A Director of Production Services TELLS ALL!

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

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Gerard Siegler, director of production services for The Straz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CITA: Were you at USF?

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

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

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

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

GS: Yeah.

CITA: Then what happened to you?

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

CITA: Whoa!

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

CITA: And the rest is history.

GS: Exactly.

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

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

CITA: Show business can get a little frustrating sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Close-up view of a sound board.

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

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

CITA: Or you make the performance flawless.

GS: Exactly. Yes.

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

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

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

CITA: That’s cool.

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

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

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

testing the new hearing system at Paw Patrol

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

Confessions of a Costumer

The performing arts are big business. In this industry, we have a lot of super important jobs for people who love the theater but who may have no interest in performing. This week, we sat down with Straz Center costumer Camille McClellan, who costumes dance and musical theater productions for the Patel Conservatory, to find out the story.

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Camille working in the costume shop.

Caught in the Act: What does it meant to be a costumer in the performing arts?

Camille: Well, it’s a lot more than just sewing. When you start off on a production, the team gets together and we talk about concept and we talk about, you know, is this a period piece, is it not a period piece? Was it written as a period piece but we’re putting it in modern times? Are they humans that you’re dressing? Is it animals?

Also, budgets are a big thing that most of us don’t think about. We think, oh this is a wonderful creative job, and it is, but you have to do all the administrative stuff, too, and stay within that budget, keeping in mind what you’re spending and what you’ve got to spend.

There is that administrative bit as well as once you start getting into the actual production of the show. You have to decide whether or not you’ve got things in stock that you can use—what you’re going to have to create brand new or what you can repurpose. For instance, we got a bunch of evening dresses donated that just happened to land in the costume shop about six weeks before we were doing Hello, Dolly! So, we took those dresses and repurposed a lot of them for the Harmonia Gardens scene when the ladies are all dressed up and guys are in tailcoats and that sort of thing. If you’re making something brand new, you sit down at the drawing board and do some sketches, and renderings, and then show that to the director to see if that’s what they’re really looking for.

Pretty much any regional theater, or community theater, or academic theater like at Patel, you’re going to be pulling your costumes from all sorts of sources as well as producing some of them.

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Costume for Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.

CITA: So, are you custom making some costumes to fit the Patel kids?

CMc: Some. Yes. For instance, for The Wizard of Oz, I didn’t have a lot of places to pull child-size lead costumes. Or even teenage-size for Glinda, the Lion, the Tin Man, Scarecrow. Usually those are full-sized adults in that show so we had to do a lot of creating. Same thing with Aristocats. It was all children. Third through eighth grade. A lot of that show had to be produced because of the size of the actor. When you’re creating something new, you have to think about making the costumes very alterable so that the next time you need them, you’ve got some length that you can add to them, or you can let a hem down, or side seams that are a little bit bigger and that can be let out so that it can be changed. Typically, you can change the size of a garment by three sizes up or down, and that’s what you need in a theater situation, especially when you’re building stock so that you can use those resources again. You’ve spent money on them. You want to be able to repurpose that, and then repurpose what you’ve repurposed. Or use it on a different-sized cast.

CITA: When people read this blog, we want them to know how much effort and how much labor goes into the costumes that they see in dance and theater. It’s not that a truck rolls up with a pre-packaged show that unloads the sets and costumes, and you’re just darning and altering to fit the size of the students that we have. It’s mostly you working in the costume shop with helpers, right? So when people come and see a Patel show or a Patel ballet performance, they’re looking at original work that’s coming from you in our costume shop.

CMc: It is. For the most part, 80% of the time, yes. There are times that some costumes are rented, and then we have to fit and get those on the stage. A great effort is made to make it look cohesive. But mostly it’s us. For Aristocats, we pretty much built or bought everything. We had to build 34 tails … so then that meant 68 ears. There was a two-week period where that’s all we were doing were building ears and tails.

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CITA: How did you get into this career. Did you know that you wanted to be a costumer in a theater? Did you go to school to study it?

CMc: I did, but it started off when I was six-years-old, and I went to elementary school on a college campus. They had a sliding opera department, this college did. And they needed children to populate the village scenes of the opera. It was for Hansel and Gretel, and they needed kids to be the gingerbread men. And I auditioned. I was on stage for eight years before I ever did anything costuming-wise. But also, at six-years-old, for four generations in my family, you learned how to sew. Both my children know how to sew and were taught at six.

