Come Sit By Me

September is Women’s Friendship Month. So, how does that play out on Broadway? Let’s take a look.

The Sisterhood is real.

So is Women’s Friendship Month, which happens to be September.

In honor of the totally rad relationships women create, maintain and sustain, we decided to take a look at the way women’s friendships are portrayed in three blockbuster Broadway hits.

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I. The Color Purple
The unbreakable bond between sisters, women’s intimacy, loyalty against abusive men and the encouragement to rise up in the face of dangerous odds, the dynamics between the women in this story represent many facets of women’s friendships. The Color Purple, in its examination of the connection between sisters Celie and Nettie and the arrival of dynamos Shug and Sofia, circles around and through the nuances of the critical nature of women loving and standing up for each other. The musical tracks how each woman influences Celie, the star of the show, who struggles to come into her own identity as an African-American woman in the early 1900s. Based on Alice Walker’s award-winning novel, this story specifically reclaims the most righteous awesomeness of women looking each other square in the eye and saying, “I’m with you, sister.”

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II. Waitress
Thematically, it’s like The Color Purple but with pies. This story follows Jenna, a supremely talented pie-maker, as she relies on her waitress buddies to inspire the inner strength that propels her to an independent life doing what she loves. Based on Adrienne Shelley’s film—which she wrote in just two weeks while pregnant with her daughter—this story looks at the necessity of a network of female friends, no matter how small, to be both the safety net and the springboard for a woman with the ambition to see where her talent can take her. In an interesting real-life side note, the creative team behind Waitress the musical is all women, including hit maker Sara Bareilles who wrote all the songs and lyrics.

Of course, one of the most notorious female friendships in the Broadway canon belongs to Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, which brings us to

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III. Chicago
We dunno how much this show reflects women’s friendships as much as it illuminates humanity’s tendency to make advantageous alliances for self-preservation. However, one thing is certain: Velma and Roxie (and the rest of “Mama”’s incarcerated crew of insanely attractive murderers) make a great team for an epic battle of frenemies vying for the limelight. Chicago, which is based on reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins’s play (which was inspired by her work covering women on trial for murder in Chicago), disrupts the “sugar and spice and everything nice” notion about women and women’s relationships. In this story of literal femme fatales, women get a delightful romp in the predatory role where an uneasy truce is the closest anyone is going to get to a real relationship. Though Velma and Roxie bury the hatchet to become business partners by the end of the show, Chicago purposefully challenges gender stereotypes and assumptions about why women need each other.

However, like The Color Purple and Waitress, Chicago ultimately proves that life is so much better when you’ve got a pack of like-minded women with whom to take over the world.

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Ten Million Five Hundred Twelve Thousand Minutes

The original cast of RENT twenty years later … where are they now?

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The original Broadway cast of RENT. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The raw yet elegantly composed story of young people scrabbling to make their dreams come true in an AIDS-rattled New York City shadowed by a growing moral hypocrisy from the political establishment, RENT resonated with Generation X. A young composer, a young cast, a new style of musical designed to capture a new disillusionment about the American Dream re-energized the Broadway musical scene.

The Hamilton of its time, RENT spurred an obsessed fandom of “RENTers” or “RENT-heads” to camp overnight for a shot at $20 tickets to the original Broadway show. The original cast, then comprised of young, unknown talents who toiled in rehearsals uncertain of whether the show was any good, became overnight sensations once RENT became the toast of the town in 1996.

Original cast members included Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Anthony Rapp and Jesse L. Martin at the start of their careers. Now that RENT enters its 20th anniversary tour and stops by The Straz Sept. 19-24, we thought we’d look at where the original cast is now.

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Adam Pascal as Shakespeare in Something Rotten! (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Adam Pascal (Roger)
Life after RENT: starred in Cabaret, Chicago, Memphis, Aida, Disaster! and more.
Now: Cast as William Shakespeare in 2016’s Something Rotten!, Pascal teamed up with RENT co-star Anthony Rapp in 2017 for a series of concerts about the musical.

