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!

Someone Rapping at the Chamber Door

Caught in the Act catches up with Jobsite Theater during rehearsals of their next exciting production, Edgar and Emily.

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Katrina Stevenson and Paul Potenza star in Jobsite Theater’s production of Edgar and Emily. (Photo: Pritchard Photography)

Edgar as in Allan Poe. Emily as in Dickinson.

Yes, the granddaddy of Southern Gothic literature winds up in the bedroom of the emdash enthusiastic belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson. Confined to this space, made all the more close and macabre thanks to his own gently-used coffin that Poe must tote around as part of his pact for being rescued from death by an otherworldly specter, the two writers square off in a tete-a-tete that is truly a remarkable work of theater.

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Penned by Ohio-based playwright Joseph McDonough, Edgar and Emily is both an American Lit wonk’s fantasy and a nuanced, complex examination of two people famed for their obsession with death. Combining an expletive-free Mamet-esque repartee with elements of slapstick (sight gags galore), unexpected vulnerabilities and moments of old-school horror tactics worthy of Vincent Price, Edgar and Emily accomplishes much in a relatively short script. Expect to be taken on a fun house ride with this offering—there are creepy parts, funny parts, and, of course, a very subtle trip through the hall of mirrors where you see Dickinson and Poe as distorted reflections of the stories we’ve been told about them; you may see yourself reflected therein as well.

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Katrina “Kat” Stevenson plays Emily against Paul Potenza’s Edgar. David Jenkins directs. This trio began working together in Jobsite in 1999, lauded for their record-breaking 2001 production of Dracula. Stevenson, a diminutive, sharp-eyed redhead, taught English for three years and, as Potenza notes admiringly, comes by her poetic delivery naturally. To prepare for the role, she immersed herself in Dickinson’s poems, reading hundreds of them to absorb the language, to glean what she could to deliver what she feels like is an honest portrayal of a giant in American literature about whom very little is known. Potenza traveled to Poe’s home in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx via a trip to Yankee Stadium. He stood in the rooms where the bedeviled genius worked and lived, himself absorbing something of the writer’s real life to bring to the role. Jenkins sent him a list of Poe’s physicalities based on accounts of Poe at the time (no such list exists for Dickinson who was famously reclusive), and over the course of rehearsals, Potenza has morphed into the writer who changed our notion of ravens forever.

Last week, Caught in the Act joined David, Kat and Paul at the top of rehearsal to chat about the play and bringing these literary figures to life. To hear them talk about the play, their process and the challenges and surprises along the way, listen to Rapping at the Chamber Door on our podcast, Act2.

Edgar and Emily opens Oct. 12 in the Shimberg Playhouse with previews Oct. 10 and 11.

Epic Theater Fails

Our new Broadway season opens in two weeks with the side-splitting comedy The Play That Goes Wrong. To celebrate, we found this collection of Broadway and musical theater blooper reels.

Crying.

We were crying by the time we picked out this video mash-up of Broadway mishaps for your viewing pleasure for the Straz Center blog this week. As you know, our Bank of America Broadway at The Straz season launches Oct. 16 when The Play That Goes Wrong opens in Morsani Hall. As you may not know, The Play That Goes Wrong is about a show that goes completely off the rails … well, it never starts on the rails; the wheels fall off before the curtain rises. Trust us—the show is howlingly funny in that it’s nonstop physical humor that indulges in gag-after-gag of the greatest actor’s nightmare: forgotten lines, breaking props. Oh, and a lead who’s been accidentally knocked unconscious.

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The Play That Goes Wrong National Tour. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

A scene, a show, a line—these things can go sideways in live theater. Perhaps you’ve been in the audience when Dracula, grappling with townsfolk, accidentally rolled too far and tumbled over the proscenium into the orchestra pit (we saw this once). Or maybe you were there that fateful night in 2005 when a 97-pound Kristin Chenoweth didn’t know she was supposed to take only a half-Vicodin for her injured vertebrae, took a whole one, and arrived as Glinda in Wicked feeling like a reeeeeeeeeeeeally good witch. Too bad her tongue and face muscles weren’t cooperating with her brain although she notes that some fans regard that show as her best.

