IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII Love a Parade!

This year, Macy’s hosts its 91st Thanksgiving Day parade. With all the costumes, singing, dancing, choreography, floating sets and music, a parade represents an oft-overlooked cousin in the performing arts family.

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Theater and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes (left) worked on float designs for some of the early Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades. His modernist eye created work-of-art-caliber floats, including Cinderella’s Coach, 1926. (right).

Human beings and parading have a long love affair, from early uses in rites of passage to military victories to funeral processions to the American modern spectaculars like Mardi Gras and, happening this Thursday, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

In the United States, we parade for holidays, gay pride, soldiers, soldiers who died in combat, giant football competitions like the Rose Bowl, to mark our independence from Britain and to celebrate a newly elected president, mayor or sheriff. If you travel around small-town America, you’ll find as many local festivals as there are small towns and a parade that goes with it. (Chicken Festival, Strawberry Festival, Cow Chip Festival, Festival of Trees, PumpkinFest, GeckoFest … the list goes on.)

Some of the great American parades developed as off-shoots of a bigger parade. For example, take a look at the Mardi Gras Indians. Deprived access to permits because of racism, the New Orleanians of African descent created their own parading organization, ranking structure and processional guidelines. As a show of respect to the native tribes in Louisiana who sheltered enslaved Africans and brought them into their communities, this band of African-Americans in New Orleans named themselves the Mardi Gras Indians.

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They formed tribes instead of krewes and relied on the cultural knowledge of West African and Native American beadwork to construct unbelievably intricate beaded “suits” for the parades as well as gathering the requisite brass band and showing off in processional dancing. Though the origins included (often mortal) fighting to settle scores, eventually the sheer magnitude of artistic ability to create the elaborate Mardi Gras Indians suits (called “masking”) gained national attention. One of our favorite New Orleanians in this tradition is Ronald Lewis who curates and directs The House of Dance and Feathers, a Mardi Gras Indian museum in a trailer on the back of his property in the Ninth Ward.

Here, Ronald talks about the time and effort required to make an Indian suit, and you can catch a glimpse of a few Mardi Gras Indian parades in the footage as well:

Though Mardi Gras and the Mardi Gras Indians specialize in the New Orleans-style brass band, most parades follow suit with marching bands. This Thanksgiving, Macy’s parade features 12 marching bands from around the country as well as performances from celebrities (Gwen Stefani opens the parade this year with “White Christmas,” which we find ironic), Broadway stars (like Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr, who performed at The Straz this past summer) and seven dance troupes. The spectacle of Macy’s parade is, of course, the enormous balloons which make this parade so unique.

From a theatrical standpoint, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade represents a mobile multi-faceted show complete with the “wild-card” variable of navigating an enormous helium balloon. This year’s floating Pillsbury Doughboy is large enough to make four million crescent rolls. That’s a lot to handle.

We speak for many Gen X-ers who cherish the 1997 Thanksgiving Day parade in which Barney the Dinosaur was impaled by a Times Square street lamp during surprise wind gusts and died spectacularly on 51st St. Symbolic as it was culturally, Barney’s death would probably make a great documentary featuring interviews with the unfortunate souls tasked with handling the careening character. Quelle horreur!

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Parades, especially for joyful holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, capture the youthful insouciance of performing arts: it’s fun for fun’s sake. We can laugh, clap, ooh and ahh, be entertained and fawn over favorite characters and performers for no other reason than to enjoy the moment.

Delight for delight’s sake.

We can be grateful for that.

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This year’s parade starts at 9 a.m. EST, broadcast live on NBC. Keep your eyes peeled for performances from casts of four Broadway blockbusters, Dear Evan Hansen, Anastasia, SpongeBob SquarePants and Once on This Island. Florida’s own Flo Rida (get it?) stars on the Krazy Glue float, “Fun House.”

 

The Man Behind the Mission

Governor and former Tampa mayor Bob Martinez on growing up Tampanian, the creation of The Straz and what it meant for the growth of Tampa.

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Construction of Festival Hall, now Carol Morsani Hall.

With Caribbean blue eyes, an easy smile and a rambling drawl that flows through stories of Tampa history like the Hillsborough River ambles through this vast county, Robert “Bob” Martinez makes for an enchanting conversationalist on the subject of The Straz and what Tampa was like all those many years before it housed a world-class performing arts center.

This season, we celebrate 30 years of The Straz. As part of this celebration, we are gathering stories, “the million little stories that make up who we are,” and we decided that we might as well start at the beginning – with Bob Martinez.

