Let Me Hear Your Body Talk

Caught in the Act gets astrophysical with Neil deGrasse Tyson in this pre-show interview about dancing, dealing with Twitter haters and why Neil won’t ever be “on brand.”

Early in October, we grabbed almost an hour of time with the fun, funny and brilliant Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson over the phone (for the record, he asked that we call him Neil). He appears at The Straz Oct. 19, this Thursday, for his talk An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper. We’re huge NdGT fans, but instead of talking all things science, we wanted to get into the general relativity of the man himself. He surprised us.

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CAUGHT IN THE ACT: We’re so excited you’re coming back to The Straz for another lecture.

NEIL TYSON: I’m flattered that you didn’t get enough last time.

CITA: We’re excited you’re bringing a new show, but what we really want to talk about is you as a performer.

NT: I’m a servant of your questions.

CITA: Great! Preparing for this interview, we watched you and Chuck Nice on Cosmic Gumbo, then watched your interview with Katy Perry. You seem to be able to adjust quickly as an educator to whomever your audience is, so we wanted you to talk about how you find teaching itself to be a type of performing art.

NT: When you’re on stage, you have to keep people’s attention for however long you’re there. And people are paying money to hear you, so there’s some expectation and obligation that you’ve got to be entertaining or educating or some combination of both. Whereas, in an interview, I feel some obligation to match rhythms with the other person … to match outlook … no, to match rhythms. Otherwise, it’s a mismatch to the viewer. Every time you have a mismatch, not as much information or insight will come across in that conversation. There’s nothing more awkward or unsmooth than two people who have two different ways of communicating trying to communicate with one another. You’re wasting each other’s time, and you’re wasting our time. So, I see teaching as having to have a metaphorical tool kit. People have different literacies, different backgrounds, different energy levels, and I try to find what that is. Upon finding it, I think it’s my duty as an educator to interact in a way where the widest possible communication channels are open to that person. If it means referencing sports, if that’s a point of reference for that person, if it means referencing pop culture or TV shows or movies, that’s what I do. So, I spend some fair amount—maybe 15 percent—of my time learning what other people care about and that’s what’s it in my tool belt.

CITA: How do you go about doing this? What is it that you do to spend time learning what other people care about?

NT: I think it’s a matter of paying attention. So, if I see someone speaking to other people and trying to make an impression or teach them and I see people getting bored, I wonder: why do I see that? Was it the delivery? Was it the jargon? Was it the personality of the person delivering the information? I pay attention to that. It takes a level of socialization that most people have, but beyond that it’s just energy to think about what’s going on. If I’m being called upon to serve the interest of the public in any way at all, I might as well put in some effort to do the best job that I can in that capacity. If I do not, then I’m just being lazy. Or, I’m asking people to meet me at the chalkboard rather than have it be I who meets them on the living room couch. So, it’s simply a matter of paying attention: What is the number one show on television? Oh, I’d like to know about that. I don’t have to know every show, but I should know two or three—the characters, the plot lines, what are the other defining elements of the show. Then I have some fluency in that subject. Anyone who walks in the room walks in with a scaffolding of pop culture. If I’m talking about science and I can clad that scaffold with science, then science applied to the thing they already care about opens a communication channel like none other.

CITA: Then did you study education as well?

NT: No, it’s just that an astrophysicist spends so much energy contemplating the universe, the least I can do is spend some of that brain effort contemplating how people communicate with each other. So, I read people’s speeches, how they put their words together to create impact, to create emotion as distinct from content. So, no, I never took an education class.

CITA: What about performing arts classes? Did you ever study music, theater, dance?

NT: I was a performing member of three dance companies over the years in college.

CITA: Get out of town. Are you serious?

NT: It’s not like it was the Bolshoi. These were just college troupes, but it was done in leotards and legwarmers and this sort of thing. And so I greatly valued and continue to value the juxtaposition of strength and agility. With dance, there’s also the additional element of grace. So, dance is strength, agility and grace in this harmony like no other challenge. I did that on the side. I also wrestled. I was captain of my high school wrestling team. I continued to wrestle in college and graduate school although I wasn’t as good relative to other people—it was a whole other scale of people’s advancement and commitment. But, I enjoyed the sport immensely, the one-on-one the purity of it. I persisted through senior year. I also wrote.

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Tyson, during his dancing days.

CITA: Let’s go back to these dance companies you were in. Where these modern dance companies? Were these college ballet companies …?

NT: So, one of them was Afro-Caribbean style. One of them was competitive international Latin ballroom. I wasn’t good enough to be a soloist but definitely good enough to be on the team performance. We were eight couples performing, 16 of us on the floor performing choreographed routines in competition. The third was just called the Dance Team, and it was a combination of show tunes, ballet, modern, that sort of thing. It was more broadly conceived and executed.

