One of Judy Lisi's favorite things about celebrating the 25th anniversary of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts is that it has become "a multigenerational experience.
"People who came to performances here when they were kids are now bringing their kids."
Lisi is president and CEO of the center and has led downtown Tampa's performing arts jewel for 20 years.
The center opened on Sept. 12, 1987, as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. It will mark its silver anniversary with a 2012-13 season of fan favorites, an open house in October and a black-tie gala on Dec. 1 featuring Idina Menzel, who starred in the original casts of Wicked and Rent. "We wanted someone cross-generational," Lisi says, who would appeal to the Straz's broad range of audience members.
The center is owned by the city and operated by the nonprofit Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Inc. The largest performing arts center in the Southeast, it serves more than 600,000 people each year and has an annual economic impact of up to $100 million.
It has operated in the black for most of its existence, Lisi says. "When you get into a debt position, where you have to ask for money all the time, it's hard to get the trust of the community."
The center has four state-of-the-art theater spaces and a teaching theater. With seating capacities ranging from 150 to 2,610, they can accommodate anything from a poetry reading to a touring Broadway musical. Among the most frequently returning musicals: Phantom of the Opera, Wicked and Les Miserables, each of which has had five or six multiweek runs, Lisi says.
"We haven't had to do many structural changes" to the theaters over the years, she says. "But the technology changes, of course, so we have to update the lighting, the sound, those kinds of things."
The biggest challenge the center faces, she says, is the "significant growth" in downtown Tampa. "We have these wonderful new museums, the park, a lot of residential downtown — and a lot them are using the same garage" the center uses. "When we have something in all five theaters on the same night, the cars can get backed up. We're concerned about the customer experience."
That bustling business is "a good challenge to have," she says.
From the ground up
As far back as 1965, Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio formed a committee to "develop a music hall that was appropriate for opera." But the idea didn't begin to get off the ground until 1980, when Mayor Bob Martinez appointed a 15-member committee to oversee design, construction and operation of a performing arts center. On March 29, 1984, ground was broken, and over several years more than $30 million was raised.
In 1987, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened. In its inaugural year, half a million people attended 599 performances. Among them was the world premiere of a musical, Teddy & Alice (about President Theodore Roosevelt and his daughter), that later went to Broadway.
Lisi came aboard as executive director in 1992, and in 1996 she established Opera Tampa with conductor Anton Coppola.
Over the years, all five of the center's theaters were renamed in honor of major donors who gave between $1 million and $5 million to its endowment. In 2002, the board of directors announced a $30 million capital campaign to build a performing arts conservatory. Later that year, Drs. Kiran and Pallavi Patel made a $5 million gift to the campaign, and the education building, named the Dr. Pallavi Patel Performing Arts Conservatory, opened in 2004. The performing arts center itself was renamed in 2009 after a major gift from the David A. Straz Foundation.
The conservatory, Lisi says, "is already not big enough." More than 12,000 children and adults have enrolled in its courses in music, theater, dance and media arts. It also provides arts education programs to more than 60,000 schoolchildren, teachers and other adults annually.
"Our education programs go into a lot of underserved areas. Sometimes these kids are defined by their circumstances, but when they get into the arts, they find they can break those barriers and express themselves in ways they couldn't before," Lisi says.
She says it's been gratifying to see some conservatory students grow up and pursue careers in the arts.
The human experience
This anniversary year has been a landmark one in other ways. In April, the center joined forces with the Nederlander Organization of New York to bring the finest Broadway shows to Tampa.
Later that month, Coppola retired "at the young age of 94," Lisi says, with a farewell performance of Aida. Daniel Lipton was named Opera Tampa's new artistic director and conductor, spurring a redesigned season, the Florida Opera Festival, with welcoming events like a comic opera about Julia Child and an opera pub crawl added to the usual schedule of grand operas. "If you know about opera, you know it's not elitist, but if you don't know it, you might think it is," Lisi says.
In May, Lisi received the Distinguished Lifetime Service Award from the Broadway League. The center's Broadway Genesis Project will bring in three pre-Broadway productions this year, she says: Flashdance, Jekyll & Hyde and comedian Rita Rudner's Tickled Pink.
As for ways for audiences to help celebrate the anniversary, Lisi says, "We would ask them to send us their memories" of experiences at the Straz. "It could look like we're just a big building, but we're a human experience."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.