A Director of Production Services TELLS ALL!

The performing arts are big business. In this industry, we have a lot of super important jobs for people who love the theater but who may have no interest in performing professionally. This week, we sat down with Gerard Siegler, Straz Center director of production services, who plays a huge part in making sure the shows work and the forty-billionteen details of a live performance have been handled.

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Gerard Siegler, director of production services for The Straz.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: What are production services? What do you do? Take us through a typical day in the life.

GERARD SIEGLER: Sure … there’s no typical day. The gist of my job and the job of any production manager is to deal with all the backstage needs. This would be the technical elements like making sure that we have equipment that shows need. Sometimes it means getting hospitality, booking hotel rooms, booking transportation, either to or from the airport and even sometimes air flights and things like that.

It’s a wide range of duties, sometimes it’s as simple as a speaker needing a microphone or AV equipment all the way to Broadway shows—making sure that their set is going to fit within our space and making sure we have the equipment they need.

CITA: How does this work? Let’s say we book The Phantom of the Opera, and you get the memo that Phantom is coming. Then what happens on your end?

GS: Sure. Every touring show has what we call a “rider.” A rider is basically a bible of what the show comes with, what labor they need, meaning stagehand labor—that’s something else we’re in charge of—what equipment they bring, and then what equipment they need. It also specifies how long it takes to load in a show, how long the show is. The riders are sometimes so in depth it goes into what kind of candle an actor needs for their dressing room.

When Phantom is put into the books, one of the production managers is assigned to the show. They go through the rider, make sure that we can accommodate everything that the show needs. What we can’t accommodate, we either supplement or we can redirect them to what we have and then come up with alternatives—if it’s a smaller rental. If they’re adamant about, “I need this amp for my guitar.” Then we will rent stuff if we don’t have it.

That production manager will work through the show. Normally the advance happens anywhere between a month to three months out, depending on how large the show is.

For Broadway shows, it normally takes about anywhere between 10 and 16 hours to load in a show. Most Broadway shows load in Monday, and we have our first performance on Tuesday. They’ll load in the entire show, they’ll do soundcheck, and then they load out … The production manager is usually the first person in and the last person to go. My typical day when I’m doing a show starts around 7:00 a.m. and gets done at 1:00 a.m. the next day.

CITA: You do that for four days in a row?

GS: Yeah, four days in a row. The Broadway shows are one of the easier shows to do. Morsani Hall is considered a roadhouse. A roadhouse means that we have most of the things that happen within Morsani, so it’s self-contained. For example, Phantom comes with everything they’re going to need. Broadway shows, for the most part, come with everything they need besides a few little odds and ends. They tend to be the easy ones. It’s the rentals, and the one-offs, and the concerts that sometimes end up being the most difficult for us.

CITA: Why is that? It seems like you’ve got a concert, you just get a mic, you plug in a sound system, you’re good to go.

GS [laughs]: It’s typically not like that. For instance, some of the smaller concerts just bring the artist and the artist’s guitar, and we supply everything else. What you see on stage is maybe 20% of the actual equipment it takes to run the concert. All you really see are the back line, the piano, the drums, a monitor … but to get all of that to work, it takes a while to load in.

Your dance shows even take longer sometimes, so your modern dance shows, like MOMIX, are very light[ing] heavy. We load in their lighting before they even show up. The day before they come in, we’ll have crew on that will set their lighting which is something that’s dictated by the show. MOMIX sends us a rider with a lighting plot, and we set the lighting plot even before they arrive. Sometimes what is a two-hour show takes three days to put together.

 

This is what the stage in Morsani Hall looked like when Wicked was loading in, 2017.

CITA: Right. A lot of what creates the magic and creates the illusion of theater is what production and costuming does. It’s the stuff that the audience doesn’t have to think about consciously. They can absorb lighting and music subconsciously and feel the feelings that they create. The catch-22 for you all is that nobody knows if you’re doing a good job unless you do a bad job.

GS: Exactly. We don’t get compliments, we get criticism. The only time you actually know we’re there is when something goes wrong.