Martinez’s grandparents came to Tampa from Spain, mingling with the other immigrant cultures of Ybor City and West Tampa – Italians, Cubans and Germans – and, like those new Americans, Martinez’s grandparents joined the mutual aid societies of the area.

“I grew up here, and we belonged to Centro Español. For twenty-five cents or fifty cents a week for your whole family, you had hospital care, a clubhouse, doctors, a cemetery. It really was care from birth to death,” Martinez recounts from the penthouse conference room in the Regions Bank building where, though in his 80s, he works as a senior policy advisor for Holland & Knight, LLP. From this bird’s-eye view, the swooping lines of the deep blue Hillsborough Bay hug the sprawling cluster of white and terra cotta rooftops. Like exotic hot air balloons, railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant’s Moorish minarets spring skyward, an opulent reminder of Tampa’s first renaissance, now on the campus of University of Tampa, home to the Bob Martinez Athletic Center. This view looks like it does now mostly because of Martinez’s mayoral agenda in the early ’80s, the second renaissance for Tampa.

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Robert “Bob” Martinez.

As worker-centered social clubs, the mutual aid societies came to represent the hard-working and community-centered ethos that would dominate Tampa until the abrupt socio-economic changes of the mid-20th century. Part of the vital fabric of the mutual aid societies was culture. “I went to live productions all the time,” Martinez says. “We had live talent [at the mutual aid societies], and I was taken to all the shows at five and six years old even though I probably fidgeted through most of them.”

In school, Martinez worked on the grade plays – 6th, 9th and senior year – as crew. “I wasn’t a participant. They were mostly musicals.” (He confided later to a singing ability so bad he won’t even attempt to exercise it in the shower or car. However, he’s a crackerjack dancer.)

Dirt roads led in and out of his neighborhood, near where Raymond James Stadium sits today. To get to any excitement, you had to board a streetcar that would click and clack to the action: downtown. “In the ’40s and ’50s, the entertainment center was Downtown Tampa,” he recalls. “Movie houses, hotels. All the hotels had restaurants and live entertainment. I dated my future wife, Mary Jane Marino, at every movie house in Downtown Tampa. Downtown was the core, and that probably stuck in my mind. All the streetcars led to downtown – that’s impressionable to someone young, as I was then. I probably got it in my mind that anything that would happen for Tampa would happen downtown.”

By the 1970s, Martinez, who had been a much-loved high school teacher, bought Café Sevilla, a Spanish restaurant with a reputation for attracting a who’s-who from business, politics and entertainment. “If any famous actors were in town filming a movie, somebody would bring them by Café Sevilla,” Martinez says. “We had Ricardo Montalban, Vikki Carr, Fernando Lamas.” People knew Bob Martinez, and a month after he took over the restaurant, then-Governor Reubin Askew called Martinez to serve on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The call jump-started Martinez’s political life, and, in 1979, he announced his mayoral bid. The major focus of his platform?

“I announced I wanted to build a performing arts center. Downtown.”

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Photo of downtown Tampa before the Straz Center was built.

Martinez, who would later advance to Governor of Florida and eventually serve as Drug Czar under President George H. W. Bush, saw that the Downtown Tampa of his youth had stagnated, mired in random industrialization and unable to revitalize after the cigar industry collapsed. “In July of ’79, I released three white papers, the first one explaining how job creation and economic development were tied to the performing arts center. You see, in order to attract new businesses, the CEOs and their spouses would need something to do, a reason to want to be here. They wouldn’t want to come to a place with limited culture. That’s how I sold it. I tied it to economic development. Nobody was going to come here without some kind of culture.”

At a candidate forum on Davis Islands, Martinez openly spoke about his vision for Tampa and how that vision depended on 1) a performing arts center and 2) everybody’s buy-in. “I explained that bringing a performing arts center to Tampa allowed middle-class people and others to enjoy Broadway and other shows. For a lot of people, it would be the first time in their lives. But it was more than that. A performing arts center would give children who were arts-oriented a chance to develop their strengths and talents. Children who were arts-oriented ought to have the same opportunities to develop those talents as children who have athletic talent, and we had Little League fields all over the county.”

The idea took. The daily papers supported the platform, and Martinez received almost zero push-back on the proposal – impressive, considering it carried a multi-million-dollar price tag that taxpayers, would, in part, cover. He won the 1979 election.

