Tools of the Trade: Theater

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on theater.

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Orange Stick

Nope, not for fingernails—for eyelashes. False ones, that is. False eyelashes make the eyes pop, so many actors apply a pair before hitting the stage so the audience can better “read” the performance. However, if you’ve never put on a pair, these difficult-to-hold benign spikes glued upon the lash line require the hands of a surgeon and the patience of a rock. Orange sticks, typically used to push back cuticles in a manicure, aid and abet an actor needing help fitting the lash precisely to the curve of the eye.

 

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Gaff Tape

Ask a theater person—whether that pro is an actor, stage manager, theater owner or lighting tech—and she will tell you the go-to catch-all for any theater need is gaff tape. Originally used to tape or “gaff” lighting cables to the floor to avoid tripping over them, gaff tape proved to be useful for almost everything. Need a quick repair to a ripped costume hem? How about putting part of the set together? What to do about making a hat band, fixing a broken prop? Gaff tape. All of it. Just gaff tape. Everywhere.

 

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Milk of Magnesia

Theater lights emit a lot of heat. So, even though you may always bring a sweater for a show, the actors are hammering their parts underneath rows of high-energy lights that create a giant French fry warmer. The key to minimizing face sweat is to apply a thin layer of Milk of Magnesia before donning show makeup. The MOM dries, creating a tight mask that keeps the sweat down and adds the bonus of preventing makeup from flaking.

 

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Pencils, Erasers, Highlighters, Pens and Throat Coat

The actor’s toolbox somewhat resembles the back-to-school supply list for winter term. Acting and putting on a show require so much preparation, and almost all professionals keep notes, mark scripts, highlight their lines or tech needs and copy out their lines to help with memorization. When performers go “off book,” or start to deliver their lines without using the script, rehearsals kick into high gear. Voices must be protected; after all, an actor with laryngitis is very bad for business. Enter Throat Coat. This herbal concoction of primarily licorice and slippery elm bark soothes the voice with something akin to a loving embrace of the esophagus.

The Julie Andrews Appreciation Blog

We love Julie Andrews. Naturally, she’s on our mind since The Sound of Music opens tonight, June 5, and runs through the weekend.

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No, Ms. Andrews doesn’t make an appearance in the new staging of this masterpiece, but for many of us, we can’t even see the words “the hills are alive” without picturing her sweeping, open-armed twirl atop a picturesque Austrian meadow.

It’s worth noting that some areas of the Alps can receive 78 inches of rainfall a year (for comparison, Tampa averages around 46 inches annually), so capturing a lithe young woman’s pastoral anthem with a stunning blue sky in the background was a bit of a challenge. Couple that obstacle with the fact that the shot, filmed on a camera strapped to a man who was strapped in the doorway of a giant helicopter, required several takes. With each re-set of the scene, the explosive downdraft of the helicopter’s rotor blades knocked Andrews off her feet, toppling her into the grass.

But you’d never know, right?, watching her sail through the sea of grass as Maria von Trapp, her austere postulant’s uniform transforming—for one wait-for-it kind of moment—into a delicate black bell as she swirled into the unforgettable opening words of the title song. Andrews’s voice, itself pitch-perfect and bell-like, rang out across the mountain tops as though Maria von Trapp, not the hills, were alive with the sound of music. It was the kind of iconic filmcraft that changed a Hollywood actor into a Hollywood star.

Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp made an odd Hollywood siren: she was a somewhat androgynous ingenue (see: hair-do) with a wizened sense of selflessness, a waifish warrior comforting children in thunderstorms and during Nazi attempts at world domination. She was, in a phrase, easy to love.

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Yet we loved her already from her turn as another non-traditional Hollywood heroine: the magical nanny with a really cool umbrella and the perfect solution to nasty-tasting medicine. The governess role came naturally to Andrews as she’d nailed the part of Mary Poppins with an Oscar for Best Actress in 1964, the year prior to the release of the film version of The Sound of Music (1965). Both musical films became staples of annual television broadcasts in the late 70s and early 80s, so Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp seared themselves into the pop-culture subconscious of the pre-Information Age generation. Julie Andrews, with her clear, mirthful blue eyes and handsome face with its dainty features, produced a commanding on-screen presence even before her four-octave, crystal-clear voice turned a Richard Rodgers’ tune into gold.

