DIY Show-at-Home Theater Game for You and the Kids

The Patel Conservatory theater department presents a great idea for an easy, fun, at-home performing arts game you can do as a fam.

If you’ve got random household objects plus a restless young’un or two running around, then you’ve got just about everything you need for this quick-to-arrange, easy-to-cleanup theater game from our pros in the Patel Conservatory theater department. It’s DIY arts education at its quarantined best.

Matt Belopavlovich, theater department artistic director, pulled this activity, Personal Prop Stories, straight from the lesson plans of our performing arts school just for you. Plus, we have a specially-recorded demo from our Patel Conservatory theater managing director Audrey Siegler showing you how this game works—recorded from her house with her kids because, hey, we’re all at home right now with 24 hours to fill.

The instructions below are best suited for ages 3-10, but you can adapt it easily by using a more challenging title, the addition of dialogue and a more complex prop selection for a great storytelling improv for older kids.

Here we go!

Lets-Get-Started

Personal Prop Stories
This activity usually fills 15-20 minutes of our drama lesson plan.

What is a prop? An object used on stage by actors during a performance.

What You’ll Need:

Two or more players. The more the merrier!

Something to write on like computer paper, sticky note, used envelope, etc.

Something to write with—i.e., fancy pen, standard pencil, colorful marker, etc.

5 to 10 household items

  • Ideas: stuffed animal, kitchen utensil, piece of home décor, piece of clothing, pantry item, office supplies, gardening tool
  • Suggestion: Try grabbing one or two things from each room in your home.

What-You-Will-Need

Setup:

1. Set out all the props on the floor or a table.
2. Clear a small space to be your stage.
3. Write “Title,” “Characters” and “Opening Line” on your writing material.
4. Choose a Scribe (writer) and Director (activity moderator).
5. Assign a “prop discard” area.

The-Players

Time for Fun:

1. The Director asks the group of actors for a random story title. This could be something silly like “Purple Banana Goes to the Mall.” The Scribe writes down this title on the paper.

  • The title will help everyone stay “on story” as the activity continues.

Title

2. The Director asks for two main characters and an opening line. The Scribe records these on the paper.

  • Main characters example: Purple Banana and Brown Pear (protagonist/antagonist)
  • Opening line example: “Purple Banana needed a new shoe and went to the mall.”

3. The Director counts to three and everyone says the opening line together.

First-Line

4. All actors act out the line.

  • For example, everyone looks at their imaginary old shoe and walks in place as if they are headed to the mall.

5. Each actor gets a turn to be the narrator by choosing a prop and adding a line to the story. Their story moment should be inspired by the prop.

  • Example: If Mom chose a winter hat she might say, “Purple Banana stepped outside and realized how cold it was. He ran back inside to grab his winter hat.”
  • The Director should encourage actors to introduce the second character as the story progresses. For younger actors, encourage the conflict and second character connecting somehow.
  • Example: “Brown Pear stole the winter hat from Purple Banana’s head and ran away.”

Second-Line

6. All actors would then act out the story moment actions such as pantomiming a door and running inside to put on a pantomimed hat.

  • Discard the prop after it has been used in the story.

7. The final actor’s prop should somehow conclude the story. Once their full turn is complete, the Director counts to three again and everyone says, “The End.”

The-End (1)

Prop Story Teaching Tips:

  • Review some simple parts of the story with younger kids such as Beginning, Middle, End, Conflict, and Solution.
  • If playing with only two players, each take two turns, creating four total story moments.
  • Disinfect all props before and after your storytelling journey.
  • Rotate Director and Scribe roles with each new story.
  • Repeat the game as much as you wish with different props.
  • Make up new elements that could be added to the story such as random lines written before the activity and selected out of a hat during or after each story moment.

Most of all, have fun.

Stay tuned: We’ll be back soon with a new performing arts activity you can do at home.

The Straz Remembers Maestro Anton Coppola 1917-2020

Last Monday, March 9, the Straz Center said goodbye to Opera Tampa’s founding artistic director and one of the most colorful characters to grace our halls and stages. Here, we recount some of our favorite things about Maestro Anton Coppola.

Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

On March 21, 1917, Anton Coppola arrived to Italian-American parents in a country that was not yet a superpower. He grew up in East Harlem with six brothers, a clan of men who made the Coppola name as indelible to America’s artistic history as the Great War was to the history books. The line of Coppola descendants has been nominated 23 times for Academy® Awards, and Anton, our beloved first artistic director of Opera Tampa and international classical music icon, was the oldest living conductor who still composed until his death on March 9, 2020.

Maestro Coppola was taught by one of Puccini’s own students, so he embodied a direct lineage to the great composer. A Puccini master, “he knew everything, had everything in his head,” says Judy Lisi, Straz Center president and CEO and general director of Opera Tampa. “He didn’t need to reference the score—he knew Puccini better than anyone.” Lisi began her professional relationship with Maestro Coppola early in her career at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Conn. Lisi, herself an operaphile, launched an opera company at the Shubert that partnered with Yale’s opera master’s program. There she met Maestro. “We were doing a production with Yale students, so I met Maestro and said ‘why don’t you help me start an opera company?’ He said yes, and that’s how it all started,” Lisi says.