CITA: Alright readers, so that means our production staff needs more compliments when you see a good show. When you see Gerard around, tell him that he did a good job. So Gerard, how did you end up here? First of all, tell us how long you’ve been at the Straz and then how does somebody get involved in theater production?

GS: I’ve been at the Straz … April was nine years. I started with the Patel Conservatory. I was one of their production people then moved over as a production manager to The Straz about five years ago. Last June, I became the director of production services.

I started out as an actor. I did theater in high school and performed on Ferguson Stage as a thespian. When I moved to college, I started a theater track for acting and needed a part time job, so I started doing work in the college tech shop. My technical director at the time took me under his wing and said, “You can make a whole career out of just doing this.” My sophomore year, I changed directions and did more technical theater.

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Gerard Siegler hangs lights for Blake H.S.’s production of FAME.

CITA: Were you at USF?

GS: No, I went to Flagler College in St. Augustine.

CITA: Did you find that you enjoyed the technical side more than you did the acting side?

GS: I did. I could see the product progression more, and that satisfied me more. But it’s more pressure because, like I said, you do one wrong thing and it makes or breaks a show. For me, though, building the set, running sound, running lights, putting all that together, that really interested me.

CITA: And then you got a degree in theatrical production?

GS: Yeah.

CITA: Then what happened to you?

GS: After Flagler, I went to the Shawnee Playhouse in the Poconos for summer stock. I was the assistant technical director. One of my friends who graduated with me, we both decided that since we were already in Pennsylvania, we should move to New York City for a year. That’s what I did. I moved to New York for a year, did some odd jobs, picked up some theater stuff here and there, and then moved back to the Tampa Bay area to get married. My wife, who is in the theater department at the Patel, said “Why don’t you just come out and be a summer intern for Patel?” The day before I came in for my interview for the summer internship, the technical production person for Patel had put in his one month notice that he was leaving.

CITA: Whoa!

GS: I was hired for that position, and that was my start.

CITA: And the rest is history.

GS: Exactly.

CITA: Okay, so here you are, and you’ve been doing this for a while. You got seasoned out there in the world on your career trajectory. Do you still get nervous before a show goes up? Do you ever have feelings of, “Oh my gosh, I hope nothing goes wrong. I hope we did the lighting just right, I hope—”

GS: I get nervous the morning or the night before, thinking “What did I miss? What is going to go wrong?” Really, all it takes is for one little thing to go wrong and it can throw the whole day, especially when you’re dealing with different personalities. I’m dealing with local stagehands anywhere from … Three is normally our smallest crew, to some Broadway shows where you’re looking at 75-80 labor hands. Not to mention the actual tour, they’ve come with their own staff. So there’s always that sense of “What did I miss? What happened? What’s going to happen?” [laughs] It doesn’t matter how much pre-planning you do. When you get here and you get on the grounds, half the time the plan gets thrown out the window within the first 30 minutes.

CITA: Show business can get a little frustrating sometimes.

GS: As for the show itself, the only time I get nervous is when we’re falling behind. With The Straz being as well-known as we are, we sometimes get the first stop on tours. Once, a Broadway show had issues with their automation track. The floor that you see for Broadway shows, sometimes it’s painted elaborately, and that’s not actually our stage. It’s another deck that gets put on the stage. Sometimes they have what’s called an “automation track,” which is grooves within the stage that moves the furniture on and off.

For this show, we’re the first stop. Five minutes before I was supposed to open up the house and have the audience come in, their automation track broke. This is opening night of the first show of this new Broadway tour. I have to hold opening the house until we can get the track fixed because if we don’t get it fixed then the effect doesn’t work. That was nerve-wracking.

CITA: Did you get the automation track fixed in time for the show?

GS: Yeah. We were 20 minutes late opening up the house. We have a great usher staff and front of house staff that helped with the audience. We started only five minutes later than we would normally start.

CITA: We love these behind-the-scenes stories because it’s the show that people don’t see. It’s the high drama, the high tension of getting it to go flawlessly, or start on time. When you have all of these moving pieces in live theater, you don’t get a do over. Is that kind of excitement what drives you as part of technical production?

