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.

The Wild Style of Japanese Hip-Hop

About ten years after the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx, the art form found its way to Japan when young Japanese artists encountered the music and saw breakdancing in New York, taking what they saw back to Japan.

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Wild Style is regarded as the first hip hop motion picture.

In 1983, the film Wild Style, a seminal hip-hop documentary capturing the four pillars of the culture (graffiti, breaking, emceeing and DJing), screened in Tokyo. The kids who saw the film—though few—lost it, immediately embracing the colorful, unfettered, athletic expression of triumphing outside of a social system of conformity, illusion and oppression. A young man named Hideaki Ishi saw the film, and, in a matter of time, the world would come to know him as DJ Krush. DJ Krush, Toshio Nakanishi and Hiroshi Fujuwara are mostly credited with establishing hip-hop in Japan after Wild Style and during trips to New York in the early 80s.

As it did in the United States, hip-hop exploded in Japan, especially in the Harajuku neighborhood, ushering in a new generation of baggy-clothes-wearing, rapping, blinged-out kids speaking truth to power and exploring this urban, urgent expression of creativity.

“Many people assume that Japan is too ethnically homogeneous to provide a meaningful home for hip-hop,” said Dr. Ian Condry, a professor of Japanese culture at MIT who wrote Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, via email with us.

“When I began my research in the mid-nineties for what eventually became my book, many Japanese elites in the recording, radio and music magazine industries expressed similar doubts that young Japanese emcees would ever succeed,” Condry explained. “However, in nightclubs throughout Japan, local hip-hop artists proved that the seeming homogeneity of Japan in fact disguised deep-seated divergences among economic opportunity, gender inequalities, and even racial discrimination — for example, against Korean-Japanese and so-called ‘outcaste’ groups who continue to be stigmatized. In the end, hip-hop in Japan developed in the local language and taught local audiences about new ways of thinking about how to ‘represent’ one’s ‘hood, battle for one’s posse and speak in thoughtful, entertaining ways about struggles that people of all stripes in Japan face.”

Since certain breakdancing moves borrowed from Asian martial arts moves, b-boying (breakdancing) was already somewhat recognizable in Japan. Breaking took off as the first major influence of African-American hip-hop. Japanese b-boys and b-girls got really good, really fast.

For a look at b-boys in Japan now, here’s a compilation of Issei, who won the Red Bull BC One in 2016:

Emceeing and rapping caught on after breaking and DJing, and really extraordinary graffiti once lined the Yokohama Graffiti Wall, which, sadly, was painted gray in 2010 by the Japanese government.

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Photo from the Yokohama Graffiti Wall. (flickr: DiscoWeasel)

Want to check out current Japanese political rappers? “You might consider Anarchy and Shingo Nishinari,” said Dr. Condry. “For women, try Rumi, Miss Monday, Co-machi, and Hime.”

The influence of Japanese hip-hop conveys in the upcoming performance of SIRO-A in Ferguson Hall on Oct. 19. SIRO-A merges dance crew moves with technology and DJing to create a multi-media, special effects spectacle. Want a sneak peek? Check it out:

The Thief and His Thief-Taker General

The unbelievable true crime story behind the swinging jazz standard “Mack the Knife.”

Once upon a time, there was a five-foot-four London folk hero who inspired John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which inspired Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which contained the song “Mack the Knife,” which became a snappy lounge tune for jazz bopper Bobby Darin.

This is the true tale of Jack Sheppard, born into poverty in 1702 in Spitalfields, England. Sent to work at six years old after his father died, Sheppard lived with a new master, Jonathan Kneebone, who eventually apprenticed Jack to a carpenter when Jack became a teenager, and life was good. For a time.

As fate would have it, Sheppard fell in with a charismatic, strapping yet morally suspect woman, Elizabeth Lyon, who was known about the neighborhood as Edgworth Bess for her propensity to liberate objects from their owners, including money for carnal knowledge that she possessed.

She introduced Sheppard, a young man of 21, to the vices of the London underbelly at the Black Lion, a local tavern. Quickly, Sheppard discovered he liked the Black Lion and Elizabeth more than carpentry, and in 1724, he made a life-changing (and, as you will discover, dear reader, a life-ending) decision to forego his upstanding path as a carpenter for a life as a petty thief and an escapologist of remarkable talent.