 

If/Then

Anthony Rapp & Jackie Burns in IF/THEN. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Anthony Rapp (Mark)
Life after RENT: starred in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and several films including A Beautiful Mind.
Now: Rapp appeared at the Straz Center last year in If/Then, a musical he also starred in on Broadway with his RENT co-star Idina Menzel.

 

Idina Menzel (Maureen)
Life after RENT: Well, Elphaba in Wicked and belter of “Let It Go” as Elsa in Frozen.
Now: Menzel just wrapped up a world tour and continues to work with A Broader Way, an organization to support arts education for girl in urban communities, which she founded with her RENT co-star Taye Diggs.

 

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Taye Diggs on Empire. (Photo: Instagram @tayediggsinsta)

Taye Diggs (Benny)
Life after RENT: became a household name after starring in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, appearing frequently on television shows (Will & Grace, Grey’s Anatomy, Rosewood, Murder in the First).
Now: Diggs just wrapped three films in 2017 and is most recognized for his role as Angelo Dubois on Empire.

 

Jesse L Martin

Jesse L. Martin is known for playing detectives on TV. (Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW)

Jesse L. Martin (Tom)
Life after RENT: maintained a very successful career in television, most notably for his role as Ed Green on Law & Order.
Now: Martin portrays Detective Joe West on the television series The Flash. He has been cast as Marvin Gaye in the film Sexual Healing though the film is currently stalled.

 

Portrait of a mature african woman

Fredi Walker (Joanne)
Life after RENT: appeared in musicals including The Lion King (Rafiki) and The Buddy Holly Story.
Now: Walker teaches voice at Long Island University and New York University.

 

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Wilson Jermaine Heredia performing at the 23rd Annual ROCKERS ON BROADWAY concert in 2016. (Photo: BroadwayWorld.com)

Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel)
Life after RENT: took a short hiatus from the limelight before staying under the radar in a series of titillating B movies.
Now: Heredia just wrapped the comedy feature film The Rainbow Bridge Motel.

 

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Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi)
Life after RENT: continued a Broadway and music career, appearing in Les Miserables, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the Tampa-based drama Anna in the Tropics while writing and recording albums.
Now: Rubin-Vega lives in Panama with her husband and child and occasionally performs in public art shows.

Salsa con Sabor: The Many Flavors of Salsa Dancing

Did you know there are at least six different styles of salsa dancing? With the Tampa Bay Salsa and Bachata Festival wrapping up its takeover of downtown Tampa this week, we thought we’d keep the good vibes going with this brief look at the most well-known styles.

On 1? On 2? On the “and”?

Salseros know the answers to these questions can tell you a lot about a salsa dancer.

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Guests enjoy dancing at Latin Nights at Maestro’s Restaurant.

Whether you step out on the first beat (on 1), the second (on 2) or the “and”/”y” before the first, depends upon your particular style of salsa dance. Miami, Cuban, L.A., New York, Columbian, Rueda — these are the main categories of salsa technique, and let us be the first to assure you that each category has its own particular stylings. Salsa, like language, has many dialects and infinite flavors — all cooked up from the Caribbean and exported throughout the world.

The term “salsa” as we know it today originated in the 1970s (not a typo) after a perfect storm of cultures cross-pollinated in Spanish Harlem (“El Barrio”) in New York. Puerto Rican influences met Cuban influences met American jazz influences, and an explosion of this musical fusion was captured on wax by Fania Records, the “Latin Motown.”

Of course, salsa music didn’t form in a vacuum. It was the result of hundreds of years of colonial imperialism enslaving Africans to work tobacco and sugarcane fields in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean. West African percussion rhythms and Spanish music blended into a uniquely Cuban sound. Likewise, a similar effect happened in Puerto Rico. Dance also benefited from colonial terrorism as European court dances intertwined with traditional African dances to create Cuban son, rumba, folkloric dances, Puerto Rican bomba and plena and others.