I was raised to sew couture style. Beautifully finished inside and out … you should be able to walk down the street with your garment inside out and nobody knows it because it’s so beautifully finished. I spent many a day at my mother’s elbow just watching her and sewing.

CITA: Was your mom a seamstress?

CMc: No. She was a mom and a secretary. And her mother taught her. My grandmother lived just across the road; she basically took me in one summer and every day we sewed. Both my father’s side of the family and my mother’s side, women at one point or another made their living sewing. Most of it was taking in alterations and things like that in their home. So, the transition for me from being on stage to being a costumer kind of just naturally happened. I went to college for theater and my sophomore year, one of the directors realized that I knew how to sew and asked me if I wanted to design a show. And I said, “Sure.”

CITA: What show was it?

CMc: An opera. Monetti’s sci-fi operetta Help, Help, the Globolinks! We had to come up with aliens. But it was fun. You know, it was like oh my gosh, this is so much fun.

CITA: That put you on the path to become a costumer, and then did you get a degree in costume design?

CMc: Yes. Yeah.

Acteon original design Patel YAGP 2016-17

An original design and construction Camille created for a Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition.

CITA: Then how did you end up in Tampa at the Patel Conservatory?

CMc: Well, I grew up in Alabama. Met my husband at the university there in my home town. He did his graduate work in Dallas, and I moved out there and did some theater work, some costuming, but for the most part since he was in graduate school worked a regular job and kept life going there.

Dallas is important because I got hired to do some finishing work at the Dallas Ballet. They were finishing up Swan Lake, and because I knew how to tailor, I was finishing the men’s costumes for them, the jackets, the decoration of it, the fit of it, that sort of thing.

Then I was hired on for the rest of the season—and that is where I learned how to make a tutu. The woman who taught me how to make tutus was 68 at the time. She had been a professional dancer at The Royal Ballet in London, and then had moved into costuming after that.

I was the first person she ever taught. It’s a guilded craft; you can’t really go to school to learn to make tutus. There are a lot of workshops that are offered out there, but I don’t really think you can learn to make the tutus that I make in a weekend workshop. Just as I learned how to sew from an expert, I learned how to make a tutu from an expert.

And it was a gift, both were gifts to me. If I hadn’t been in Dallas at that moment, I probably would have never learned how to make a tutu. And I’m fascinated by dance. The Dallas Ballet was the first place that I worked specifically with dance. Fabrics are very fascinating to me—how they move. In dance, that is the most important thing, choosing the right fabric, and if it’s going have hang time when they leap; if it’s going ripple and do what you want it to do, that kind of thing.

But, when you build a tutu, it is construction. It’s like building a house. If you get the gathers too heavy on one hip, it can take a girl off her point when she does a turn. You know, it’s just net. You wouldn’t think that it’s heavy, but if it’s not, if things aren’t evenly distributed, she will lose her balance.

Circus Polka cast photo w me and Philip Patel 2017

Camille pictured with Philip Neal and our Patel Conservatory ballet dancers who performed in Circus Polka, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Often in ballet, the costumer is required to follow guidelines that detail how the costumes must look in order to present the ballet. If the shade, value and tone of the three colors weren’t right the piece could have been pulled from our repertoire.

CITA: How did you get from Dallas to the Patel?

CMc: Well, Miami City Ballet opened in 1988 I think. They didn’t have a tutu maker, and they were starting off from scratch. They had no stock. At the beginning of the second year, they actually called the woman who taught me how to make tutus to see if she would move to Miami to be their tutu maker, and she wasn’t interested. She sent me. From Miami we moved back up to Lakeland where my husband is from, started a family. I did the Gasparilla Ballet as a one project deal that was performed in Ferguson. That director suggested me to Peter Stark [former director of Next Generation Ballet at the Patel Conservatory] who was looking for a wardrobe manager for Nutcracker. Peter brought me on, and that was about seven, eight years ago.

CITA: If there’s a child out there, somebody reading this and saying, “I really want to be a costumer but I didn’t think I would be able to make enough money or I don’t know how to do it,” what advice would you give to that person?

CMc: You do have to have the right training. You do have to know that it is hard work. It’s long hours. But anything in theater is. It’s unusual hours. You can’t go into it because you want to make a million dollars, because you’re probably not going to. For the most part, you do it because you’re driven, because you’re passionate about it, because it really makes you happy.

To go about getting into it, you do need some education. Then you need to start seeking out opportunities to just help out in the costume shop and learn, learn, learn. From there you might get to be an assistant designer on something, or you might work in a big shop, maybe working for a designer that does the five main stage shows, and there might be an opportunity to a second stage show eventually. You also need to have some sort of drawing skills.

