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.

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.

"Cooped", Spymonkey, Liverpool Playhouse, Liverpool, Britain - 05 June 2019

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.

headshots

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.

giphy

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

 

SPYMONKEY__Digital Billboard_840x400

Try Not to Fall Asleep or Succumb to the Peer Pressure of a Standing Ovation

And other helpful tips concerning theater etiquette

We’re always finding things our guests leave behind (like shoes … how do you leave only one shoe under your seat, people? Is it when you get home that you look down and say ‘oh, I’m only wearing one shoe! Well, I don’t feel like driving back.’?). A few months ago, after a high school group came to see Dear Evan Hansen, we found a small handout listing “tips and advice on how to practice good etiquette and appropriate manners when attending a live show.”

We were thrilled. As a general rule, we love for people to practice good manners at a show to maximize the enjoyment of everyone including the performers onstage. Just Google “Patti Lupone cell phone” to discover how much actors hate having people disrupt a show to video, take selfies or answer a call. As digital rudeness continues to elbow manners right out the exit door of social events these days, knowing that many people still cherish respecting others by not texting or checking the playoff scores during a live performance brings a big ol’smile to our faces.

The handout included some other great tips unrelated to cell phone use like “#4—Eat Your Dinner Before the Show, Not DURING It” (preferably at one of our Straz restaurants, plug plug); “#11—Try Not to Fall Asleep” (um, yes please) and “#12—Standing Ovations Are Overdone, Don’t Give In To Peer Pressure” (right on! If you don’t think a performance was worth your precious standing O, by all means, stay seated with your enthusiastic clapping). Obviously “Do Not Leave Your Etiquette Handout Behind” wasn’t on the list of verboten behaviors, but we’ll forgive some things as long as you’re not livestreaming yourself watching the show.

Sometimes we do have folks who are new to the performing arts and wonder what’s appropriate and what’s not. Dress code at The Straz is more or less “wear some,” so we get everything from flip flops to Jimmy Choos at any given performance. The old chestnuts remain intact: arrive early, stay through the curtain call, be aware of the folks around you and respect their experience and sight lines—and remember, everyone in the theater can hear, see, and smell what you’re doing, so let common courtesy be your guide.

Of course, as with all rules, there are exceptions. Some shows or performers want you to go crazy posting to social during their live event because it’s awesome free advertising and builds their fanbase. They’ll let you know prior to the show if it’s okay. We also introduced sensory-friendly performances for our neuro-diverse student population at the Patel Conservatory, where it’s okay to make noise, get up and move if you need to and otherwise break the traditional theater etiquette rules to accommodate our guests with sensory sensitivities. You can read more about our sensory-friendly performances in this article from Tampa Bay Parenting magazine.

With the new Straz season on the horizon, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice turning off our cell phones before the curtain and making manners trendy again. At least we can be thankful folks don’t spit on the floor or throw stones at the actors anymore.

Who in the World is Lucy Kirkwood?

Jobsite Theater’s current offering in their record-breaking season is a work by one of the Royal Society of Literature’s designees for their “40 Under 40” initiative—and one of the most exciting young playwrights out of the box in a long time.

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Christopher Marshall and Emily Belvo during tech rehearsal for Jobsite Theater’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Hedda. (Photo: Desiree Fantal)

Before she even graduated from University of Edinburgh, Lucy Kirkwood had caught the attention of Mel Kenyon, a literary agent known for representing Caryl Churchill, one of the most intellectually challenging and morally daring living playwrights.

Churchill also happens to be Lucy Kirkwood’s idol.

Kirkwood’s impressive talent and fearless deep-dives into the pool of human turmoil launched her into the UK’s theater scene, first at the Bedlam Theatre in Ireland with Grady Hot Potato (2005), then with experimental works in London. At 24 years old, she tackled an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, positing Ibsen’s beautiful, disaffected lead character Hedda in London’s modern-day Notting Hill neighborhood. Kirkwood’s close-to-the-source version, Hedda (the protagonist retains the matching set of pistols for which this play is known), premiered in 2008 to very favorable reviews, solidifying Kirkwood’s reputation as formidable, playful, unflinching and willing to make audiences uncomfortable enough to think about what they were witnessing without feeling violated. Seems as though Kirkwood picked up extraordinary tips from Ms. Churchill then made them her own for the current generation of theatergoers.

Last week, Jobsite opened Hedda in the Shimberg Playhouse with Jobsite veteran Emily Belvo in the title role. Another Jobsite recognizable, Stuart Fail, made his directorial debut with the company, chronicling his collaboration with Kirkwood on Jobsite’s blog. Kirkwood offered insights into Jobsite’s production, enthusiastically supporting their discovery processes as they uncovered what made Hedda and the rest of the dramatis personae tick. You may be relieved to know that Kirkwood’s reboot employs a bit more humor than Ibsen’s original story.

“We chose the play for a few reasons,” says Jobsite’s Producing Artistic Director David Jenkins. “We really like Kirkwood as a dramatist. At 35 years old, she’s already made a huge name for herself in Britain on TV and the stage. This script is unique in how it takes a known story, one of the theater titans, and tells it in an all-new way through this 21st century update.”