“As soon as I was elected, I gathered a task force to figure out how to build one [a performing arts center]. I called H.L. Culbreath, who was a good friend and customer at the restaurant, and I wanted him to chair the task force. We compiled a list of names, H.L. made the calls, and we had it.”

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The groundbreaking for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the Straz Center.

Martinez and the performing arts center task force faced a formidable challenge: how to raise the funds. “This had never been done in Tampa before, raising that much money,” Martinez says. The $15 million he thought would cover the one-hall center was a far cry from the 25-cents-a-week price tag of the mutual aid societies. But, the community spirit was still there, carried on the wind from the remaining shells of cigar factories lining West Tampa and Ybor City. “We realized, though, that if people were going to have to give, it should be to a non-profit organization, not the local government,” Martinez remembers, “so the city doesn’t run it, but the non-profit does.”

The design phases of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (renamed the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2009) proved challenging, with a few hiccups along the way but no major bumps in the road. The biggest problem – if you could call it that – was that everyone involved with the concept and construction wanted the best of the best. “The biggest surprise in the whole project was how big it ended up being,” he laughs. “I thought it would be one hall – not two or three or four! But, H.L. kept saying ‘I think we need to add this … ’ and it just sort of grew. The people on the committee were all local business and community leaders, we were doing this for our community, for the growth of Tampa, and a lot of the people involved in the construction were local. We wanted to do it right.” The total costs far exceeded Martinez’s initial thoughts, but the community commitment and business leadership followed through to the end, when the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened for business in 1987.

The success of The Straz’s public-private partnerships set the standard of business for what Martinez calls “a community ticket facility.” “It’s the best model,” he says. “We used the same non-profit concept we established for the performing arts center for the zoo and all the museums with ticket sales.”

Many people don’t know that, before the plans for The Straz began in earnest, a group of “baseball enthusiasts” courted Martinez over lunch to build a pro baseball stadium instead of the performing arts center. Martinez enjoyed his meal, thanked the enthusiasts and said no. “I ran on building a performing arts center, not a baseball stadium. I had to keep my promise.” Martinez, himself a baseball talent who passed on a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to get married and attend college, saw that the zeitgeist for Tampa’s second renaissance would be in the arts.

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Grand opening celebration of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in 1987. (Photo: Cliff McBride)

“If, for some reason the performing arts center hadn’t materialized, it would have been first a denial to the young people who needed arts education. Second, it would have been a denial to people who can’t afford to go to Broadway. It would have had an adverse impact on recruiting business. A performing arts center showed that we were a growing, sophisticated community,” Martinez says. “If we hadn’t built the Straz Center, Tampa wouldn’t have seen growth of the same magnitude.”

An unintended outcome of building a performing arts center as a juggernaut of metropolitan growth was the effect The Straz’s success had on subsequent projects. “Building a performing arts center opened the citizens of Tampa Bay’s pocketbooks for other organizations. The zoo, the history center … once you invest, you’re an advocate. You have skin in the game,” he says. “As you can see, I’m real proud of our community.”

Martinez left Tampa for several years to follow his political trajectory – which, incidentally, led to a parallel side-job related to the performing arts. He landed a walk-on role as a customs officer in the James Bond film License to Kill after meeting with producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who invited him to the set in Key West. Broccoli later allowed Martinez to use pre-release screenings of the film to raise funds for a children’s organ transplant foundation. Martinez then got a speaking part on a “drugs and go-fast boats” pilot for a television movie called Thunder Boat Row but it didn’t get picked up.

Despite the fact that he has both an IMDb (Internet Movie Database) listing and a former place in the Presidential Cabinet, Martinez returned home, to the place of his cherished memories, his grandkids and to the bustling city poised on the next renaissance. In his spare time, he works towards efforts to restore and renovate Centro Español, the mutual aid society building of his youth. But, he is not riding on nostalgia.

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“The future looks wonderful. For a city our size to have two sports teams, arena football and all of our cultural institutions with hardly any corporate headquarters … that’s one great story to tell about the Tampa people. That they wanted these things for themselves. To me, it’s an incredible story,” he says. “And what we have at the Straz Center is second to none.”

Bob Martinez gambled on the economic savvy of relying on the performing arts to drive growth – and won. This incredible story started simply enough, with a teacher-turned-restaurateur who knew that the power of culture could transform a town into an international destination.

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.

