then might have seen me there?

What are you most looking forward to about performing at The Straz and being in Tampa?

Toby: Really looking forward to making Tampa audiences fall out of the seats laughing. Hoping that there aren’t too many hurricanes, as we heard that those are quite impressive, and we couldn’t resist renting a house on a river. Stephan is convinced that we will be fending off alligators every night. There are some big surfing fans in the company, so we anticipate a number of Sunday night dashes across to the Atlantic coast to catch some waves.

Aitor: I am really looking forward to the good weather. It is nice to play where it is hot. I think people laugh more when it is hot. We have been playing Hysteria for many years, and we have never played it in the U.S.A., so I would like to find out how it goes with the new changes.

Stephan: It is just brilliant to play and tour our shows abroad. New audiences, new and fresh audience reactions, new laughter. The excitement when you open somewhere new and you feel the sizzling curiosity of how it will go down. Plus, Florida for me, being German, is such an exotic location. The sun, heat, humidity, palm trees and alligators in kitchens.

Anne: I’m excited to find out what makes the audiences respond and laugh. Every audience is different, and I love to find out what makes each one unique. The best Thai food I ever had was in Florida, so I’m hoping to revisit fine cuisine. And I really love the natural beauty of Florida. I can’t wait to take some walks and enjoy the nature.

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Describe Hysteria in five words.

Anne: Surreal Fantasy Gothic Romance Comedy

Toby: Funniest show you’ll ever see

Aitor: A funny piece of theatre

Stephan: Wet yourself with hysterical laughter

 

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Let’s Do Something Amazing

Take the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, The James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and the Straz Center, add an epic effort in community engagement, and you get VetArtSpan. The year-long collaboration culminates this Friday in a free performance event in the TECO Theater featuring veterans, civilians and community leaders.

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When military hospitals began integrating creative arts therapies into treatment for veterans with traumatic brain injuries and psychological health conditions, the success caused a double take in the medical establishment. Arts therapies worked, often when traditional talk or drug therapy plateaued.

The National Endowment for the Arts created a nationwide initiative for veteran healing called Creative Forces®: NEA Military Arts Healing Network. In partnership with the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs as well as local and state agencies, Creative Forces allowed different stakeholders in the veteran community to come together to implement simple, beneficial strategies to connect vets, their families, arts and the civilian community.

During a Creative Forces forum a few years ago, Straz Center president Judy Lisi and community engagement specialist/artist-in-residence Fred Johnson were inspired to birth the idea of VetArtSpan, a year-long program between The Straz and the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

Local veterans performing at The Straz in May. Marquis Diaz (top) and Becky Heissler (right) will perform again at the VetArtSpan Showcase on Aug. 30.

VetArtSpan, launched Nov. 15, 2018, is part of Community Connections, the NEA’s second phase of their Creative Forces program. The basic idea of VetArtSpan was to provide a creative bridge to healing, hence the “span” in “artspan.” VetArtSpan’s scope included creating a military cultural education curriculum, participating in the design of arts engagement programs, contributing to increased arts access and expanding arts providers’ understanding of Tampa Bay’s vast military and veteran populations.

In practical terms, the VetArtSpan project launched a website, hosted a series of podcasts on veteran experiences called Stories from the Field, curated interactive online galleries that linked to other creative resources for veterans. VetArtSpan also published stories surrounding veteran creativity and military experiences. The project hosted three veteran-civilian dialogues, closed-space guided conversations, to open doors of understanding between two segments of the population that often struggle with how to talk to each other about the military experience.

This Friday, Aug. 30, participants and collaborators in VetArtSpan appear in a free performance event in the TECO Theater at the Straz Center to showcase the depth and breadth of this multi-part, multi-disciplinary project. The program includes U.S. Air Force veterans Marvin and Melvin Coleman with spoken word, the Veteran Civilian Dance Ensemble performing their work, I am We, Together as One drummers, and two panel discussions—one concerning veterans and the impact of the arts and the other discussing the bridges built between veterans and civilians through the VetArtSpan project.

This celebration is open to the public, free of charge. We hope to see you there.

