Lizzie Borden Took an Acts

Performing arts adaptations of one of America’s most grisly and haunting murder stories


Portrait of Lizzie Borden, circa 1889.

The facts are simple.

On Aug. 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found dead in their Falls River, Mass., home from multiple hatchet wounds. Police found no sign of a struggle, no convincing murder weapon, no bloody clothes on any possible suspect—even the one tried for the murders, Andrew’s younger daughter Lizzie.

Lizzie’s case stood as the 19th century’s version of the O.J. Simpson trial, feeding the public’s imagination and raising countless speculations about motives, what really happened and a friend’s testimony stating she saw Lizzie burning a “paint-stained” dress three days after the murders. Even though the jury acquitted her, Lizzie Borden galvanized into a horror legend guilty of the crime, spending the rest of her life as a social outcast and ghosting into history as an axe-wielding, Victorian psychopath who continues to provide fertile ground for storytellers of all artistic genres.


Colleen Cherry plays Lizzie Borden in Jobsite Theater’s rock musical production of LIZZIE (photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.).

Lizzie Borden’s legend, staged at The Straz this month by Jobsite Theater as the killer rock musical LIZZIE, features one of the latest stabs at adapting this gruesome, fascinating episode for the stage. LIZZIE features an all-female “riot-grrrl” band with Lizzie and Co. belting out musical metal as they perform a rock concert version of the events from Lizzie’s point of view. LIZZIE runs in the Jaeb Theater from Oct. 12-Nov. 6.


Left: The Boston Ballet’s 1972 production of Fall River Legend (photo: King Douglas). Right: American Ballet Theatre’s Fall River Legend, 2007 (photo: Lois Greenfield).

But before this current version, ballet choreographer extraordinaire Agnes deMille took a whack at capturing the complex social and emotional subtext surrounding Lizzie’s life. Her dance version, which ends in a guilty verdict, examined Lizzie’s relationship with the local priest, her complicated feelings toward her father and stepmother and the role of the small-town mindset. DeMille’s invention, premiered by American Ballet Theatre to a cinematic score by Morton Gould in 1954, arrived as an instant classic called Fall River Legend. The piece entered the repertory of other major ballet powerhouses including Dance Theatre of Harlem and Paris Opera Ballet.

The boring real-life outcome of Lizzie’s innocent verdict also provided a problem for another adaptation 11 years later when City Opera of New York transcribed the tale to the optimal form for murdering psychopaths: opera. Jack Beeson’s titular opera was conducted by none other than Maestro Anton Coppola, who later became the inaugural artistic director of the Straz Center’s Opera Tampa. In Beeson’s version, the plot centers around Lizzie’s psychological abuse by her father and stepmother, casting Lizzie as a tragic figure with little choice of escape except by removing the forces of unpleasantness. In short, administering the 81 whacks reported in the jump-rope rhyme. (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/Gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her father 41.”) To be historically accurate, 19 whacks befell Abby, who was her stepmom, with 11 landing upon Mr. Borden, both numbers that make catchy rhyming next to impossible. As usual, the facts disrupt the dramatic potential. However, Beeson’s sharp-edged psychological interpretation was no hatchet job. The critics and audiences loved the opera, and Maestro Coppola was lauded for his command of the challenging score.


Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden in a scene from the made for TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, 1975.

Television and movies revisit the story, mining the details for new ways to cut and wrap film adaptations that keep audiences titillated by Lizzie’s mysterious and misunderstood personality. Goth lovely Christina Ricci killed the role in Lifetime’s TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, inspiring a Lifetime mini-series about Lizzie’s life after the trial. In a creepy turn of events, Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) portrayed the Fall River spinster in ABC’s 1975 airing of The Legend of Lizzie Borden. Later, a genealogist discovered Montgomery was Borden’s sixth cousin. Talk in Tinseltown today suggests a new feature film is in the works starring Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, Big Love) with the trying-to-get-past-Twilight superstar Kristen Stewart as Lizzie’s maid, Bridget Sullivan.

