The Theater Above the Theater

Fly systems, rigging systems, whatever you want to call them, just know there’s a very serious show happening in the 60-plus feet of air above the show on stage.

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Looking up into the “fly space” on the side of the Morsani stage. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

One of the wondrous aspects of theatrical life, even from its beginnings, is the delightful mix of labor, craft and personalities required to pull off a show soup to nuts. In the performing arts world, the blue collar meets the sequined collar, toe shoes meet steel-toed boots and the Type A work ethic unites all the players from the star of the show to the spotlight operator. If you understand theater as a living organism, you understand that everyone is equally vital.

However, what remains seen on stage normally gets the lion’s share of attention. But what about what (and who) you can’t see?

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A micro-view of the intricate knots used to anchor the Morsani Hall fly system. Theater fly systems were modeled after seafaring lines and rigs used for large sailing vessels. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

A show – especially at the scale of Broadway and grand opera – simply cannot happen if the “theater magic” isn’t engineered with mathematical precision. Often, enormous, heavy set pieces float up and down, in and out of scenes to denote setting changes or to enhance show numbers. For fans of The Lion King, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, you know the primal thrill of seeing the beloved characters take flight, spin through the air, leap across rooms or glide into the show via umbrella.

These theatrical feats execute through the fly system, or rigging system, which is an elaborate superstructure of ropes, pulleys, bars, weights and fasteners that make lighting, scene changes and flying people possible. From the audience, the fly system remains invisible, but if you’ve ever wondered why professional theaters are so ungodly tall, that’s why: there needs to be a tremendous amount of space above the stage to store the show’s pieces out-of-sight, suspended over the stage to be released and hoisted on cue during the performance. We have about 70 feet of “fly space” in Morsani Hall to accommodate the large-scale theatrics of Broadway and opera.

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Along the side wall of Ferguson Hall stage, you can see the ropes and weights on the flyrail.

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Further up the wall, almost to the top of the fly system.

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At the very top of the Ferguson stage “fly space” are all of the pulleys.

Our production team, the “boots on the ground” who rig each incoming show, sends a schematic called an “advance” to the show that outlines the technical capabilities of Ferguson or Morsani (or whatever house the show will be using). The show, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I which will be in Morsani May 2-7, then gives our team a detailed blueprint, similar to an architectural rendering, of measurements, dimensions, set pieces, weight of each set piece, etc., so our team will have a heads-up for what to expect when the show loads in.

Here’s where it gets mortally serious.

Rigging a show – that is, hooking hundreds or thousands of pounds of equipment to hang over the heads of human beings walking underneath – is no joke. The riggers themselves (often noted as the cowboys of theater) often must work at death-defying heights to secure the heavy set pieces, hang lighting and load counterweights for each metal bar that brings objects in and out of scenes.

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Side lights hanging from a bar.

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About half way up to the grid above Ferguson stage.

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Almost to the top of the “fly space.” You can see the metal bars and curtains hanging and the grid directly above.

“Communication is very important between the flyman, the carpenter on the deck, the weight loaders and the rigging crew to work safely and not hurt anyone,” says Straz Center flyman Dave Reynolds. “Many of these moves are made during the show, and they’re done in blackouts with cast and crew on stage. Any massive piece of scenery that moves needs to be coordinated properly for safety. I get to do something I love every day as well. I take my job here very seriously and strive to be one of the best flymen the country.”

The most dangerous job in theater is setting up the rigging for a show and taking it down at the end of the run. If an opera uses a 700-pound backdrop, that backdrop is hung on a “pipe” or metal bar that is controlled by a rope or “line.” The line needs 700 pounds of counterweight on it to achieve what is called a “balanced load.” The rigger sets a hand brake on the line to secure it in place. When it’s show time, the flyman pops the brake, guiding the line with the balanced load, and the audience sees the smooth, light entrance and exit of a 700-pound backdrop. What the audience never sees is the extreme safety precautions riggers take to make sure they never drop 50-pound counterweights from a catwalk 45 feet in the air or drop pipes from the same height. Or miscalculate and drop a 700-pound backdrop on Lieutenant Pinkerton.