Collaborating with the Straz Center on the VetArtSpan project are the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, University of South Florida School of Dance, the Morean Arts Center, The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, the Brain Science Institute of Johns Hopkins University, the ArtThread Foundation and the Military Resilience Foundation

The Straz Center thanks the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces initiative for their generous $50,000 grant to develop the VetArtSpan Project.

 

Of Tangled Webs and Putting the Work in Network: Information Technology Superhero Sam Luis

This interview, a bonus in our series on non-performing jobs in the performing arts, features one of your friendly neighborhood performing arts center IT guys, Sam Luis.

Maybe you think it’s all tights, pancake makeup and “take it one more time from the top” over here, but the Straz Center relies on massive amounts of technology to run our organization and run our shows. That’s right—even Morsani and Ferguson stages have network connectivity now so shows can digitally control their sets, lighting and sound. We’ve got internets, intranets, emails everywhere from New York to Dubai, apps, snaps, hashtags, servers and an organizational text messaging alert system so we get the latest info on emergencies that affect The Straz. Although tech might be far from folks’ minds when they think about the performing arts, we are linked, synched, wi-fied and wired over every square foot of this joint. That’s why you’ll see our IT team literally running from one part of the campus to the next—they have that much to take care of in and around The Straz. They’ve got a big job to do here, and we’d like to introduce you to one of them.

Meet Sam Luis.

At rare moments, Sam can be found at his desk working on various tasks from networking and building Wifi to data security.

Caught in the Act: All right, Sam. Get us started with your path to IT, and if you will, explain what IT is.

Sam Luis: Sure. I think when you say “IT,” in general, people think it’s a guy fixing your computer.

CITA: Yes, that’s exactly what we think it is.

SL: There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes things that IT does, though. We make sure that our data’s secure. We also pull together reports in certain data for the business to make decisions, we present that in a consumable fashion.

CITA: What does that mean exactly? Can you give a specific example?

SL: Sure. A person in the organization might say, “Hey, I really want to visualize ticket purchases, but we don’t really know where they’re coming from or how we’re getting these tickets sold.” That’s where my other counterparts on my team, they go through the data and massage the data to make it more presentable. In other words, we analyze the hard data, then say, “Okay, this zip code has a lot of people coming to Show X, but this zip code has a lot of people coming to Speaker Y.” So on and so forth. That kind of visualization is what IT does. We facilitate practical interpretations of hard data the computer captures.

CITA: That makes a lot more sense.

SL: Then, how I started my career … Actually, I was fortunate enough, back when I was in middle school, that I won the magnet school lottery here in Hillsborough County.

CITA: Cool!

SL: It was a program where you would get diverted into a technology school. It’s now called Ferrell Middle Magnet School so that’s where I came from. It used to be called Middleton Middle Magnet School for Technology. We were completely immersed in technology from middle school, and it was a very early pilot program. That’s where I started, then I just kept on going and going and going in the field. Technology has always been my passion. I loved computers before I won the lottery, but that just kind of set me on my track to IT.

CITA: But this happened at a time when technology wasn’t quite as prevalent as it is as a career path today.

SL: A hundred percent. Then, when I went to the magnet school, there was a lot of, “Oh, it’s a fun little tool to play with. You should learn typing in case you want to type in a typewriter,” kind of attitudes. We were right on the cusp of the birth of the internet, so I actually got to witness that progression from having to dial in to get internet service to now. It just amazes me every day. So, yeah, I grew up with the birth of the internet.

CITA: Then what happened? Did you graduate and go to USF? Did you stick around here?

SL: I didn’t think conventional college was the right way for me. I went to a technical school. I went to ITT Tech. They’re defunct now, but I think education is what you make out of it. ITT really helped me base my overall technology standards, to learn about all the different technologies.

Sam is often called to troubleshoot connectivity issues in different areas of the building. This small closet houses audio and video connections for several of the halls and his most valuable tool in places like this is his flashlight.

CITA: You ended up at the Straz Center. How?

SL: It was very interesting. I was working at ITT as a support technician. The HR lady over there knew the HR person that was over here. I was looking to spread my wings. In IT, we move a lot, but I’m not that way. I like to stay where I’m at, so I was with ITT for about four or five years and they started mentioning, “Hey, there’s a position coming up at the Straz Center.”