Pan shadow

Camille and her team built 12 of these shadows for Peter Pan. They flew the children and Pan, and moved set pieces as well as were up to general mischief during the show.

CITA: In your years of being at the Patel, do you have some favorite productions?

CMc: You know, people ask me, ‘What’s your favorite show,” or, “What’s your favorite setup for costumes.” I always want to say “the next.” But, that’s kind of a canned answer. I’m pretty much always excited by the next challenge. I’m really proud of the shows that I’ve done this last season.

With Nutcracker, there’s 350 costumes to put on these people. Even though that is basically a standard set of costumes, every year we’ve changed something. Every year we’ve added something.

For Peter Pan, we didn’t have a fly system, so we could not fly the actors typically like they are in other theaters. The director came up with the idea of having people fly them. Then the idea came up the people who are flying them should be dressed as Pan’s shadows. So, you know, that becomes an exciting thing. And how exciting for me as a costumer to get to go, “Oh, okay. Well we can do this.” And it turned out really great. But then also in that same show, we had a crocodile and a dog. You know? So that’s more sculpture than it is sewing. As a costumer, you have to figure out how to address that costume need and still make it functional for the actor to do what she or he needs to do.

Beginning of Croc PeterPan at Patel 2018

Beginning stage of creating the crocodile’s head for Peter Pan.

Crock head

Finished crocodile head for Peter Pan.

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Crocodile’s body for Peter Pan.

CITA: Camille, we want to wrap up with some quickie questions. First: what happens if a costume breaks on stage, or there’s a costume malfunction? Are you there to fix it or is this something that the actors are just going to have to figure out and the show must go on?

CMc: Okay. Well, the show must go on, and that truly is a realism in theater. There’s always somebody backstage that’s got safety pins nearby, that’s got a needle or two threaded. I have had to sew somebody into a costume in between a scene because a zipper broke. They’re usually moving when we’re having to do this because they need to be back onstage. I’m like, “Okay, two more stitches, two more stitches. How much time have you got? How much time have you got?” I’m like, ‘In two more stitches. All right. Knotting it off, knotting it off. All right. Go!” And then they run out onstage.

It’s quite fun back there. I love live theater, and this is why I love live theater. It’s never the same show. Always something is happening. Always something wonderful happens. Always something interesting happens backstage or on the stage. I have offered board members or directors, or even civilians, just come backstage and just watch. Just stand there and watch. You don’t have to help. Just see what happens.

CITA: Quickie question number two. So you are sewing moving people. You’re around a lot of machines with fast moving needles, and you’re just around a lot of needles all the time. How often do you get hurt on the job?

CMc: Well … I mean there’s “hurt” and there’s hurt. The worst thing that has happened is, and it was because it was a long day, a long night, it was way too late. I was working on an industry suture, and I let it veer off track. It ended up running over a steel bone in a bodice, and that machine just basically exploded. Oil went everywhere. I mean needles flew, steel bones flew. Luckily, I had goggles on. That happened about 20 years ago, so I’ve learned past a certain time you really do have to stop working and go home and get some sleep.

And I sort of jest, but I don’t. I get my tetanus shot on a regular basis because you are sticking yourself with a needle all the time or a pin. I wear glasses now, so if a needle breaks on a machine and it goes flying I have had one hit the glass of my glasses and nick it.

CITA: Which sounds like a lot of people’s worst nightmare. Rogue needles flying at eyes.

CMc: Yeah. And we use very sharp little scissors—I call them snippy scissors—to cut threads, or to take something apart. I’ve cut little Vs in my finger before because I was trying to get at something so close and I’m pressing from the back with the other finger. Accidents happen.

CITA: People need to know in the world of costume and theater, when we say blood, sweat, and tears, it is literal.

CMc: It is.

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Camille, left, with one of our summer apprentices, Katie Richards, in the costume shop.

CITA: Now the last question: If somebody from the public wants to come tour the costume shop, can they do that?

CMc: They can for the most part. But, you know, if there are six of us in there and our heads are all down in the sewing machines, it may be two days before we open on something … and we may not be as welcoming as other times. You know?

CITA: That’s such a kind way to put it. Yes.

