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.

Frogmen Trainer Becomes Prince to Little Mermaids

The true tale of a dream that could only happen in Florida.

In a certain well-known story playing at The Straz this July, a certain red-headed mermaid desperately wants to become human. In Florida, however, there are certain humans who desperately want to become mermaids.

And, because this is Florida, they can.

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“Mermaid Taylor” image courtesy of Andrew Brusso.*

One hour north of Morsani Hall burbles and gurgles one of the greatest, most famous natural wonders in all of Florida, the glorious Weeki Wachee springs. That’s saying something considering this state also harbors the Everglades, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world, as well as supports the motley assortment of wild panthers, bear, boar, alligators, pythons, manatees, crocodiles, sawfish and bison in the same state. Yet, Weeki Wachee resides, funneling 117 million gallons of cool spring water every day from depths so extreme the bottom has never been found.

So, it should feel somewhat appropriate that, in 1949, a former U.S. Navy man who trained Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II looked out across the evocative, blue expanse of Weeki Wachee springs and said something like, “hey, I bet I can build an underwater theater and have a mermaid show.”

This man, Newton Perry, cleared the rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars from the spring, built an 18-seat theater in the lime rock six feet underwater, then launched what would become one of the hottest tourist spots in the nation only a few years later, thanks to the corps of pretty girls in bikini tops and shimmering, half-body tails. In the 1950s, Florida was miles upon miles of expansive wilderness threaded with a handful of dirt roads – almost the opposite of what we see today – but the allure of a teenager in a bullet-bra bathing costume eating a banana underwater drew carloads of curious tourists to the underwater marvel.

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Mermaids took ballet classes to improve their performance in the water in 1960 (L) and Elvis Presley’s visit to the park in 1961 (R). Check out more historical photos on Weeki Wachee’s Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings.

Perry figured out how to hide slender breathing tubes amid the underwater scenery so the performers could have access to air during the run of their shows and stunts. The mermaids did not (and do not) have an easy job despite appearances and air tubes. In a current sometimes strong enough to knock off a cinched SCUBA mask, holding their own and holding their breath while creating the illusion of gliding and floating gently through enchanting waters requires the strength, stamina and skill of a competitive athlete.

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Susan Backlinie, known for her role as Chrissie Watkins, the first victim in Jaws, is a former Weeki Wachee mermaid. (Photo from Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings)

In the sixties, American Broadcast Company (ABC) bought the spring, tipping the scales toward international fame. They upgraded to a 400-seat theater and made the attraction a bonafide springs-and-mermaids theme park. Whereas the Weeki Wachee mermaids had been local gals, under the ABC banner women from around the world auditioned for the show of a lifetime as a swirling, twirling mermaid performing eight sold out shows a day. During this heyday, Weeki Wachee boasted 35 mermaids on the payroll, with many of them living in special mermaid cottages on site. They were, and some argue still are, Florida royalty.

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Buccaneer Bay Waterpark, located inside Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. (Photo from Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings)

Today, Weeki Wachee springs exist as a state park, full of family-friendly activities – including the beloved, often sold-out daily mermaid shows. They have a full roster of mermaids and two princes that you can read about online if you want current information. If you have a little starfish who needs to practice writing and penmanship skills, the mermaids and princes are happy to receive Tail Mail letters from fans and the mer-curious (under 17 years old only, though). Weeki Wachee holds junior mermaid camps, too, and even a “Sirens of the Deep” adult mermaid camp for those people who want to unleash their inner merperson. That’s the upside. The downside is that the camps for both little and big humans are sold out through October 2017.

After 70 years, Newton Perry’s post-war Florida mermaid dream still ignites the imagination and affirms a more uplifting, charmingly literal interpretation of “swimming with the fishes.”

Thus, common Jamaican crab wisdom holds: it is better, down where it’s wetter.

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*New York-based photographer Andrew Brusso grew up on Anna Maria Island. His images have appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Surfer, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Golf Digest and other notable publications. He joined the 2008 effort to save Weeki Wachee springs by photographing the mermaids pro bono for a fundraising calendar. He’s been photographing them for the annual calendar ever since. To see his extraordinary work, visit andrewbrusso.com.

Local Profiles: Sculpting Out a Future

Jim and Joan Jennewein helped shape the Straz Center in more ways than one.

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YES! by Martin Eichinger is a bronze sculpture that was a part of the original Performance In Sculpture exhibit in Morsani lobby.

In the spring of 1981, a young visionary architect named Jim Jennewein walked across a scraggly five-acre parking lot alongside the Hillsborough River. In his mind, he built a future performing arts center for the people of Tampa Bay. The plans, drawn up by the firm in collaboration with a Canadian team led by Arthur Nichol (who was responsible for the National Art Center in Ottawa), advanced to the final round of consideration for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center project.