I was like, what technology at the Straz Center? Four or five computers? It’s a performing arts center. They don’t have computers. Then I got interviewed, and I realized there was a lot of technology needs that just weren’t up-to-date. That excited me. It was a challenge. “Oh, I could really optimize this and change this and do this …” Fortunately, I was hired.

CITA: Mm-hmm (affirmative). When did you get to the Straz?

SL: I’ve been here seven years. I had a little hiatus for about a year between that so I was here, I think, 2013, I believe? I was here for about a year, I left for about a year, and then I came back and I’ve been here ever since.

CITA: That’s awesome. Let’s go back to something that you said, “It’s a performing arts center and they don’t have computers.’ That seems like a common belief about performing arts centers, that they’re not tech-savvy, but we cannot live without technology.

SL: A hundred percent. Five hundred percent.

CITA: It’s our ticket sales. It’s our communication tool. Our entire internal operations.

SL: Our lighting control system. I mean, just everything for the organization. It’s really amazing because I interview people for my team, and one of applicants’ top questions is ‘What technology do you guys have here?’ They think it’s just a couple of computers for the admin assistants and that’s it. Then, when we do the tour, and I show them all the controls and all the systems that we manage and maintain and secure, they’re like, ‘Wow. I would have never thought there’s that much technology behind a performing arts center.’

The IT Department has spare parts and wires on hand at all times so they can answer and fix almost any emergency.

CITA: In ticket sales alone, the importance of data security is paramount. People don’t know how far ahead of the game you guys have to be all the time. Then, our new stage floors had to be tech-ready because so many shows now rely on connectivity and technology.

SL: Correct. A lot of shows come in and they’ll require dedicated internet for their shows for automations. If that isn’t there, the show is not going to run because a lot of the automations are controlled, actually, from their headquarters in New York or Chicago. It’s a good feeling for a lot of the touring shows to not have to worry about running over wi-fi, which can be unreliable, because we have a dedicated internet network just for them.

CITA: What keeps you here versus heading to San Francisco or somewhere where people more readily associate big tech and big money?

SL: I think it’s the culture, right? Not-for-profit and the performing arts—it’s a very amazing culture. During my little hiatus when I was gone for a year, I went to a big health care firm, and I felt like just another cog in the wheel. You just kind of missed that personality and the lightness of people, just the atmosphere at The Straz. It’s a totally different animal when a show’s on. When there’s a show in you can just feel that energy of the show, and in the for-profit world you don’t have that. That’s why I like it here. I like my peers. I like working here. I like the atmosphere.

CITA: Now that you’ve been here for about seven years, do you feel compelled to get on the stage? Do you feel the itch to be a star?

SL: Unless I want to wake every dog in the neighborhood with my singing, no way. I’m more of a logical thinker. That’s just my brain. I’ve been to plenty of performances here. I’ve actually talked to my wife about, later in my years, once the kids are out of the house, picking up guitar or something like that, you know, we offer classes here. It’s crossed my mind but, I don’t know, I feel like I don’t the right mind for it. [laughs]

Sam’s tool bag is filled with everything from networking cables and scissors to screwdrivers and his flashlight.

CITA: Just so everybody is aware, you are really, really super busy as part of the IT team at the Straz.

SL: Correct.

CITA: This isn’t like you’re just sitting at your desk waiting for a call.

SL: No, I’m not playing Maytag repairman here. No, no. I have three guys underneath me. We’re in charge of support, infrastructure and security, so anything’s that’s plugged into the network, we manage. Any security issues, we manage. And then, just supporting day-to-day, “My computer broke, I need a new keyboard, emails,” All that stuff, we work on.

I think we ran a report last year, and we averaged about 10 to 12 work orders a day between the team. People go, oh, well that’s only 12. Well, one work order might take two or three hours. If you put that into context, we’re pretty busy. That’s not even including projects.

CITA: When you multiply it out over 365 days a year, then it really starts to add up.

SL: Oh, yeah. Yes.