CITA: We hardly ever, ever hear of anybody who has performed Afro-Caribbean style even though we have a strong Afro-Cuban culture in Tampa. So, what were you studying? Was this Afro-Cuban, was it a Chuck Davis style, was it Afro-Brazilian?

NT: It was mostly sort of basic things you would do with your body. I don’t know if was a culture specifically. When I visited South Africa early on—I’ve been there several times—I was more of a pure tourist, and we went to an indigenous culture dance day. I’m watching everyone dance and thinking, “that’s exactly what we did in Afro-Caribbean class.” A lot of that midsection undulating, and the hips and arms and shoulders, and how it comes together in a performance. So that’s what it was. My body would hurt tomorrow if I did that now.

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Tyson, during his wrestling days.

CITA: That’s fantastic. It made our entire life to know that Neil deGrasse Tyson did Afro-Caribbean dance.

NT: When I am onstage, I’m self-aware, and there’s so much more I can communicate with an audience than just my voice in the microphone. There is tonality in my voice, there is my body gestures, there is my gesticulations with my arms … all of this comes together … I’d say by the end of a talk, 2/3 came through the words I spoke and the rest is me I guess the word would be “performing” it. My words are communicating, but so is my body.

CITA: Yes. Watching your facility in conversation is really starting to make sense now that we have this information. Body awareness is not something people think about or are conscientious of or study the way dancers do. But, when you see someone who has a conscientious level of body awareness …

NT: Oh, I’m intently aware. Especially since I wrestled. You know, the body of the person you’re wrestling is everything. The bicep, the triceps … it’s sweeping a different muscle to get them to their backs. It’s a whole intense pathway of thought to reconcile what your body is relative to what you can do in a competition. So, yes, I have an acute awareness. I might have a fascination with bodies that have taken shape by the things that are unique to the performance in which they have excelled. So, the body of a football linebacker, or a prima ballerina, or the body of a marathon runner, the body of a Sumo wrestler. I’m intrigued by any and all humans with bodies that have reached the extremes of expression—all in the service of our entertainment.

CITA: Human bodies morph into expressions in which they excel. You are an astrophysicist so obsessed with and acutely aware of celestial bodies as well. Do you ever spend time in contemplation of the connection between the concept of “body,” the human body in motion, the human body comprised of motion it expels and absorbs and how that relates to astrophysics?

NT: Ah, no. Because the human body, we’re a life form on earth like all other life forms—plants, the cheetah that runs faster than any other animal, the condor whose wingspan is the largest of any bird—if you look at features of animals in the world, of plants in the world, if you take in the totality of the tree of life in the world, it’s quite a fascinating place to visit, delightfully. But, that has no direct relationship to astrophysics.

I’ve spoken metaphorically of it, recently: “when I close my eyes, I imagine the solar system with its pirouetting planets as a cosmic ballet choreographed by the forces of gravity.” That is a figurative sentence of having the benefit of being literally true. Motions of the planets are induced by the forces of gravity, and all objects do pirouette. We call it rotate, but they pirouette.

CITA: We have ardent Neil deGrasse Tyson fans in Tampa. When you started out your career, did you have this end game in mind that you were going to get your degree in astrophysics and become the heartthrob celebrity that you are today?

NT: No, no not at all! It’s still not! Every day when I wake up—it might be 9.4 million Twitter followers [I have] at this moment—it’s like, do they know I’m an astrophysicist? I keep wondering “what’s going on here?” Eighty-five percent of the time you see me in public or I’m anywhere in the public eye, it’s in the service of the cosmic curiosity of an organization or individual that has asked questions. About 15% of the time it’s because I’ve written a book, and the book has marketing people attached to it and they’ll install me on a newscast or a talk show. People come up to me and say “I see you all over the place, you must have a good agent.” I say, “my agent is the Universe itself.” And then they want me to come [on their show or outlet] and comment. So, I’d be irresponsible if I did not comment. But I’m commenting as a servant of the curiosity, not because I wake up in the morning and say “how many outlets can I put my face on today?” That is not a thought that I ever have.

CITA: Right. You don’t wake up in the morning and worry about your “brand.”

NT: No, I am not a brand. [I’ll make comments and] people say to me, “I’ve told you that’s off brand,” and [I think] “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I’ve never tried to build it; I don’t even care. I’ve never even met my brand. Call it what you want, but I’m not going to constrain what I feel is what people want to hear because someone thinks it’s on or off-brand. I don’t think at all about brands. I don’t care. As I said, I’m a servant. Because I’m a servant, it’s not about brands. The only thing I push on the public, if you want to call it that, is a book I might have written.

CITA: Well, you say that, but we saw you in your interview with Chuck Nice, and he was trying so hard to get you to push your book and you wouldn’t do it.