Here’s a fun bit of Broadway-Hollywood history: the other voice-related role Julie Andrews made famous was that of Eliza Doolittle during the Broadway run of My Fair Lady in 1956. In the 1964 Hollywood film, the studio offered the role of Eliza to Audrey Hepburn instead, saying Andrews lacked name recognition. This was, of course, prior to Andrews’ Oscar win with Mary Poppins and Oscar nomination for The Sound of Music. Hepburn, who had earned icon status already with her portrayal of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, confessed to Andrews backstage at the 1965 Academy Awards that Julie should have had the movie role of Eliza. Soon after, Hepburn and Andrews became friends. In 1969, Andrews married Blake Edwards, director of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Edwards later directed Andrews in Victor/Victoria (1982), which garnered Andrews a nomination for the Oscar for Best Actress and a Golden Globe Best Actress win.

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Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews at the 37th Academy Awards in 1965.

All of that being said, let’s shine a light on Andrews’ most important work (at least for the generation of children watching Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music on TV): The Muppet Show. Jim Henson’s ground-breaking prime time “show about a show” mixed A-list artists of the day in skits with his cast of wacky puppets—Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Rowlf, Fozzie Bear and countless others. Not many people remember that The Muppet Show owes its success, in part, to an appearance on The Julie Andrews Hour in 1973. The Muppets joined Julie for several song-and-dance skits, including Rowlf’s duet, “Do You Love Me, Julie?” and the hilarious “Flower-Eating Monster” sketch.

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The Muppets landed their own show in 1976 thanks to the influence of British producer Lew Grade, who produced The Julie Andrews Hour. Andrews and the Muppets were a match made in heaven: full of magic, humor, a love for the ridiculous matched by a love of show business and an easy on-screen rapport. Julie and the Muppets worked together several times, creating some excellent comedic spoofs like the “Big Spender” sketch with Cookie Monster and the “Lonely Goatherd” reprise from The Sound of Music featuring a yodeling goat and Miss Piggy. So true was her connection to Kermit that Julie composed the dare-you-not-to-cry love song especially for him, “When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish,” which aired during season two of The Muppet Show.

Here’s a clip of Julie singing the song to Kermit in season two of The Muppet Show.

In 2015, the Hollywood establishment spent the year recognizing the 50th anniversary of the film version of The Sound of Music. Vanity Fair published a darling interview with Andrews and “Captain von Trapp” Christopher Plummer with the requisite high-fashion-art photo by Annie Leibovitz. Lady Gaga paid tribute to Andrews with a special medley of The Sound of Music’s most memorable songs at the Academy Awards that year, training herself to sing in the exact key and pitch performed by Andrews in the original film. Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert (who let Andrews stuff his mouth with grapes as part of an elocution acting exercise) hosted Andrews on their shows, neither one hiding his enchantment with her.

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To this day, at 82 years old, Andrew still casts her spell of elegant charm and exquisite comic timing.

If you love Julie Andrews as much as we do and you have 33 million dollars to spare, you can purchase her old house in London’s Chester Square. The palatial townhome, which she shared with husband Blake Edwards during the early years of their marriage, went on the market this spring. The place was also home to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mick Jagger and Margaret Thatcher at various times although after a complete remodel, we’re assuming the renovation can’t be quite as supercalifragilistic as it was in 1972. 

Or, for a lot less money, you can just come see The Sound of Music at The Straz this weekend and appreciate the timelessness of this musical masterpiece. Get your tickets here.

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Guess What? We Have a Brand New Podcast Series—Just for You

It’s time for the big reveal: Act2, the official podcast of the Straz Center, launched last month on Soundcloud.

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Let’s face it. Not everybody reads. Some of you won’t even make it this far. Look, no judgment here. Life’s about adapting, and lots of people would rather pop open Soundcloud on their devices and tune into something cool during their commutes, workouts or workdays. That’s fine by us because it means we get to explore new ways to create digital content and make more fun stuff.

Which brings us to: Act2, our latest creation in our digital content world—the Straz Center podcast. We’ve named it Act2 since it complements this blog, Caught in the Act, as another way to get you behind-the-scenes, on the fringes and everywhere in between. We’ve been dreaming of a podcast since 2014, but, believe it or not, as a non-profit arts organization, we often find ourselves with too many big ideas and not enough time, money and person power to get to everything we want to do. The majority of our web presence and social media engagement is done by three people. Seriously.

However, creativity finds a way. Plus, we knew we needed to add something extra for our non-reading arts-lovers. “I was talking to a co-worker about the blog and all of the cool, unique interviews we have featured there and she mentioned that she doesn’t really have a lot of time to read the blog but would listen to a podcast,” says Digital Marketing Director LeeAnn Douglas. “After speaking to a few more folks, they also mentioned that they listen to podcasts at their desks, in their cars, on the bus. It became apparent that there was this whole demographic that we aren’t reaching with our blog.”