In their eight years in Connecticut, Lisi and Maestro Coppola produced 48 operas together, their creative power ending when she took the helm here. However, it wouldn’t be long before Lisi heard opportunity knock again on the pristine concert hall stage in Morsani Hall.  “When I stood on the stage, I thought ‘oh my gosh, they built an opera house.’ There was no formal professional company at The Straz then, and I knew what I wanted to do. It had been ten years since I’d worked with Maestro, but I called him and said I wanted to start an opera company in Tampa, and I couldn’t do it without him.”

Coppola, affectionately known as ‘the little general’ for his tough demands in rehearsal and no-nonsense communication style, barked at her, “Judith! I was waiting for this call!”

Photos from Coppola Conducts: 100 Years Young gala. Maestro Anton Coppola conducting at the performance (left); With the company at the performance (top right); With Francis Ford Coppola following the performance (bottom right). Photos: Jordan Pysz

In 1995, Opera Tampa premiered with Puccini’s masterpiece, Madama Butterfly, under Maestro Coppola’s baton and for a packed house at Morsani Hall.

The ensuing years brought triumph, glory, honor and exaltation to the opera season, growing an ardent following for Opera Tampa and an ongoing infatuation with Maestro Coppola’s brilliant gift at culling the best from performers and serving up one dazzling opera production after another. A crown jewel of Coppola’s tenure at The Straz was the world premiere of his heartfelt, contemporary, original opera, Sacco and Vanzetti.

Photos from Sacco and Vanzetti.

“I worked with Maestro on the libretto for Sacco and Vanzetti,” says LeeAnn Douglas, the senior director of digital marketing at The Straz. “He was in NYC and I was here. He would give me corrections over the phone. Since it was a new opera, and he was tweaking it and changing it, I spoke to him often. The most challenging part was he talked fast … real fast. I had a hard time keeping up with him. But he was always patient and kind and humorous. He was a funny, dynamic man. Plus, it was exciting to get to assist with a new work so close to an artist of his caliber.”

Coppola’s opera, an examination of humanity and a closer look at themes of justice based on the famous 1927 Sacco and Vanzetti murder trial, opened to rave reviews in 2001. “I told him we would do the opera, and we did,” Lisi says. “It was a huge hit. It got great reviews. To this day, I remain very, very proud of Maestro’s opera and of the fact that the Straz Center produced it from scratch.”

An irrepressible spirit, Maestro returned to The Straz in February 2019 to conduct his last full-length original score, Lady Swanwhite, the second production of last opera season.

Maestro Coppola in rehearsal for the premiere of Lady Swanwhite.

“Two of the most remarkable things about Coppola were his absolute command of the entire room even with his small stature and the fact that he barely looked down at the scores he was conducting from because he had every note and every word memorized,” says Opera Tampa’s Artistic Administrator Melissa Misener. “It was uncanny—he knew every flute entrance to every chorus line of text. He knew the music better than anyone I’ve ever seen. The most remarkable thing, however, was his health and longevity. Just last year at age 102, he was insisting we work 12-hour days with lunch and dinner breaks. For breaks, he walked from the Straz Center to the Residence Inn across Ashley Boulevard to go eat. So, by my count, the man walked the distance six times a day! For Lady Swanwhite¸ we were all so tired the second night at the end of rehearsal when he said, ‘I’m not ready to stop rehearsing.’ Everyone was stunned, but no one said a word. We all just kept going. The man just would not quit.”

“Maestro was so full of life,” Lisi says, “so full of a passion for music that anyone around him got excited about opera. Maestro was one of the greatest transmitters of the emotion locked inside every single note. With Maestro, you didn’t just hear the music, you felt it. His life inspired me and so many of us at The Straz. We loved him,” says Lisi. “He allowed the music to whisk him away to another world, and he took everyone along with him. We were very fortunate to have had someone with that kind of gift, that kind of genius, steering our opera company.”

Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes … an Audition?

Jobsite Theater’s latest production, Doubt: A Parable, features wife-and-husband team of Summer Bohnenkamp directing and David Jenkins in a lead role. How do they do it?

This week, Caught in the Act welcomes back guest blogger Alex Stewart, Straz Center public relations manager, who was brave enough to do a deep-dive into the working-life-partners relationship of Summer Bohnenkamp and David Jenkins. She sat down with the pair to talk about the tricky business of work-life-love balance and how they manage to pull it off so well.  Summer and David’s most recent theater production, Doubt: A Parable, opens March 11.

By Alex Stewart

If you’re a part of the theater or arts scene in Tampa Bay, chances are you know the creative couple Summer Bohnenkamp and David Jenkins. Married for almost 20 years, and working together for more, they’ve built a life together while simultaneously building successful theater careers.

Their next collaboration is Jobsite Theater’s upcoming production of Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, with Summer directing and David playing the role of Father Flynn.