Although it’s a bloody mess trying to understand why the public remains so morbidly fascinated with the Borden story on stage and screen, this fact remains: Lizzie performs well with acts.

What Is Love? Baby, Don’t Hurt Me.

Mary Shelley, the first science fiction novel and why Victor Frankenstein is not just a deadbeat dad but the worst human ever.


Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 Universal  Studios’ film. Makeup design by Jack Pierce.

It literally was a dark and stormy night.

In 1816.

Self-appointed (accurately) poetic geniuses Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley lounged in Byron’s Swiss chalet during one of the darkest, rainiest summers on record. Fueled by opium, laudanum and most likely a terrible combination of ennui and cabin fever, Byron recited Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s creepy poem, “Christabel,” to Shelley and the other intelligentsia gathered for a summer of free thinking and open relationships.

At this point, we imagine Percy made a crack about Byron’s choice of recitation because Byron’s response—“Do you think we can do better?”—incited another genius in the room, an 18-year-old woman named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, to answer silently yes, I can.

And she did.

The novel she penned in one year and published in 1818 at 19 years old seared itself into the Western literary canon and gave humankind one of its most fascinating, most disturbing, most heartbreaking characters—Frankenstein was alive.


Manuscript page from Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein.

The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the indomitable, outspoken author and pioneer of the women’s rights movement, and anarchist William Godwin, the cult hero who wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, little Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was only 11 days old when her mother died of a common post-partum fever. However, her mother’s presence, and the guilt Mary squirreled away in her heart over causing her mother’s death, never left her.

For the next 24 years, Mary’s life would resemble a Gothic tale with soap opera plot lines, including meeting her soulmate and baby daddy, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and sharing him with her half-sister and frenemy, Claire Clairmont. (Mary’s dad remarried, an arrangement that included an unpleasant stepmother and Claire.  Oh, and did we mention Mary’s mom had another daughter named Fanny that was Mary’s older half-sister? Yes, by someone who was not William Godwin. We told you this was a soap opera. However, Fanny will be an important detail later.)


Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840.

Mary and Percy held their assignations in the cemetery near Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, which, incidentally, is also how Mary learned to spell: by tracing her mother’s headstone. By the time she was 16, Mary was mentally emancipated, a fierce and headstrong person whom her dad called “almost invincible.” Mr. Godwin forbade Percy and Mary from seeing each other, as anarchism and moral freedom become much less appealing when it’s your daughter doing it.

Oh yes, we forgot to mention that Percy Bysshe Shelley was married. With children.

At this time, biology was the burgeoning science of the day. Tales of alchemists and scientists using electricity and magnetism to bring dead animals and newly-hanged convict corpses back to life made their way into the conversations Mary overheard in the elite, scholarly circles that surrounded her. The notion of “galvanizing”—“to give life to”—using electric currents struck a chord in Mary’s imagination and a nerve in her ethical foundation.

When Lord Byron, a notable yet morally bankrupt wit, entered the picture, things got very exciting and (even more) complicated. The young, free-thinking, free-loving radicals wended through Europe to Byron’s chalet on Lake Geneva. While traveling the Rhine, Mary heard of a dubious anatomist named Konrad Dipple who conducted gruesome re-animation and soul-transference experiments from his home, a stone fortress called Castle Frankenstein.


From Mel Brook’s 1974 sequel-spoof, Young Frankenstein.

That fateful summer of 1816, Mary not only took the ghost story challenge Byron issued, but she had a vivid, lucid dream of walking into a grimy room while a young doctor stood before a creature on a medical slab, a creature mish-mashed of human and animals parts, jolting to life before the doctor’s terrified gaze. She had her story.

She also had a baby inside her. By Percy. The baby died shortly after birth and around the time that Percy’s abandoned wife drowned herself from misery. Mary and Percy married, despite their free love ideology, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin became Mary Shelley. Her half-sister Fanny committed suicide as well, in unrelated circumstances, two months after the Shelleys’ wedding. These complicated, melancholic facts of Mary’s life weaved themselves into the moral and ethical questions at the heart of her tragic novel: what does it mean to love? What does it mean to have responsibility to another? What happens if you play God with someone else’s life?