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View of the side of Ferguson stage looking down from the grid at the very top of the “fly space.” See that tiny piano on the stage?

So, the effortless appearance of scenery or characters swooping in from the wings or down from the “ceiling” actually requires quite a bit of effort, engineering, safety expertise and chutzpah from men and women who don’t get dressing rooms but do get to star in one of the most important roles in any theater production.

Manual Transmission

Dance lineage is a big deal. A very big deal. So, when Next Generation Ballet got a descendant of Jerome Robbins, who was guided by George Balanchine, who was instructed by Marius Petipa, the Straz Center leapt for joy.

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Philip Neal, dance department chair and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet, instructing students during the summer intensive.

Philip Neal, the artistic director for Next Generation Ballet, came to us from New York City Ballet, where he worked as a principal dancer for more than twenty years. When you take into account that his main choreographer and teacher was none other than the Jerome Robbins, you can begin to understand what a tremendous, unparalleled gift we have sitting right here in the Patel Conservatory. (For you non-dance folks, just imagine if we told you we had a rock guitar teacher who learned from Jimi Hendrix. Same.)

While most people recognize Robbins’ work from West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, Robbins was first and foremost a ballet choreographer, hailed as the first dance maker to invent a singular, artistic American ballet style. (Robbins’ mentor, Balanchine, was the father of American ballet.) In 1986, Robbins spotted the then-19-year-old Philip Neal in Philip’s very first rehearsal with NYCB. Impressed, Robbins called Philip to solo in “Jerry’s” latest ballet.

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In addition to many ballets, Jerome Robbins choreographed Broadway productions including On the Town, Peter Pan, The King And I, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and more.

“For the next year,” says Philip, “I worked with Jerry on that ballet. He called me to understudy for every one of his ballets. Jerry sourced from Balanchine, who sourced from Petipa. Today, when I choreograph for Next Generation Ballet, I find myself teaching and thinking ‘I stole these steps from Balanchine’ or when I teach my students to use their full arms and say ‘paint your sky with a paintbrush’ they don’t know that I’m saying to them exactly what Jerry said to me.”

Dance is passed down manually, almost always without notes or a written record. The art transmits from teacher to student through class and rehearsal, each student taking the master’s work and either passing it to the next generation in pure form or building on the tradition by incorporating his or her own style.

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Maruis Petipa was ballet master and principal choreographer of the Imperial Ballet (precursor of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet) from 1871 until 1903.

The root of Philip’s work is Marius Petipa, the “granddaddy of classical ballet,” who was born in France in 1818 and eventually came to fame with Russia’s St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre. Petipa more or less singlehandedly created the school of Russian ballet. Every ballet you see has Petipa’s influence somewhere on it.

In 1904, George Balanchine (neé Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze) was born in St. Petersburg. He enrolled in Petipa’s Imperial Ballet school and performed his first work on stage in Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty in 1915. As Petipa had left France for Russia, so Balanchine left Russia for America. He partnered with Lincoln Kirstein to create a ballet company that would rival the best of Russian and French ballet. Ergo, New York City Ballet. Balanchine dancers included Suzanne Farrell, Maria Tallchief, Arthur Mitchell, and Edward Villella.

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George Balanchine, co-founder of New York City Ballet, (left) and Arthur Mitchell.

“Balanchine adored westerns, the films,” says Philip, who did not study with Balanchine but did see him on occasion during classes or rehearsals. “He loved Americana and captured the essence of New York—to be fast, to break rules, to turn structures on end. It was so American, so beautiful. He edited out Petipa’s pageantry and could do three hours of steps in 25 minutes.”

In 1948, Balanchine received a letter from a dancer he’d worked with on Broadway, a young man of quite some fame named Jerome Robbins. By 1948, Robbins was already a big time star from creating the heroic, titillating wartime ballet Fancy Free which became the Broadway musical On the Town. In almost no time, Robbins’ talent and charisma inspired Balanchine to promote him to associate artistic director of NYCB.

Enter our Philip Neal in 1986, a tall, elegant dancer who trained at NYCB’s school, and the rest is history.