GS: I get my most joy from show to show. If you’re an actor touring, doing the same role for a year and a half, you’re doing the same role for a year and a half. Whereas, within a year and a half as a production manager, or the director of production services, I’m in charge of a couple hundred shows a year. I have a team, so it’s myself and there are three other production managers. Between the four of us, we are in charge of all the theaters except TECO theater.

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Gerard Siegler works shows from all genres which includes being backstage with one of the dinosaurs from Erth’s Dinosaur Petting Zoo.

CITA: Which is almost unbelievable, that a staff that small can do that many shows. Because we don’t book shows in just the theaters. We’ve got Live and Local, we’ve got Straz Live in the Park, we’ve got Fourth Friday. We have so many other events that are happening outside of the theaters, too, that just the four of you make happen.

GS: Yeah. It’s not just the shows themselves. For instance, opera has two performances that they do, but the average opera takes anywhere between two to three weeks on the physical stage to go through. You’ve got a week of loading in the set and lighting and a week of tech rehearsals. Then you have two performances, and then you load it all out in one day and you’re on to the next one. That to me is what gets me going. It always changes. Hamilton is going to be here for four weeks this season. At each show there will be some new challenge that pops up, whether it’s, “My costume ripped” or “We ruined a costume.” Or, “The washing machine went out.” You’re always on your toes.

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Close-up view of a sound board.

CITA: For people who want to be in the theater but not on stage, how do they get to where you are?

GS: I started in high school. I was one of three boys in my high school theater department, so I did a lot of stuff onstage, but I also did a lot of tech prep work. I helped with the sets, helped with the lights, even though I didn’t think about it as a career until college. If you really, really, really want to get a job nowadays behind the scenes, you either become an audio engineer or something with video. Those are the two things that are not going anywhere right now. We’re always looking for someone in audio, visual and lights. You have to be very good at what you do because as much as the actors are onstage doing their best, sometimes we’re the ones that break the performance because mics are popping.

CITA: Or you make the performance flawless.

GS: Exactly. Yes.

CITA: We have classes in technical theater here, right? Workshops for students?

GS: Yes. Patel has a stage management class and we’re going to try to work with them this year to make a technical theater class that deals with a little bit of everything. I give tours all the time to college and high school groups, especially that are technical theater oriented to come. They look at our stage; they can go into the booths.

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Inspiring the next generation of production managers, Gerard and his son Maddon on Carol Morsani Hall stage.

CITA: That’s cool.

GS: They go up to the fly rail—10 stories up. CJ Marshall, who’s our director of operations, has really tried to spearhead getting younger people interested in technical theater because when you go to a high school program, you get 30 kids who want to be actors and maybe two or three who want to work back behind the scenes. We’re trying to invest in the future.

CITA: That’s fantastic. Do you love your job?

GS: I do love it. Like I said, it’s a new thing every day. It always keeps me on my toes. This summer we’re updating and renovating a lot of our old equipment. We’re excited in the production department. We’re taking on a lot, especially with the next season almost here. It’s always fun.

testing the new hearing system at Paw Patrol

A family affair – Audrey Siegler, Patel Conservatory theater department managing director and Gerard’s wife, with their daughter Ellie, Gerard and son Maddon. Gerard is testing the new assisted listening system while the family enjoys Paw Patrol.

Bloody Hell, Mate

British Actors and Why We Love Them

Is it the accent? Perhaps some Stockholm Syndrome-like attachment to the crown? Aristocracy nostalgia?

Probably the accent.

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Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s The Crown.

But that doesn’t explain Charlie Chaplin, now does it? Or British siren Vivien Leigh, who played both Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, iconic (and Southern) American characters straight from our literary canon.

Today, look at another American not-so-literary canon, comic books, and many of the major superheroes — Spider-Man, Batman (the Christian Bale version), Superman, Doctor Strange, and of course, Professor X — reveal U.K. actors under the masks and capes of these good ol’American crusaders.

So, we love them without the accent. But with it?

We really love them.