CMc: But almost always we’re thrilled to share the shop with people and let them see what’s there. We do ask that they try not to touch a lot of things because for instance, with the Nutcracker costumes, that’s literally a multi-million-dollar set of costumes. Most of the things are made out of silk. And I don’t know what your hand has touched just previously, but I don’t want you to touch my silk dress. “Touch with your eyes. You’re welcome to look.” But yeah, we love for people to be able to see our work and come in and ask questions. We’re proud of the beautiful things that we get to work on and create. We like to share that. We do everything with love for the viewing public.

Tools of the Trade: Theater

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on theater.

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Orange Stick

Nope, not for fingernails—for eyelashes. False ones, that is. False eyelashes make the eyes pop, so many actors apply a pair before hitting the stage so the audience can better “read” the performance. However, if you’ve never put on a pair, these difficult-to-hold benign spikes glued upon the lash line require the hands of a surgeon and the patience of a rock. Orange sticks, typically used to push back cuticles in a manicure, aid and abet an actor needing help fitting the lash precisely to the curve of the eye.

 

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Gaff Tape

Ask a theater person—whether that pro is an actor, stage manager, theater owner or lighting tech—and she will tell you the go-to catch-all for any theater need is gaff tape. Originally used to tape or “gaff” lighting cables to the floor to avoid tripping over them, gaff tape proved to be useful for almost everything. Need a quick repair to a ripped costume hem? How about putting part of the set together? What to do about making a hat band, fixing a broken prop? Gaff tape. All of it. Just gaff tape. Everywhere.

 

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Milk of Magnesia

Theater lights emit a lot of heat. So, even though you may always bring a sweater for a show, the actors are hammering their parts underneath rows of high-energy lights that create a giant French fry warmer. The key to minimizing face sweat is to apply a thin layer of Milk of Magnesia before donning show makeup. The MOM dries, creating a tight mask that keeps the sweat down and adds the bonus of preventing makeup from flaking.

 

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Pencils, Erasers, Highlighters, Pens and Throat Coat

The actor’s toolbox somewhat resembles the back-to-school supply list for winter term. Acting and putting on a show require so much preparation, and almost all professionals keep notes, mark scripts, highlight their lines or tech needs and copy out their lines to help with memorization. When performers go “off book,” or start to deliver their lines without using the script, rehearsals kick into high gear. Voices must be protected; after all, an actor with laryngitis is very bad for business. Enter Throat Coat. This herbal concoction of primarily licorice and slippery elm bark soothes the voice with something akin to a loving embrace of the esophagus.

I’m Uncomfortable

Gabbing about the importance of facing the awkward, the awful, the upending and the just plain weird in the theater with special guest Paul Potenza, artistic associate with Jobsite Theater.

This week Caught in the Act caught up with Paul Potenza, 30-plus-year stage veteran in the Tampa Bay area and artistic associate with our resident theater company, Jobsite Theater, to address a delicate issue: a trend in audiences finding subject matter “objectionable” that didn’t used to bother folks. What’s going on? The conversation led to the bigger topic of theater’s role in provoking audiences towards some greater understanding, some bigger revelation, and why being uncomfortable can be very beneficial despite living in a world dominated by traumatic and uncomfortable content on social media.

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Paul J. Potenza in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, the first play ever performed in the Off-Center Theater (now the Shimberg Playhouse). Circa 1994. (Photo: Steve Widoff)

PAUL POTENZA: I have this vivid memory of working with my friend and director at the time, Jeff Norton … I was battling with a scene, and, at a certain point in the rehearsal I said, “I’m not really comfortable with how this is going.” Jeff simply replied, “I’m not overly concerned with how comfortable you are right now.” It was fantastic! We worked our way through it, and we moved the play forward. There was progress. It’s important to me to be challenged, whether it be onstage or as an audience member. It’s how we can grow, how we can get better. Better at listening, better at learning and simply sitting next to one another.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: This title of this blog is “I’m Uncomfortable.” The topic came up after a national conversation about certain theater customers complaining, asking for money back, boycotting shows or writing nasty grams on social media because they didn’t “want to pay good money for [that kind of language], [that political view], [those kinds of characters],” etc. Jobsite typically goes for a least a few of these types of shows on their season, with 1984 being next in line. Will you share your thoughts about why socially and politically challenging theater upsets people so much and why you think it’s necessary (or not) as a part of Jobsite’s mission?