As we know, migrations happened, bringing these rich cultures to the United States, notably (for this blog, anyway) to New York. Around the 1950s, a few key players in this salsa story started to get internationally famous: Celia Cruz, later crowned Queen of Salsa; Tito Puente, King of Mambo and Ishmael Rivera, Father of Salsa. By the mid-60s they would become prominent, lasting forces on the American Latin music scene. Before President Kennedy closed US borders to Cuba, the back-and-forth of Cubans and Cuban-Americans carried this new Latin sound to Cuba, where it fit right in as a long-lost member of the musical family.

The clave (kla-vay), a wooden percussion instrument, announces and carries the salsa beat, and it’s this “knocking” rhythm that dictates the “basic” — or, basic step, which is usually a triplet of some sort. As salsa music developed, so did salsa dancing. Geographic regions created their own styles and flair on the basic. That’s how we get New York salseros stepping “on 2” and the flashy Los Angeles dancers stepping “on 1.”

The Puerto Rican style, which is taught at The Straz’s Latin Nights at Maestro’s Restaurant, is a smooth, sliding step. Dancers incorporate shoulder shimmies and use clean body lines in the dance.

Like this:

Cuban style uses Afro-Cuban hips movements and body isolations, starting on the “and” before the first downbeat.

Such as:

Hollywood influences L.A.’s “showy” style that incorporates tricks, flips and drops. Danced “on 1,” L.A. style has a powerful look and feel. Like all salsa styles, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

See for yourself with these competition dancers:

Rueda, also called Casino Rueda or Salsa Rueda, is a group of dancers in a circle following the instructions of a caller. Rueda means “wheel” in Spanish, so this style of salsa has dancers moving in a circle, swapping partner to partner in a series of moves determined on the fly by the caller. For this style, you’ve got to know your moves — and be quick about it.

Like these dancers:

The Miami style evolved from the Cuban style, adding more pretzel-twists with the arms and borrowing from the circular, “spinning” style of rueda.

Check it out:

Folks credit Eddie Torres with establishing New York style salsa, danced “on 2,” and also known as “mambo style.” New York style uses Afro-Cuban body movements to spice up the controlled, flowing, even pace of the dance. You’ll see complicated footwork and spins.

LOTS of spins:

Colombian style salsa, developed to the cumbia rhythm, uses more foot taps with a back-to-center or side-to-center pattern — not like the front-back mambo step.

See the difference:

Of course, despite their variations, the different styles of salsa are all exciting, sensual and full of “shines,” a term for when the dancers break apart for short grandstanding solos of impressive footwork. In other words, this moment in the dance is a time for the individuals to shine.

The Tampa Bay area happens to have great mix of salsa styles thanks to our location as a cultural crossroads for the Caribbean, Miami and folks fleeing New York’s cost of living and cold winters.

If you want to give salsa dancing a shot or are looking for a place to shine and style, our next Latin Night is Sept. 14.

Have something more to add about salsa dance? We know you do. Leave a comment below.

Celluloid Dreams

An in-depth convo with Straz Center Senior Director of Marketing, Summer Bohnenkamp, who directs her fifth production with Jobsite Theater – this season’s opener, The Flick.

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Summer Bohnenkamp directs Jobsite Theater’s season opener, The Flick. (Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Jobsite Theater, almost 19 years into its illustrious reputation as one of the strongest regional theater companies in Florida and beginning their 13th as resident theater company of the Straz Center, earned their reputation by putting up challenging, edgy, sometimes cerebral, often hysterical, intermittently campy theater works designed to be politically and socially relevant. The company keeps the definitions of “political” and “social” loose on purpose: Jobsite prides itself on its blue-collar work ethic while keeping a watchful eye on the systems of power and relationships, always ready to mount the kind of winning assessment of both that good theater dramatizes.

This season opens with Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Flick, a play that captures quintessential Jobsite at its best: a simple set, a small cast of exquisitely drawn workaday characters, and a tiny little premise that symbolizes the entire degradation of moral authenticity that has become our modern life. It’s a play about people cleaning an old movie house.

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A peek at the set for The Flick during tech rehearsal.

