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.

Hundred Days New York Theatre Workshop

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.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

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.

All That Glitters is Gold for Jobsite Theater

Jobsite Theater opens its 2018-2019 season with a return of Spencer Meyers in the lead role of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Spencer, who by day plays our unflappable group sales associate at The Straz, debuted as Hedwig in Jobsite’s 2013 production. Says Jobsite Artistic Director David Jenkins, “I always knew the prodigious talent inside of him, but it was amazing to watch Spencer blossom through the process to fully bloom during the run. His Hedwig is delicate, self-effacing, vulnerable, a true underdog. I think Spencer is even more prepared, more in his prime, than perhaps he was before. So, I’m very excited to get back in the rehearsal room with him to see how she’s [Hedwig’s] grown in this time.” Here’s what Spencer has to say about being Hedwig and returning to the show.

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Spencer Meyers as Hedwig, backed by The Angry Inch, during a technical rehearsal. (Photo: Brian Smallheer)

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Many people know you from your work with Jobsite and saw you in the first run as Hedwig in 2013. Are you nervous about coming back to the role? In what ways are you approaching your performance differently this time around?

SPENCER MEYERS: Tampa Famous! Of all the roles, it’s my favorite. Hedwig’s first preview was the first time I ever had stage fright, seconds before making my entrance; I literally was wondering how I could get to my car the fastest without being seen. We had a birthday in the audience that night of a long-time Jobsite supporter. I went out there, sang the birthday song like Marilyn Monroe’s JFK version and then, Hedwig took over. Now, I have a new set of nerves. Whereas the first time was, “can I do this?” This time, I know I can but I wonder – “can I live up to the hype of the last time? Or the hype that this show has had since its Broadway run/success?”

Preparation? Wait, I’m supposed to prepare? Memorizing those lines ahead of time, is the smartest thing I can do to prepare. Sections start coming back more than others. Although, I’m five years older, and it’s interesting how some moments have more meaning to me than others because of new life events.

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The 2013 band is pictured in the top photo (L to R: Woody Bond, Amy Gray, Spencer Meyers, Jonathan Cho, and Jana Jones). The bottom photo shows the 2018 band (L to R: Nader Issa, Jeremy Douglas, Woody Bond, Spencer Meyers, Mark Warren and Amy Gray).

CITA: We heard through the grapevine that your acting has been strongly influenced by the style of Miss Piggy. True? If so, is there anything you’re bringing to the role of Hedwig that has a little Piggy in it?

SM: Okay, this grapevine has been on my Instagram (I have a side by side comparison photo of me and Piggy–we could be related). My favorite Muppet has always been Miss Piggy. She’s loud, she’s funny and always manages to steal the scene. She’s the number one reason I love The Great Muppet Caper. Haven’t seen it yet? Watch it and see Hedwig, who shares the same diva-like qualities as Miss Piggy and some physical traits like the big smile and head tilt–as well as some aggression towards those who try to steal her light. It’s Hedwig’s show, she’s the star–never forget that.

CITA: It’s a tough, demanding role. Hedwig is always onstage, talking or singing, and swinging through a million emotions. How do you keep your energy up throughout an entire run?

SM: It’s exhausting–I’m barely a human being for the first 20 minutes after the show closes. My preparation before each show consists of a series of events the second I arrive to the dressing room. First, I shave my face, then paint my nails, wipe my face with alcohol wipes and start putting on the many layers of garments (pantyhose, fishnet stockings, Spanx slip, fishnet top).

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First step to get ready for the show: shave and glue down the eyebrows.

Then it’s time to warm up with the band (“Origin of Love”), then back to the dressing room for makeup. The makeup will usually take until close to showtime (that’s right, I’m still putting on my face as you enter the theater and get comfortable). At about 10 minutes to places, I put on both layers of my costume, the cape and then finally, the wig.

It’s a 90-minute show of Hedwig singing and telling a beautifully tragic and cheeky story of her life. As you said, a million emotions. The wonderful thing about this character as an actor is the mask you wear with the makeup. I can’t see any resemblance of myself once the makeup is completed. I’m able to let her take over, and it’s an adrenaline rush all the way until the end. The moment after I take my bow, I dash to the bathroom to take everything off and throw on comfortable clothing. So, if you are waiting for me to come out, I will–just give me a quick minute.

Spencer and Lindsay, makeup designer

Lindsay MacConnell (L) designed the makeup for the 2013 production of Hedwig and is back again for this production.

CITA: Favorite part of playing this character?