That was a terrible year for Mary Shelley, but it was the year she wrote Frankenstein, which she completed while still nursing the second baby with Percy. That child, and the two after, would also die. Only the fifth child survived to adulthood, and even Percy Bysshe Shelley himself did not make it to 30 years old. He drowned on a stormy sea voyage to visit Lord Byron, his body identified by the unmistakable copy of Keats poems Percy carried in his pocket.

By then, Frankenstein was an international phenomenon. Mary Shelley, who could not bring herself to attend Percy’s pyre on the shores of Italy, was a mere 24-years-old.


David Dukes as Victor Frankenstein and John Glover as Henry Clerval in the 1981 Broadway production of Frankenstein by Victor Gialanella.

Because Frankenstein posits the medical possibility of electrifying tissues to life and succeeding, critics credit Mary Shelley’s masterpiece as the first true work of science fiction. For whatever reasons, over time the two main characters, Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his Creation, became confused, with folks mistakenly referring to the Creature as Frankenstein.

There’s a subtle poetic justice in that misnomer, though, because Mary Shelley portrayed Victor Frankenstein as the worst possible example of man: he wants the glory of knowing he can do the work of God yet wants none of the responsibility of being both father and god to his unattractive creation. Instead of loving his child, Victor Frankenstein rejects the Creature based on appearances, denying the Creature’s basic needs for love and belonging. The Creature, with his childlike innocence, loves Frankenstein faithfully, unquestioningly, confused by his creator’s disgust and abandonment. Creature Frankenstein, orphaned by his father, warps into a brute as he is brutalized by the cruelty of man. His name changes to “demon” or “monster” in the novel as he traverses the world in vengeance, resorting to murder.

So, society has done for Dr. Frankenstein what he could not do for his own son: claimed the creature as his own.


James McAvoy in Victor Frankenstein, the 2015 film adaptation.

Famed Yale literary critic Harold Bloom scathingly notes Victor Frankenstein is a “moral idiot” and a fitting archetype for our present time as he is a man who cannot comprehend his role in the consequences of his actions. The demon, Bloom writes, is superior to Frankenstein in feeling, which Mary Shelley biographers have noted must have been a feeling she knew too well in the company of Percy and Byron.

In the end, Mary Shelley, at 18 years old, penned the horror of the human heart, of rejection and the ways withholding love and kindness turn innocence and childlike curiosity into a corrupted and destructive spirit.

But if it’s true that to err is human and to forgive is divine, it’s worth noting that at the end of the novel, after the monster has killed Victor Frankenstein, he anguishes over his father’s body. He asks for forgiveness. By the end of the tale, we can be certain that if roles had reversed, the doctor would never have stood over the creature’s body begging for the same.

What that suggests is pretty terrifying.


Extra Sensory Perception

How the stage allows us to get inside another person’s experience

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

Alex Sharp in The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“You never know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes,” goes the popular adage about trying to be less judgmental and more compassionate. The key to getting in someone else’s shoes is to imagine what his or her experience must be like, to feel what she or he must be feeling. This exercise is known as empathy.

One place that’s crackerjack at making empathy 3-D is the theater.

Since its invention, theater has served as a platform for dramatizing the human experience with all the joys, humor, complications, tragedies, injustices and awkward awakenings of the human heart. The stage also acted as a mirror, reflecting back at society what it refused to see—or, in many cases, was unable to see about itself until other people literally showed humanity what it looked like. The stage is a safe place to say uncomfortable things, to challenge the status quo, to make people laugh at themselves and others, to experiment with how to make abstract concepts concrete and in-the-flesh. Sometimes a play does all of these things while singing and dancing. (We’re looking at you, Book of Mormon.)