“The story is about three people who are lost,” says The Flick’s director, Summer Bohnenkamp. “They work in the last indie movie house in Massachusetts that plays real film, not digital. It has a projector you have to load and everything. All the action takes place either before or after a film, and there they are in the theater talking, cleaning the theater, figuring out who they are. In a way, it reminds me of [the movie] Empire Records. It’s the same kind of idea.”

Bohnenkamp herself started similarly, selling tickets in the ticket office at The Straz, then working her way to senior management in marketing. By day, she handles the massive needs of overseeing the marketing of hundreds of performances – everything from networking and buying media to writing institutional marketing plans and providing voice-overs for television ads. Her abiding love of theater keeps her with one foot in the show, one foot in the business as she balances her life between the corporate pressures of arts marketing and the creative outlet of bringing excellent scripts to life as an actor and a director.

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy, who plays the projectionist Rose in The Flick, posing with the projector used in the play.

“It’s cool to make something,” she says. “When I direct or act, I get to make something, and I don’t really ‘make’ other things. I don’t cook well; I’m not crafty. But, theater is something I can make that is good. It’s lasting. Hopefully, the audience and actors get something out of it, too. There are elements of trust and family that get created through the process of making a play that are very rewarding. Theater is a living, breathing thing that is never the same twice. It’s better than any therapy or exercise I can think of.”

Bohnenkamp’s other directorial achievements with Jobsite most recently includes their award-winning production of Time Stands Still. Prior to that she co-directed Annapurna and served as an associate director for reasons to be pretty and All New People. With The Flick, Bohnenkamp returns to her favorite style of script, a stripped-down, dialogue-driven, naturalistic look at people and motivations in situations we can all recognize.

reel cases from Tampa Theatre

These reel cases used in the show were lent to us by Tampa Theatre.

“I like plays that are real people talking. We’ve heard these people, we’ve eavesdropped on people just like the characters in this play. We know them. All the shows I’ve done have been about regular, recognizable people, and it’s interesting to delve into that level of realness when, in actuality, you’re creating something totally false. The three characters in The Flick have some very interesting quirks,” she says. “The dialogue reveals all the major surprises. These people who seem obvious have secrets and important stories. It’s very funny.”

From auditions, Bohnenkamp pulled three actors who can capture the subtle depth of the characters and deliver the complexity of the subtext in Baker’s script. “Brian Shea plays ‘Sam,’ the manager, and he killed it right off the page. He does neuroses so well, which is required for Sam. ‘Rose,’ the projectionist, is played by Georgia Mallory Guy, who can do anything. She came into the audition and gave off exactly what I was envisioning for Rose. We have Thomas Morgan playing ‘Avery,’ the young one of the bunch and the central character. Thomas knows who Avery is, and he had a well-defined character even in the auditions. It’s a good room,” she says, referring to a well-known theater term for having a cast that is positive and hard-working. “This is going to be a fantastic show.”

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy pictured with director Summer Bohnenkamp (top left), stage manager Vivian Rodriguez (top right), actor Thomas Morgan (bottom left), and actor Brian Shea (bottom right).

The Flick runs in the Shimberg Playhouse from Aug. 30 until Sept. 24. Get your tickets at strazcenter.org.

The Harmony That Keeps Trappist-1’s 7 Earth-size Worlds From Colliding

Hello, loyal readers. Caught in the Act is caught on vacation this week, but we wanted to share this very cool article on the music of the spheres from The New York Times. Enjoy, and we’ll be back with a freshly minted blog next week.

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A visualization of the orbits of the seven planets circling the star Trappist-1. (Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Kenneth Chang

In February, astronomers announced the discovery of a nearby star with seven Earth-size planets, and at least some of the planets seemed to be in a zone that could provide cozy conditions for life.

The finding of these planets circling the star Trappist-1 40 light-years away came with a bit of mystery. The orbits of the planets are packed tightly, and computer calculations by the discoverers suggested that the gravitational jostling would send the planets colliding with each other or flying apart, some to deep space, others spiraling into the star and destruction.

Now new research provides an explanation for the dynamics of how this planetary system could have formed and remained in stable harmony over billions of years.