SM: Everything except the Spanx and glitter. Seriously, I love everything about her. Her story is tragic, funny and relatable. We’ve all experienced the moments of her life. We’ve had the first loves that didn’t work, distance from family members at times, heartache and that moment that we search for our place in the world. The music is what made me fall in love with the show. Honestly, I think the songs connect us all in the human experience. We cry and laugh for and with her, she’s human–like us.

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A behind-the-scenes look at Spencer getting glitter-ized for the promotional photo shoot.

CITA: Hedwig makes plenty of inappropriate remarks to audience members as a part of the show—most of which is ad libbed during the performance. How do you know who to target and how far to push the envelope?

SM: Don’t bring the kids unless you want to explain a lot of things on the drive back. I’ll admit that the inappropriate lines are some of my favorite things in this show. As I mentioned before, she likes to take over and I gladly let her. She’s like the alter ego of mine that I never knew existed. So completely different than me in my every day. Those ad libs shock me sometimes. If you get offended by something I say in the show; it wasn’t me, it was her. The first run, my biggest fear was having to ad lib and have no fourth wall because every audience will react differently.

So, you want to know my secrets on how I choose my audience participants, huh? Well, it took the first preview to know who to target. It’s a tricky game. A lot of the ad libs happen by the third song of the show, “Sugar Daddy” (prepare yourselves, I will leave the stage and come to you if chosen). By this time in the show, I know who’s into it and who isn’t. I look for the laughers. There are a lot of inappropriate jokes and funny bits early on in the script, so I take note of those who are living for it. Eye contact is important as well. If they are having a good time and not looking away when I make eye contact, then they are potentially going to get more attention throughout the show.

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s experience by making them feel uncomfortable. Some people do not like having audience interaction while watching a show. I can understand that. If you are one of those people, sit at least three rows back in the main seating bank (I’m not going to crawl over people, CenterBills and drinks just to get to you).

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Spencer, in all of Hedwig’s glory, during a technical rehearsal. (Photo: Brian Smallheer)

A Director of Production Services TELLS ALL!

The performing arts are big business. In this industry, we have a lot of super important jobs for people who love the theater but who may have no interest in performing professionally. This week, we sat down with Gerard Siegler, Straz Center director of production services, who plays a huge part in making sure the shows work and the forty-billionteen details of a live performance have been handled.

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Gerard Siegler, director of production services for The Straz.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: What are production services? What do you do? Take us through a typical day in the life.

GERARD SIEGLER: Sure … there’s no typical day. The gist of my job and the job of any production manager is to deal with all the backstage needs. This would be the technical elements like making sure that we have equipment that shows need. Sometimes it means getting hospitality, booking hotel rooms, booking transportation, either to or from the airport and even sometimes air flights and things like that.

It’s a wide range of duties, sometimes it’s as simple as a speaker needing a microphone or AV equipment all the way to Broadway shows—making sure that their set is going to fit within our space and making sure we have the equipment they need.

CITA: How does this work? Let’s say we book The Phantom of the Opera, and you get the memo that Phantom is coming. Then what happens on your end?

GS: Sure. Every touring show has what we call a “rider.” A rider is basically a bible of what the show comes with, what labor they need, meaning stagehand labor—that’s something else we’re in charge of—what equipment they bring, and then what equipment they need. It also specifies how long it takes to load in a show, how long the show is. The riders are sometimes so in depth it goes into what kind of candle an actor needs for their dressing room.

When Phantom is put into the books, one of the production managers is assigned to the show. They go through the rider, make sure that we can accommodate everything that the show needs. What we can’t accommodate, we either supplement or we can redirect them to what we have and then come up with alternatives—if it’s a smaller rental. If they’re adamant about, “I need this amp for my guitar.” Then we will rent stuff if we don’t have it.

That production manager will work through the show. Normally the advance happens anywhere between a month to three months out, depending on how large the show is.

For Broadway shows, it normally takes about anywhere between 10 and 16 hours to load in a show. Most Broadway shows load in Monday, and we have our first performance on Tuesday. They’ll load in the entire show, they’ll do soundcheck, and then they load out … The production manager is usually the first person in and the last person to go. My typical day when I’m doing a show starts around 7:00 a.m. and gets done at 1:00 a.m. the next day.

CITA: You do that for four days in a row?