Enter Fred Johnson, a longtime jazz vocalist, percussionist and all-around-cool-guy who almost everybody from West Tampa to Tel Aviv either knows or gigged with at some point in their career. Fred, who was the very first artist to play at The Straz when it opened (as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) at 1987, also served as our VP of Education before traveling far afield in other artistic callings in New York, Israel and everywhere in between. He returned in February 2018 as our Artist-in-Residence to cultivate The Straz’s relationships with the community and to start to tell the story of our artistic legacy.

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Fred Johnson

When he got here, Fred said “hey, I can do podcasts. Let’s do a podcast.”

Now here we are, about to publish our third episode of Act2 on Soundcloud.

“For my career, I’ve been an artist and a connector. I build bridges to bring folk together,” says Fred. “One of the most important elements of life is to inspire people to celebrate life together through the arts. We’re in times now where so many people are afraid of each other, so I want us [The Straz] to be welcoming, to be a place where people want to come to learn about each other. A podcast can help do that because it starts a new conversation full of information to empower the community. The community gets to learn about each other, what everybody’s doing artistically, about us and what we do here, through the podcast. It becomes connective tissue.”

LeeAnn agrees. “I love that our digital content is less about selling you a ticket and more about sharing our passion for the arts,” she says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about all of the things that the Straz Center does that have nothing to do with putting a show on stage. And we’ll entertain requests but can’t guarantee that we’ll discuss it on the podcast. Send a message on Facebook if you want to know something in particular. We got a request to talk about Waitress and guess what? On April 26, we’re publishing a podcast about Waitress.”

“We want to be in folks’ homes and phones developing a real relationship,” says Fred. “I love doing podcasts because I love listening to people and learning about folk. People hunger for beauty, for joy, for connection, for those things that are priceless. The podcast can satisfy that hunger by including all of the richness of what everybody in this community has to offer and then offering that information out to the public. I want people to listen and feel ‘hey, a little of me lives at The Straz. That’s my place.’”

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Join us for Act2 as we release a new podcast every few weeks. Subscribe by finding Act2 on the iTunes Store, the Podcasts app for iOS, or on the Google Play Music app for Android by searching “Straz Center.”

The Precocious Host Who’s the Most

Seth Black-Diamond and the new Straz web series, Milkshakes & Opera

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Jorge Parodi and Seth Black-Diamond start the filming of Milkshakes & Opera with a cheers.

On January 12, Opera Tampa launched its first-ever web series geared towards kids. The idea? Take a well-loved local 11-year-old performer, give him a hosting gig and sit him across from equally well-loved opera conductors to gab about opera and drink milkshakes donated by Chik-Fil-A. Throw in a surprise cameo by The Cow (“Enjoy Mor Opera”), and you’ve got a hit.

Caught in the Act crashed the most recent taping of Milkshakes & Opera, getting the delightful host, Seth Black-Diamond, to give us a quick look behind the scenes before his guest for the day, The Barber of Seville conductor Jorge Parodi, took a seat on the purple couch. Seth, a student here at the Patel Conservatory, performed in the children’s chorus of Tosca with Opera Tampa and already has a love of the form.

Here’s our behind-the-scenes video, where you can meet Seth as he gives you a quick run-down of the set and introduces you to his camera crew. You’ll also meet Catalina Nieto, our digital marketing manager who created the show, who explains how she found Seth. After that, enjoy some behind-the-scenes pics of Seth’s interview.

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First things first.

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Getting mic’d up.

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Lights …

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… Camera …

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… Action! It’s interview time.

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Make sure you’ve liked Opera Tampa on Facebook to keep up with Milkshakes & Opera and all the extra info and cool facts about the opera world and the world of opera in Tampa.

If you missed the first episode, where Seth interviews Opera Tampa Managing Director Robin Stamper, who conducts this season’s The Marriage of Figaro, you can catch it here:

Want to see the next episode starring Jorge Parodi? Look for it on the Opera Tampa Facebook page the week of Jan. 29.

Stay Savvy and Be Art Smart

How to avoid online ticket scams. The lowest-priced tickets *always* come from strazcenter.org.

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strazcenter.org is the ONLY official online ticket seller to Straz Center performances.

Straz Center season tickets are about to go on sale to the public. We feel it’s our duty to remind you to buy straight from our website if you want the lowest ticket prices. The other websites look legit, but they’re tricking you into paying sometimes hundreds of dollars more for a single ticket. It’s a simple scam, and one our audience members fall for year after year. We try to combat this fraud, but we can’t succeed without you being aware of what’s happening.