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Sketch of Jack Sheppard in Newgate Prison shortly before his execution, attributed to Sir James Thornhill.

Elizabeth introduced Jack to Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, a well-known thief. With his new associates, Jack began pilfering, earning a reputation as one of the city’s notable housebreakers.

After stealing spoons from Charing Cross, Jack landed in prison in February 1724. Tying strips of his bedsheets together, Jack escaped after breaking a hole in the roof and lowering himself to freedom. This stunt garnered public attention and admiration after people learned that Sheppard got away scot-free by standing amongst them, pointing at a rooftop and shouting “Look! There he is!”

A few months passed, yet Jack was caught pickpocketing in May 1724 and was thrown into a more substantial prison. Elizabeth visited him, was arrested herself and locked in the cell with Jack. As man-and-wife, they were moved to a new prison. Friends sneaked in a few small tools, allowing Jack to saw through the manacles. With a 25-foot drop to the ground, Jack needed more than his bedsheets, so Elizabeth gave her petticoat to the cause. Unfortunately, the 25-foot drop was into another prison yard. Jack drove spikes into the wall, the two climbed over and fled into the city.

If Jack’s exploits sound like make-believe, wait until you read about the next escapes.

A bigger problem for Jack arrived in the form of the self-appointed “Thief-Taker General,” Jonathan Wild. Wild was an utterly contemptible criminal who’d fashioned himself as a champion of the people by configuring an elaborate robbery scheme whereby he magically “found” people’s stolen property and scooped up all of the reward money. He could find all of their goods because his gang of thieves stole them in the first place. Wild ran the London thieves’ underground from the police station, and he pretty much ran the police department. He had the press wrapped around his finger. No one could rat him out or he’d cry “thief” and have the person hanged without trial. It was a good gig for Wild until he decided that nabbing Jack Sheppard would be his coup de grace. But he had to find Jack first.

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A book illustration of Jonathan Wild by Charles Knight.

Wild found Elizabeth, made nice and got her drunk, wherein she divulged Jack’s whereabouts. Wild’s goons apprehended Jack, threw him in Newgate Prison, and the court sentenced him to hang.

By now, everyone knew Jack Sheppard. Public opinion of the law and the upper class turned sour, especially as the disparities in treatment between the rich and poor became glaringly obvious. Jack was low-born, clever, unstoppable, heroically in love and handsome. No one actually wanted him to pay for his crimes. They wanted him to outfox the authorities forever. Suddenly, Jack was the champion of the people, not the smug Thief-Taker General.

Elizabeth, smarting from her betrayal, gathered another one of Jack’s paramours, Poll Maggot, and the two conspired to help Jack from his latest predicament. They smuggled him a nightgown. After loosening a bar on his cell window, Jack squeezed through the bars into a hallway, donned the nightgown, walked unrecognized across the reception area and out the main door. He escaped Newgate Prison with Elizabeth and Poll only hours before his gallows bell tolled. News of this flagrant escape spread like fire. People cheered him as the Hero of London.

Wild hated it. He managed to capture Jack again, this time chaining him to the floor with handcuffs. In October 1724, Sheppard somehow unshackled himself, broke open the padlocks on six separate prison doors and shimmied up the chimney to the rooftop. Once there, he realized he forgot his trademark sheet. So, he returned to his cell, grabbed his sheet, shimmied back to the roof through the chimney, then lowered himself to a neighboring house before spiriting into the night.

Just the day before, in a confounding turn of events, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake found himself against Jonathan Wild in court. Wild, still considered the law, gave damning testimony about Blake, who was sentenced to hang. Enraged, Blake drew a blade, slashing Wild’s throat. Chaos ensued, authorities rushed Wild to the hospital.

Jack burgled a final time and was apprehended, drunk, in a tavern wearing the clothes he’d purloined. Carted to the maximum-security room in Newgate Prison, Jack was chained to the floor under 300 pounds of irons. Prison guards charged four shillings for a glimpse of the great Jack Sheppard, raking in mountains of money.

CRIME/JACK SHEPPARD

“The Last Scene” engraved by George Cruikshank in 1839 to illustrate William Harrison Ainsworth’s serialised novel, Jack Sheppard.