CITA: All right, Sam, so what else do you want to tell our readers about your job here and what if they’re interested in joining you guys in IT? Do you have interns?

SL: We do. We actually have an intern position coming up. I don’t know the exact scope of the work, but I know that we are going to be hiring or getting an intern. In regards to joining the team, I know we’re potentially growing as the center grows, so definitely check the HR website. It’s a good, family team. We all pitch in together, and you don’t often find that in IT. I think that’s one of the other reasons I stick around is we’re all a team, where in bigger organizations, you’re just doing your own thing. I like that, the departure from the normal IT experience.

Called away from his desk yet again, Sam heads backstage for his next IT adventure.

If you want to intern with the Straz Center Information Technology department or explore career possibilities, visit our “Careers” page.

Let’s Get in Transformation

The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 29 on Friday. We’re celebrating with a free concert in Maestro’s Restaurant featuring incredibly talented local artists of mixed abilities. Let’s meet a few.

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On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law acknowledging the right of access and inclusion for people with disabilities. That monumental, historic demonstration of America’s commitment to equality turns 29 years old this Friday, and we are rolling out the red carpet with our friends from the Mayor’s Alliance for Persons with Disabilities and the Hillsborough County Alliance for Citizens with Disabilities to throw a party.

Part One: Let the Shameful Walls of Exclusion Finally Come Tumbling Down

In his public remarks that day, President Bush exhorted the world’s governments and directed American citizens to “let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

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President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the White House South Lawn on July 26, 1990.

After a brutal history of cloaking disabilities in shame and ostracism, America made a pioneering effort with the ADA to bring citizens with disabilities into the fold both socially and economically. It was supremely successful, driving business and leading to social improvements that benefitted everyone. Today, we have large print, automatic sliding doors, access ramps and beeping crosswalks thanks to the ADA. The notion of “disabilities” is being eclipsed by the understanding of “different abilities.”

Many years ago, as leadership at The Straz searched for ways to expand our own efforts at inclusion, we held a community round table to ensure we were doing our best to make the performing arts accessible for all. We made some great friends and partners during this process, one of whom is Brenda Clark, the project director and employment services coordinator for the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities at the University of South Florida.

If you come to the get-together Friday (the first part of the celebration is at the John F. Germany Library across the street starting at 3:30 p.m.), there’s no doubt you’ll see Brenda. Enthusiastic, excited about ways to implement inclusion and accessibility and a lot of fun to be around, Brenda worked with the Straz Center’s Acting Director of Community Engagement Alice Santana to hold the first-ever performing arts component of the annual ADA celebration.

Part Two: TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion

This year, the annual ADA anniversary celebration, titled TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion, takes place in two parts at two locations—The John F. Germany Library and the Straz Center—and features artists from Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

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“Our event is also partnered with Arts for All, which is a statewide visual arts competition,” says Brenda. “We’ll announce the awards with a first, second and third prize. The John F. Germany Library offered to host a gallery of the visual art. We thought, ‘This is so great! Let’s see what else we can do.’ It was my wildest dream to showcase our local pool of performing artists, and I wanted the performing arts involved so badly. When we met Alice, everything started falling into place. The Straz is so professional. It’s real. It’s not something that someone is doing as a handout. So, at the concert at The Straz, we’ll have a dance troupe. We have singers. We have a classical pianist. The Straz is providing an accessible stage, lighting, sound and Fred Johnson will emcee. We’re just super, super, super exited about it. I may be more excited than anyone.”

The celebration concert at The Straz starts around 6 p.m. We have a full roster of performers including drummers, spoken word and sign language performance artists. We thought we’d introduce you to a few to give you a taste of the awesomeness that will be this Friday night event. The entire 29th anniversary celebration of the ADA is called TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion and is entirely free. All are welcomed and encouraged to attend.

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MATT WEIHMULLER, jazz musician

“I will be presenting my ensemble as a jazz quartet, comprised of myself on saxophone, along with a rhythm section which includes, piano, bass, and drums. We will perform music that is representative of traditional straight-ahead jazz. We’ll also play my own modern interpretation of the genre in an original composition titled “Dots On a Page.” It means so much to me to be able to share this musical composition because I get to present it to an audience which the piece was intended for, and this is the ultimate goal of any performer.