By June 1981, the competition stalled out in a two-way tie, requiring then-mayor Bob Martinez to break the draw. He announced McElvy, Jennewein, Stefany and Howard would be the architects with Jim named architect of record. The Straz Center began, slowly, to materialize.

Jim, the son of the great sculptor C. Paul Jennewein, grew up in an environment that nurtured the process of creating three-dimensional art. For Jim, that process included making buildings. His father, whose famous Art Deco sculptures include the Spirit of Justice in the United States Department of Justice and her counterpart, Majesty of Law, created several pieces of distinction for national buildings. Jim’s likeness stands in sculptural from (from the neck down) in the passageway to the White House library, a distinction that happened when his father found himself in need of a male model for the commission.

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C. Paul Jennewein’s Spirit of Justice and Majesty of Law in the United States Department of Justice.

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The Noyes Armillary Sphere, by C. Paul Jennewein, in Meridian Hill Park. It suffered serious damage and is thought to have been removed for repair sometime in the 1970s. Its whereabouts are presently unknown.

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C. Paul Jennewein designed the large circular discs with eagles and fasces on the pylons of each pier of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. (Photo: Flickr user hwro)

Jim and his wife Joan are long-time Tampanians with an equally long track record of community involvement, engaging from the nascent stages of Straz Center planning and staying involved as donors, patrons and members of the Opera Tampa League to this day. Joan, in fact, holds the title of one of the longest-standing members of the Opera Tampa League Board and served as the Opera Tampa League chair from 2008-2011. Both Jenneweins lend their talents and experience in other areas including art preservation and land conservation.

Humble and likeable, the Jenneweins downplay their own involvement in The Straz, and, like many long-married couples, genially share sentences with Jim often reaching to Joan to supply details of their great stories of family, life and work.

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Joan and Jim Jennewein pose next to The Ballet Dancer in Morsani lobby. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

The Jenneweins’ inherited interest in sculpture served the Straz Center several years ago when Jim, a member of the National Sculpture Society board (NSS), pitched the idea of doubling The Straz’s spaces as a sculpture gallery. The idea flew, with Jim paving the inroads to build a partnership between the performing arts center and the NSS. The partnership marked the first time the NSS branched out to a community. The stunning sculptures in the Morsani Hall lobbies, The Conductor and The Ballet Dancer, represent two of the permanent works in this otherwise on-going, revolving exhibition. The works, unlike in a museum, are for sale, and The Conductor was purchased and donated back to the Straz Center, but anyone can buy the other sculptures.

“The sculptures here represent the first continual NSS show outside of New York City and Brookgreen Gardens [one of the largest outdoor sculpture gardens in the world],” says Jim. A new set of sculptures arrived in October 2016 and are on display along the Morsani mezzanine balcony.

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More sculptures from the original exhibit. L to R: Lift Her With Butterflies by Angela De la Vega; Heinrich by Wayne Salge; Ascent by Leo E. Osborne; Dancer by Olga Nielsen.

For 34 years, Jim and Joan have been part of the Straz Center family, part of the first generation of Tampanians to believe in a place to build, share and exchange culture and do the work investing time and resources to make it happen. They have been shaping and sculpting the success of the Straz Center as it, like an evolving work of art, changes shape to meet the growing needs of the Tampa Bay community.

“We are so lucky,” says Jim.

“That’s right,” Joan says. “To have been involved as much as we have, as long as we have. It’s a great place.”

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Guests at the opening reception for the exhibit. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Interested in knowing more about how the Straz Center launched the massive overhaul of downtown Tampa? Check out this recent article by Richard Danielson for Politico Magazine, “How Tampa Turned a Dead Zone into a Downtown”.

The Straz Center Stands with National Endowment for the Arts

The FY2018 federal budget proposes to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Here’s a brief look at the creation of the agency and the reasons why a national investment in the arts makes dollars and sense.

“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.

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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: http://www.neh.gov)

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 that to make America great, the fed needed to support the arts:

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. … 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.

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 for political posturing continues to undermine the agency’s mission as set forth by LBJ.

On May 23, 2017, only a year and a half after the 50th anniversary of the agency, the current president released his budget proposal which outlines his plans to eliminate funding the NEA altogether. He is the only president in history to propose zeroing out funding to the nation’s cultural agency.

Congress ultimately approves or rejects the proposed line items, and Congress gave the NEA a $2 million boost for FY2017—a smart move considering the NEA helps an industry that generates $742 billion to the national economy. So, the people have an extraordinary opportunity to respond on behalf of preserving the NEA by contacting their members of Congress.