Things happen. People fall down. Props break or don’t get put on stage at all. Wardrobes malfunction. People fall down. Actors “go up;” i.e. blank on their lines. People fall down. Sometimes actors miss cues and don’t arrive onstage—at all. What’s left to do when the horrifying prospect of something going wrong becomes reality? Well, laugh. And, honestly, why is people falling so funny? Why?

Here’s a short video of productions from Broadway to middle school that captures the precisely hilarious moments when the plays go wrong.

Not theater but still funny: Sometimes You Sneeze into Your Trombone

He Had It Comin’

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Belva Gaertner (L) and Beulah Annan (R)

The true story of the accused but acquitted Chicago beauties who inspired musical legends Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly

The Bob Fosse masterpiece we know and love today as Chicago the musical actually started with two real women and two real murdered men. In Chicago. In the Roaring 20s.

1924 to be exact.

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A headline from the Chicago Tribune on June 6, 1924 (L) and Belva Gaertner sitting with her defense attorney, Thomas D. Nash (R).

In March of that year, Belva Gaertner, a comely cabaret singer, happened to leave a bottle of gin in her parked car. Unfortunately, she also left a dead man and a gun in the car as well. Accused of killing said man—a young car salesman named Walter Law—Belva found herself in the Cook County jail, the subject of newspaper headlines and journalists who voted her “most stylish” in the clink. Decked out in ravishing bell hats, furs and delicately form-fitting dresses, Gaertner endured her trial as one of the two most famous faces of Murderesses Row. (It was really called that.)

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A headline from the Chicago Tribune on April 4, 1924 (L) and Beulah Annan with lawyer William Scott Stewart on her left and her husband, Al, on her right (R).

The other, 23-year-old Beulah Annan, found herself in Belva’s company on Murderesses Row in April. Called “the prettiest woman ever accused of murder in Chicago,” Annan, in a lapse in judgement, confessed to the murder of her manstress, Harry Kalstedt, later backtracking, stating she and Harry “both reached for the gun” during a quarrel. We bet you’ve figured out which character Beulah becomes in Chicago by now, but if you haven’t, Beulah also came with a faithful and extremely naïve husband who stood by her during the trial despite having found a dead man in his bedroom with his wife.

Naturally, there’s also a lot of booze in the backstories as well as another beautiful woman—innocent of any crime other than being a flagrantly biased journalist. This woman, Maurine Dallas Watkins, worked for the Chicago Tribune covering crime “from a woman’s perspective.” Watkins wrote very descriptive and judgy accounts of Belva and Beulah, then, when all was said and done, she took her ultra-popular crime articles to Yale University to finish studying playwrighting, which she’d abandoned for the Tribune gig. [It’s worth noting that Watkins started her studies at Radcliffe College and was in the same class as Eugene O’Neill.]

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Maurine Watkins, the Chicago Tribune crime reporter who went on to write the play Chicago, circa 1927. (Photo: Florence Vandamm, Vandamm Studio)

At Yale, Watkins turned the stories into a play.

You guessed it: Chicago, starring Velma Kelly—a comely cabaret singer—and Roxie Hart, the gamine beguiler with a dopey, impossibly faithful husband. The show landed a spot on Broadway, ran for 127 performances before closing, then years later fell into the hands of another comely cabaret singer. That woman, Gwen Verdon, happened to be married to Bob Fosse. “Bob,” we imagine her saying, “you gotta make this into a musical. It’s what I want … give in!” [Gwen played the devil Lola in Damn Yankees, so whatever she wants … you know the rest.]

Fosse tried to convince Watkins to give him the rights to the script, but she wouldn’t. Watkins was pretty amazing, which you can read about in this tribute by the Tribune.

When she died, though, her estate granted Fosse and Verdon the rights. Chicago the musical, starring Verdon and Chita Rivera as the most famous Merry Murderesses, was born. Belva and Beulah faded to the corners of Windy City history while Velma and Roxie hot honey ragged their way into musical history.

Catch Chicago when it razzle-dazzles The Straz next week.

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Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart (L) and Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly (R) in the 1975 Broadway production of Chicago, directed by Bob Fosse.