GS: Yeah, four days in a row. The Broadway shows are one of the easier shows to do. Morsani Hall is considered a roadhouse. A roadhouse means that we have most of the things that happen within Morsani, so it’s self-contained. For example, Phantom comes with everything they’re going to need. Broadway shows, for the most part, come with everything they need besides a few little odds and ends. They tend to be the easy ones. It’s the rentals, and the one-offs, and the concerts that sometimes end up being the most difficult for us.

CITA: Why is that? It seems like you’ve got a concert, you just get a mic, you plug in a sound system, you’re good to go.

GS [laughs]: It’s typically not like that. For instance, some of the smaller concerts just bring the artist and the artist’s guitar, and we supply everything else. What you see on stage is maybe 20% of the actual equipment it takes to run the concert. All you really see are the back line, the piano, the drums, a monitor … but to get all of that to work, it takes a while to load in.

Your dance shows even take longer sometimes, so your modern dance shows, like MOMIX, are very light[ing] heavy. We load in their lighting before they even show up. The day before they come in, we’ll have crew on that will set their lighting which is something that’s dictated by the show. MOMIX sends us a rider with a lighting plot, and we set the lighting plot even before they arrive. Sometimes what is a two-hour show takes three days to put together.

 

This is what the stage in Morsani Hall looked like when Wicked was loading in, 2017.

CITA: Right. A lot of what creates the magic and creates the illusion of theater is what production and costuming does. It’s the stuff that the audience doesn’t have to think about consciously. They can absorb lighting and music subconsciously and feel the feelings that they create. The catch-22 for you all is that nobody knows if you’re doing a good job unless you do a bad job.

GS: Exactly. We don’t get compliments, we get criticism. The only time you actually know we’re there is when something goes wrong.

CITA: Alright readers, so that means our production staff needs more compliments when you see a good show. When you see Gerard around, tell him that he did a good job. So Gerard, how did you end up here? First of all, tell us how long you’ve been at The Straz and then how does somebody get involved in theater production?

GS: I’ve been at the Straz … April was nine years. I started with the Patel Conservatory. I was one of their production people then moved over as a production manager to The Straz about five years ago. Last June, I became the director of production services.

I started out as an actor. I did theater in high school and performed on Ferguson Stage as a thespian. When I moved to college, I started a theater track for acting and needed a part time job, so I started doing work in the college tech shop. My technical director at the time took me under his wing and said, “You can make a whole career out of just doing this.” My sophomore year, I changed directions and did more technical theater.

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Gerard Siegler hangs lights for Blake H.S.’s production of FAME.

CITA: Were you at USF?

GS: No, I went to Flagler College in St. Augustine.

CITA: Did you find that you enjoyed the technical side more than you did the acting side?

GS: I did. I could see the product progression more, and that satisfied me more. But it’s more pressure because, like I said, you do one wrong thing and it makes or breaks a show. For me, though, building the set, running sound, running lights, putting all that together, that really interested me.

CITA: And then you got a degree in theatrical production?

GS: Yeah.

CITA: Then what happened to you?

GS: After Flagler, I went to the Shawnee Playhouse in the Poconos for summer stock. I was the assistant technical director. One of my friends who graduated with me, we both decided that since we were already in Pennsylvania, we should move to New York City for a year. That’s what I did. I moved to New York for a year, did some odd jobs, picked up some theater stuff here and there, and then moved back to the Tampa Bay area to get married. My wife, who is in the theater department at the Patel, said “Why don’t you just come out and be a summer intern for Patel?” The day before I came in for my interview for the summer internship, the technical production person for Patel had put in his one month notice that he was leaving.

CITA: Whoa!

GS: I was hired for that position, and that was my start.

CITA: And the rest is history.

GS: Exactly.

CITA: Okay, so here you are, and you’ve been doing this for a while. You got seasoned out there in the world on your career trajectory. Do you still get nervous before a show goes up? Do you ever have feelings of, “Oh my gosh, I hope nothing goes wrong. I hope we did the lighting just right, I hope—”

GS: I get nervous the morning or the night before, thinking “What did I miss? What is going to go wrong?” Really, all it takes is for one little thing to go wrong and it can throw the whole day, especially when you’re dealing with different personalities. I’m dealing with local stagehands anywhere from … Three is normally our smallest crew, to some Broadway shows where you’re looking at 75-80 labor hands. Not to mention the actual tour, they’ve come with their own staff. So there’s always that sense of “What did I miss? What happened? What’s going to happen?” [laughs] It doesn’t matter how much pre-planning you do. When you get here and you get on the grounds, half the time the plan gets thrown out the window within the first 30 minutes.

CITA: Show business can get a little frustrating sometimes.