I wrote the song “Dots On a Page” as a tribute to learning braille music. As a visually impaired musician, it has always been my goal to continue to champion the cause of braille literacy. Braille is made of a six-dot system, so it seemed appropriate to name my composition “Dots On a Page.” Performing music is freedom to me because playing jazz, which is an improvisational artform, means that there are no barriers for creativity. I hope I can inspire others through performing music to have the same outlook I try to have each day, to be able to turn any disadvantage they may have into an advantage through their disability.”

Stephanie
STEPHANIE SLAGLE, singer

“I will be presenting two of my favorite musical theatre songs for my performance: “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from The Phantom of the Opera and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady.

This performance is special to me for many reasons. The Straz Center itself is special to me; I have many beautiful memories of seeing shows at The Straz, and I’ve performed here for an All State conference in the concert choir and participated in a couple of Patel Conservatory’s summer classes. Being here to help celebrate the ADA 29th Anniversary is amazing! The ADA is so important because it gives opportunity and support to people who need it. When I give my performance, I want it to be representative of the amazing things the whole community can do for people—those with disabilities and those that have helped them grow to success beyond their wildest dreams.”

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JOHNATHAN DAVIS, pianist/vocalist

“Johnathan is so grateful for the opportunity to perform at The Straz! Although he is autistic and blind since birth, he has developed his talent and loves to share his gift. His joy in life is making people happy. He does this through his music. Johnathan is an accomplished pianist/vocalist and will hopefully touch the hearts of our guests at this special event.” –Cheryl Worsham, Spokesperson for Johnathan Davis

Make it a Double: Bartenders Extraordinaire Diane Jones and Suzanne Rubin

This interview, the second in a two-part series on non-performing jobs in the performing arts, features two of our extraordinary bartenders: Diane Jones and Suzanne Rubin.

If you’ve been coming to The Straz for a few seasons, chances are you’ve found yourself face-to-face with the Straz Center’s dynamic duo of drink slingers hustling and jiving behind one of the bartending stations. This double act of mix mistresses is well-loved by our guests, so if you haven’t met them yet, seek out their station next time you’re here for a show. With 22 years of service to The Straz between them, they know a lot about what it takes to make guests happy (and it’s not the booze!—though that helps) and how to succeed and have fun in the service industry. We caught up with them to talk shop, which was, of course, a lot of fun.

Meet Diane Jones and Suzanne Rubin.

Diane Jones (left) and Suzanne Rubin (right) working at the bar in Morsani Lobby.

Caught in the Act: This series is about “non-performing jobs in the performing arts,” but would you argue that you are performing as a bartender? Do you feel like you’re a sister act?

Diane Jones: Every guest that walks up to our bar comes to The Straz expecting a show and an experience. That experience should start at the door and all staff, in whatever capacity, should continue that excitement. We just happen to take the guest experience and guest take-away very seriously. It is important to us to engage our guests in the theater ambience, and well, we really really really put in the effort … [laughs]. We certainly are a “sister act” of sorts. I introduce us to every guest I can and invite them back to our bar for a second beverage during the remainder of walkup or a pre-order for intermission—and a little more of The Diane and Suzanne Show. We’ve worked on many bars together for a long time, so we have the schtick and the moves down!

Suzanne Rubin: We definitely have to be “on” and in a good mood to make our guests feel welcome. As for the sister act, we complement each other well. Diane is more outgoing, and I am good with the set up and function of the bar.

CITA: How did you get involved with The Straz, and how long have you been around? What keeps you here?

SR: This is my 13th season. I applied here after a friend and ex co-worker told me about it. I stay because it’s a nice, pleasant, civilized atmosphere.

DJ: I came onboard from a suggestion that I’d love it by Suzanne. This is my ninth season. I started in the coffee bar for a couple seasons, then moved to bartending. I love being involved with the arts and creating experiences for the guests. If folks have fun, they come back … for more drinks and future shows. It’s our contribution to The Straz to perform in such a way that they want to.