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Philip Neal danced with New York City Ballet for more than 20 years. (Photos: Paul Kolnik)

Except, of course, that dance history never ends. The continuation of this preeminent legacy now germinates in the classes and rehearsals of our very own Next Generation Ballet. In a bold and exciting move, Philip—a repetiteur of both Robbins and Balanchine, which means he has exclusive permission to stage their dances on other companies—decided to bring this legacy to life in this year’s spring program, Masters of Dance, a program that includes Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations, which Philip performed for NYCB, Robbins’ Circus Polka, a whimsical dance for 48 (not a typo) girls from nine to 12 years old. The performance concludes with Petipa’s extraordinary final act of Don Quixote.

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Philip Neal teaching Next Generation Ballet dancers.

For the first time, Tampa audiences can see the direct lineage of this extraordinary ballet heritage offered by a direct descendant of Petipa to the dancers in our resident company.

“I’m serious,” says Philip. “It’s going to be a milestone performance. I’m in total disbelief that we are going to be able to do something like Circus Polka and Donizetti Variations. My colleagues in New York know what is happening down here, and they are paying attention. We’re only going to grow and go on to bigger things. We are building our own legend with this ballet school.”

Masters of Dance: Balanchine and Robbins plus Petipa’s Don Quixote Suite runs May 13 and 14 in Ferguson Hall.

From Fuel to Fine Art

Food’s wild ride in human culture

Somehow, humans went from scrabbling roots and berries and munching bark to inventing cauliflower ice cream, cucumber gelée, oscietre caviar and piedmont hazelnuts and making it look like this:

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Cauliflower ice cream, cucumber gelée, oscietre caviar and piedmont hazelnuts by @helenedarroze. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

We progressed from homo erectus stripping elephant carcasses on the African plains to homo sapiens like chef April Bloomfield who takes a slab of cow, goes into her kitchen, and returns with this:

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Woodgrilled Denver steak with roasted ramps. (Photo from April Bloomfield’s Instagram / @aprilbloomfield)

Humans, when given an opportunity to make art, tend to go for it—even if the raw artistic materials are animal body parts and miscellaneous objects pulled from the dirt.

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Sirloin Steak with Shiso Scallion Mashed Potatoes from Eating Richly. (eatingrichly.com)

Or off trees and bushes:

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Mangoes, figs and blueberries. (Photo from Chef Lauren Von Der Pool’s Instagram / @queenofgreen)

We came across an interesting theory posited by Harvard professor of biological anthropology and noted primatologist (he studied with Jane Goodall) Dr. Richard W. Wrangham in his 2009 book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The thesis states that, around 1.8-ish million years ago, early humans used fire to cook animal flesh—most likely the first cooked meat was either an accident (someone dropped an auroch leg in the fire) or by coincidence (someone found an auroch carcass burned in a wildfire and was brave enough to taste it—deliciousness ensued).

Herein lies the evolutionary turning point we took to become modern humans. But how? According to Wrangham, cooking released more nutrients in the food and boosted our energy by making those nutrients much easier to digest and decreasing our chewing time to about an hour a day versus 6-10 hours a day. (Note: the 6-10 hour a day chewing investment is based on how much time our great ape cousins, gorilla and chimpanzee, spend masticating their raw food diets today.)

This energy boost coupled with the new free time we had gave us the window to grow bigger brains—and now we had the cooked food to feed that big brain. Eating cooked food improved our immunity to disease because we had more nutrition and gave us more baby-making power because we were more robust. This flashpoint—cooking our food instead of eating it raw—launched the dietary change that would revolutionize our biological evolution.

We changed. Small brains and big guts evolved to really small guts and teeth compared to the size of our huge brains. Thanks to cooked food over a millennia and some change, we morphed. Today, as Wrangham notes, modern humans are adapted to eat cooked food (a talking point he uses as his number one argument against current raw food diet trends.)

For early humans, roasting meat became the norm and people in southern France—France plays a rather large role in the evolution of cooking to an art form—learned to steam food in wet leaves in the Paleolithic period. The results of cooking were so good, humans started to experiment, using the developing imagination function of our growing and ultra-fueled brains. A crude form of bread appeared as cracked grass kernels mixed with water and toasted on hot stones. In time, humans would invent earthenware pottery, and, as they say, we were off to the races evolutionarily with our cooking techniques and handful of devices for aiding in the cooking process.