In November, Blueskin Blake hanged, and five days later, the gallows cart trundled to Tyburn Hill for the execution of Jack Sheppard. Reports say 200,000 people followed Jack to his hanging, with women throwing flowers and men fighting for the chance to shake his hand. Jack Sheppard died, well-admired, on November 16, 1724, nine months after the start of his life of crime.

And Wild? Well, he recovered physically, but his reputation was never the same. Despised, Wild fell from favor, his gang of thieves turning evidence on him one by one. Tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Wild met the gallows at Tyburn Hill six months after Jack Sheppard. There was also a large crowd that day, but no one clamored to shake Wild’s hand.

The courts banished Elizabeth Lyon to America, a fitting place for prostitutes and moral degenerates, though her story is lost after she arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, shortly after Jack’s death.

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Portrayal of Macheath and Peachum in Jobsite Theater’s upcoming version of The Threepenny Opera.

The impassioned tale of Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Elizabeth Lyon captured the public’s imagination. Only four years after Jack hanged, John Gay composed The Beggar’s Opera, with the main characters of Macheath and Peachum inspired by Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild respectively.

In 1928, Brecht and Weill remade Gay’s work into the ribald THE THREEPENNY OPERA, adding, at the very last minute, an intro number for Macheath called “Mack the Knife.”

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Original poster for The Threepenny Opera from Berlin, 1928.

Though Macheath is a psychopathic interpretation of the Jack Sheppard legend, “Mack the Knife,” took on a life of its own, becoming a hit for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and most memorably in its lounge-worthy Bobby Darin rendition.

If you want to hear “Mack the Knife” and see what Macheath and Peachum are up to, catch up with Jobsite Theater as they perform The Threepenny Opera, Oct. 18 – Nov. 12, in the Jaeb Theater.

 

Stage Magic

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opens on Broadway on April 22, 2018. But if you want tickets, you must register first (here’s why). Online registration opens this Sunday, Oct. 1.

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The cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo: Charlie Gray)

One of the most enduring cultural phenomena of our time is the wizarding world conjured up by British author J.K. Rowling. From the best-selling novels to the blockbuster movies to the beloved theme park attraction, Hogwarts, Hogsmeade and the delightful crew of quirky Quidditch-loving characters have captured our hearts, minds and pocketbooks.

As fine purveyors of the performing arts, we are happy to see the eighth installment of the Harry Potter series apparates not on the pages of a book but on the stages of London and New York (and, accio!, on stages all over the world like, say, here—keep the summoning spells happening, Potterfans.) In 2016, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child premiered on London’s West End, transporting audiences to Rowling’s magic world where Harry has a desk job, Hermione is Minister of Magic, Ron owns a shop on Diagon Alley and their children carry the legacy of the fateful turn of events that culminated in the Battle of Hogwarts. But the story isn’t about our favorite trio—not this time. This time, we’re taken on an adventure with Harry and Ginny’s second son, Albus Potter, and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy. Yes: Malfoy.

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Harry’s son, Albus, and his new friend, Scorpius Malfoy. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

What’s it going to be like seeing the Potters, Weasleys and company playing out this epic tale of Albus Severus Potter in real time? Well, if the nine 2017 Olivier Awards the show won after its London premier are any indication, we’re gonna go with bloody brilliant, mate. The Lyric Theater in New York, where the show opens this spring, invested in a complete remodeling to accommodate the specifics of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. If that’s not confidence in the return-on-investment, we don’t know what is.

Rowling conceived of the story with John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. Thorne wrote the manuscript, and when all was said and done, the tale—like the books—wove in and out of an epic battle of cause-and-effect so tremendous that the whole show is broken into two parts, à la The Deathly Hallows. Both parts run more than two hours with patrons buying consecutive shows, either seeing both parts on the same day or on two consecutive nights.