NT: We’re using “push” in two different ways. For me, “push” means to publish it. I wrote it on my own, and now it’s an offering out there. You were thinking “push” as pushing to buy the book, when—in fact—I never tweeted about my book.

CITA: Right, right. That’s what you and Chuck were discussing. That you don’t promote your own books on your Twitter account.

NT: Right. It’s just an offering. So, I will actively write a book for the public for publication. I will actively do that, yes. But the only tweets are thoughts I’m having anyway, so I think I might as well share this; people might be interested. No point in keeping it to myself. So, then I share it. I don’t think “what am I going to tweet today,” no. It’s a thought I’m having anyway, so there it goes. Right. I don’t … I think I used a photo of my latest book in a tweet because it has a really pretty illustration.

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CITA: It’s a nice cover.

NT: But most people put all this stuff on their social media, right? Okay, all these pundits. Of course, you already know what they’re tweeting because they’re going to be telling you stuff you already know they’re going to tell you. But there are others, like comedians, who have strong followings and they’ll say “I’m going to be in St. Louis tomorrow!” I don’t tweet where I am or what I’m going to be doing. Much to the disappointment of, you know … many people [laughs]. That’s not how I use my Twitter stream. I don’t need to tell 9 million people around the world that I’m in Tampa, Florida.

CITA: So, while doing research for this interview, we got kind of angry coming across articles by people accusing you of having this sanctimonious, liberal, left-wing, “sage-on-the-stage” way of delivering information. Like you treat people as though they’re not smart enough to know what you know. But, for anyone who’s paid attention to you, and even in the course of this conversation, it’s obvious you are easy to talk to, that your desire to be a public servant is apparent. Do you care about having haters and people trolling your Twitter feed?

NT: So, there are occasional people who, um, so here’s something that happened. For a couple of years, I would tweet the kind of posts where I thought it was like a clever observation of something that I would like to share with people. There was a subset of people who reacted negatively to it, like “oh, he’s just showing off how smart he is and he’s alienating people.” And I said, “wow”—because that was not my intent, of course—and so the reactions on Twitter to things I post are highly useful swaths of information for me about how effectively I’m communicating. Or not communicating. And second, it’s not just what I get across, but what I think they’ll think if I post this; but, do they actually think this? And if they do not, I’ve failed.

CITA: You conduct it almost like a social science experiment.

NT: It’s not that that’s being done on purpose, but it is a consequence of the medium that is Twitter. I get an instantaneous, neuro-synaptic snapshot of people’s reactions to words I use, to phrases I turn. If I think something is funny and nobody gets it, I will not tweet that way anymore. This is part of the larger story of “are you really communicating with someone or are you giving a lecture.” If you’re giving a lecture, then you don’t care how they think; it’s their job to come to you at the chalkboard or whatever they use today in the classroom. If you’re communicating, then you have to cover most of the distance yourself until you are sitting next to them in their own living room and you’re talking to them like you’re right there. I don’t mind doing this when I’m called to do so.

Here’s another thing. It’s trivial, but it’s real: I used to tweet frequently about the science in movies that I saw. Some of them got famous, like newscasters would report on it, but there was a subset of people—by the way, my goal was to enhance your appreciation of the film, to see things a little more deeply; you know, they got the physics of this wrong, but they got the physics of that right—I view it as no different than if you were a costume designer, and you were like, “no, they missed the period of that costume of that Jane Austen story. That gown was designed in the 1920s not in the 1890s, so they messed that one up.” I’d be thrilled to know that! Or, if you know about cars, and there’s some movie that is set in 1955 and there’s a 1957 Chevy parked on the street, oh my gosh! You’ll never hear the end of it. So, I thought if I could bring science to that same level of analysis, people would embrace it. Most did. But, the subset that did not painted me as a killjoy, as a buzzkill, as ruining the movie for them. I thought “wow, these were thoughts I was having anyway and I don’t need to share them with you anymore.” I don’t have to do it; these are thoughts that will stay in my head. I had some with Game of Thrones, and I thought people would be really intrigued by that. You know, blue breath versus red breath in the dragons, and you have to watch the show to be able to comment on it.