GS: As for the show itself, the only time I get nervous is when we’re falling behind. With The Straz being as well-known as we are, we sometimes get the first stop on tours. Once, a Broadway show had issues with their automation track. The floor that you see for Broadway shows, sometimes it’s painted elaborately, and that’s not actually our stage. It’s another deck that gets put on the stage. Sometimes they have what’s called an “automation track,” which is grooves within the stage that moves the furniture on and off.

For this show, we’re the first stop. Five minutes before I was supposed to open up the house and have the audience come in, their automation track broke. This is opening night of the first show of this new Broadway tour. I have to hold opening the house until we can get the track fixed because if we don’t get it fixed then the effect doesn’t work. That was nerve-wracking.

CITA: Did you get the automation track fixed in time for the show?

GS: Yeah. We were 20 minutes late opening up the house. We have a great usher staff and front of house staff that helped with the audience. We started only five minutes later than we would normally start.

CITA: We love these behind-the-scenes stories because it’s the show that people don’t see. It’s the high drama, the high tension of getting it to go flawlessly, or start on time. When you have all of these moving pieces in live theater, you don’t get a do over. Is that kind of excitement what drives you as part of technical production?

GS: I get my most joy from show to show. If you’re an actor touring, doing the same role for a year and a half, you’re doing the same role for a year and a half. Whereas, within a year and a half as a production manager, or the director of production services, I’m in charge of a couple hundred shows a year. I have a team, so it’s myself and there are three other production managers. Between the four of us, we are in charge of all the theaters except TECO theater.

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Gerard Siegler works shows from all genres which includes being backstage with one of the dinosaurs from Erth’s Dinosaur Petting Zoo.

CITA: Which is almost unbelievable, that a staff that small can do that many shows. Because we don’t book shows in just the theaters. We’ve got Live and Local, we’ve got Straz Live in the Park, we’ve got Fourth Friday. We have so many other events that are happening outside of the theaters, too, that just the four of you make happen.

GS: Yeah. It’s not just the shows themselves. For instance, opera has two performances that they do, but the average opera takes anywhere between two to three weeks on the physical stage to go through. You’ve got a week of loading in the set and lighting and a week of tech rehearsals. Then you have two performances, and then you load it all out in one day and you’re on to the next one. That to me is what gets me going. It always changes. Hamilton is going to be here for four weeks this season. At each show there will be some new challenge that pops up, whether it’s, “My costume ripped” or “We ruined a costume.” Or, “The washing machine went out.” You’re always on your toes.

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Close-up view of a sound board.

CITA: For people who want to be in the theater but not on stage, how do they get to where you are?

GS: I started in high school. I was one of three boys in my high school theater department, so I did a lot of stuff onstage, but I also did a lot of tech prep work. I helped with the sets, helped with the lights, even though I didn’t think about it as a career until college. If you really, really, really want to get a job nowadays behind the scenes, you either become an audio engineer or something with video. Those are the two things that are not going anywhere right now. We’re always looking for someone in audio, visual and lights. You have to be very good at what you do because as much as the actors are onstage doing their best, sometimes we’re the ones that break the performance because mics are popping.

CITA: Or you make the performance flawless.

GS: Exactly. Yes.

CITA: We have classes in technical theater here, right? Workshops for students?

GS: Yes. Patel has a stage management class and we’re going to try to work with them this year to make a technical theater class that deals with a little bit of everything. I give tours all the time to college and high school groups, especially that are technical theater oriented to come. They look at our stage; they can go into the booths.

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Inspiring the next generation of production managers, Gerard and his son Maddon on Carol Morsani Hall stage.

CITA: That’s cool.

GS: They go up to the fly rail—10 stories up. CJ Marshall, who’s our director of operations, has really tried to spearhead getting younger people interested in technical theater because when you go to a high school program, you get 30 kids who want to be actors and maybe two or three who want to work back behind the scenes. We’re trying to invest in the future.

CITA: That’s fantastic. Do you love your job?

GS: I do love it. Like I said, it’s a new thing every day. It always keeps me on my toes. This summer we’re updating and renovating a lot of our old equipment. We’re excited in the production department. We’re taking on a lot, especially with the next season almost here. It’s always fun.

testing the new hearing system at Paw Patrol

A family affair – Audrey Siegler, Patel Conservatory theater department managing director and Gerard’s wife, with their daughter Ellie, Gerard and son Maddon. Gerard is testing the new assisted listening system while the family enjoys Paw Patrol.