With the rise of interest in human psychology at the turn of the 20th century, a new challenge cropped up for playwrights and actors: how to capture the workings of the mind? We know Freud relied on his knowledge of Greek theater to name two of his bigger concepts (Oedipus and Electra complexes) and that psyche is the Greek word for “soul,” from the eponymous goddess. So, drama in real life goes hand-in-hand with the drama of the mind.

However, putting that mental activity on paper in dialogue and stage directions is not so natural. The key rests in the collaborative, team-based nature of manufacturing make believe: on stage and screen, other designers lend their skills to bring the vision of the mental landscape to completion. Set design, lighting, color palettes, sound and choreography become crucial to pulling the lofty, abstract ideas of “torment,” “sensory overload,” “insanity,” or “schizophrenia,” “addiction,” or “depression” into a detailed, concrete picture that audiences can see and understand. These elements help bring audiences to empathy, to the shift in perception that allows us to see into the soul of another—or ourselves.

Some of the best representations of the wacky, disjointed nature of thought occur on film. We’re thinking here of Charlie Kaufman’s body of work (Human Nature, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Chris Nolan (Memento, Inception) or Pixar’s 2015 offering, Inside Out, the animated film where even emotions get emotions.

Theater plays tend to explore psychology not as a setting (like literally finding a portal into John Malkovich’s brain in Kaufman’s delightfully bizarro screenplay) but as character traits or as a theme. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf scarred several generations with its unflinching examination of alcoholism and head games, and Peter Shaffer’s boy-who-blinds-horses drama, Equus, continued to make audiences squirm even when Harry Potter’s actor played the lead. And let’s quickly nod to Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, a frightful interweaving of psychological cruelty and children’s storytelling, that proved illuminating the deep, dark perversities of the minds of men was alive and well for this 2004 Laurence Olivier award-winner.


Daniel Radcliffe, Lorenzo Pisoni, and Richard Griffiths in the Broadway revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus.” (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Back in the day, playwright Arthur Miller wrote in his stage directions to Death of a Salesman that the set should indicate titular salesman Willy Loman’s varying psychological conditions, and Ntozake Shange’s fierce use of dance and poetry to reveal the psychological effects of racism and sexism on black women pushed For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf to be nominated for a Tony® award for Best Play in 1977.

Yet theater still experiments with finding ways to do what Kaufman’s and Nolan’s films are able to do—namely, make a character’s mind the landscape of a story. Finding plays or musicals that take place inside a person’s experience of the world to put the audience inside the character’s worldview are few and far between.

Then there’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

Original Broadway Company of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

This play (it’s not a musical), based on Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name, takes theater one step further. Curious Incident follows the events of the main character, Christopher, a boy who has a rather brilliant and extraordinary mind, after a neighbor’s dog is murdered. That mind, however, processes the world unlike most people’s minds. So, how does a production team build a play to spark compassion and empathy for Christopher? It puts the audience in Christopher’s shoes. Or, literally, in Christopher’s sensory experience.

The set itself serves as Christopher’s psychological boundaries. His mind, a grid-based thinking system (as opposed to our floaty, nebulous artists’ minds), becomes the walls of the set, the grid illuminated in different ways throughout the performance. As audience members, we are thrust into Christopher’s perception of the world with its numbers, noises, chaotic choreography, indirect and disorganized language and baffling array of incomprehensible adult reactions to facts. Christopher and his pet rat Toby must solve the murder, and we tag along for the ride, strapped into the observer’s seat in Christopher’s worldview. Often, like Christopher, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the onslaught of movement, sound and unpredictability of every day living.

Frankly, it’s a stunning theatrical achievement. Perhaps, at least in this case, we can say we know Christopher by the end of the show, not because we’ve walked a mile in his shoes, but because we’ve watched two hours from the inside of his mind.

Curious about Curious? Then come see the show.

Scholarship Story: Abigale Pfingsten, from Grade School to Graduate

You don’t have to have a lot of money to study the performing arts. If you have a child or child in your life who has dreams, talent or just plain curiosity, we have scholarship opportunities to help them get the classes they need. The next Patel Conservatory scholarship deadline is Dec. 3, 2016.