Practice Makes Perfect, Performing Makes Professionals

The importance of recitals in arts education

Summer at the Straz Center means a windfall of students leaping, singing, tapping, tuning, rehearsing, running lines and taking selfies with beloved teachers in our many, many (many, many) summer camps and classes. We enjoy the nonstop energy all year long at The Straz, but the exuberance of everyone here for our summer arts education programs makes life sizzle with excitement on every floor of our performing arts school, the Patel Conservatory.

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Summer campers from Musical Theater Camp: Dancing with Props pose for a quick photo during rehearsal for their end of the week showcase, 2017.

A big part of our arts education curriculum involves a performance component—after all, we must put the “perform” in performing arts. We thought we’d take a closer look at an aspect of performing arts training that often goes unexamined: the recital.

Why do it? Are recitals really necessary?

“A recital gives us a place to share with an audience,” says Patel Conservatory Music Department Chair Lauren Murray. “In music, we have a ‘triangle’ of artistic collaboration: the composer, the performer who interprets the composer’s work and the audience. The recital allows for all those collaborators to come together in one place.”

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Private voice student performing in the Honors Recital, spring 2017. (Photo: Soho Images)

Recitals also provide a legitimate training ground for professional artistic development, and, ideally, the performance executed in a recital marks a new stage in the artist’s study of her craft. “When you study privately,” says Kavanaugh Gillespie, a voice specialist at the Patel Conservatory, “you are only performing for your instructor. The recital puts you out there in front of strangers, under the lights and in a new space. It is a different and exciting atmosphere. You cannot simulate that environment. Performing as a young musician helped me become more comfortable in front of others—I can credit my comfort in the classroom to performing as a child.”

The dreaded notion of stage fright enters the equation somewhere, as it’s a top fear akin to glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. Similar in nature, stage fright and glossophobia stem from a sense of feeling threatened (perceived ridicule, failure, or ostracism) and trigger the flight-fight-freeze response in the brain. Recitals, especially in a conscientious environment, are a great way for people of all ages to learn to overcome fear and gain invaluable self-confidence in presentations.

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Beginning Dance students performing in their first recital, spring 2017. (Photos: Soho Images)

“Many people, especially when they first start performing publicly, are nervous or worry about what people will think about them personally and their playing, that the audience will judge them harshly in some way,” says Murray. “Recitals can be stressful if the performer isn’t prepared or ready for public performance. As an instructor, it’s my job to make sure I’m sending my students into an environment that’s healthy and positive, and that they are prepared. Once they’ve performed live, it’s a bit addictive, and they’re ready to do it again! As time progresses, the fear of personal ‘failure’ becomes less, transforming into a hope that the audience will like or understand or enjoy the music you’re performing. I try to get my students to transfer the concern from themselves (“what if they don’t like me”) to the audience (“I love this piece, and I want them to love it, too”).”

“Overcoming and managing stage fright can be a challenge,” says theater instructor Audrey Seigler. “Building confidence through practice is a great way to work through feelings of stress and ‘butterflies.’ Committing to a goal and working hard to achieve that goal is the core behind all recitals and performances. It’s life lessons: teamwork, pursuing goals, self-discipline, humility. Learning to manage nerves is necessary to reach one’s true potential, and practice with performing is a great way to figure out how to handle your nerves.”

“The more you perform,” Murray adds, “the positive experiences begin to replace the negative scenarios your brain invents.”

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Students from Showstoppers, Jr – Thunder Mountain Revue performing at the end of their two-week summer camp, 2017.

Even if students do not pursue professional artistic careers, recitals and public performances build a critical professional skill set.

“The long- and medium-term preparation students put into performance all the way from the beginning stages of play and early technique to the weeks or months that might go into a particular performance help develop the sense of pride and a higher level of attention to detail that translates well to nearly any aspect of life—in any discipline,” says Dr. Catherine Michelsen, string specialist with the Patel Conservatory.

“We study and take lessons to get better,” says Murray. “Our performances are places where we experience the joy of our hard work. And, if we, as teachers, are doing our jobs well, the students want to perform in a recital or live in some way, to share that joy.”

Did you know that Patel Conservatory recitals are usually open to the public? Often free of charge, our recitals are a great opportunity for community members to play their part as the collaborators of the artistic triangle. Come be in the audience! Our performances are listed on the Patel Conservatory web page.