Without giving too much away, the story takes place 19 years after the final scene in The Deathly Hallows, with Harry and Ginny sending their son Albus Severus off to Hogwarts as a first year. Albus meets one Scorpius Malfoy, and they become buds after the surprise sorting of Albus into Slytherin. To boot, something funky is afoot as Harry’s lightning scar starts a-tingling again after almost 20 years of stillness since the Battle of Hogwarts. The events surrounding the untimely death of Cedric Diggory are involved, as is a Time Turner and the rather realistic, humdrum adult lives of Harry, Hermione and Ron. The father-son tension between Harry and Albus sparks Albus’s rash decision to send their lives into another (unknown at the time, of course) headlong plunge into the plans of He Who Must Not Be Named.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Emma Watson as she described seeing the show and how she felt watching another actor portray Hermione as a full-grown adult:

Since we’re more likely to get tickets to Hamilton than the Cursed Child, we’re happy that the first installment of the Potter empire, The Sorcerer’s Stone, arrives in movie-with-live-music form this weekend at The Straz. The Florida Orchestra plays the score live as we watch the movie, which should be a most wonderful experience in honor of the Potter tales morphing from page to stage.

Predictably, The Sorcerer’s Stone shows are almost sold out, but if you want to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone during the Saturday matinee, there are a few seats available.

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Ten Million Five Hundred Twelve Thousand Minutes

The original cast of RENT twenty years later … where are they now?

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The original Broadway cast of RENT. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The raw yet elegantly composed story of young people scrabbling to make their dreams come true in an AIDS-rattled New York City shadowed by a growing moral hypocrisy from the political establishment, RENT resonated with Generation X. A young composer, a young cast, a new style of musical designed to capture a new disillusionment about the American Dream re-energized the Broadway musical scene.

The Hamilton of its time, RENT spurred an obsessed fandom of “RENTers” or “RENT-heads” to camp overnight for a shot at $20 tickets to the original Broadway show. The original cast, then comprised of young, unknown talents who toiled in rehearsals uncertain of whether the show was any good, became overnight sensations once RENT became the toast of the town in 1996.

Original cast members included Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Anthony Rapp and Jesse L. Martin at the start of their careers. Now that RENT enters its 20th anniversary tour and stops by The Straz Sept. 19-24, we thought we’d look at where the original cast is now.

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Adam Pascal as Shakespeare in Something Rotten! (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Adam Pascal (Roger)
Life after RENT: starred in Cabaret, Chicago, Memphis, Aida, Disaster! and more.
Now: Cast as William Shakespeare in 2016’s Something Rotten!, Pascal teamed up with RENT co-star Anthony Rapp in 2017 for a series of concerts about the musical.

 

If/Then

Anthony Rapp & Jackie Burns in IF/THEN. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Anthony Rapp (Mark)
Life after RENT: starred in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and several films including A Beautiful Mind.
Now: Rapp appeared at the Straz Center last year in If/Then, a musical he also starred in on Broadway with his RENT co-star Idina Menzel.

 

Idina Menzel (Maureen)
Life after RENT: Well, Elphaba in Wicked and belter of “Let It Go” as Elsa in Frozen.
Now: Menzel just wrapped up a world tour and continues to work with A Broader Way, an organization to support arts education for girl in urban communities, which she founded with her RENT co-star Taye Diggs.

 

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Taye Diggs on Empire. (Photo: Instagram @tayediggsinsta)

Taye Diggs (Benny)
Life after RENT: became a household name after starring in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, appearing frequently on television shows (Will & Grace, Grey’s Anatomy, Rosewood, Murder in the First).
Now: Diggs just wrapped three films in 2017 and is most recognized for his role as Angelo Dubois on Empire.

 

Jesse L Martin

Jesse L. Martin is known for playing detectives on TV. (Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW)

Jesse L. Martin (Tom)
Life after RENT: maintained a very successful career in television, most notably for his role as Ed Green on Law & Order.
Now: Martin portrays Detective Joe West on the television series The Flash. He has been cast as Marvin Gaye in the film Sexual Healing though the film is currently stalled.

 

Portrait of a mature african woman

Fredi Walker (Joanne)
Life after RENT: appeared in musicals including The Lion King (Rafiki) and The Buddy Holly Story.
Now: Walker teaches voice at Long Island University and New York University.

 

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Wilson Jermaine Heredia performing at the 23rd Annual ROCKERS ON BROADWAY concert in 2016. (Photo: BroadwayWorld.com)

Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel)
Life after RENT: took a short hiatus from the limelight before staying under the radar in a series of titillating B movies.
Now: Heredia just wrapped the comedy feature film The Rainbow Bridge Motel.

 

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Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi)
Life after RENT: continued a Broadway and music career, appearing in Les Miserables, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the Tampa-based drama Anna in the Tropics while writing and recording albums.
Now: Rubin-Vega lives in Panama with her husband and child and occasionally performs in public art shows.