CITA: What are your funniest tending-bar-at-The-Straz stories (that we can print)?

DJ: Since we always bar tend together, I’ll combine them. A few situations stand out as pretty funny. One time a gentleman accidentally handed us his medical marijuana card as his ID. Another lady tried to use her library card for payment. She kept swiping and swiping and wailing there had to be money there. One older guy insisted we card him and then accidentally flashed his AARP card. That one had everyone in line laughing and joking with him. AND IT WAS HIS BIRTHDAY!

CITA: How did you become a bartender? What are your fave aspects of the job and what are your fave drinks to mix?

DJ: I got involved with bartending during a stint at a catering company. I enjoy the witty repartee with guests and handcrafting beverages (especially martinis, cosmos and manhattans) that folks will feel good paying for and come back when they’re ready for another. It’s a fun atmosphere to meet a variety of folks with an even bigger variety of interests. There’s so much going on at The Straz. There is something for everyone, and the excitement keeps me coming back each season.

SR: I started helping out friends who worked in the industry when they were extra busy at events like Gasparilla and Guavaween. I stay because I like meeting new people, seeing events and being part of fun stuff like Broadway, concerts and yearly events. My favorite drinks to make at The Straz are margaritas, manhattans and sangria from scratch.

CITA: It may surprise some of our readers to know we have a huge Food and Beverage staff, we have to with as many patrons as we have. What’s your advice about how to get hired and be the best at the job?

SR: Interested and prospective candidates for any position in Food and Beverage should go online to strazcenter.org and fill out an application. This alerts Human Resources. The steps to joining our team all start online, and the possibilities are endless!

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If you’re interested in applying to be part of the Straz Center Food and Beverage team, visit the online job openings here.

SEQUINS!

Like peanut butter to jelly, like Siegfried to Roy, what would the performing arts be without sequins?

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If the performing arts were a country, the flag undoubtedly would be made of gaff tape and sequins. What material would befit the banner of our happy little nation-state more? When we think about a few American performing arts icons – 1) Marilyn Monroe 2) Diana Ross 3) Liberace and 4) Elvis, we think sequin 1) red dress, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 2) 8 out of 10 costume changes 3) everything and 4) capes and jumpsuits.

This perfect plastic paillette adds shimmer, glamour, depth and a failsafe wow factor to all sorts of costumes. This spring, sequins trended in everyday wear, adorning t-shirts, shoes, belts … proletariat fashion hasn’t seen this much day-to-day glam since the ‘70s. Let’s face it. Everybody loves a sequin.

But from whence came this glittering gimcrack, this decorative doo-dad?

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Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch, circa 1480-1482.

The sequin seems to have emerged from the world’s cultures’ collective subconscious, as examples of sparkly disks sewn to clothes and accessories appeared in King Tut’s tomb, 2500 B.C. India, and in parts of ancient Asia. The notion of attaching coins to clothes for status caught on almost everywhere, and lo and behold, Leonardo da Vinci invented a sequin-making machine that, like his airplane, only made it to the sketch phase. However, it bears repeating: da Vinci sketched a sequin-making machine. The man who gave us Mona Lisa and The Last Supper also dreamed of full-scale sequin production.

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Metal sequins lasted until the 1920s, which meant all those flapper dresses were a heck of a lot heavier than they looked. Later that decade, the world discovered the many uses of gelatin, one of which happened to be pressing it into sheets and punching out hundreds of lightweight, easy-to-color sequins. However, gelatin dissolves and melts, a problematic fact of life for these vegan-unfriendly decorations. Another method of back-plating acetate (clear plastic) with silver emerged thanks to Kodak and the ingenuity of a New York spangle-maker named Herbert Lieberman, who later, naturally, relocated his sequin-production operation to Florida. The acetate proved too brittle – unless, as Lieberman discovered, it was coated on both sides with Mylar.

Voila! Lieberman invented modern-day sequins that could withstand a round in the washing machine. Today, we use vinyl plastic sequins which are cheaper and more durable but not as sparkly as their acetate, divine-light-channeling counterparts. The next stage in sequin evolution will hopefully be for a glorious dot of high-reflective power that biodegrades. Stay tuned.