Strazcenter.org is the only official online ticket seller to performances in our halls. Anywhere else online will be a scalping scam.

The names look real, and theirs are usually the first and foremost to pop up on an internet search for “Book of Mormon tickets” or “tickets Phantom of the Opera” or “tickets to Straight No Chaser.” They are names like tampatickets.com, carolmorsanihall.com, and even strazcentertickets.com. These companies target unsuspecting buyers who click on whatever websites show up first after an internet search – usually the “sponsored ads” that look almost identical to a search result.

Right now, these types of sites are deceiving Straz Center patrons about ticket prices, availability and seat locations. Unfortunately, many Straz Center patrons have been fooled by such scalping scams that run rampant on the internet.

“The leading factor is haste,” says LeeAnn Douglas, digital marketing director at the Straz Center, who sees first-hand the evidence of ticket brokers buying our tickets under several accounts, reselling them online (or selling the same seats to several people) and then hearing the complaints about ticket prices being too expensive or the anger of customers who have been taken in by online scalpers.

“The easiest way to see that our tickets are being scalped is to search Google for an show’s name plus tickets and Tampa and various ticket brokers’ Google ads will pop up. It’s true especially for the blockbuster shows. Click on any one of these ads and you can see that these brokers are selling tickets at three and four times the actual price,” she says.

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A screenshot of the results the pop up when you search “motown tickets tampa.” Our official website (outlined in red) shows up after four ads from ticket brokers.

The ticket broker business of buying performance tickets and reselling them online at four and five times the value tallies millions of lost dollars for patrons and the local economy each year.

Because most of these brokers work remotely in other states and sell tickets from as many venues as they can – not just the Straz Center – the fraudulent resell of tickets results in dollars derailed into other states and patrons taking a hard blow to the pocketbook.

Arts and entertainment patrons, who are unaware that these “ticket brokers” pose as allies of the venue yet, in reality, are poaching and price-gouging tickets, unwittingly contribute to keeping the scalping rings in business. “I had a friend text me that she wanted to see Il Divo but the tickets were too expensive,” LeeAnn says. “When I asked her to send me the link, I could see right away that she wasn’t on our site. I redirected her to strazcenter.org, and she was very happy because she was able to get orchestra seats for a quarter of the price the ticket broker was asking. In the end, she got great seats with a VIP package from our website for the same price that she would have paid a ticket broker for nosebleed seats.”

With the sheer number of brokers nationwide running these companies, it is impossible for the Straz Center to stop them from buying tickets.

But it is possible – and simple and easy – for patrons to stop supporting these businesses. “We need to educate the buying public on how to avoid buying from a broker,” says LeeAnn. “Instead of automatically clicking the top search result, which is always a paid advertisement, they need to make sure they take a moment to look at the search results and find the Straz Center’s official site. Or better yet, bookmark one of the Straz Center’s websites [www.strazcenter.org or https://shop.strazcenter.org], and then any time they want to buy a ticket for one of our events, there is no need to perform a search at all.”

So, if you purchase tickets online, make sure you, your family and friends use strazcenter.org. Otherwise, you will be overpaying to scalpers without even knowing it.

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This is how the Straz Center’s official website, strazcenter.org, appears on a mobile device.

The Straz Center and its arts and entertainment allies continue efforts to fight on behalf of our patrons. A $300 ticket to a Broadway show from a broker could pay for dinner, an overnight hotel stay and a show at the Straz Center price – all money nourishing our local businesses and economy.

The Straz Center’s mission is to inspire audiences and artists to dream and discover, to create and celebrate, and part of our commitment is to make sure audiences know the truth about consumer issues in the arts.

Please help us spread the word about buying tickets directly from our website as we prepare for another spectacular season of performing arts. This way, we can all stay savvy and be art smart.

Traveling Family Road Show

The fascinating story of Clark Transfer

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Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

In 1948, Henry Fonda gave up a Hollywood contract to star in a Broadway play about sailors in the South Pacific. That play, Mister Rogers, won the Tony® for best play that year. One year later, it garnered another place in theater history: it was the very first Broadway show to launch a national tour via the highway.

The same trucking company that hauled Mister Rogers loads in the majority of the touring shows at The Straz today. In fact, Clark Transfer has been bringing shows to our stages since we opened our doors.

Not only that, but Clark Transfer invented the idea of taking Broadway shows on the road. In no small way, this humble, family-owned trucking company revolutionized the entire performing arts industry in the United States.

And it all started with the Spanish Flu.