David M. Jenkins (Father Flynn). Photo courtesy Pritchard Photography, courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times.

Summer, the vice president of marketing and programming at the Straz Center, and David, the producing artistic director and co-founder for Jobsite Theater, met while working on a show at The Straz in 1999.

“Summer was in [The Straz’s] group sales office at the time, and she was enlisted along with a couple of other staff members to play minor characters,” says David. “She wore this crazy Viking outfit, a skimpy thing with big Viking horns. We met doing that show, and we started doing the ‘we’re not dating, we’re just hanging out’ thing.”

Before we go any further, we have to ask, who doesn’t love a female Viking?

As we mentioned earlier, that “just hanging out” thing blossomed into 20 years of marriage. They’ve since worked together on multiple theater productions, both acting and directing, as well as alongside each other in the marketing office at the Straz Center for nearly 10 years before Jenkins moved into his full-time role at Jobsite. They know each other intimately, especially when it comes to theater.

“I don’t think I could ever direct a highly stylized piece or a period piece. That’s all David’s wheelhouse,” explains Summer. “But he’ll hand me scripts that he thinks will suit my sensibilities.”

Co-directors David Jenkins and Summer Bohnenkamp, Paul Potenza (Ulysses) and Angela Bond (Emma). Jobsite Theater’s production of Annapurna. Courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times.

And David did just that. He knew that Doubt was a favorite of Summer’s, her having seen the show with three different casts, twice on Broadway and once when it came to Tampa on tour. “I think she’s somebody who has an incredible perspective on the show, and she’s a very good director,” said David. As you can imagine, David and Summer talk a lot about theater. David listened to Summer’s thoughts about Doubt each time after she saw it, and she always had thoughts on what was done right or what could have been done differently to leave her with more ambiguities about the characters and the story.

“The structure of the play is one that interests me because it’s really about more than what actually happens in the play, but about this intense conviction versus what may or may not be accurate,” says Summer. “The play doesn’t have a clear conclusion. And oddly, I very much like ambiguity and a situation where people can make up their own mind about what is happening.”

David has directed Summer several times in previous Jobsite productions, but Doubt is only the second time Summer has directed her husband. Having worked together for so long, the actor/director dynamic doesn’t change much for them.

“For the most part, being directed by or directing him is fine,” says Summer. “I probably get more easily frustrated with him as a director. Not always, it’s hard to say, and it depends on the show and the role and everything else.”

While their marriage has had a positive impact on their theater careers, it’s also come with the perception that they play favorites – especially when it comes to casting. But their 20+ year tenure as colleagues has allowed them to treat each other like any other fellow actor or director when they are working in those capacities.

“It’s very normal for us to compartmentalize,” says Summer. “Work is work and personal is personal, and we don’t really mix those two things up. We’ve passed each other up for roles if we thought another actor was better suited.”

Summer Bohnenkamp and David Jenkins.

For Jenkins, who has a BA in theater performance and an MFA in acting, it’s a treat to have his wife directing. “Because my first love [in theater] is acting and I don’t get the chance to do it that often, I appreciate doing it with a director who knows what she’s doing. And that works out really well with Summer because her style is one that I get.”

Jenkins, who oversees all daily operations for Jobsite and directs many of the shows each season, explained how the trust they’ve built through their relationship allows him to step back from his role as “the boss” and enjoy acting.

“I appreciate working with her and our relationship because it allows me this gift,” he says. “It’s hard for me to be an actor with my own company because if stuff is going wrong, I’m still in charge, right? So, it’s really nice to be in a process where I don’t have to worry. And if something happens and I do need to step outside of being just an actor, I can do that, but I feel like I’m a lot more relaxed knowing she’s the one in the chair.”

“We’re both really big on keeping personal stuff at home,” says Summer. “We are never going to be the people who get into an argument in front of other people. We’re not going to talk about anything personal, ever. If I’m getting the note [as an actor], I’m getting the note like anybody else. If I have a question about the note later, I might ask the question later. But all actors do that all the time, right? I wouldn’t act any different than if anybody else was directing me. And David is the same. He takes the note and moves on.”

No matter what show they’re turning into a success, work is work, play is play, and sometimes work is play—but work is never personal. Trust me, there will be no doubt that these two will make John Patrick Shanley’s script into a very unique Jobsite experience.

David M. Jenkins (Father Flynn) and Roxanne Fay (Sister Aloysius). Photo courtesy Pritchard Photography.

Doubt: A Parable plays the Shimberg Playhouse March 11 – April 5.

Little-Known Facts about the Widely-Known Songs in SHOUT! The Mod Musical

SHOUT! The Mod Musical opens tomorrow, so now is the perfect time to take a strut down memory lane with a few of the show’s mega-hits from the 1960s. We put together this fab list of choice info to give you the skinny on some of the most popular songs in the show. It’s a gas, baby.