“It’s actually a very special system,” said Daniel Tamayo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the lead author of a paper appearing in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The scientist in the office next door to Dr. Tamayo found musical inspiration from the Trappist-1 planets. Matt Russo, an astrophysicist who is also a musician, turned to Dr. Tamayo’s computer simulations for help turning the orbits into notes, and they have produced a sort of music of the spheres for the 21st century.

“I think Trappist is the most musical system we’ll ever discover,” Dr. Russo said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

While the planets are roughly the size of Earth, the Trappist-1 system is very different from our solar system. Trappist-1 is a dwarf star that is much smaller and colder than our sun, and all seven of the planets orbit within six million miles of the star. By contrast, Mercury, the innermost planet of our solar system, is 36 million miles from our sun. Earth is nearly 93 million miles away.

Since the Trappist-1 planets are so close to their star, they orbit quickly, and their “year” — the time to complete one orbit — ranges from 1.5 days to 19 days.

The original discoverers noted that those orbits were almost exactly in what scientists call “resonance.” That is, the second planet completes five orbits in almost exactly the time the first planet makes eight. The third planet completes three orbits for every five orbits of the second planet, and the fourth planet makes two orbits for every three orbits of the third. The other planets are also in resonance. (In our solar system, Pluto is in resonance with Neptune, with Pluto making two orbits for every three of Neptune.)

Yet when they plugged the data into computer simulations, the orbits quickly became unstable, falling apart in less than a million years. Even when they added the effects of tides on the planets, which tend to push planets toward more circular, stable orbits, the system still often fell apart within a few million years, a cosmic instant compared with the estimated age of the Trappist-1 star (three billion to eight billion years).

“We were missing some physics,” said Amaury H.M.J. Triaud, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in England and a member of the team that described the Trappist-1 planets. Also missing: exact information about the shape and tilt of the orbits.

Dr. Tamayo and his colleagues took a different approach.

Instead of just looking at the orbits of the planets today, they looked at possible ways that the planets got to where they are now. The planets formed out of a disk of gas and dust. After that formation, the remaining disk would have nudged the planets inward, and those nudges tend to push the planets toward the stable resonances.

Dr. Tamayo offered the analogy of musicians in an orchestra. “It’s not enough for members to merely keep time,” he said.

The missing information about orbits is like musicians playing out of tune, he said. “By contrast,” Dr. Tamayo said, “simulating the formation of the system in its birth disk is analogous to the orchestra tuning itself before playing. When we create these harmonized systems, we find that the majority survive for as long as we can run our supercomputer simulations.”

In more than 300 computer runs, each simulating five million years, the vast majority stayed stable, Dr. Tamayo said.

Then they ran 21 simulations each tracing about 50 million years of orbits, and 17 of those were stable. Each of the longer simulations consumed a week of supercomputer time. That suggests the orbits are stable for several billion years, although it does not provide definitive proof.

“That’s basically as long as we can hope to run our simulations,” Dr. Tamayo said.

Jack J. Lissauer, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center who works on the space agency’s Kepler planet-finding mission, said the new results fit what was expected. “If the planets are indeed locked in resonances, it’s quite reasonable for them to be stable for very long times,” he said. “This wasn’t a surprise, but it wasn’t shown previously.”

Dr. Triaud said the new results could help refine their observations. “It’s a really beautiful analysis,” he said of Dr. Tamayo’s approach. “We will be looking at our data to see if they match what they propose.”

The resonant orbits also inspired Dr. Russo, a guitarist in the indie pop group Rvnners. He and a bandmate, Andrew Santaguida, started playing around with the data. They arbitrarily assigned a particular musical note — C — to the outermost planet. That set the notes for the other planets based on their relative orbital periods, although they are not exactly in tune.

TRAPPIST-1 Planetary System Translated Directly Into Music (Video by SYSTEM Sounds):

The resonances drift over time, probably because of more complicated gravitational interactions and tidal effects.

“You can tell something is a bit twisted,” Dr. Russo said. “The notes are little wonky.”