PP: I suppose, historically, arts patrons have, at times, had their way or their “$ay” with what is being done artistically, based on their comfort level, at their venue of choice. People not showing up for shows because of content … well, that’s also been going on since the beginning of time as has being part of something “you just must see”—something trendy and fashionable. If you’re uncomfortable, truly uncomfortable, then I respect that as an individual, but to make it corporate policy? Not so much. I love hands on, open palms, open ears and eyes, face to face. “Those kinds of characters” the anti-heroes, are at the nucleus of the greatest stories ever told onstage. Jobsite, the company, has obligations to its mission statement. Jobsite shares and surveys so many plays among its associates – it’s amazing and exhausting. We’re trying to find great plays. Period. As much of a fan I am about holding hands and happy endings, there is a whole lot more to do onstage. Theater that challenges and upsets might just move you to think, to feel something or see a person or situation or idea in another way. It’s absolutely necessary.

CITA: Over your span of time with Jobsite, what would you rank as the Top 5 “most uncomfortable” works—works that pushed the envelope for audiences’ social, political, and moral assumptions? What value did these pieces have for Tampa audiences and the company itself? Where does 1984 fit compared to these?

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PP: So, the play Blackbird by David Harrower immediately comes to mind. It’s the story of a shocking visit between 27-year-old Una and 55-year-old Ray at his workplace. Fifteen years earlier, he sexually abused her when she was twelve. They had unsuccessfully attempted to run off together. Ray was arrested, found guilty and jailed for three years for statutory rape. After serving his time, he tries to establish a new life for himself with a new career and a new name. Una discovers his whereabouts and tracks him down at this workplace in the break room. And this is where we find the two characters at the top of the play. Very uncomfortable. Why the hell would anyone want to do this play or see this play? It would be much easier to stay at home and watch comfort programing on Netflix. But where is the payoff? The conflict, the energy, the insight into these two people “involved” seems like an insurmountable situation. There’s a door in the room—but why doesn’t either just leave? Because that isn’t what this story is about. It is very easy to simply decide that one person here is the guilty one (and he is), but what would make this now young woman come back to confront him, to experience … god knows what?

Does he deserve a chance at a new life? He served his time. Why does she seek him out now? What is she searching for? Redemption? Revenge? A relationship? We don’t know. The characters don’t even know. The theater, this play, gives you an opportunity to be in that room. It creates a dialogue, and it is UNCOMFORTABLE.

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Topdog/Underdog by Suzi-Lori Parks is a play about two African American brothers struggling to make ends meet. Abandoned by their parents when they were teenagers, Lincoln and Booth, now in their thirties, were forced to learn to survive relying on themselves. Poverty, family relationships and responsibilities, honesty, dishonesty—are just some of the themes in this uncomfortable play. To say that the play does not have a happy ending is an understatement. Life and the cards you’re dealt are sometimes inescapable. You are not going to get the whole story in a 60 second news segment. You don’t get the whole story in a 90-minute play. We do gain some perspective as audience members. We can and do learn in the theater.

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Annapurna by Sharr White is the story of a man and woman who were married twenty years ago and haven’t seen each other since the man, in an alcoholic state, was responsible for a terrible accident with their five-year-old son. Now living alone, off the grid, his ex-wife comes to find him sober and terminally ill. Her mission is to prepare him for a visit from his son. Why? Uncomfortable. As the audience, we have to know: after all this history, did love survive? My god—theater is so beautiful to give us the chance to see and feel inside the hearts of those who hurt, of those who hurt us.

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The Guys by Anne Nelson is based on the true story about a fire captain faced with the responsibility of writing the eulogies for eight of his lost brothers, post 9/11. Uncomfortable. The beauty of this play is the humanity shared with a writer to help the captain capture the truth and personalities of these “regular” guys. A tough swallow, a hard sell … but grace and beauty beyond belief. Uncomfortable on the surface—try telling someone to go see a play about dead firemen. Then, go talk to audience members post-show, and you’ll see people at their best. The play creates so much appreciation for the men, for the shared experience of dealing with 9/11 and for the actors who carry the story.

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Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire is the story of a young husband and wife who tragically and accidentally lost their son while he was innocently chasing the family dog. To witness the near impossible task of how a couple, a family, can or cannot come back from what many would consider the worst loss any human could experience, the loss of a child … that’s uncomfortable.

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In George Orwell’s 1984, the character of Winston Smith is determined to remain human under rather inhuman circumstances. Although I’m drawing up the plot rather simply, there are many parallels to the other plays I’ve mentioned. A human spirit, a well-meaning human spirit, may not always fare well or best in a human world but the difficulties, the divide and the incongruities of them make for great theater and many valuable lessons no matter where you live.