Photo By Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

  1. Wishin’ and Hopin’

The *other* 60s throwback, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery¸ put Burt Bacharach back on the screen in one of the best scenes in the movie, a cameo featuring “What the World Needs Now.” Because, what’s a swingin’ Sixties story without Burt Bacharach? The smoother-than-a-lounge-sofa composer first wrote “Wishin’ and Hopin’” for Dionne Warwick (aunt of Whitney Houston). Dusty Springfield heard Dionne’s recording and loved the song so much she went out and recorded her own version two years later. Dusty Springfield, of course, is best known for another song revived by the movies …

  1. Son of a Preacher Man

Welp, we dare you to hear Dusty Springfield’s version of this song and not think about Pulp Fiction. We’re pretty sure the scene of Vincent (John Travolta) picking up Marsellus Wallace’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) at their house would not have been as fraught with temptation had Tarantino picked any other song. In fact, Tarantino claimed later he wouldn’t have shot the scene had he not be able to set it to “Son of a Preacher Man.” The song sits at slot 43 of the greatest singles of all time according to the writers at New Musical Express. Dusty Springfield, of course, is a stage name. She was born in London as Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien. That’s a lot of names, kind of like the woman who sang …

  1. To Sir, With Love

… who was Lulu, born Marie McDonald McLauglin Lawrie. Lulu is certainly easier to remember. “To Sir, With Love” hit No. 1 in 1967, the theme song of the film To Sir, With Love starring Sidney Poitier as a teacher doomed or destined (depending on your perspective) to save a class of wayward youths at a school in dodgy east London. Lulu made her film debut in the movie, going on to win bit parts in other films including 2016’s Ab Fab: The Movie.  Don Black, the lyricist for “To Sir, With Love,” also wrote the lyrics to the 60s hit “Born Free” and the theme songs to the Bond films Diamonds are Forever, The Man with the Golden Gun, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough.  Which brings us to …

  1. James Bond Theme/Goldfinger

Probably one of the most recognizable movie theme songs next to Jaws, the James Bond Theme carries a bit of intrigue around its creation. Credited to Monty Norman, whose been earning royalties from the music since 1962 when he composed the piece for Dr. No, there’s been some pushback from John Barry, who wrote “007 Theme” for From Russia with Love. {Some will argue the circumstances for Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love were much more dangerous than for Sean Connery in same title except From Russia]. John Barry indisputably wrote “Goldfinger” for that Bond film with the unashamedly over-acting diva Shirley Bassey belting out the theme song with her unmistakable “GooooldFINGAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” which has been a joy to replicate for everyone covering the song thereafter. As of this writing, the great diva Dame Shirley Bassey is still alive and performing this very song.

  1. Georgy Girl

As long as we’re talking divas, let’s start by mentioning Lynn Redgrave starred as Georgy Girl in the film, which was her breakout role about a young woman coming-of-age in Swingin’ London. It’s a perfect song for SHOUT!, which is all about women like Georgy. The theme song “Georgy Girl,” performed by The Seekers, made them the first Australian folk group to get major success in the US and UK. The song hit No. 1 in 1965, and, in 1967, The Seekers were named Australians of the Year. And, guess who wrote the music to “Georgy Girl”? Tom Springfield—Dusty’s brother. His birth name was Dionysius P.A. O’Brien. At this point, we’re beginning to suspect Dusty and Tom had very interesting parents. And you know who did have interesting parents …

  1. These Boots are Made for Walkin’

Nancy Sinatra. Eldest daughter of Old Blue Eyes Frank and mom Nancy, this woman was destined for the charts. Her No. 1 hit, “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” has been covered by a surprisingly diverse crowd that includes Billy Ray Cyrus, Megadeath and Ella Fitzgerald. Lee Hazlewood wrote “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” and he’d later write the theme song for Frank Sinatra’s detective movie, Tony Rome¸ which he got Nancy to perform. Lee and Nancy collaborated all the way up to 2004. Hazlewood confessed in an interview that the catch phrase of this song, “one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” came from a conversation he was eavesdropping on in a bar.  That proves 1) be careful what you say in a bar and 2) inspiration comes from all kinds of places like …

  1. Downtown

… the ginormous 1964 Petula Clark hit that came after songwriter Tony Hatch went to New York City to find new material for Clark. Before “Downtown,” Clark was unknown in the United States even though she was a huge British star. The single skyrocketed her to the top of the U.S. charts and “Downtown” was covered by Frank Sinatra, Patty Duke, and, most notably, by Dolly Parton on her The Great Pretender album. In a very 90s turn of events for the song, it featured prominently in “The Bottle Deposit” episode of Seinfeld, when George and Jerry decide to use the lyrics of the song to try to decipher a message from George’s boss because George, of course, is too anxious to ask his boss to clarify the message directly.  So, George and Jerry head, well, downtown—where all the lights are bright—and a bunch of hilarious nothingness follows.