In the musical animation, each planet plays its note each time it passes in front of the Trappist-1 star, with the orbit of the outer planet set at two seconds.

In addition, they assigned a specific percussion sound for each time a planet caught up with its neighbor. “It turned out to be very similar to a very natural drum progression,” Dr. Russo said.

So far, Trappist-1 is the only musically enchanting planetary system in the galaxy. In no other system are the planetary orbits stacked in resonance. Dr. Russo did a similar musical treatment of Kepler 90, another star with seven planets. “It’s just horrendous,” Dr. Russo said. “It’s very uncomfortable to listen to.”

That may turn out to indicate something different about how planets form around dwarf stars versus larger stars.

The scientists are releasing the computer software for anyone to explore the music of planetary orbits.

 

A version of this article, by Kenneth Chang, appears in print on May 16, 2017, on Page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: Perfect Timing: How a Celestial Neighbor Holds It Together. It was published online on May 10, 2017. Read it on The New York Times website here.

 

Live and Local

The Straz Center brings “think globally, act locally” to the performing arts.

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Live and Local artists performing at the Straz Center’s Open House.

If you’ve been around The Straz for the past few years, you’ve noticed the changes transforming our outdoor spaces to places meant for getting together, enjoying some cool art, having conversations and making the most of our primo waterfront property. We are blessed with one of the greatest downtown locations, so it makes sense that people would come here to relax, catch a sunset, enjoy some food and drinks and take in the creative vibes.

One of the best ways to soak in these spoils is to stop by on the weekend for Live and Local.

This free performance series presents a local musician in the Jaeb Courtyard, our magical outdoor play space complete with twinkle lights and café seating for supreme al fresco chill time.

The man in charge of Live and Local is Joel Lisi, who is himself something of a magical experience, as many longtime Tampanians recognize him as the guitarist for the jazz power instrumental trio Beanstalk and the jazz improv group Ghetto Love Sugar.

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Joel Lisi performing with Beanstalk.

“This is really cool, man, you know,” he says about booking acts for the stage and growing the series from year to year. “There used to be a metallic statue in the courtyard, maybe it belonged to the city and the city took it back, but it was gone, and all we had was landscaping rocks and this round rotundo space. We had to get some entertainment in for an event that weekend and we thought, ‘hey, there’s this weird rock space. Let’s put someone there.’ Because of my music background, I was asked to find someone. So, I called a friend, and we had him perform where the statue used to be.”

While gathered at the event that night, Lisi and a few Straz execs realized they were onto something. “We saw how the trees create this half-dome orchestra shell over the stage, and we were like ‘wow—this is the perfect outdoor music space’,” Lisi says. They began to strategize, thinking it would be cool to host a free performance before a weekend Broadway show (but pay the performer, of course). Some Straz patrons noted that the season programming lacked local artists, so this new space seemed to be a perfect solution.

“Roberto DeBourg—he’s known as Chachi—was our first musician. This was before SteamHeat Café or any of our plans for that space had fleshed out. But, we tried it before a Saturday night Broadway show, and it worked,” Lisi says. “That was the birth and it’s grown from there. Now, The Cube [featuring Broadway-themed graffiti art by Eric Hornsby] is there—and SteamHeat [the coffee shop serving local Buddy Brew roasts]. Everybody wants to hang out there. We went from six performances the first season to 20 this year. So, Live and Local is about exposing people to local culture, to local artists. It’s nice to make a connection to the local scene when you’re a big performing arts center.”

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Eric Hornsby painting The Cube before Motown The Musical arrived earlier this month. Check out more of his art on Instagram: @artist_esh

The Live and Local series still coincides mostly with the Saturday Broadway show, but artists perform before the Sunday opera matinee and before certain other big shows like Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Lisi curates the pairings, making sure the Live and Local act meshes with the tone of the main stage show. “I try to theme it, so yeah, there would be someone like Greg West, a rock guy, before a show like American Idiot, and Francesca Ani, this crazy-talented 17-year-old singer-songwriter who just won a big radio contest, before Nutcracker. It’s taken on a life of its own, and we’ve even been able to get some of our Live and Local artists to open for big touring acts playing The Straz.”