FUN FACT: For any of you fans of British television, Kirkwood’s epic tale of China-America trade relations, Chimerica¸ ran as a miniseries in April to rave reviews and involved a stellar cast. The play version, it’s worth noting, was commissioned for Kirkwood in 2006 right after she met with Mel Kenyon and opened on London’s West End in 2013 to sell-out crowds. Chimerica netted five Olivier Awards that year including Best New Play for Kirkwood.

Catch Hedda running now through June 2.

Wink, Wink; Nudge, Nudge

Broadway offers a passel of snortingly good times with its unending parade of parodies. The latest on our roster of roastables is Spamilton: An American Parody, which opened last week and runs until May 12.

Behind every iconic work of entertainment lurks a laughing matter waiting to be born. Whether those matters manifest as films like Airplane! or stage productions like our current hit Spamilton, a nothing-but-love full-length jibe at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus, the parody stands as an art form all its own—and one that has seen a spike in popularity since the shocking success of Evil Dead: The Musical.

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The cast of DISENCHANTED in Tampa, 2014. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

At The Straz, we’ve hosted quite a few of these side-splitting skewerings. Maybe you saw 50 Shades! The Musical Parody, or its distant cousin, Spank!. We produced DISENCHANTED, a peppy, adults-only side-eye of a show geared towards examining the princess culture of a certain animation company. This list also includes the one-or-two-man-complete-works-of spin-off parodies like Potted Potter (all the book plots performed by two guys), and Charles Ross, who launched One-Man Star Wars and One-Man Dark Knight, both of which played in the Jaeb. Ross also created One-Man Lord of the Rings and performs all the shows under the One-Man Trilogy package, which manages to heroically blaspheme the major fantasy canons of the 20th and 21st century in one fell swoop. (Batman pun intended.)

The general rule seems to be that if something is really popular, then someone should probably make fun of it. Ergo, Off-Broadway has seen shows riffing on Friends (Friends!: The Musical), Back to the Future (That 80’s Time Travel Movie), Harry Potter (Puffs: Seven Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic about the Hufflepuff house) and Game of Thrones (Shame of Thrones: The Rock Musical—An Unauthorized Parody).

 

Of course, we return to that parody of parodies, the old chestnut Forbidden Broadway, which takes uproarious pot shots at our beloved blockbusters from the Big Apple. We love the show—most Broadway buffs do—so much we’ve brought it to Tampa several times over the years and had the show here last in 2017.

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Despite its rib-poking and raspberry-blowing nature, the parody must, to some extent, be a love letter to the source in order to hit the right notes with the audience. You’re having fun at the original’s expense without hurting anyone’s feelings. The parody is like the annoying little brother, chasing after the big sibling he admires so much. With no genuine respect for the source, a parody transforms into a vicious satire, which may be funny, but satires generally leave us feeling smug whereas the parody leave us feeling a little happier about things in general.

To wit, LMM blessed Spamilton just as Sam Raimi, director of the titular film, blessed Evil Dead: The Musical.

So, it’s okay laugh; although, with a parody, you never need permission. And, that, dear readers, is part of what makes them so much fun.

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Thrilling new Jaeb show asks: What would you do if you only had a Hundred Days with the love of your life?

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Let’s say one morning you hustle into your favorite coffee shop, order your regular, and as you’re dawdling by the pick-up counter, you happen to make eye contact with someone at the high-top in the corner who happened to look up the same time you did. An exchange occurs in that moment: you capture each other, an undeniable knowing that you are supposed to be together passes between you. You brave the unknown; you travel the 8,000 miles across the coffee shop to speak. A conversation leads to a date that leads to a long weekend where you wake up Tuesday to discover yourself in love.

You become that skipping, smiling, whistling, happy happy joy joy supernova of a besotted lump experiencing what it feels like to be the most favored in the universe. Nothing could throw a hitch in your skip.

But news arrives you didn’t expect – a diagnosis, a deployment, something that sets your time together against the clock. You found the love of your life, yes. But, you’ll only have one hundred days with that person.

Three and a half months.

How would you choose to live each and every one of those days? So goes the premise of Abigail and Shaun Bengson’s autobiographical punk-folk-indie-rock-electronica blues show, Hundred Days, which runs in the Jaeb Theater Jan. 15 – March 24.

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The show, which reveals their love-at-first-sight story and the crazy events that followed, does so through a rock concert structure, almost like a reverse musical.

Hundred Days is a concert that tells a story – a very personal, very extraordinary, very funny story about the make-or-break need to become vulnerable if you want to make love stay.

Professional singer-songwriters, the Bengsons wrote all the songs for show, pulling from their favorite theatrical forms to get Hundred Days exactly where they wanted it to be: leaving audiences wishing the show itself lasted at least as long. The show has been a huge hit in New York and San Diego, where it ran before the Bengsons packed up their guitars and drums and headed to Tampa.

Our INSIDE magazine caught up with Abigail and Shaun during their opening weekend at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego to talk about Hundred Days, family life and their upcoming Florida debut at The Straz.