  1. Shout!

Talk about your songs that have been covered and covered and covered. This Isley Brothers ditty barely had a chance to become one of their signature songs before everybody in the 60s … then 70s … then 80s … then 90s to now covered it for their own albums. Only one month after the Isley Brothers dropped the record, Johnny O’Keefe did the song in Australia and got it to #2 on the Aussie charts. After that, Chubby Checker recorded it, followed by Dion, Lulu, The Shangri-Las, The Beatles, The Kingsmen, The Shondells, Otis Day and The Knights, Joan Jett, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Green Day, Panic! At the Disco, Garth Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, Alvin & the Chipmunks and the cast of Glee. And that’s not even a complete list. In an interesting side note, the Isley Brothers also wrote and recorded “Twist and Shout,” also recorded and made famous by The Beatles.

Why the Paul Taylor Dance Company is a Must See for Any Fan of Live Performances

We enlist the help of Paul Bilyeu, our senior director of communications and the former lead publicist for dance at The Kennedy Center, for a little dance appreciation 101 about this must-see modern dance company.

1970s Omaha, Nebraska. Not exactly a progressive hotbed of boy ballet students, but there our senior director of communications Paul Bilyeu stood, working his feet through fourth position, a junior high schooler well on his way to a career in the performing arts. He took the class at the insistence of a gal pal who needed a dance partner for the end-of-year recital and discovered he took to ballet like a duck to water.

Paul Bilyeu and ‘gal pal’ Kelly Nielson Ramm during a high school production of Oliver!

“I found that I had a natural movement ability and could pick up the steps and technique quickly,” Paul remembers of those early days as the lone male at the barre. “By the time I was in high school, we were three or four boys strong, so we were being asked to dance more and perform in the community. I was a kid, so of course I harbored dreams of being a professional dancer, but I always knew that I never would have done more than be in the back of a medium-sized company. I loved being in the studio, at the barre, but I didn’t love being onstage or performing in recitals … which is somewhat critical to a successful performance career,” he laughs.

The right opportunity met his right skills in Washington, D.C., where Paul landed an internship in public relations at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts eventually becoming the fulltime publicist for all the theater and dance programming.

“That time of my life was a remarkable experience,” he says of his decade-long tenure at America’s national performing arts center. “I got to lead all the PR for Suzanne Farrell’s ballet company, and she was Balanchine’s muse. I was there for the Bolshoi Ballet’s huge U.S. tour in 2000. My time studying ballet came in very handy because I knew the vocabulary and dance history, so I could translate what was happening in the rehearsal studio for the photographers and reporters.” During that time, he also saw the best and most experimental modern dance companies in the world, often in the company of such geniuses as Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Moses Pendleton, Katherine Dunham, Debbie Allen and Bill T. Jones.

“You’re trained in this profession to maintain a neutral mask no matter how famous or legendary the person standing next to you is,” Paul says. “But I’ll confess that outside of Suzanne Farrell, the one dancemaker who had me like oh my God was Paul Taylor.”

That’s because, as far as lineage goes, Paul Taylor had trained under the best of the best: he learned at the feet (and hands) of Martha Graham, the grand dame of American modern dance, and Jose Limon, the great master who would revolutionize dance by incorporating more everyday human movements into his works. Paul Taylor mixed Graham with Limon and a graceful, balletic style to create something unlike anything else anyone was doing. Taylor’s work was funny, breathtaking, contemporary and unabashedly American, even when he honored composers and themes from other nations. Taylor had something to say in a way that no one had seen before; his dances captured the same sensations of glimpsing the humbling expanse of the Grand Canyon, watching the winning run of the World Series and strolling through Times Square all at the same time.

“To see Taylor in person … he was just average,” says Paul. “Average height, average build, average looks. But because I knew who he was, and I had seen so many of his dances that were glorious, hilarious, ingenious works of art, I was in awe.” For the past 20 years, Paul’s had a photo of a Paul Taylor dancer as his screen saver, a photo that was taken during the Kennedy Center days and brought here, to The Straz, to symbolize the best of what the performing arts can be.

Paul Bilyeu’s desktop photo

“He was a genius for the people,” says Paul. “What I love about the Paul Taylor Dance Company is that once you see a few dances and understand what Paul Taylor was about, you can see his signature so deeply in every dance he made. He was so unique in that he had the ability to make high art that sits so easy on the audience. Everybody loves Paul Taylor dances, even if you don’t like dance.  I get it when people say they don’t like modern dance. All art is an acquired taste, and some modern dance is so experimental, so out-there, that it’s really hard to understand. Paul Taylor isn’t like that. His pieces are often beautiful to watch with laugh-out-loud moments of humor. His genius has a universal appeal because it feels familiar while managing to surprise us at the same time. If you’ve ever felt joy in watching kids run around a playground or birds in flight or maybe you’ve taken dance and have a technical understanding … whatever you’ve seen in the world that gives you an appreciation of the joy of motion—that’s what you’ll get in a Paul Taylor dance.”

Paul Taylor died in August 2018, just a year and a half before the premier engagement of his company at The Straz. “So, we’re not that far away from Paul Taylor’s direct lineage,” Paul says. “We’ll have dancers here who learned from the master. Those dancers will be teaching our Patel Conservatory students in a workshop here. We’re getting, most likely, the last class of his direct descendants in this performance at The Straz. So, this is a really important moment for us in performing arts history.”