Celluloid Dreams

An in-depth convo with Straz Center Senior Director of Marketing, Summer Bohnenkamp, who directs her fifth production with Jobsite Theater – this season’s opener, The Flick.

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Summer Bohnenkamp directs Jobsite Theater’s season opener, The Flick. (Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Jobsite Theater, almost 19 years into its illustrious reputation as one of the strongest regional theater companies in Florida and beginning their 13th as resident theater company of the Straz Center, earned their reputation by putting up challenging, edgy, sometimes cerebral, often hysterical, intermittently campy theater works designed to be politically and socially relevant. The company keeps the definitions of “political” and “social” loose on purpose: Jobsite prides itself on its blue-collar work ethic while keeping a watchful eye on the systems of power and relationships, always ready to mount the kind of winning assessment of both that good theater dramatizes.

This season opens with Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Flick, a play that captures quintessential Jobsite at its best: a simple set, a small cast of exquisitely drawn workaday characters, and a tiny little premise that symbolizes the entire degradation of moral authenticity that has become our modern life. It’s a play about people cleaning an old movie house.

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A peek at the set for The Flick during tech rehearsal.

“The story is about three people who are lost,” says The Flick’s director, Summer Bohnenkamp. “They work in the last indie movie house in Massachusetts that plays real film, not digital. It has a projector you have to load and everything. All the action takes place either before or after a film, and there they are in the theater talking, cleaning the theater, figuring out who they are. In a way, it reminds me of [the movie] Empire Records. It’s the same kind of idea.”

Bohnenkamp herself started similarly, selling tickets in the ticket office at The Straz, then working her way to senior management in marketing. By day, she handles the massive needs of overseeing the marketing of hundreds of performances – everything from networking and buying media to writing institutional marketing plans and providing voice-overs for television ads. Her abiding love of theater keeps her with one foot in the show, one foot in the business as she balances her life between the corporate pressures of arts marketing and the creative outlet of bringing excellent scripts to life as an actor and a director.

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy, who plays the projectionist Rose in The Flick, posing with the projector used in the play.

“It’s cool to make something,” she says. “When I direct or act, I get to make something, and I don’t really ‘make’ other things. I don’t cook well; I’m not crafty. But, theater is something I can make that is good. It’s lasting. Hopefully, the audience and actors get something out of it, too. There are elements of trust and family that get created through the process of making a play that are very rewarding. Theater is a living, breathing thing that is never the same twice. It’s better than any therapy or exercise I can think of.”

Bohnenkamp’s other directorial achievements with Jobsite most recently includes their award-winning production of Time Stands Still. Prior to that she co-directed Annapurna and served as an associate director for reasons to be pretty and All New People. With The Flick, Bohnenkamp returns to her favorite style of script, a stripped-down, dialogue-driven, naturalistic look at people and motivations in situations we can all recognize.

reel cases from Tampa Theatre

These reel cases used in the show were lent to us by Tampa Theatre.

“I like plays that are real people talking. We’ve heard these people, we’ve eavesdropped on people just like the characters in this play. We know them. All the shows I’ve done have been about regular, recognizable people, and it’s interesting to delve into that level of realness when, in actuality, you’re creating something totally false. The three characters in The Flick have some very interesting quirks,” she says. “The dialogue reveals all the major surprises. These people who seem obvious have secrets and important stories. It’s very funny.”

From auditions, Bohnenkamp pulled three actors who can capture the subtle depth of the characters and deliver the complexity of the subtext in Baker’s script. “Brian Shea plays ‘Sam,’ the manager, and he killed it right off the page. He does neuroses so well, which is required for Sam. ‘Rose,’ the projectionist, is played by Georgia Mallory Guy, who can do anything. She came into the audition and gave off exactly what I was envisioning for Rose. We have Thomas Morgan playing ‘Avery,’ the young one of the bunch and the central character. Thomas knows who Avery is, and he had a well-defined character even in the auditions. It’s a good room,” she says, referring to a well-known theater term for having a cast that is positive and hard-working. “This is going to be a fantastic show.”

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy pictured with director Summer Bohnenkamp (top left), stage manager Vivian Rodriguez (top right), actor Thomas Morgan (bottom left), and actor Brian Shea (bottom right).