After World War I, a global influenza pandemic laid waste to one-fifth of the world’s population in two years, killing 675,000 Americans (10 times the number who died in the war) and more than four times the number of people who died during the Black Plague. It was an awful time, and no city in the U.S. was hit worse than Philadelphia, which lost 28% of its population during 1918-1919. There were bodies everywhere, and if you owned a few trucks, there was work.

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Louis (Whitey) Molitch and his wife Sylvia. Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

So the family story goes that Jim Clark happened to own a few trucks, and the son of Ukrainian immigrants, Louis “Whitey” Molitch, happened to need a job. The two men met amid these gruesome circumstances, formed a friendship, and ten years later formed Highway Express Lines, a high-integrity, family-owned and operated Philadelphia-based trucking company that would become Clark Transfer. Jim bought the business, and Whitey rolled up his sleeves to help make it a success.

“My father was Jim Clark’s right hand,” says Norma Deull, the current president of Clark Transfer and Whitey Molitch’s daughter. “I grew up with Jim. He bought me my first car.”

The men had their roles in the business, and Jim eventually became a power player in Philadelphia politics while Whitey focused on the logistics of their enterprise. In the beginning, the company mostly hauled movie prints, magazines and newspapers. But, Whitey was that particular brand of post-war entrepreneur who had a vision of what trucking could do as more and more highways filled the national landscape.

However, he faced two formidable obstacles: the federal government and the way things had always been done.

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Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

At that time, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) controlled what materials went on trucks and trains and who was allowed to cart them from state to state. The ICC allowed only trains to transport Broadway shows, with trucks getting the sets, costumes and equipment from the station to the local theater. Even more impenetrable than government regulation was the Old Boy theatrical network of Broadway producers who did not believe they could make any money by mounting New York shows in places like Omaha.

However, Whitey had a vision. He’d seen small town America, he’d seen big city life: he knew he was on to something. “He went to the ICC,” Norma says, “with the idea that theatrical material could be moved by trucks. It was not easy convincing them, and he had to go many times. But, they gave him the rights in the United States to truck shows anywhere except within a 50 mile radius of NYC. He invented the industry. I can say that without a doubt.”

Whitey figured out who to know and how to get in with the Old Boys network in New York, and his impressive chutzpah and acumen eventually convinced the Broadway producers to take a chance on touring their shows around the country.

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Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

“He had to convince that Old Boy network to do something different than they’d ever done before,” says Jonathan Deull, Norma’s son and Whitey’s grandson, who earned his company chops loading and unloading trucks as his first job while still in high school, and along with his brother, Charlie Deull, now serves as Clark’s executive vice president. “I grew up in New York, and I remember that my grandfather would come every week to the city – schmoozing, deal-making, persuading and twisting arms of producers to be able to do this. He made remarkable changes.”

The transportation changes revolutionized show business, ushering in a new era of industry, opportunity and profit for an unprecedented number of people. If Broadway shows could be trucked for touring performances, so could ballet, opera, rock and roll . . . anything. Regions and mid-sized towns built state-of-the-art performing arts centers to accommodate the scale of Broadway shows. Performers and technicians had an entirely new field of work opportunities. As Ralph Hoffman, the noted ballet dancer and stage manager of Washington National Ballet, said: “culture and live entertainment to your doorstep, wherever you live . . . it was Clark Transfer that really made [it] possible.” When Jim died, Whitey bought the business, ever seeking to find better ways to do what Clark Transfer does best: getting the show on the road.

“And doing what you say you’re going to do,” says Norma.

“And don’t be late,” Jonathan adds.

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Four of the trucks that brought The Book of Mormon to Tampa in 2015.

Following in Whitey’s footsteps, Norma saw another family-based opportunity for Clark Transfer, but one for the modern age: dealing with the climate-change consequences of the carbon emissions produced by millions of miles per year of show-touring in diesel trucks.  In the 1980s, Jonathan’s wife, Sheryl Sturges, had been a pioneer in developing the idea of carbon offsets, and in 2007 Charlie took the leadership in partnering with with likeminded Broadway folks to create the Touring Green Initiative, a pool of offsets to complement their efforts to reduce emissions. Soon after, Charlie became co-chair (with Susan Sampliner, Company Manager of Wicked) of the Broadway Green Alliance.

Now with four generations of Whitey Molitch’s clan working at Clark Transfer and the fifth generation currently learning to walk, the Deulls intend to keep Clark a family business. “That’s the vision,” says Jonathan, “that this continues its tradition as a family operation. We don’t do the glamorous stuff, the stuff that gets names on marquees. The thing that drives us is bringing live performances to people who may not have the opportunity to see that – people whose lives can be transformed by that power and magic. Being able to bring that opportunity to people is enormous.”

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.