 

INSIDE MAGAZINE: Tell us a little bit about this show. It’s a departure from the traditional musicals we normally have at The Straz and it’s not a jukebox musical or a concert. What is it?

ABIGAIL AND SHAUN: It’s true that Hundred Days is not your standard musical theater fare. We started out as musicians and moved into the world of writing for theater because of our passion for telling stories and the ability theater has to bring people together for big moments of shared emotional catharsis. So, our music pulls from a wide variety of genres that inspire us, like folk, punk, indie rock, blues and electronica. We also pull from a lot of different theatrical styles when it comes to building the structure and form for the stories we want to tell, including folklore storytelling, documentary, concert and stand-up comedy. Our core collaborators Sarah Gancher, Anne Kauffman and Sonya Tayeh have also been hugely instrumental in creating this new, music-theater hybrid. They helped us push the form and the sound as well as weaving in more traditional theatricality throughout our work. And really, the truth is, even with all of the ways in which we are trying to break the mold, at its core, Hundred Days is a story told through music just like any other piece of musical theater! It’s all in the service of building an emotionally compelling story that we hope will resonate with our audiences.

IM: How “true“ is the “based on a true story” part of Hundred Days?

A&S: It is embarrassingly true! We really did have our first date, then three weeks later, we were hitched. Something about the moment of our falling for each other shattered any illusions of youthful invulnerability we had, made us realize the pain of placing so much of our hearts into such a fragile vessel. Some details and events are changed in the show in order to fit it all into 90 minutes, but any change that we made was designed so that the show would better convey what it felt like to go through that time – the joys and the terrors that we felt. There is a scene in the show that is an actual transcription of a conversation we had. It’s in there in all its glory and its humiliation.

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Photo from Instagram: @hundreddaysny

IM: You all spend a lot of time together. What’s your secret to staying a happy, healthy and productive family?

A&S: Yes, we do spend a whole lot of time together. We’ve actually really worked for many years to be able to build a life in which we could be together as much as we can possibly be. It is truly the blessing and the joy of life that we get to. This is the exact opposite of how we’ve handled pretty much every other relationship in our lives. We’re both huge introverts and usually need a great deal of personal space. But, it’s just not like that with each other. There is certainly a lot that we needed to figure out in terms of combining and balancing family and work and it’s a daily practice to try and get it right. Finding that balance has become even more true since the birth of our son two years ago. We really thought we were already operating at full capacity, but, man, we can’t believe how many plates we have to spin at once trying to keep the art going and raise our boy in a way we feel good about. If there is any secret at all, it’s being as open and honest with each other as we can, trying always to talk things through, really working to try and hear and support each other. That can be easier said than done, but it really does come down to that for us.

IM: Share some of your musical influences and mentors … how do you create the Bengson “sound“ in this show?

A&S: We grew up listening to all sorts of music and we hope that it comes through when you listen to our tunes. We’ve been writing this show for more than a decade, and you can hear a lot of the different styles of music that we’ve been writing and listening to from over that time. The core of our music is really all about folk, both American folk music as well as from places all over. We grew up listening to a lot of ‘60’s folkies like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Odetta and Ewan MacColl. There’s a lot of music being made right now that inspires us a lot too that draws on that folk tradition – Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, Sharon Van Etten. We also really love it when that folk sound meets punk music (The Pogues, Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly). We are also huge fans of big vocalists and singers from Motown, soul, and Latin music like Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Caetano Veloso. The newest elements that we have loved playing with is using big heavy electronic beats and playing with interesting electronic sounds and textures like The Flaming Lips, Björk, Kanye, James Blake. Everyone onstage in Hundred Days plays an instrument and sings, so this blend of acoustic and electronic elements with a big choral sound is what this show is about for us.

IM: Hundred Days is the kind of show that really touches the heart. Do you often have audience members sharing stories with you? Would you mind sharing one or two touching moments you’ve had with fans?

A&S: We have heard a lot of sweet stories from people! Our favorite thing is getting to hear stories from both the brand-new young couples in the house as well as from couples who have been together 50-60 years. There was one older couple in their 80s who were sitting beside our associate director, Caitlin Sullivan, and she couldn’t honestly tell what they were thinking about the show. But, as they were leaving, she heard the woman say, “That is exactly what it felt like to be young and in love. That is just what I remember.” That really meant a lot to us.

IM: What do you hope audiences will get out of this show?

A&S: In many ways, these are frightening and confusing times we are living through. We find that it’s easy to get beaten down, to numb yourself out, to give up. This show is about the power of fear and the ease with which it can prevent us from living. This show is our way of continuing to challenge ourselves to love and to live and to not give in even when the stakes feel insurmountable. And also – we hope everyone will enjoy the awesome music and hilarious jokes.

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In the studio recording the cast album. Photo from Instagram: @hundreddaysny.

A Note to Fans from Abigail and Shaun:
If anyone is curious to hear the music before the show, we just released the official cast album. You can find it on iTunes, Spotify, wherever you go for your music. We worked hard on it, and we are proud to get it out there and share it with folks. We are so honored to get to be coming to Tampa, to be welcomed into this theater and this community. We are looking forward to meeting all of you!