So, a million-plus years ago, humans had cooking techniques, tools, and imagination—everything they needed to eventually get to a fine-dining world and the emergence of the phrase #foodporn. All it would take would be plant cultivation, domestication of animals and several thousand years of cross-cultural exploration and exchange to trade foodstuffs (how else would Britain ever get anything awesome like avacados and chiles, and we can pretty much thank China for getting it right with the art of food about four thousand years before Christ).

Pleasant Living, the first recorded cookbook, appeared in 4 B.C., written by Archestratus, a Greek, and it’s fun to note that a cook won the first Olympic footrace about 700 years before Archestratus was born. As the centuries passed, humans discovered, cultivated and invented a number of extraordinary culinary attributes that we pretty much take for granted today: farms, livestock, cups and plates, forks and knives, coffee (praise!), drinking chocolate from cacao beans that became eating chocolate (more praise!), booze, vending machines, crude stoves that paved the way for ranges, spice cultivation (which definitely had its dark side, ahem, European colonization), canning, refrigeration, flash freezing, and, solely in the United States, the invention of chewing gum.

Because of cooking’s influence on human evolution and culture, hotels, pubs, cafes and coffeehouses also became a part of the human world, as did cooking competitions, the codification of cooking into “cuisine,” which really is what differentiates between the cook and the chef. So enamored and involved are we with cooking, cuisine, food symbolism and cultural traditions around food that we had to invent one word, “gastronomy,” (originally “gastronomie,” en francais) that would encapsulate the gamut of what we mean when we’re talking about the whole field of food and food history.

As with any art form, presentation and effect are key. Art must move the soul or it is not art. Thus: plating. Here we have the presentation and effect of the food to tantalize the soul to move; if properly engaged by the way the food looks on the plate, the flavors should close the deal, making a meal transform into a work of art.

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Octopus, beetroot, and amaranth by @lvin1stbite. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Ribbons of dark chocolate ganache, pistachio cake, pistachio ice cream, mint, and candied preserved lemons by @nick_muncy. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Furikake granola, whipped foie gras, raw buttermilk, pumpkin vichyssoise, african olive fruit, and anise hyssop by @brad_kilgore. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Wagyu and mushroom glass by @martinbennsepia. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Blueberry sugar globe with lemon jam, violet cream, blueberry compote, and blueberry yogurt sorbet on the inside by @chefsmartone. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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White onion, charcoal mayo, red cress, and onion cream by @connorjlowrey. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Monkfish tataki w/ salted plum puree, chives, and olive oil spheres by @tadashi_takayama. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

Like food? Love gastronomy? Well, guess who’s coming to give us one heck of a food show—Alton Brown with his Eat Your Science tour, April 21.

We love food, too, and are always looking for neat foodie Instagrams and chefs doing the deal with the artistry of food. If you have some foodie blogs or Instagrams you follow, let us know in the comments below.

Big Hair Care

Just in time for Tosca, Opera Tampa’s Emmy®-winning hair designer divulges trade secrets about one of the great characters in opera—the wig.

Dawn Rivard’s impressive résumé of hairstyling and wigbuilding gigs spans from the ‘90s television series Animorphs to this year’s breakaway series The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s worked on the major motion reboots of Total Recall and Carrie as well as made-for-TV movies and several well-recognized films from big Hollywood studios. We know and love Dawn as our hair and makeup designer for Opera Tampa, where she oversees, art directs and supplies superior care for the sublime pièce de résistance of any great opera costume, the wig.

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Dawn Rivard, wig/hair and makeup designer for Opera Tampa.

Caught in the Act: Tell us a little bit about what exactly you do. Would you walk us through a typical job for an Emmy®-winning hair/wig designer?

Dawn Rivard: What I do depends on the contract. There is NO “typical.” I get requested by any number of people like a director, costume designer or technical director because they have a need for a wig or hair or makeup person. It’s my job to figure out how to solve the job’s requirements at the highest level, keeping in mind the built-in restrictions like resources, time or geographic differences. Some jobs are a request for a custom fit wig for a rental, but I can’t do the fittings. In those cases, someone local sends me head measurements and other design references. I put together a wig and send it, crossing my fingers that they have someone good to address the million variables that come up with a wig.