Check out this clip of Francesca performing at the Straz Center Open House in 2016:

Always on the lookout for solid Live and Local talent, Lisi keeps a generous spirit about getting Tampa Bay artists on the stage. “Yes, I always need people. I’ve been in a restaurant and some guy in the corner is killing it, and I’ll approach him and ask if he wants to perform. I’ll take suggestions, too.”

If you want to be considered as a Live and Local artist, send an email to joel.lisi@strazcenter.org with relevant details and where you are in the Tampa Bay area (gotta keep it local, folks).

If you want to know the lineup this season, we should have the bulk of it on the website by the end of August. For now, bookmark us and check back regularly. Here’s our Live and Local page.

“The bottom line,” Lisi says, “is that it’s just fun. You can come early for your show and hang out, not have to fight traffic. You can enjoy some live entertainment outside with your friends and just have a good time. That’s what it’s all about.”

The Fine Art Mystery of Morsani Mezzanine

Dr. Jay and Ann McKeel Ross Art Exhibit

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A drawing of a robe. Toddler dresses. Abstract boxes in a row. What are these art works hanging unceremoniously on the walls of Morsani Mezzanine? Where did they come from? What do you mean some of the greatest visual artists in the world are on display at the Straz Center?

The Tampa Bay area is a land of many secrets.

Our history holds several little-known treasures: the West Tampa cigar workers who rolled the instructions for the first Cuban revolution into the cigar destined for Havana; Woodlawn Cemetery, which features a fairly nondescript section dedicated only to circus folk, and Keith Richards, whose stint at the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel in Clearwater churned out the guitar lick to “Satisfaction.”

Perhaps one of the most enduring and prolific gems in Tampa’s atlas of uniqueness is the University of South Florida’s Graphicstudio, an experiment in art and education started by artist and professor Dr. Don Saff in 1968 that goes strong right now, even as you read this.

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Rauschenberg in his studio with Graphicstudio staff Patrick Foy, Tom Pruitt and Donald Saff, working on In-Dependents/ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works) in 1990. (Courtesy of Saff Tech Arts. Photo: George Holzer)

USF Graphicstudio has provided, over the last several decades, a refuge and workspace for some of the most famous, most promising, most daring visual artists to push the evocative, provocative printmaking form. Graphicstudio holds a well-deserved revered status in the art world as a studio at the forefront of international fine art publishing. One of the first artists to work with them was none other than the innovative genius Robert Rauschenberg.

Although The Stones were making headlines in the ‘60s, the boundless eruption of experimental art flourishing in the United States had a home with a group of artists in New York inventing what would be known as Pop Art. Its purveyors – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg – pole-vaulted into the vaunted halls of fame, fashion, fortune (for some) and made art focusing on popular culture a “thing,” a “happening.” Soup cans transformed to colorful social commentary, collages aping advertising slicks erased boundaries between high and low art, and these artists purposefully muddied the waters around concerns with the interbreeding of politics and mass media, consumerism and community integrity. These artists built the complex platform of cultural questioning that each of us stands on today, and two of these Pop Art all-stars – Lichtenstein and Rosenquist – worked in Graphicstudio.

Rauschenberg

But before them came Rauschenberg, whose style, labeled Neo-Dada, built the scaffolding for the later work of the Pop Art movement. Rauschenberg is a legend. There’s no other way to put it. He was the one who reconsidered and reconfigured what constituted artistic materials. He put found objects on painted canvases and threw the distinction between sculpture and painting into a tailspin. Rauschenberg was the guy whose White Paintings – canvases covered in uniform strokes with nothing but white house paint – totally confounded the definition of art, making some people really angry and awakened others to a canvas’s possibility for the artistry in shadows or as a backdrop to the art of life. Rauschenberg’s audacity made people question their fundamental assumptions, which made him both loved and loathed, as most great artists are.