CITA: The play version of 1984 opens April 25. It will hardly be a jolly night at the theater as the audience watches an average citizen interrogated for Thoughtcrimes in a dystopian (read: alarmingly familiar) society. We’re inundated with traumatic stories on an hourly basis, day after day, year after year, thanks to social media, so why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does? Why not have each play be a happy escapist fantasy vs. an artistic rendering of a dystopian reality? Tangentially, where do we find hope in 1984? Where do we find hope in being uncomfortable in the theater?

PP: Yes! 1984 opens April 25th, and it will be a jolly night in the theater—if you are open to it. First and foremost, we are absolutely privileged to be in that intimate space. The Shimberg Playhouse is getting better and better technically and aesthetically. Thank you, Straz Center. So, I know that’s not your question but that’s how I feel there … It’s been my theatrical home since the day it opened. I did the first play in that space, then called The Off Center Theater. Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll by Eric Bogosian. Again, I digress. Of course I see all the traumatic stories we are inundated with hour by hour, and it’s easy to say “No way I’m going to go see that play.” I see that horror every day on my phone—yeah, I said phone. You ask why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does. Because the theater has a heartbeat, it breathes. At its best, it brings people together to share small magnificent stories. In 1984, the hope is the fact that Winston believes that the human mind must be free. He believed this before he was tortured and forced to let go of that belief, that truth. Don’t let go of live theater—I trust you’ll find truth and perhaps comfort there.

See Winston Smith fight for humanity in Jobsite’s production of 1984, playing April 25-May 20 in The Shimberg Playhouse.

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If I Can Make It There, I Can Make It Anywhere

Musicians and actors who make the leap to Broadway

Kill Bill super-assassin Uma Thurman skillfully executed a Broadway debut in The Parisian Woman in November 2017, as did rock ‘n’ roll superstar Bruce Springsteen in September, when he broke box office records and added Boss of Broadway to his long list of artistic credentials with his show Springsteen on Broadway. Michael Moore, political provocateur and filmmaker, took to Broadway in August with The Terms of My Surrender, his one-man limited engagement.

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Fania Borach, known professionally as Fanny Brice, circa 1920. (Photo: George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress)

Local lore has it that the American crossover star phenomenon started around 1910 with Fanny Brice (the “Funny Girl” later played by Barbra Streisand), who made it on Broadway then took to Hollywood and radio. Brice set many precedents in her career, and this notion that performing artists launched a career in one field and conquered the next challenge as they gained success laid the foundation for stars to take the Broadway Challenge: they might be good singers or actors, but can they handle the greatest test of all, the demands of performing live at the epicenter of theater?

Take, for example, multi-platinum crooner Josh Groban, who debuted in the 2017 surprise hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and walked away with a Tony nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Musical. Carly “Call Me Maybe” Rae Jepsen donned the glass slippers for Cinderella, and teeny-bopper heartthrob Nick Jonas took over for Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) as the lead in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Probably one of the best musical vehicles for pop singers is Chicago, and that cast has welcomed Ashlee Simpson, Sofia Vergara, Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson and R&B superstars Brandy and Usher, among others.

In March, Deborah Cox, the Grammy-winning and multi-platinum recording artist, takes on the role of Rachel Marron in the musical adaptation of the Whitney Houston from diva-to-screen-siren crossover Hollywood hit The Bodyguard. Cox, who made her Broadway debut in Aida, started her career as a backup singer for Celine Dion and eventually made a place for herself on Broadway. She also starred in Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway and at The Straz in 2013.

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Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron, with Jaquez André Sims, Brendon Chan, Willie Dee and Benjamin Rivera in The Bodyguard. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Cox, who proved her versatility on screen, stage and in the recording studio, continues to join the rising ranks of performers blurring the lines between “what kind” of star they want to be. With Springsteen’s success on Broadway in basically a troubadour stint and Kinky Boots inking Panic at the Disco! frontman Brandon Urie and Scissor Sisters rocker Jake Shears to rack up ticket sales, there’s certainly a safe bet for a box office draw of known names and faces in new territory. For Cox, of course, there’s the added pressure of stepping into some mighty big Whitney Houston-sized shoes. “I want to make sure that [Houston is] represented right. I know what the expectations are. …That’s pretty much what I’m going in there to do – give it my all, really make this show a huge success because the show deserves it. She deserves it. Her legacy deserves it,” Cox said in a 2016 interview with app.com.

To catch Cox* as Rachel Marron, get tickets for The Bodyguard playing in Morsani Hall March 20-25 here.

*Deborah Cox is not scheduled to perform at the Saturday matinee or Sunday evening performances.