(Don’t know your member of Congress? Find her or him here. Don’t know what to say? Americans for the Arts created an easy online form.)

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Third-generation Montana rancher Wallace McRae was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the NEA. (Photo: Tom Pich)

The NEA was a simple solution for the questions of how to preserve the many splendid cultural traditions of this nation and continue to nourish the creative soul of the country. Creating it demonstrated a stunning act of faith in humanity after the harrowing tumult of the early 60s and the American entrance into the Vietnam War.

NEA grants, while supporting high-profile artists and organizations, mostly support rural and inner city areas that lack the economic infrastructure to provide arts development for their people. The bulk of the grants go to small and mid-sized organizations. These grants help foster economic growth and community pride. People understand that arts nourish the greatness of their hometowns as well as their country as a whole.

As for the controlling-government-waste-by-cutting-arts-spending argument, it doesn’t hold. As of now, the NEA gets $150 million in funding (.003 percent of the total budget) yet supports an industry of nonprofit arts that return $9.6 billion in federal taxes. That’s a massive ROI.

In addition to the big business of arts funded partly by NEA grants, 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.

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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.

The NEA’s support helps the Straz Center deliver 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 in recent seasons 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. A great agency doing good work at a great financial return deserves the nation’s support. In the immortal words of this country’s first president:

The arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life. They have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.
–George Washington

Want more info? The NEA produced this online fact sheet for simple answers to FAQs.

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Tricking Nazis

How artists in a top-secret U.S. Army unit pulled the ultimate fast ones on Hitler

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4th Platoon, Company D was the first group of Ghost Army deceivers to go to work in Normandy. They arrived eight days after D-Day.

In 1943, the good guys in the Great War needed to start thinking outside-the-box if they were going to beat the Axis powers crawling over Europe and Asia.

Thus the creation of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the “Ghost Army,” a top secret U.S. Army special force of 1,100 men. Their mission: stage a bunch of fake but convincing maneuvers to fool the Germans into making bad decisions.

We’re talking about inflatable tanks and rubber weaponry here. Sound effects of gunfire. Flash canisters to mimic artillery. Elaborate stagings of entrenchments that, upon close inspection, were nothing more than collapsible props and P.A. systems. (P.A. systems with a 15-mile reach, yes—but still a giant speaker.) At a distance, however, these scenes appeared to be well-fortified American troops riled and focused for victory. They were distractions from real missions happening elsewhere; they were designed to spread wrong information and confound enemy plans.

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The Ghost Army’s trademark tool of visual illusion was the inflatable M4 Sherman tank. Fully inflated, it was 18’4” long, 8’3” wide, and 7’9 to the top of the turret. It took 20 minutes to inflate.

Often, soldiers in the Ghost Army were tasked to frequent local bars, order food and play “loose lips” to spread false information to spies or Axis informants.

And you know what? It worked.

The reason why such a far-fetched plot to deceive and dis-inform the enemy was so successful resides in the gut, grit, training and talent of the men who pulled off such believable illusions.

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Each halftrack, equipped for sonic deception, carried 800 pounds of audio equipment capable of playing a half hour show from a wire recorder and projecting the sounds as far as 15 miles.

Among those 1,100 soldiers were some of the greatest artists, lighting designers and sound designers trained in American university fine arts programs. Some of the 23rd would become the great marketing masterminds to steer the post-war boom. When America needed people who could break the tactical rulebooks and re-write the art of war, the government called on its most creative citizens. Notable operatives in the Ghost Army included fashion designer Bill Blass, painters Ellsworth Kelly and Art Singer, and photographer Art Kane.

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Two Ghost Army artists sketching inside a bombed out church in Trevieres in August 1944. At least half a dozen Ghost Army artists painted or sketched the badly damaged church.

The only military unit specifically dedicated only to deception, the Ghost Army served a singular, successful purpose in WWII. Their “traveling shows” of military might or of convoys deployed to front lines that didn’t exist threw the Germans off their game. The deceptions saved countless American lives.

The Ghost Army’s last and most successful performance, Operation Viersen, tricked Hitler’s army into thinking two divisions (some 40 thousand men; remember, there are only 1,100 men in the Ghost Army) were at a specific position on the Rhine River. When the Germans advanced on the illusion created by the Ghost Army, the real army of soldiers crossed several miles away, suffering almost no casualties or resistance.

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A hand-drawn map of Operation Viersen, taken from the US Army’s Official History of the 23rd Headquarters Special troops, a document that was classified for many years.

To this day, there is no evidence that the Germans ever figured out a deception unit was operating against them.