Abigale performing in concert with the Patel Conservatory Vocal Arts program.

This year, one of our Patel Conservatory scholarship students headed to Carnegie-Mellon University on a tuition scholarship to study international politics—and the performing arts, thanks to her years of growing up with support and training from The Straz.

At nine years old, Abigale Pfingsten won a scholarship to study piano with John Hernandez at the Patel Conservatory. Little did she know that initial taste of her own innate talent would lead to almost a decade of immersion in all aspects of the performing arts, developing a passion that would set the course of her life. “John Hernandez is an amazing, fantastic teacher who took me to new levels of what I can do with piano. I loved learning from him so much,” she says. “Then, that first summer I tried out for Seussical, got a part, and loved it, too. From that point forward, I expanded my horizons, studying ballet, musical theater, continuing my piano training. I found my passion in the performing arts, and I never would have been able to make these discoveries without the scholarships graciously provided by people who are lovers of the arts.”


Abigale performing in the Patel Conservatory production of Seussical the Musical, 2011.

In her college essay, Abigale stated:

… Sooner or later in my artistic career, I am going to establish a non-profit conservatory for the performing arts. I would like it to be a place where people with the eagerness to experience the arts can go to regardless of their financial situation. I want my conservatory to be a home for children and adults just as the Patel Conservatory/Straz Center has been for me all these years.

So, the cycle of giving and learning pays it forward in tangible ways for uncountable lives. “My life would have turned out very differently without performing arts classes,” Abigale says. “Without the generosity of donors to provide scholarships, I wouldn’t know my passion.”




Abigale (in blue) performing in the Patel Conservatory production of The Little Shop of Horrors, 2013.

We want to make sure that all young people in the Tampa Bay area have the opportunity to study and grow in Patel Conservatory classes, just like Abigale. You never know how an experience in the arts may affect your life. If you want to take performing arts classes, we have scholarship opportunities available.

The next scholarship deadline is December 3, 2016. Details and applications are available on our website. We recommend that everyone submit the need-based application so we know there is a need; from there, the scholarship committee reviews applications and offers awards. If you have questions or would like more information, please contact

Don’t Bore Us / Get to the Chorus: Songwriting 101


Carole King, one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th century, started with a piano melody. As the song took shape, she added layers, eventually adding lyrics — first with her then-husband Gerry Goffin and eventually on her own. Tapestry, her seminal 1971 solo album, remained on the Billboard charts for six years, top in record sales until a little album titled Thriller toppled her reign.

Although many great songwriters came before King and many will follow, there seems to be no set way to write a song. Some writers start with a beat, others a melody, still others hear a hook or obsess over a lyric that arrives unceremoniously while the songwriter takes a shower. The songwriting process seems to be a bit of a zen undertaking: all roads are one road. Writing a hit song, however, is a road much less traveled. Even seasoned songwriters are never sure if their work will produce a hit or miss. Guy Chambers, the current British hit-maker for acts like Bryan Adams and Robbie Williams, averages one hit song for every 47 he pens.

The good news for workaday folks interested in writing their own songs is that a decent song, or even a fantastic song, doesn’t need to be a hit. Inversely, scoring a hit doesn’t mean the song is that great. Perhaps some of the best songwriting happens in bedrooms, in train stations and on the job, performed on porches, neighborhood corners and tiny spaces with makeshift instruments.

In general, humans need to make music, and there are a few basic songwriting tools: knowing the parts of a song, structure, chord progressions, lyrics and melody. If remembering all the basics proves too much, stick with the songwriting standby: “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”

Generally, songs consist of intro, verses, chorus, bridge and outro. The intro grabs the listener’s attention for the song’s story, which unfolds in the verses. Verses often rhyme (although they don’t have to) and create a rhythmic pattern for the listener. The chorus is — as evidenced by the songwriting standby — arguably the most important part of the song. A chorus should be sing-a-long-able, catchy, memorable and convey the main message of the song. Often, the great karaoke fails occur because we think we know a song, but we actually only remember the chorus — that’s how powerful it is. The bridge provides the song’s contrast and the outro leads the listener to a sense of closure, perhaps with subtle melodic changes or repetition.