Renate Leuschner, an iconic Hollywood wig builder, taught me years ago you can have a beautiful wig that fits amazing, but if someone doesn’t know how to put it on, you’d never know it’s beautiful and amazing.

Other contracts, like Opera Tampa, require someone who does wigs, hair and makeup design—and has a wig stock. For companies that have full time in-house wig and makeup departments, there is someone who is head makeup artist, but he or she is not the department head, and another person is lead chorus wig stylist . . . so, each job can be more specialized with larger companies. At Opera Tampa, each crew member has to be well rounded and highly skilled since there are only 3+ stylists to get the whole show done. When a basic leading lady pre-show prep is 30 minutes, a male takes 20 minutes and a character makeup is 40 minutes, that time really adds up on big shows.

A wig and makeup designer has to be able to come in and design the show around what your local crew can do or what you can show them to do in a very short amount of time.  This is not like a tour situation where the show is already built and established and all mapped out.

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Wigs for Opera Tampa’s production of Romeo and Juliet line the dressing room.

CITA: When you work with Opera Tampa, how many wigs are you making per production, and do you have to repair/re-make wigs during the show? During the run? Must you custom-make the wig to fit the performer or can you make a standard sized wig and alter it?

DR: It takes at least a week to fully make one wig. Since Opera Tampa’s schedule does not allow enough time to make a wig, I need to show up with enough already made stock so I have something for everyone.  My rule is for every one wig the audience sees on stage, I have brought at least three so I can pick the best fit and look. I do not travel light.

Often, even though I over pack wigs, there is still something I don’t have that I want. So, that’s when I purchase a wig locally and re-front it to fit the singer.  For La Cenerentola, that was Tisbe’s two wigs. What I had for Robyn Rocklein [who performed Tisbe], I wasn’t happy with, so I went on a search for something I could alter to fit her and better suit the style of the show.

CITA: How long does one wig take to create from start to finish?  What is the one tool you can’t do without?

DR: The pat answer to make a wig is one week, but that can vary greatly. The longer the hair on the wig, the more time it takes to knot it. The larger the head size, the more time it takes. The curlier the hair, the longer it takes.

For doing wigs/ hair and makeup, there are a handful of tools that are invaluable. Three crafts is expensive to supply! If we don’t have the basics for all three crafts, your production quality is noticeably less. I have lots of support from companies like Dermalogica, Cover FX, Smashbox and Hask hair.

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Dawn getting Tisbe ready for an Opera Tampa dress rehearsal of La Cenerentola.

CITA: What happens to the wigs when the production closes? Do they get re-purposed or retired?

DR: All the wigs get the hairstyles taken apart and get washed and dried.  They go back in a box and sorted for the next shows. Some get reused more than others due to color or size. Good quality wigs that are taken care of properly never really retire. I have some wigs that I started with 25 years ago.

CITA: How did you end up in this profession, and is there one wig or one production that stands as your favorite (or most memorable for whatever reason)?

DR: I worked in window display and liked everything in my windows except the wigs. I went on a hunt to find someone who could teach me wigs and that led me to The Canadian Opera Company who, back then, had a year-long apprenticeship program.  They took four students a year, and you did classes and worked on shows pretty much seven days a week. When I finished the apprenticeship, they offered me one of the two assistant jobs. I did that job for two more years, and they allowed me to keep studying in the classes with the new apprentices as long as my show work got done. So, I essentially did a three year apprenticeship while working full time for not a lot of money, but I loved every second of it. Then I went on to work in musical theater—then film and TV work.

Of course you always remember the really horrible experiences, like working outside all night in the freezing cold on a film shoot or when you’re sure you’re going to send a wig on stage that you hate because you just didn’t figure it out yet. There are the performers who were truly difficult so I spent every ounce of energy trying to make the best outcome. Then there are the ones who are just so professional that your job doesn’t feel like work at all.

There is no shortage of new experiences. And, after 25 years, I feel like I might be getting pretty good at what I’m doing.

See Dawn’s work in Tosca. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, you can do that here.