The missions, by their nature, drew enemy fire though no one in the Ghost Army was ever issued a real weapon. What stood between these men and live rounds from German soldiers were set pieces—usually the cache of inflatable tanks and rubber airplanes. Not all of the soldiers in the Ghost Army survived. Many were wounded. Their status and missions remained classified until 1996 in case the same tactics needed to be deployed against the Russians during the Cold War.

In 2013, a documentary about the dramatic, dangerous stagecraft of the Ghost Army premiered on PBS in honor of Memorial Day.

For all of those who served, and for those who gave their lives, we honor you.

A Million Little Peaces

The performing arts and conflict resolution

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Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda and Emily Koch as Elphaba in Wicked. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

If the folks at (TITLE) for Dummies® or the Idiot’s Guide™ to (THIS THING) ever wrote a how-to guide on building a better world, certainly there’d be a chapter or two on the performing arts.

Much has been said on the value of elevating culture and artistic achievement as hallmarks of a civilized society (such as Kennedy’s speech at Amherst College after the death of great American poet Robert Frost). We’ve also come to understand the correlation between depriving people of the arts and higher rates of crime, lack of critical thinking skills and violence.

Mounting research proves that engagement in the performing arts improves children’s overall well-being. With the music, dance and theater, they get better cognitive abilities and higher-level emotional development plus experience with problem-solving, conquering fear, collaborating, effectively communicating and accessing creativity to imagine better outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, engagement with the performing arts allows children to develop a critical aspect of their humanity: empathy. And now we have the neuroscience to prove it.

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Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings because we can recognize our own—sort of an I-can-see-myself-in-you situation that breaks down the barriers of self and mistrust that often perpetuate never-ending conflicts.

The performing arts allow us to see things differently, to learn viewpoints of people who are different from us and to see ourselves reflected in the artist’s work, often to some revelatory effect. We learn a little something new about ourselves and our world either by watching in an audience or by performing in a show. These are all good things.

Human beings have four basic psychological-emotional needs: belonging, freedom, fun and a sense of inner power (like accomplishment and recognition). When those needs aren’t met, we experience inner conflict first, then we extend that outward—how far depends on our own emotional intelligence. Some of us are emotionally intelligent enough to resolve the inner conflict well; in the extreme, that inner conflict turns into some man taking over a country by murdering entire sects of other humans. Oh, what a place the world would be if we handled our disputes and conflicts with dance battles such as this:

As humans, our other great pull is to make sense of the world, of our inner worlds and the world happening around us. At its core, art is about the human spirit making meaning of the human experience.

Thus, the performing arts attend to our most powerful psychological and social needs, which makes the arts ideal for conflict resolution—or, at the very least, a non-threatening way to broach tough topics and uncomfortable truths. Music, dance and theater can be very safe avenues to confrontation, building empathy and creating the kinds of conversations that can turn conflict into an opportunity for a community to grow in a positive way.

Around the world, people turn to the performing arts to help them access the often easy-to-see, difficult-to-cross bridges between people on opposing sides of a conflict.

In the greater Boston area, a group of artists, educators, public service providers and academics created Violence Transformed, an initiative to respond to violence in the area, give a voice to victims of violence and try to find ways to prevent violence from happening in home, at school and in the community. Initially a one-time art exhibit, Violence Transformed has grown in the past ten years to become a multi-media event with workshops, exhibits and performances throughout the year. In Papua New Guinea, Seeds Theatre Group works to address the frightening amount of violence against women by engaging communities in theater. In 2014, the company collaborated with UNICEF Pacific for the #ENDviolence against women and children initiative with a music video that went viral. In Jamaica, the Sistren Theatre Collective has been working since 1977 as a group utilizing the performing arts as a community resource to address and confront violence and empower residents of all genders to change their situations, especially in desperate neighborhoods in Kingston.

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We hosted a World Cafe discussion during the It Gets Better residency in March 2017.

Here at The Straz, we’ve collaborated with the It Gets Better Project to address violence against LGBTQ youth (read about our work in this article in the Florida Diversity Council newsletter) and supported veteran PTSD recovery through visual art and movement workshops.

As we move, socially, into more interaction with technology and social media than in actual conversations and person-to-person experiences, we see a growing national discussion about the need for activating empathy—even Forbes magazine published an article examining how lack of empathy damages the reputation and impact of business leaders. Empathy, the article notes, is the strongest skill in successful leadership performance.

From a performing arts perspective, what looks like a world in a million little pieces could be a world in a million little peaces:

“. . . Conflict simply exists as a natural part of life. It is what people in conflict do with the experience that determines whether it will be constructive or destructive.”
–from The Art in Peacemaking: A Guide to Integrating Conflict Resolution Education into Youth Arts Programs

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.