The Flick runs in the Shimberg Playhouse from Aug. 30 until Sept. 24. Get your tickets at strazcenter.org.

Live and Local

The Straz Center brings “think globally, act locally” to the performing arts.

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Live and Local artists performing at the Straz Center’s Open House.

If you’ve been around The Straz for the past few years, you’ve noticed the changes transforming our outdoor spaces to places meant for getting together, enjoying some cool art, having conversations and making the most of our primo waterfront property. We are blessed with one of the greatest downtown locations, so it makes sense that people would come here to relax, catch a sunset, enjoy some food and drinks and take in the creative vibes.

One of the best ways to soak in these spoils is to stop by on the weekend for Live and Local.

This free performance series presents a local musician in the Jaeb Courtyard, our magical outdoor play space complete with twinkle lights and café seating for supreme al fresco chill time.

The man in charge of Live and Local is Joel Lisi, who is himself something of a magical experience, as many longtime Tampanians recognize him as the guitarist for the jazz power instrumental trio Beanstalk and the jazz improv group Ghetto Love Sugar.

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Joel Lisi performing with Beanstalk.

“This is really cool, man, you know,” he says about booking acts for the stage and growing the series from year to year. “There used to be a metallic statue in the courtyard, maybe it belonged to the city and the city took it back, but it was gone, and all we had was landscaping rocks and this round rotundo space. We had to get some entertainment in for an event that weekend and we thought, ‘hey, there’s this weird rock space. Let’s put someone there.’ Because of my music background, I was asked to find someone. So, I called a friend, and we had him perform where the statue used to be.”

While gathered at the event that night, Lisi and a few Straz execs realized they were onto something. “We saw how the trees create this half-dome orchestra shell over the stage, and we were like ‘wow—this is the perfect outdoor music space’,” Lisi says. They began to strategize, thinking it would be cool to host a free performance before a weekend Broadway show (but pay the performer, of course). Some Straz patrons noted that the season programming lacked local artists, so this new space seemed to be a perfect solution.

“Roberto DeBourg—he’s known as Chachi—was our first musician. This was before SteamHeat Café or any of our plans for that space had fleshed out. But, we tried it before a Saturday night Broadway show, and it worked,” Lisi says. “That was the birth and it’s grown from there. Now, The Cube [featuring Broadway-themed graffiti art by Eric Hornsby] is there—and SteamHeat [the coffee shop serving local Buddy Brew roasts]. Everybody wants to hang out there. We went from six performances the first season to 20 this year. So, Live and Local is about exposing people to local culture, to local artists. It’s nice to make a connection to the local scene when you’re a big performing arts center.”

Motown cube

Eric Hornsby painting The Cube before Motown The Musical arrived earlier this month. Check out more of his art on Instagram: @artist_esh

The Live and Local series still coincides mostly with the Saturday Broadway show, but artists perform before the Sunday opera matinee and before certain other big shows like Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Lisi curates the pairings, making sure the Live and Local act meshes with the tone of the main stage show. “I try to theme it, so yeah, there would be someone like Greg West, a rock guy, before a show like American Idiot, and Francesca Ani, this crazy-talented 17-year-old singer-songwriter who just won a big radio contest, before Nutcracker. It’s taken on a life of its own, and we’ve even been able to get some of our Live and Local artists to open for big touring acts playing The Straz.”

Check out this clip of Francesca performing at the Straz Center Open House in 2016:

Always on the lookout for solid Live and Local talent, Lisi keeps a generous spirit about getting Tampa Bay artists on the stage. “Yes, I always need people. I’ve been in a restaurant and some guy in the corner is killing it, and I’ll approach him and ask if he wants to perform. I’ll take suggestions, too.”

If you want to be considered as a Live and Local artist, send an email to joel.lisi@strazcenter.org with relevant details and where you are in the Tampa Bay area (gotta keep it local, folks).

If you want to know the lineup this season, we should have the bulk of it on the website by the end of August. For now, bookmark us and check back regularly. Here’s our Live and Local page.

“The bottom line,” Lisi says, “is that it’s just fun. You can come early for your show and hang out, not have to fight traffic. You can enjoy some live entertainment outside with your friends and just have a good time. That’s what it’s all about.”