Paul Taylor

“And what’s also cool about this engagement is that we’re getting a greatest hits program,” says Paul. “Company B is arguably his most popular work, which looks at the mixed messages of 1940s America set to all Andrews Sisters songs. Piazzolla Caldera is an unforgettable and magnificent tribute to the tango and Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Then there’s Esplanade¸ which is this colorful, joyous celebration that has been a huge crowd-pleaser for 40 years and counting. It’s a magnificent showcase of what Paul Taylor did best.”

The Paul Taylor Dance Company performs in Morsani Hall Wednesday, March 4. 

From Houseless to Household Name

Consummate storyteller John Tesh speaks in this exclusive interview with the Straz Center

A few months ago, our senior marketing manager Carol Cohen interviewed John Tesh over the phone for his current Q&A in the back of The Straz’s official publication, INSIDE magazine. The interview covered some interesting ground that we had to edit from the Q&A—including his time living in a tent at a state park in North Carolina among other fascinating tidbits. We wanted to publish a longer, edited version of that interview here so John Tesh fans could get a fuller version of the story.

Carol Cohen:  I read that your parents only let you watch Star Trek: The Original Series growing up. Is that true?

John Tesh:  It is true, but they didn’t say, “You can only watch Star Trek.” They said, “You can only watch a half hour of TV a day.”

CC:  So you could choose.

JT:  Yeah … My mom was like an age group tennis champion, and she was also a retired surgical nurse. I was born in ’52, and back in the day in the suburbs if you had kids, as a woman, you didn’t work anymore. It was natural to raise the kids, right? That was the social demand. She decided that I was going to be a musician. So, for two hours every day, even as a six-year-old, I was either playing piano or playing trumpet. There really wasn’t much television. My dad liked The Jack Paar Show. It was on too late for me, but we also watched Ed Sullivan as a family. So there wasn’t [much television watching] … unless I got sick, right? Then you watched I Dream of Jeannie.

CC:  Obviously you’re an extremely gifted piano player. Do you still play the trumpet?

JT:  Yes. I play piano for a living now, but I was probably a better trumpet and baritone horn player than I was a piano player, because I had some incredible training as a kid in elementary school on Long Island. Stewart Avenue School. In fact, the teacher, Dr. Tom Wagner, he ended up being New York State Teacher of the Year twice. This is before performing arts schools, and so the Garden City school system was really like that. There was a lot of theater, a lot of music, a lot of performance. And so, I played trumpet in the band, the marching band, the orchestra, the dance band and all that. I only played piano at home and during recitals. I had more training as a trumpet player.

CC:  Do you still play it now?

JT:  Only to wake up my grandkids. [laughs]

CC:  I guess the piano just doesn’t quite cut it for that.

JT:  Well, and the other thing is … I’ve interviewed many musicians, including Eric Clapton and Michael McDonald and Elton John, all those guys. You can ask any of them, and they’ll tell you that the reason they got into music wasn’t because they were interested in music. They were either interested (a) in being popular or (b) in meeting girls. Girls weren’t really interested in the kid holding the trumpet in the marching band, so I went to Western Auto and got myself a little chord organ and played in a garage band. We played for a lot of the school dances and the Catholic Youth Fellowship back in the 1960s. I still didn’t meet any girls, but at least I was in a band.

CC:  I saw on your website how you have the pet of the week. Are you an animal person?

JT:  I grew up with a cat person, for sure. We always had two cats in the house: Tippy One and Tippy Two because we couldn’t come up with another name. [laughs] In fact, Tippy One was the star of my first science fiction movie. But then we ended up getting a chihuahua, and there was a total mess in the house. When I got married to Connie 27 years ago, she’s allergic to cats and so is my stepson. We ended up with a dog that followed me home one day as a puppy. I was running out on Mulholland Drive, which is a very dangerous area, and she followed me home. We’ve had Lucy for 15 years. She’s got a heart problem, so the doctors gave her Lasix, and then they gave her this other pill. I said, “What is that?” It said ‘sildenafil.’ And they go, “Oh, that’s Viagra.” I said, “You’re giving my dog Viagra?” They said, “Yeah, it was originally prescribed as a heart medicine, and then it had other ancillary effects.”  So, my dog’s on Viagra and Lasix, and she couldn’t be any happier, you know?

CC:  Let’s talk about how you got started in show business.

JT:  Well, my dad was a vice president at Hanes underwear. When we were getting ready to tour schools [after high school], I wanted to go to a conservatory. He said, “Sorry, that’s not happening. You need a real job.” And so, he enrolled me in North Carolina State University, in textile chemistry. I lasted for about three years in that curriculum, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. A friend of mine said, “Hey, I have an easy A course you should take,” and it was radio and television. I walked into that course, and everything changed for me. It was just … a light bulb went off. As a little kid, I was always making movies and making shows. I tried to change my major without telling my parents, and one of the professors wouldn’t sign the drop/add card. He said, “No, you’re past the drop/add date. I can’t do that.” I pleaded with him, and he said, “No!” Under advice from one of my dorm mates, I signed the professor’s name to the drop/add card, which basically is forgery. I got caught. I got thrown out of school. I wasn’t expelled, I was suspended for breaking the honor code, and my parents threw me out of the house—my dad did.