The Family Play

Author Alison Bechdel reveals what it was like to see her very personal graphic memoir Fun Home transformed into a Tony®-winning Broadway musical. An exclusive from the Straz Center’s INSIDE magazine.

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Photo: Elena Seibert

In 2015, an innovative, poignant and bold little musical swept the Tony Awards®, netting Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and Best Direction. Something of a dark horse, Fun Home unfurled no epic celebrity life story, no sweeping revival or rollicking adaptation of a hit movie.

It was, however, an impressive musical adaptation of an acclaimed graphic memoir by an underground lesbian icon, Alison Bechdel. The book, which she laboriously constructed from memories, photos and a painstaking illustration process, lays bare (often to pitch-perfect notes of dry humor) the Bechdel family secret – Dad’s unexplained rage and obsessions had a source, one that was very closely tied to Alison’s own sense of identity.

You would think that a story built around a father’s suicide, a funeral home (the “fun home” of the title), the social torture of being gay in a straight world and a woman’s examination of these family dynamics may be a bit dark and heavy. In the case of the musical Fun Home, you’d be wrong. It’s a sweet story of an earnest person’s role in a complicated family, the misfirings of familial love and the awkward stumbling toward an understanding of our true selves. And, there’s a winning homage to “Partridge Family”-style gumption in the face of life’s often overwhelming realities (“Raincoat of Love”).

The Straz Center’s magazine caught up with Alison by phone at her Vermont farm to talk about her creation of Fun Home and then being the observer to Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s adaptation of the book into the award-winning musical.

INSIDE MAGAZINE: Let’s talk a little about you and your cultural thumbprint. It started with your underground hit comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and continued with “The Bechdel Test” about how to spot gender equality in films that came from the comic. Now, these huge works of literary cartooning, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?. How did you get here, to icon status?

ALISON BECHDEL [laughs]: I often ask myself that question! I don’t know. I guess … a strange thing happened in the world of comics. When I graduated in the ‘80s, cartooning was not about a career path. It was kind of a sketchy thing to be doing with your life. I loved writing cartoons about lesbians, this very marginal culture, but I wasn’t thinking about being a success or making money. I was caught up in being a part of this community – especially as someone who had had a traumatic loss in my family [her closeted father’s suicide], and writing comics for this community became a mission for me. I was doing the comic for fun, then a job came out of it, and things happened from there. The big shift happened when people realized that comics weren’t just for kids, that comics could tell really powerful and complicated stories for adults. Attitudes changed with [Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his father, a Holocaust survivor] Maus. I was able to continue to work and draw because of this shift.

IM: Do you think you’ve come out of the underground with the success of Fun Home the musical? Do you consider yourself mainstream?

AB: No, I don’t consider myself mainstream. Superman is mainstream, so I’m not mainstream in that sense at all. I’m more mainstream than I was though. Yeah, I was a subcultural phenomenon for a long time, writing this soap opera-like comic strip about lesbian friends. Then, when I moved to tell this story about my family and growing up with my father and his sexuality … for whatever reason, that touched a bigger audience than the comic strip.

IM: There are a lot of children who loved fathers who had major unresolved issues and emotional secrets. Perhaps that’s the universal appeal of Fun Home, that it’s a family story that touches on that confusion. In the time between publishing the book and the book’s success, did you suspect the family relationships would be so relatable?

AB: No! I had no idea that was going to happen! It felt like such a particular, idiosyncratic, unique, weird story. I couldn’t imagine who was going to relate to it. I was trying to envision my audience as you’re supposed to when you’re a writer, and I was thinking about the audience for my comic strip. But, they wouldn’t like it because it was too weird … it was asking something else of my reader. So, I decided to write the book for myself. I was my audience. For whatever reason, that thinking paved the road for other people to relate.

IM: In the graphic memoir, you tackle so many deep philosophical questions – who am I?, what does it mean to be me?, what is the true self and what does that have to do with the people who were my mother and father?. In reading the book, we didn’t know so much was going to be demanded of us intellectually. Do you still consider yourself a cartoonist? You seem like so much more than that.

AB: I’d argue that’s what cartoonists do, what cartoons can do. I feel excited and committed to this process of taking these complex internal experiences and rendering them in comics in words and pictures. I want my work to be accessible, and it’s from an inaccessible place, I acknowledge that. But, it’s a good challenge.