With intro and outro as bookends, a writer can toy with the structure of the verses, chorus and bridge — or if there is even a need for a chorus or bridge (“Amazing Grace” has neither, and it has done all right as a song even though no one knows much past the first verse.) The chord progressions inspire a “feel” for the song that contributes to the melody, which carries the lyrics. Understanding simple structures helps new or blocked songwriters get their ideas moving. But remember: much like the Pirate’s Code, these aren’t rules, really, more like guidelines. Many songs include a pre-chorus, a short lead-in to the chorus like in “My Girl” when they sing “I guess you’d say … ” or in Katy Perry’s hit “Firework,” when she sings “You just gotta ignite/the light/and let/it shine … ” Songs may also contain refrains, variations on verses, choruses and melodies, providing, somewhere, a “hook,” or the catchiest part of the song (often the chorus or somewhere in the chorus — Adele’s “hello from the other side” in her crazy big hit “Hello.”)

Happy writing. For inspiration, check out the handy Songwriting 101 chart above or get to know some of the latest greatest singer-songwriters showcased in our Club Jaeb series.

Open To Interpretation


Interpreters Anthony Verdeja and Carrie Moore welcome deaf and hard-of-hearing guests to the Straz Center. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions Inc)

The Thursday night show during each Broadway run has a special performer, one whose acting and choreography chops never make a sound. As part of its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) initiative, the Straz Center secures a sign language interpreter for the Thursday night show in the Broadway series, with The Illusionists being the first of this season.

While any Straz Center performance falls under the ADA guidelines and can have sign-language interpretation on an as-needed basis, this initiative guarantees a regularly scheduled interpreted performance that guests can expect.

Far from being a literal English translation of the script, a signed performance requires that the interpreter don all artistic hats at once: the interpreter must emote, understand motivation in gestures and artistically translate a musical script from English into a visual language unto itself. The common misconception that American Sign Language (ASL) merely invented gestures that correspond to English words greatly underestimates the complexity of ASL as its own novel language, complete with its own grammar, nuance and expressive capability. In other words, an interpreter creates an adaptation to visual language in real time, giving deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons the thrilling emotional experience shared by patrons who can hear the performance.

An interpreter becomes a one-person show, transforming a musical into ASL with the same need for fluency that someone would need to translate Chinese poetry into English verse. There is an ‘essence’ that must be captured in the language, and apprehending this elusive quality requires a strong set of skills and no amount of stage fright.

This tall order cannot be filled by just anyone who happens to know ASL. “We’ve engaged an exceptional company to provide sign language services,” says Straz Center director of production services Mike Chamoun. “This group is just tremendous. They add the emotional interpretation like actors, conveying that much more. Most interpreters like to locate the deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons before the show, meeting them and asking about what they want from the performance and having that dialogue inform their interpretation. It’s quite something. They are excellent at serving the patron.”


The minority-woman owned company, Absolute Quality Interpreting (AQI), hires only nationally-certified sign language interpreters. Lisa Schaefermeyer, AQI’s founder and CEO, ensures that her interpreters deliver a great performance of the show. “There’s a difference,” she says, “between someone who knows sign language and someone who can perform. There’s a skill level needed to stand on the platform and do what they do. We are fortunate to have interpreters who specialize in the performing arts.”

Chamoun requests a copy of the script from the show, then forwards the script to AQI so the interpreters have time to prepare their own performance. “But they don’t get months of rehearsal,” Chamoun says. “They’re lucky if they get two weeks.”

“The additional prep time allows the interpreter to give a better performance for the audience. She or he has time to think about the right sign to reflect what is happening on stage. Imagine a monotone reading of an audio book, read by someone with no training,” says Schaefermeyer. “Then imagine a great actor performing the text of the same book, and you’ll get an idea of what is possible with great sign language interpretation.”