JT:  I ended up living in a tent for like six months in North Carolina. And I begged my way onto a radio station and got a job playing the religious tapes on Sunday. Then you know what happened … Within about four months, I was doing the news on the weekends. Then, three years from the moment that I was homeless in a tent, I was anchoring the news in New York City as a 23-year-old.

CC:  Were you up in the Raleigh area living in a tent?

JT:  Yeah, I was in Umstead Park.

CC:  You’re kicked out of school; your dad kicks you out of the house. What’s going through your mind as you’re sitting in this tent in Umstead Park? Were you like, “My life is over”? Or, “Now I’ve got to figure it out”?

JT:  Mostly I was exhausted because I got a job working construction during the day, then at night, I was pumping gas at College Esso. I had to buy food, right? And mostly hotdogs. I thought I was done, you know? I didn’t even have enough money to get drunk. [laughs] My girlfriend broke up with me. All my friends were going to classes, and Raleigh was really the only area that I knew. I didn’t have enough money to drive my car back to Garden City [NY}, so I thought that was it for me, that I would be working construction. I didn’t have any skills that would get me a job. I didn’t have a college degree. Eventually, the feeling I had was that I could either stay in that tent and work construction and pump gas for the rest of my life and start chewing tobacco, or I had to get a job somehow. And so, I went into the college radio station. I had a friend who got me in there, and I did a fake demo tape. I took that tape to several stations. One guy felt sorry for me and gave me a job on Sundays. You know, strangely enough, in three weeks, I’m going to be in New York City. They’re inducting me into the Radio Hall of Fame, and the guy that gave me that first job back in 1973, Scott White, is going to be sitting there. I’m going to thank him publicly.

CC:  That’s amazing. Speaking about that, what would you consider your greatest successes?

JT:  Professionally, it would certainly be the Red Rocks show. I was married at the time and working for Entertainment Tonight, but I couldn’t get a record deal. I was recording all this music, and I was sending it to record companies. They were like, “No, this is not for us. No instrumental music, no thank you.” I saw a PBS special on TV that was the Moody Blues at Red Rocks. I saw another one with U2 called Under a Blood Red Sky, also at Red Rocks. I was like, “What is this Red Rocks place?” I thought, you know, “If I’m going to be taken seriously as a musician, I need to do something big like that.” And PBS would not fund it because I didn’t have a history as a musician. So Connie and I took our savings and took a second mortgage on the house, and we produced the show ourselves. And we almost lost everything because it started raining in the middle of the show. But God stopped that after about four songs, and the orchestra came back, and we finished the show. That show has raised about $20 million for Public Television over the years. And my music career, that’s certainly the biggest thing I’ve ever done.

CC:  What about personally? What do you consider your greatest successes?

JT:  Personally would be being educated and learning after 65 years about something called the mind/healing techniques. In May of 2015, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and doctors gave me anywhere between 10 and 18 months to live. Our family, Connie and I mostly, went through the normal channels of surgery. It was prostate cancer, but it was undetectable prostate cancer. It was the weirdest thing. We went through the usual channels of surgery and chemo and all kinds of really horrible treatments. It left me with barely a body, and it kept coming back. About a year ago, Connie and I had gone through this training of using visualization, manifestation, and certain scriptures in the Bible, and renewing our minds and getting together and using prayer to manifest my healing and the end of sickness in our family. It was a supernatural healing that can happen for anybody, but there’s a path that you have to follow for it.

CC:  Active healing on your part. You discuss that in your concerts. I was looking at a lot of the videos, testimonials of folks who had been at your concerts and so on. They were saying how inspirational it was that you had overcome such an illness.

JT:  You know, testimony is a powerful thing. I’ve written it all down. I finished a 90,000-word manuscript, took me two and half years, just last week and handed that in. And the cancer journey is throughout the book. The journey of my life, and a lot of the stuff that you and I are talking about right now, that’s the book, but also there are flashbacks to going through the surgeries and going through the divine healing.

CC:  Well, let me ask you: If you hadn’t become a musician, composer, radio host, all the things that you do, what career do you think you have wound up in?

JT:  There never was a chance that I was going to be anything but what I became. If you were to look at me as a kid, I was always putting on shows for the other kids. I was always recording stuff. I was always making music. As a kid in bed at night, I literally was visualizing me playing on stage with an orchestra. That visualization was so strong, it would have chased me down. Maybe I would have fought it until I was 70, 75 years old, but it would eventually have chased me down. I have to be a disciplined person. I’m in the gym at 5:00 a.m. every morning, standing outside waiting for it to open. And in my ear are readings about healing and manifestations, you know, out of Scriptures. And so, there’s so much more to do, but it was never a question that it was going to be anything but this.