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

Old Soul Storytelling Hour

The Art of the Cabaret Singer

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A poster advertising a tour of the Le Chat Noir’s troupe of cabaret entertainers. (Théophile Steinlen, 1896)

In Parisian cafes after the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s, discontent grew. People were sick of social repression, war and constraints to expression. Artists, writers and other interesting people gathered to speak freely, often sharing their art with each other in small cafés. Eventually, these small gatherings became formal clubs. France, the first European country to give voting rights to all males, buzzed with a sense of equality, and perhaps the most alive with this bohemian restlessness was the city of Montmartre. Creative types flocked to its streets, and artists began to dismantle the notion of art as inaccessible fancies for aristocrats. They sought to create some art form crashing high-brow and low-brow together into something new.

From these efforts, Montmartre produced the most famous cabaret of all time – Le Chat Noir, “The Black Cat,” in 1881, named after the eponymous short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. In this small space, singing met spoofs met skits met shadow play in a low-cost hotbed of provocative entertainment. Cabaret was unpredictable, it was immediate, and, most importantly, it was fun.

Cabaret spread to Germany quickly, and by the 1900s, Germans managed to incorporate the traditional, unobjectionable variety show with experimental, avant-garde work, although they eschewed the risqué aesthetic of the Parisian cabarets with its nudity and casual profanity. World War I brought American jazz and African-Americans to German cabarets with legendary trailblazer Josephine Baker performing her cabaret revue in Germany in 1926.

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Josephine Baker performing at the Folies-Bergère, Paris. (Walery, 1926)

This cultural blending across European borders eventually traversed the Atlantic to the United States where cabaret began to take hold in the Prohibition speakeasies where anything goes and everything went. Chicago and New York boasted the most vibrant cabaret scenes, with an electrifying racial mixing of dancers, musicians, Mafiosos, working class, poets, writers and the socially adventurous who sought to defy (or at least taunt) the strict separation of races, classes and mores of the day. In this liminal space, Billie Holiday debuted her haunting, classic exposé of white supremacy, Strange Fruit, at Café Society, a cabaret in Greenwich Village. This moment, a raw, unflinching, terrifying expression of honesty not just for Billie Holiday but for the audience, captures the great essence of the cabaret singer: a public performance of a private moment, the sense of a shared experience with a trusted friend, a story told in song. Often these rough emotional moments were followed by a rollicking number, and this structure of ups and downs, sentimentality balanced with humor, remains the winning combination for a solid cabaret show.

According to Katherine Anne Yachinich’s thesis The Culture and Music of American Cabaret, “The word ‘cabaret’ stems from the French cambret, cameret, or camberete, for wine cellar, tavern, or small room, but ultimately comes from the Latin camera, for chamber.” Today, 134 years after Le Chat Noir opened its doors in Montmartre, cabaret remains largely defined by the fact that it happens in a small space though what happens in that small space may be rather loosely interpreted by the artists performing within it.

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The 2016 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET, which comes to Tampa Jan. 24-29. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For the cabaret singer, opposed to song-and-dance numbers, puppetry or burlesque shows, which often also fall into the cabaret category, the art form relies on the intimacy of the chamber, his or her ability to make a performance space feel as comfortable as a living room. Cabaret coach Anita Hall said in an interview with writer Rita Kohn that “people [who] are drawn to cabaret are old souls. I’ve shared my stage with children who can phrase and swing better than entertainers that have been at it for decades. You either have it or you don’t.”

The cabaret singer’s challenge is one of balance: the subtle interplay of patter (talking or storytelling between numbers) and song choice, the correct push-and-pull of tension between him or herself and the audience, of measuring honesty and anecdote, of dancing around instead of delivering a theme.

Cabaret, unlike many performing arts, refuses to construct the fourth wall – the accepted, invisible barrier between the stage action and the audience – which means that the audience has access to the singer’s vulnerabilities. By its nature, since it was created to build community and expression, cabaret demands the flow of intimacy between the performer and the audience. Any good cabaret act knows how to take an audience to its edge and back again.

A great act convinces everyone to jump off the edge with them. In fact, they make it sound like fun.

 

What Is Up With Not Sitting Down

A humorous look at the rise of the standing ovation … guess this is just what we do now.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet directed by Matthew Warchus, Plácido Domingo in a solo concert of arias, the premiere of Neil Simon’s Rumors, the launch of Broadway’s Footloose, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Firebird with *the* Virginia Johnson as Firebird – this recognizable, mostly legendary list (sorry, Footloose, you weren’t legendary, but we still liked you) shares an interesting feature: not a single one ended with a standing ovation. We know because we were there.