Cast members of Downton Abbey read a scene from the show using American accents on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Laurence Olivier, Julie Andrews, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggi Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig, Hugh Grant, Idris Elba, the entire cast of the Harry Potter franchise … We can argue we accept their colonization of our Hollywood empire based on the number of British actors taking over major film roles, especially in recent years. (Though not everyone loves this change, especially as uniquely American stories, like 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln and Selma starred British actors and the upcoming roles of Steve Jobs, Ernest Hemingway and Herman Melville will all go to Englishmen).

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Another reason — outside of the accent — that Americans love British actors nestles in the subconscious appreciation of artistic craft. British actors train in theater (there’s a reason why we jokingly refer to the “THEA-tah” when we talk about stage acting) and screen techniques, and American actors who studied craft are often penned into Strasberg or Meisner molds. Critics of acting craft often cite that a Briton’s flexibility in a role ties back to learning how to physically and vocally master Shakespeare and Noel Coward, so balancing the absurdities of superhero popcorn films with seriousness of intent works well for someone who has classical training and a lifetime of watching American TV and films. Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s joke-theory, which is that British actors aren’t better, “they’re just cheaper than we are.”

So, going back to the source — British actors doing theater — we arrive at the pinnacle of audience experience. We get the execution of master craft delivered by that accent. (Would we love Benedict Cumberbatch as much if he talked like he was from Tarpon Springs or Carbondale, Ill.? Hm. Yes. We probably would.)

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If you’re someone who loves British actors doing theater, remember that our National Theatre Live series continues with Game of Thrones’ Salladhor Saan actor Lucian Msamati playing Mozart in Amadeus. Then you can see a passel of British actors (with some Yanks thrown in for good measure) tackle American epic Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2.

Finding the Art in Nature

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The Callanish Stones on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. (This photo of Callanish Standing Stones is courtesy of TripAdvisor.)

Art and the performing arts are, at their basic level, a means of creating community and expressing our understanding of the world and ourselves. They have been interwoven with our natural world since human beings evolved to make art – our unique language of creativity that has incredible power.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, evidence for both visual arts and performing arts dates to roughly 40,000 years ago, although, quite unexpectedly, in separate parts of the world. The Stone Age cave paintings of Sulawesi in Indonesia and the bone-carved flutes found in Europe emerged concurrently. Both early artifacts record humans’ reflection in and use of nature. Nature inspired our artistic abilities, encouraging our creative minds to flourish in painting, sculpture, music and dance. Humans used art to honor animals, sacred places and celestial events. We then applied our talents to ceremony and ritual, inextricably weaving our self-expression to nature and to the heavens.

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Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are among the oldest of their kind. (Photo: Maxime Aubert/Griffith University/Australia)

Not much has changed for many artists who still draw inspiration from nature and use natural themes and materials to communicate their ideas and impressions of our world. Today, the National Park Service includes an artists-in-residence program, encouraging the continuation of humanity’s vital artistic interaction with the natural world. From Isadora Duncan’s early modern dance work in nature to Asadata Dafora’s 1932 landmark Awassa Astrige/Ostrich dance that introduced traditional African nature dances to American audiences, choreographers have drawn on natural phenomena to explore dimensions of the human experience. Nature herself provided humans with a built-in instrument, the voice, which scientists argue was our first experiment with music-making some 530,000 years ago.

But, over the past few thousand years, humanity’s relationship to nature drastically changed our environment and our way of thinking about it. Art is how we see life, so as growing concerns over clean water, loss of species, climate change, natural resources and overdevelopment affect our future, many artists responded by offering art and the performing arts as part of global discussions on such concerns.

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Photo: Straz Center Instagram (@strazcenter)

In 2008, artists and scientists gathered in Europe and Asia as part of the Connect2Culture Initiative to begin talks about the intersections of art and sustainability and how the arts and performing arts can create a new way of thinking about the natural world. Around the United States, universities are offering classes in arts and the environment, and new fields of study—such as dance ecology and music ecology—specifically deal with bodies and sounds as they relate to nature. Students of these artistic-ecological meldings produce exquisite examinations of movement and sound that delight audiences and uphold humanity’s artistic origins.