JT:  There were some detours. I think that time in the tent, right, where all was lost, everything, done … I’m able to look back at that and connect the dots, right. [Especially when you write a book] you go through everything and you connect the dots. When I was in the tent and then I’m anchoring the news as a 23-year-old in New York City, that always seemed like a 10-year time period for me. But when I went back and started writing it, I’m like, “Wait a second. That was less than three years.” I just said yes to a lot of stuff, you know? And jumped out of the airplane without a parachute. And then you just outwork everybody. It’s the only way. I’m a very average person. You can look at my SAT scores. Very, very average. But I will outwork you. I just never stop.

CC:  So in terms of inspiration, it’s your family and God?

JT:  Well, yeah. If you’re able to renew your mind, and you get the message, the Word, the message in the Bible, right?, then everything just falls in place. And I’m not talking about religion. I have a serious problem with what some churches are doing, where they’re weaponizing Christianity. I don’t think Jesus would have done that. He never did. But pursuing the Word of God, that’s the best way to say it. And my wife’s always saying that. We continually pursue the work of God, and that always leads us into righteousness. I’m sorry. I’m probably hitting the Bible a little too hard for you. I apologize.

CC:  Not at all. But I’m wondering… do you read other books besides the Bible? Do you even have time to read books?

JT:  Yeah. I’m actually … I think my wife would tell you I am a voracious reader. I am always reading. I’m in the middle of Phil Knight’s book, it’s called Shoe Dog. It’s the story of him starting Nike. It’s a fascinating book. I just finished my second read of a book by Ryan Holiday, called The Obstacle is the Way, which is a tremendous book, especially for me because there have been obstacles I’ve faced throughout my life. And then one of my favorite books is [Stephen King’s] On Writing. I’ve read it three times now.

CC:  Well, I think I have all the answers to my questions. Gosh, I could probably go on for another half hour at least with you. But I know you’ve got a busy day ahead of you. I so appreciate this. We really look forward to seeing you here in February.

JT:  I really enjoyed it. Thanks again for your time. I appreciate it.

John Tesh performs Songs & Stories from the Grand Piano in Ferguson Hall on Friday, Feb. 28.

Wiggle Room

The Straz Center’s Wee Folk series is designed specifically for the toddler set. Welcome to the room where wiggling is allowed.

You may not know this, but on the ground floor behind Morsani Hall, we have a large, tall rehearsal room that regularly sees Opera Tampa rehearsals, ballet classes, chamber music practices and the occasional special event.

Children enjoying a show in our Wee Folk Series.

However, three times a year we roll out a cart filled with multi-colored foam squares and interlock those bad boys on the floor of the rehearsal hall for one of our favorite audiences: toddlers.

If you or anyone you know has ever tried to perform for kids—especially tiny tots designed to meltdown easily and go into wild mode with a little bit of sensory overload—then you know it’s a tough gig in show biz. Getting a fun, smart, successful act together for two-to-four-year-olds requires a special skill set, a special personality and a special sense of humor.

Fortunately, we have some great local performers who do an excellent job with this age group, so we book them for our youngest theater-goers. The Wee Folk series features clowning, storytelling and song in a way that little ones love. Plus, we set up the whole environment in the rehearsal hall specifically for performing arts patrons who love to get up and run around, make crazy noises and are relatively new to the whole life-on-earth business. Toddlers get to be toddlers, and parents get a super-affordable live performing arts experience for their kids without the weird social pressure for their kids to behave like adults in public. It’s a win-win.

Lippo The Clown

“The Wee Folk series is as much for the parents as it is for the kids,” says Joel Lisi, who programmed the Wee Folk series for several years, now serves as the Straz Center’s senior programming manager and is the proud parent of a seven-year-old. “We know parents want to bring their children to live theater, but this age isn’t meant to sit still in a dark theater and be quiet. So, we created this three-performance series and designed it with toddlers and parents-of-toddlers in mind. It’s a safe space, you don’t have to be embarrassed if your kid gets up and runs. Or shouts. Or screams. There are other toddlers there, so parents are free to not worry and let the kids be kids.”

This Saturday, we have the second Wee Folk show of the season, Lippo the Clown’s One-Man Family Circus.  “Lippo’s got a certain classic art,” Lisi says. “He’s not creepy, let’s put it that way. He comes from a classic vaudevillian sensibility that shows the beauty of clownship, as it were. He’s a real character that the kids just gravitate to, and he’s great. We’ve also had his other show, The Franzini Family Science Circus here, so we appreciate his philosophy of teaching children while entertaining them on their level. He’s just a class act.”

Katie Adams, Animal Safari Stories

Another Wee Folk hero, storyteller Katie Adams, wraps up the series in May with one of her best-loved programs, Animal Safari Stories.

“All these performers are specialized,” says Lisi. “They don’t get shook because the audience might get a little unruly. Their shows are interactive, short and they know the tricks of the trade for managing an audience of toddlers. It’s really a fun experience for everyone.”

Silly Sam The Music Man

To get your seat on the foam floor, visit strazcenter.org. Our other Family Fun series, Kid Time, is for ages five to eight and graduates kids to Ferguson Hall. If that’s of interest, check it out here.