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I was intrigued to learn that people thought that all I wanted to do was attack films for getting things wrong. I started to get calls from talk shows that were like “we want you to come on and talk about this movie and tell us everything that’s wrong about it.” That wasn’t my intent. They wanted to create a segment called “Tyson the Buzzkill.” So, obviously, I wasn’t communicating correctly, so I just stopped. And I don’t know how to resurrect that in a way [that would work]. But anyhow, getting back to the naysayers you’re talking about: it’s interesting to know that they’re out there. I’d say the big fraction of the cases just don’t know what they’re talking about and have a kneejerk, negative reaction. And, oh, they’re accusing me of being liberal which I think is hilarious. Holding aside the fact that I was three-times appointed by George W. Bush to serve on White House commissions in the service of that White House—holding that aside—nothing I ever post is political. Nothing. It’s factual. And if you have a political leaning that either rejects it or accepts it, you are putting a political layer on the facts that I post. I have strong political views, but I don’t publicize them. I care that you think rationally, that you’re an informed citizen—in particular, an informed voter. Quick example: a few years ago, after one of the horrific shootings, I think this one was in Connecticut—after that, I wondered if I should post something, so I did. Here’s the post: “In Wal-Mart, the world’s largest gun seller, you can buy an assault rifle, but company policy bans the sale of rock albums with curse words.”

That tweet was informationally accurate and politically neutral. But, what happened was there were people who viewed it as “he wants to take our guns away! How dare he do that!” so it became this second amendment thing. Other people said “they have the right to do that, to not put curse words in things!” And everybody chose sides, thinking I was trying to get them to do one thing or the other when it’s just contrasting policy within the same company. People think I’m being political when I simply want them to know more about what it is they’re thinking. That intrigues me, too, to realize that they’re out there. I’m just fascinated by this, this de facto sociological experiment.

This one guy, a journalist for a newspaper in Idaho, he had a column. The column was called “Neil deGrasse Tyson is a Horse’s Astrophysicist.”

CITA: Really?

NT: The column gave all these reasons for why I was a horse’s astrophysicist: “liberal scientist blah blah blah blah blah, and he wants us to believe this, and Neil Tyson that.” And, he’s sort of trying to appeal to all his conservative, Trump [followers] …

CITA: Of course, staying “on message.”

NT: On yeah, staying on point, right, exactly. So I was like, “should I reply to this guy?” But it’s a newspaper, right? Not some solo blogger, so, alright, I’ll reply. So, I wrote back, line by line. And I said, “you say I’m liberal, but I actually worked for George W. Bush and he was pretty happy with what I contributed. Plus, there’s no evidence anywhere that I’m liberal, so I just don’t know where you got this information. Second, by the way, I practically said I’m not an atheist. Here’s a video of me saying that. I think of myself more of an agnostic. I don’t know where you got that [idea I’m atheist]—what are your sources?” He also said, “I don’t know if Tyson is a good scientist or not. I don’t think he is.” I said, “Google Scholar: you can learn about this. There’s a whole branch of Google where, if you type in search, it goes to peer reviewed articles. Here’s a link to all my research there.” I was very polite and kind about it. His last comment was that I treated a 9-year-old girl badly when she asked if there would ever be life on Jupiter: “the real reason you’re an ass is because you tweeted back disrespectfully to her,” and he points to a tweet with my name on it responding “how can you think anyone can live in a gas cloud? Go back to school.” And I said, “you know, I looked back on the date on that tweet, and here’s what I actually tweeted that day. It was some stupid comment about a movie that I’d seen. So, I have no idea where you got that tweet. It seems to me you didn’t double check your sources. By doing so, you abrogated your journalistic integrity.” And it turns out he got the tweet from Clickhole, which is a joke site akin to The Onion. So, I wrote this whole rebuttal and posted it. Even his conservative friends said [to him], “you asshole, don’t you know Clickhole is a joke site? How could you possibly cite that?” And everybody jumped all over him. He resigned his position from the newspaper. It’s an interesting story. He resigned his position but he still has his conservative talk show on radio, but he resigned his position because the forces against him … people who had respect for him previously just lost all respect for him.

CITA: Did you title your rebuttal “So-and-So is a Real Horse’s Clickhole”?

NT: No … when I’m being right, I don’t need to name-call. I just said “oh, by the way, you said I’m a real horse’s astrophysicist—I see what you did there!” complimenting him for his wordplay. I don’t mind being called a horse’s ass if I actually did something to justify it. But everything he listed, I never did. I don’t mind being somebody’s horse’s ass, but let it be based in reality and not something you’ve invented. That was the thrust of my reply.

CITA: For a talk like An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper, how do you prepare with such a chaotic, revolving news cycle like the one happening now?

NT: Oh, so I will go back. It’s not like this week’s news. More broadly, it’s news stories that triggered thoughts I have that I thought you might be interested in and my reaction to it. I go back several years for some of these news stories, but if I came back and did the talk again I’d have fresh news. I will go back maybe three or four years and have stories that you probably missed, but I dug them out and kept them. They’ll have something to do with science literacy or the absence of science literacy in the world. So, it will sensitize you about what it is like to read the paper through the lens of an astrophysicist and an educator.

CITA: Great, that clears that up. Look, we can’t wait to see you soon.

NT: Tell everybody thanks for having me back again.

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson appears Thursday, Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Morsani Hall. Need tickets? Get them while you can.

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