Contemporaries admired him, art historians uphold him as one of the most influential American artists of all time and critics continue to debate interpretations of his kitsch-meets-classical work style that upended the boundaries of what it means to make art. Rauschenberg spent years, from 1972-1987, in and out of Graphicstudio, an effort that resulted in 60 editions of prints that experimented with form and technique. Rauschenberg, with the dedication of USF faculty, staff and students, tested his ideas in photo transfer, cyanotype, sepia prints, printing on cloth and ceramics, new material sculptures and a hundred-foot-long photograph during his tenure with Graphicstudio. His works Made in Tampa Two, Made in Tampa Eleven and Made in Tampa Twelve now hang in the easily accessible pop-up gallery of the Morsani Mezzanine.

Rosenquist_discover

Rauschenberg’s Pop Art contemporary, Rosenquist, noted for his deft and original use of juxtaposition, also has two works from his time with Graphicstudio on display in Morsani: Iris Lake and Discover Graphics Smithsonian. After noticing the Rauschenbergs and the Rosenquists, a leisurely stroll across the Mezzanine reveals the art placards carry one gigantic name after another:

• There are four Untitled works from the master maverick of the Pop Art era, Nicholas Krushenick, whose ultra-bold simplistic color blocks lined with black traces conjure an almost Simpsons-esque aesthetic – only 25 years before Matt Groening became a maverick in his own right. It’s worth noting that during this artistic time period, when almost everyone could be categorized somewhere from Op Art to Pop Art to post-Abstract Expressionism, Krushenick is the only one who defies category. He belongs everywhere and nowhere, which is an admirable feat among the wild bunch of enfants terribles cranking out art in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

Krushenick

• Chuck Close, whose John I and John II appear near the staircase, is one of the last living giants of the age. His singular, mosaic-style of painting meticulous portraits from a grid, often using each 1×1 square as a minute canvas as part of the whole canvas, reinvented the art of portraiture.

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• Miriam Schapiro, the printmaking revolutionary who invented “femmage,” a collage-like style that must include at least seven of fourteen distinct criteria including scraps, sewing, patterns, photographs and a woman-life context, is represented by one of her most enduring works, Children of Paradise, created during her time at Graphicstudio from 1983-1984.

Schapiro

• Jim Dine, Nancy Graves, Robert Stackhouse and the founder of Graphicstudio himself, Don Saff, all have work on the wall in Morsani mezzanine.

Graves, Dine, Stackhouse

That a collection so impressive, so unique hangs rather humbly in the Morsani Mezzanine raises a very important question: how did they get there? The answer lies with Jay and Ann McKeel Ross. Ann Ross, who moved to Tampa around the time that Rauschenberg was collaborating as set designer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company on Taylor’s 1957 The Tower, graduated from USF. Ann and her husband Jay loved Tampa, loved this area – and they loved art and culture. In 1968, they helped Saff start Graphicstudio, leveraging their relationships to create a pool of supporters to start a subscription program to help fund the artist residency. The subscribers, now called Research Partners, make an annual contribution to support the research mission. In return, they have opportunities to purchase work from Graphicstudio artists for a special price. (Note: anyone can buy full price Graphicstudio prints and sculptures from the studio’s website.)

A Straz Center trustee, Ann – along with her husband Jay – has been a long time donor to The Straz. She loaned these pieces of her personal collection for community enjoyment and appreciation of the fine work happening at Graphicstudio, which is now recognized as the nation’s leading university-based art research workshop.

Ross 1

Ann and Jay Ross.

“Ann and Jay are the only collectors that have been members of the subscription program since its inception and therefore have a complete collection of prints and sculptures produced for our Research Partners over the last 50 years,” says Margaret Miller, the director of Graphicstudio. “They have been generous in loaning works from their collection. How fortunate we are to have Ann and Jay in our community. They continue to demonstrate their commitment to advancing art and culture in this region.”

We are very proud and honored to be able to exhibit such a high caliber of work in an open community space like the Morsani Mezzanine, and we encourage you, on your next visit to The Straz, to come early and spend some time with the pieces from Ann and Jay’s collection. If you would like to get involved with Graphicstudio, check out their website: graphicstudio.usf.edu.