Our own backyard is chock-full of people unearthing the primal visceral power of art and nature to connect us to each other, ourselves and our world. In November 2014, St. Petersburg hosted Blue Ocean, a film festival and conservation summit, and the Springs Eternal Project in Gainesville creates partnerships between advocates, artists, scientists and researchers to inspire Floridians to revere and protect our fragile springs water systems. Kuumba Drummers and Dancers, Tampa’s only African dance ensemble, continues Dafora’s work in preserving traditional folkloric African dances used to communicate between performers, audience and aspects of nature.

Attendant to the performing arts’ ability to unite with science to help propel humanity into new perspectives is the basic, fundamental power of nature’s own artistry to heal the human heart and mind. In Florida, we are privileged to experience the choreography of flight in a flock of white ibis by doing nothing more than heading to the nearest body of water. We can go further in the Florida wilderness to witness the terrific symphony of bull alligators bellowing during mating season. In our backyards, we have the great belching chorus of frogs and toads that so enriches the dramatics of a sky full of stars.

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Photo: Daffodil’s Photo Blog

We, too, flock to the beaches, congregate on riverbanks and witness, every year, a great migration of human beings to the Sunshine State. Why? Because, deep within us, lies our undeniable connection to the beat of life. We participate in the art of nature whether we know it or not, and we draw together in the many expressions of our artistic celebration of living on this earth. There are tracings of many human hands surrounding a prehistoric deer on a cave wall in Sulawesi to prove it.

Building Instrumental

 

A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

 The Straz Center invited Los Angeles-based performance ensemble String Theory to turn the riverside corner of Morsani Hall into a working harp with 200-foot strings. This original, site-specific Fin Harp is on display with demonstrations through May 3.

Look closely at the design of the newly-installed wooden harp on the river side of Morsani’s lobby, and you may recognize the shape. Inspired by certain loveable and highly-intelligent marine mammals, Luke Rothschild, one of the founding members of the multi-genre performance group String Theory, designed this harp specifically as an outdoor art/music installation for the Straz Center.

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

“I knew we wanted to incorporate the Riverwalk and more community engaging work here at the center,” says Straz Center Director of Programming Chrissy Hall. “I’d met the agent for String Theory at a convention, so I asked about the possibility of an outdoor long term installment. The agent put me in direct contact with Luke, and we worked on coming up with a concept that would work out in the elements.”

“I’ve been spending a lot of time surfing, and the shape for the soundboard kind of emerged naturally,” says Luke.

His creation, the Fin Harp, takes its curvilinear shape from the dorsal fin of dolphins—perfect for this time of year in Tampa when dolphins and their calves feed in the Hillsborough River. The harp, comprised of cherry wood, red oak, maple, black walnut and shellacked like mad with boat varnish, can withstand the afternoon rains and soaring mid-day spring temperatures.

 

Stages of the Harp: Sketch, Mock Up, In-Progress, Finished

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FIN HARP one_life size mock up

 

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Installation began at 10:30 a.m. on March 31st as a team effort between String Theory members and The Straz facilities department. Using several ladders and a fair amount of derring-do, the teams secured the 14 brass strings to the Straz Center roof, running them the 200 feet to the instrument bolted to a platform on the grass below. They completed the installation about 4 p.m. that afternoon.

Logistics

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photo by jeremy scott photography

strings to Straz

photo by jeremy scott photography

Outside of the time, financial and logistical constraints of creating a unique, outdoor instrument, another challenge altogether was how to get the Fin Harp on the plane from Los Angeles to Tampa. “The harp needed to be able to come apart and fit into a very specific size keyboard case approved by TSA,” says Luke. “The base of the harp is in 10 pieces and is quite different from what I thought it would be, different from any other design I’ve done before for other harps. So, the soundboard fits into one 88 note keyboard case, the base breaks down and fits into another identical case. The brass wire, tuning blocks and tools go in a rolling case.” Voila! Ready for travel.

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The harp is played by stroking or plucking the strings with rosin-coated gloves which provide the “tooth” (grip) to create a compression wave—a vibration—which resonates in the soundboard.

During the reception, patrons tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

Patrons also tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

When our time is up to have this incredible instrument, the Fin Harp will return to Luke at the String Theory headquarters in California to be used in future performance installations. The Fin Harp is on display through Riverfest, May 3, and will return to California on May 4.