These were fantastic shows—amazing, jaw-dropping, soul-igniting performances, all hitting the boards in the late 90’s and all worthy of sitting ovations. Standing ovations happened during rare, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. They signified an honoring of the highest possible achievement. An artist or performance had to surpass perfection.

Twenty years ago we didn’t stand for Sir Ian McKellen (a.k.a. Gandalf, Magneto) in a one-man Beckett play, but today we jump to our feet as soon as the third place winner from American Idol finishes a set of radio cover songs. Nowadays, attend any performance from the meh to the miraculous and it matters not: the audience stands, ovating, some even walking and clapping to get to the parking lot before everybody else.

What’s changed over the years? Is it the end-of-show equivalent of an A for effort? Is it, as some psychologists have argued, our attempt to justify paying for a live experience now that we’re spoiled by so much free online entertainment? Or maybe that same online entertainment is such rubbish we leap in gratitude by seeing decent art? Perhaps we are just more enthusiastic supporters of performing arts than our possibly more stiff-shirted predecessors.

We attempted researching this change, starting with the history of the standing ovation, yet we found no clear answers. The most interesting factoid, though, traced back to Roman times. After war, any leader who racked up the most impressive battle victories returned to Rome for his “triumph,” a parade celebrating his clear victories and spoils. The guy who came in second-place for battle greatness earned an “ovation,” a parade acknowledging he did alright out there and deserved props for whatever destruction, pillaging and land usurpation he wrested by force. A sheep (“ovis” in Latin) died in bloody sacrifice to his win, thus the origin of “ovation.”

What we did, find, however, were some very clear, hilariously vicious opinions penned by theater critics here and abroad scorching the now common practice of standing to clap at the end of a show.

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Ben Brantley, the well-known theater critic at The New York Times, wrote an urgent call for the return of the sitting ovation after he witnessed the audience staying seated *gasp* for a perfectly good Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 2012. “Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions whose zookeeper has arrived with a bucket of fish,” he wrote in his column “Theater Talkback: Against Ovation Inflation.” His argument, snarky as it is, ends with noting that “staying seated has become the exceptional tribute.”

London, England’s theater critics mince no pies about who is to blame for this moral deterioration (Broadway—a notable scapegoat for moral deterioration). They make Brantley look p.c. in their direct seat-shaming over the normalizing of the “s.o.”—a “curse,” as critic Michael Henderson noted in The Telegraph, and “an unwanted tradition spreading from America,” as if the s.o. is an STD (socially transmitted disease). Michael Billington, a British critic from The Guardian, likewise points his blame finger across the pond: “I am all for spontaneous enthusiasm but the standing ovation is a filthy American habit that I think should be discouraged.”

Henderson explains that Britons, proud of their ability to curb the need to overly-reward actors, reputedly did not stand for Laurence Olivier, except upon the notification of his death in 1989, which Dustin Hoffman delivered to an audience in attendance of The Merchant of Venice. At this point, Hoffman muttered that the only way to get a standing ovation in England was “to f—ing die.” Henderson, whose article “The Curse of the Standing Ovation,” claims “it is … a gesture of self-reward … this canker in our theatre-going is also rooted in a narcissism that has spread through all parts of life. …Me, me, me. It’s all about me.” Sitting still, sitting quietly, he concludes, reflect the “old virtues,” a time before all this “blubbing and cheering, like stroppy teenagers.”

For Billington, the infection of the American need to present the s.o. to everything evokes probing issues of identity. “What’s come over us?” he asks in his 2008 theater blog “The Standing Ovation is a Filthy American Habit.” “Is it a result of rising ticket prices, the touchy-feely society in which emotions have to be displayed, or simply a product of a show-off culture in which you have to prove you can ovate more noisily than your neighbour? The argument against the standing ovation is simple. If you do it for virtually everything, it soon becomes valueless.”

The Brits are great at a cutting remark, but former St. Paul critic Dominic Papatola once quipped that “Minnesotans would give a standing ovation to a Schwan’s truck.” Ouch. We hope the beloved audiences in MN aren’t bleeders. Later, though, Papatola came clean about his feelings as he aged and had a little perspective. In the Duluth News Tribune, he said “now it’s not one of those things I can really let myself get worked up about . . . Mainly I am grateful that there are people in the audience at all.”

Mostly likely, we’re in an evolution of response. We don’t snap like the old Greco-Roman or Beat days. Maybe the standing ovation is returning to its Roman origins and is acknowledgement of a job well done, a hearty thank-you for participating in something not many others do.

If so, sitting for the performers at the curtain becomes what? A triumph?