Typically, a Broadway show requires two interpreters to cover the many parts. In Morsani Hall, they stand in a small, specifically-designed alcove complete with its own lighting so that the interpreters fade out or blackout in sync with the main show. “It’s under the house right mezzanine,” says Chamoun. “So, it’s not on stage but on the orchestra level so patrons have a good view. We encourage our deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons to call the Ticket Sales Office and have a representative make sure they get seats with a good view of the interpreter. We want to make sure they get the same Straz experience, and we are happy to do what we can.”

“We are so excited to be able to do this,” says Schaefermeyer, who has a few decades of experience in the field. “Our interpreters love their jobs, love to spend time with patrons and getting to know cast members. And that comes through in the interpretation.”

The Straz Center Salutes National Endowment for the Arts

“The Arts Endowment’s mission was clear – to spread this artistic prosperity throughout the land, from the dense neighborhoods of our largest cities to the vast rural spaces, so that every citizen might enjoy America’s great cultural legacy.”
–from National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965-2008

During the desultory years of the Great Depression, 10,000 of the 15 million out of work Americans were artists. Through New Deal programs such as the Federal Arts Project and the Federal Writers’ Project, these artists recorded, documented and produced the bulk of American cultural achievement and historical record of the time. While this social program provided a historical precedent for federal support of artists, the nation’s leaders began to see America’s need to make a commitment to the bountiful creative expression of such a diverse and talented society without a socio-economic agenda. The time had come for America to put its might behind its artists, the very citizens who created the nation’s cultural heritage.


On Sept. 29, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, the legislation creating NEH and NEA, into law. (Photo:

The National Endowment for the Arts, then, emerged as this commitment to the exaltation of the spirit produced by American artists. In his remarks at the signing of the arts and humanities bill in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson noted:

Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish. … It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation’s art is born. In countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents. … What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours.

On Sept. 29, 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) celebrated its 50th anniversary, and while the NEA more or less weathered the culture wars headed by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms in the ‘80s and house speaker Newt Gingrich in the ‘90s, the NEA’s unfortunate position as an easy target in political morality rhetoric continues to be source of consternation for the administrators charged with upholding the mission set forth by LBJ.


The first NEA grant was made in December 1965 to the American Ballet Theatre, shown here performing Swan Lake. (Photo: Martha Swope)

Despite these public challenges which often nab media attention, the NEA continues to secure financial resources for the arts mostly in unacknowledged efforts. The NEA represents five decades of public commitment to the importance of investing in American artistic contributions creating the cultural capital of our nation.

Now heading into its 51st year, the National Endowment for the Arts serves as both repository and springboard for American arts, with some of the nation’s most renowned and gifted artistic geniuses and organizations participating in its development, implementation and execution. The first year of grants included Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, Actors Theater of Louisville, American Choral Society and to the New York City Opera to expand a training program for young singers and aspiring conductors. Over the years, the NEA supported American giants like the Joffrey Ballet and Dizzy Gillespie as well as hometown folk artists like cowboy poet Wallace McRae and programs like the Rural Arts Initiative and Arts Education Partnership. In 2016, the organization announced its new focus on contemporary authors for the NEA Big Read program and was nominated for an Emmy for its digital story series United States of Arts.


When Black Violin performed at the Straz Center in 2015, they also did master classes and other outreach in the Tampa community. Pictured here is their stop at St. Peter Claver School.

We are pleased to acknowledge the NEA’s support in helping the Straz Center launch our Cultural Intersections program, a multi-disciplinary series of artists who use traditional, authentic artistic disciplines to transcend cultural boundaries. The NEA makes our work in this endeavor possible, opening our stages last season to such phenomenal artists as Black Violin, Parsons Dance Company, Celtic Nights, tabla master Zakir Hussein and others. This program includes an outreach arm which also sends our Cultural Intersections artists to the community in master classes, lectures and school visits with subsidized tickets for underserved K-12 students.

As the NEA says, a great nation deserves great art, and we salute the NEA for its hard work funding all manner of artistic contributions, including some of ours.