Many thanks to Luke Rothschild for the use of his personal photographs, except where noted, and his help with behind-the-scenes info for this blog.

To see a free demonstration of the harp and to hear this unique instrument, see the schedule below:

Fin Harp Demo Schedule

April 17- 7pm-9pm (before and during the intermission for Pippin)

April 18- 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 19 – 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 23 – 6:30pm-8pm (before Mythbusters)

April 24- 7pm-8:30pm (before TFO Pops concert)

April 25- 6:30pm-8pm (before Celtic Woman)

April 26- 3pm-4:30pm (before Tampa Bay Symphony)

May 1- 7pm-8:30pm (before Florida Orchestra)

May2- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest

May 3- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest

 

This Conversation Just Got Started: Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni and ONE DROP OF LOVE

Fanshen Cox: One Drop of Love

 

Teacher, performer, writer Fanshen Cox performs her show, ONE DROP OF LOVE, produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Teacher, performer, writer Fanshen Cox performs her show, ONE DROP OF LOVE, produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni.

 

The performing arts have the ability to entertain, but more significantly, they provide a creative medium to challenge barriers and create a voice of civilized resistance to ideas and social systems. The performing arts question, explore, excite new ideas and, in many artists’ hopes, inspire more meaningful dialogue. Participating in the performing arts, either as audience members or as performers, allows society to see itself reflected in the mirror of the stage and, assessing that image, determine whether or not we can and should—or will—change. The performing arts are a simple vehicle to elevate the species if we choose to employ them to help us reach out to one another and express our anger and grief, joy and triumphs.

It is no small feat of courage to put one’s self on display for others, to volunteer to be the mirror, but such people are necessary to keep a society vital and grounded in the practice of emotional honesty, which is very hard to come by and, for some people, even harder to hear or watch. New voices, new ideas and new performers who bring to light troubling realities of race, power dynamics, belief systems and social evolution are often rejected and scorned for showing us what we would rather not confront. Other times, however, their courage is embraced, applauded and encouraged to go forth to more people in more communities spreading, as it were, one drop of love at a time.

This week we welcome teacher, writer and performing artist Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni whose one-woman show, One Drop of Love, tackles themes of racial identity, love, community and attempting conversation despite all obvious awkwardness. It’s funny, it’s real and we asked Fanshen if we could re-post her original blog about how and why she created the show, which is produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni. She agreed, and we reposted her blog below:

 

Fanshen performs multiple roles. Here, as a Census Worker in the 1970s.

 

It is an exciting time to be an actor, when the notion of ‘performance’ is taking on new meanings and has the potential to change the way we view the art form. Traditional definitions of ‘performance’ include the act of staging or presenting a play; a rendering of a dramatic role. Now scholar/activists like Judith Butler are exploring a new definition of performance, or ‘performativity‘–looking at how we use language and behavior to construct identity.

 In my solo show, One Drop of Love, I get to meld these two understandings of performance. I am an actor who portrays several different characters: my Jamaican/Pan-Africanist father, my Blackfeet-Cherokee-Danish mother, candy and fruit vendors from East and West Africa, Census Workers from the 1790s to the present, racist cops from Cambridge, MA and many others. At the same time, in taking on these roles, I explore the construction of ‘racial’ identity, and how these identities are created through speech and acts – as opposed to genetics or physical appearance.

 In 2006 I was going to marry the man of my dreams, and all I had left to do was call my father and ask him to walk me down the aisle. The thought of this call filled me with angst. I hadn’t witnessed my father interact in positive ways with ‘white’ people since my parents’ divorce in 1977.  The man I would eventually marry (much to my own surprise) is European.  After weeks of stewing, I finally convinced myself that this thing called ‘race’ was not going to get in the way of my joy. I made the call. And then my father did not attend our wedding.

One Drop of Love begins here and then journeys through time and space to examine the constructs and behaviors and speech acts that led to this moment. In the end, my father and I reach some sense of reconciliation, but questions about the influence of the one-drop rule, and how it affects our – and society’s – relationship to ‘race’ remain for me, my father, and the audience to continue to ponder. I know how privileged I am to be able to perform (in both senses of the word), and I plan to utilize that privilege to encourage complex conversations about ‘race’ and racism and use my chosen art form to create change.