IM: With the success of Fun Home and the book about your relationship with your mother, Are You My Mother?, you’ve done it as the artistic, sensitive child. You fulfilled the impossible emotional needs of your parents: you got your dad out of the closet and we all accept him for who he is, and you got your mom on Broadway [she was an actress in Pennsylvania]. How are you feeling about that? Is it a triumph?

AB [laughs]: I never thought of it that way, that’s so funny! I do feel good about it. But, I think if you went back to Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, and asked that same question, you might run across some objections. I’ve talked with many of my parents’ friends, and mostly they’re supportive, even in spite of the personal tolls the works may have taken. I feel really good about the whole project.

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First appeared in New York Magazine – April 6-19, 2015.

IM: So, your very dense, very literary, very enjoyable and gut-wrenching personal story became a hit Broadway musical. That must have been a surreal experience.

AB: I saw it evolving slowly. It wasn’t a Broadway thing at first. It was happening at The Public Theater downtown. After years of development … I hadn’t seen any of it, and my first experience of it was that Lisa and Jeanine sent me a CD of a workshop and a script. So, it was me in my office listening to the CD and reading a script. I hadn’t known what to expect, but it was so moving to have my family brought to life like that. It was a year after that, I saw a workshop of the play. It was really powerful.

IM: When you saw the actors performing you and your family members, how was that experience for you as the real Alison Bechdel?

AB: In a way, I felt like I was getting a taste of my own medicine. [laughs] I’d written about my family all these years, and here I was being turned into a character. Maybe because I am a writer and that transmutation of life into art is something I understand well, I adjusted pretty quickly to it. It wasn’t exactly me, it wasn’t exactly my family … but, it was, in a strange way. These characters captured the essence of who my family was.

IM: The songs in the musical are fantastic. We love “Ring of Keys” and “Changing My Major.” Do you listen to the cast recording as you work, or do you consider the musical version something that belongs to Lisa and Jeanine and you leave it alone?

AB: I feel both of those things. Clearly, the musical is their creation; it belongs to them. I didn’t have anything to do with making it beyond writing the book. But I do love the musical, the soundtrack. I temporarily can’t listen to it … you know, you reach a certain point [and you just have to step away.]

IM: You’ve reached your super-saturation point?

AB: Yeah, but I listened to it like a million times before I reached that saturation point. And, I listened to so many versions of the songs. There were so many beautiful songs that got cut along the way.

IM: I heard Lisa and Jeanine scrapped song after song. We would have wanted to quit after writing so many songs that didn’t get used. They didn’t seem daunted, though.

AB: I know. I cannot imagine working the way they do, that sort of collaborating with so many different people, so many moving parts. It seems impossible to me. The key is to be ready to scrap your stuff and start over. They could do that over and over again.

IM: Lisa and Janine seem to be as powerful in their milieus as you are in yours. They seem to be the exact right team to have turned your memoir into a musical. One of the great successes of the show is that homosexuality is treated as just a place you come from, like the Midwest. No morality, no agenda. It just is. What do you make of Lisa and Jeanine’s achievement with your text?

AB: We’re all the same basic age, the same generation. Lisa and I grew up as part of that movement that was making that change [regarding homosexuality] happen. So, part of it is that’s where we all came from. I also feel like what made their adaptation so spot on was that they were willing to approach the whole project fresh. They completely made it their own by going through a lot of the same processes I had to go through to tell the story in the first place. To be open to the material, to not make a foregone conclusion as to how it’s supposed to be. They could hold it but not impose a shape on it. That’s part of what took so long developing the musical.

IM: It’s an incredible adaptation. You can’t try to adapt a graphic memoir as a graphic memoir to the stage because musicals require a different set of skills. What you were able to accomplish with images and words, they could do with music and lyrics. The same tension was created.

AB: That’s really good insight. There’s a way comics and the musical form are similar. It’s so rare there’s a good movie adaptation of a book … to have a great movie made from a great book is rare because the needs of a novel and a movie are opposed. Lisa and Jeanine found a way to put the story on to great effect.

IM: We can’t wait for the show to get here. We’re really excited for our community to see it. Is there anything that you would like to say to an audience member who may not be familiar with you or with your work but who likes musicals and is going to be in the audience?

AB: One thing I would say is … I don’t want to step on anyone’s experience of the play before they see it. But, I do want to assure people that this play is about a funeral home, a family that is, in some ways, unhappy, and even though there’s a suicide in it … somehow, it manages to be a very uplifting and often very funny play.

Fun Home plays in Morsani Hall Nov. 28 – Dec. 3.

 

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.

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“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.