The Ghost Light

People have asked us why, in theater, we leave a single cage light center stage when everyone goes home for the night. The answer is obvious:  to appease the ghosts, of course.

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The ghost light watches over Morsani Hall after everyone goes home.

 

We all know there’s no business like show business, and the old joke goes that actors don’t retire; they die. However, even death can’t keep some actors off stage, and superstition holds that every theater has its ghosts – some more active than others.

Judy Garland still appears at the Palace Theater on Broadway, for example, by the special entrance the theater constructed for her during her last performance there, and stage workers across the country report opening a theater to find mysteriously rearranged set pieces, things that go missing and reappear in odd places, apparitions, voices, strange laughter.

It is hard to get rid of the theater bug, even for those who should be walking into the light instead of tap dancing underneath it. Thus: the ghost light, a solitary pole light that has a metal cage around its incandescent bulb, placed downstage center when a theater is not in use.

In a business that competes only with sports in its reliance on the practice of superstition, the ghost light stands as a centuries-old tradition that helps illuminate a dark, lonely theater for the ghosts that linger, waiting for their chance to perform. Happy ghost actors are less likely to interfere with a live performance or sabotage an actor by making a sudden appearance before a cue. The last person to leave a theater is responsible for igniting the ghost light; the first person to arrive in the morning extinguishes it. This way, there is never an empty, dark theater, and the specters enjoy another run in the spotlight.

The Straz Center for the Performing Arts has no known ghosts – yet. “We’re not that old,” says Michael Chamoun, director of production services. “No strange occurrences. Unfortunately. But we leave on the ghost light for the same reasons – to appease any ghosts that might be here and give them a chance to perform.”

If a theater is around long enough, eventually tragedy shows its face, usually as a death on stage or the passing of a beloved (or despised) actor or theater worker. In Tampa, the most well-known theater ghost is “Fink,” the former projectionist who remains in the Tampa Theater casting shadows, creeping over new projectionists with the cold chills, or opening doors. “I’ve known a lot of projectionists at Tampa Theater,” Chamoun says, “and they all have the same stories of cold winds and such. We [at the Straz] are only going into our 26th year, so we’re lucky that we don’t have anyone to haunt us.”

Still, the three main stages – Carol Morsani Hall, Ferguson Hall and the Jaeb Theater – all sport ghost lights through the night, for two main reasons. “It’s bad luck if a theater goes dark, so we keep the light on as part of that superstition, but the reality is it’s for safety. People walk where they’re not supposed to, and the light at the end of the stage keeps people from falling off.”

The last reason explains why there is no ghost light in the Shimberg Playhouse or the TECO Theater: these two houses don’t have elevated stages, so there is no threatening precipice. Be certain though, that should the need arise, Chamoun and his electrical staff will supply these theaters with a ghost light if the Straz ever finds itself with a Fink or Casper or Judy Garland of its own.

One suspect legend of the origin of the ghost light states that a burglar stole into a theater at night and fell off the stage into the pit, breaking his leg (there is an acting joke in here somewhere), and later sued the theater—and won—for not providing adequate lighting.  Thus theaters began to leave the ghost light to avoid litigation, although the idea of ghosts holding phantom versions of vaudeville acts at 2 a.m. is more plausible than the Tale of the Litigious Thief.

Another historical speculation about the origin of the ghost light dates to pre-electricity, when theaters were heated with coal-burning gas lamps. The lamps, powered by coal gas generators, would build up gas in the lines and cause them to blow up until someone figured out that burning a lamp during the night prevented gas explosions. However, a live flame in a wood theater overnight did not prevent fire, and hundreds of theaters burned down from 1800 until Edison perfected his electric light bulb.

Somewhere between fact and fiction, fun and function, lies theater. And so it is with the ghost light as well, our solitary beacon through the night promising that, no matter what, and for whom, the show must go on.

Ghost Light A

So far,  our ghost lights seem to be doing all of their jobs. So far.