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Judy Lisi of the Straz Center talks convent life, 'Smash' and show business

Judy Lisi is shown at a reception before the world premiere of Wonderland at the Straz in 2009.

BRIAN BLANCO | Special to the Times

Judy Lisi is shown at a reception before the world premiere of Wonderland at the Straz in 2009.

Not many of us live in a world of dramatic plotlines punctuated with spontaneous outbursts of song.

But the concepts behind hit TV shows like Glee and Smash have to come from somewhere, right?

Without the blessing of perfect pitch or a dozen musically inclined friends, we tracked down local show biz whiz Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, to show us a window into that lifestyle. Times staff writer Stephanie Wang recently interrupted Lisi's relaxing vacation in Venice to get a look behind the curtain of Tampa's blossoming arts scene.

Okay, I have to start with this: I heard you thought about joining a convent when you were younger.

I was in a convent. I went in when I was 17, and I came out when I was 20. I left before my final vows. I didn't think I was good enough. When you put the habit on, people would talk to that rather than to you.

When I was young, and that was in the '60s, there certainly weren't as many choices as there are for women now. I had gone to Catholic schools my whole life, and you have that idealistic part of your life where you want to be the best that you can be and do good. It was a natural fit for somebody like me.

The older I get, the more I believe that anybody in a life of service is probably the happiest person there is. You're always thinking outward, so you don't have time to worry about yourself. I think you accomplish more because you're thinking about who you're going to affect.

Performing arts is such a force for good in communities, and it's kind of a secular sense of the spiritual. You can come from many different religions, but when you look at performing arts, it uplifts you and makes you think of what's possible.

And then you went on to train as an opera singer. Do you still sing?

In my shower. Or now, it's so funny, they'll have a benefit at the performing arts center and they'll auction me off. I say I make more now through auction than I ever did in my career.

When you haven't sang in public for a while, you have to train. And I'm like, this is so hard! I forgot how hard it is.

Sometimes if nobody's in the house, I'll pipe up. I'm always whistling because I'm just musical. It's whatever I'm working on. I'm producing an opera now so I've had Celeste Aida in my head. (The Broadway musical) Come Fly Away was last week, so I'm whistling Frank Sinatra.

So, do you watch the new NBC show Smash?

No, I haven't seen it. So many people have told me about it. They've said, "Judy, that's your life." I say, "That is. Who would want to do a show about that?"

My colleagues in New York have been telling me about it. They get such a big kick out of it. And I love Anjelica Huston. I'm a big fan of hers.

It sounds similar to the process that must have gone into making Wonderland. Looking back on that experience, what did you learn from it? Do you plan to develop another show through the Broadway Genesis Project?

We're looking at a few right now. It takes so much to do something like that. So I have to give myself a rest before I put myself in the gladiator arena again.

You fall in love with the show. You have to. And you fall in love with the people, and you have such hope, and then when it doesn't work out — and it happens a lot where it doesn't work out — it just takes a lot.

I really believe we put together a great group of people. So we'll do more. When? I don't know.

I still love the music. The music is fantastic. It's just so beautiful. And when we were doing Wonderland, that's what I was whistling and singing.

The Straz Center's 25th anniversary is coming up. How have you seen Tampa's performing arts scene change over the years?

It's hard for me to say because I'm in the thick of it. But when I look at what was there when I came and what's there now, it's pretty remarkable. There was no arts district. It was just this lonely little building at the end of the city. And now we have this beautiful park and three museums right around the park. We built a conservatory, and now we have these kids getting into the best companies in the world.

Now we're the largest cultural institution in Florida, and the largest south of the Kennedy Center (in Washington, D.C.). We're the fifth largest in the country.

Everything starts small, but you just never know what things are going to grow into. That's the excitement of life. So I always encourage people to start — just start it! Then take the next step. So many people have a fear of failing that they don't ever get to a place where they're ready to start.

A lot of people see you as one of the most influential leaders in Tampa Bay. Do you see yourself that way? Is it a role you embrace?

I will say that I've never been one to not say how I think things should be. I think you have to have a vision and say, "Here's what things can be." I still look at Tampa and say, "Wow, look at what we can be!" We're still getting there.

Maybe it's just because I'm the oldest one they know still doing this crazy business. People like to talk to survivors.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Judy Lisi of the Straz Center talks convent life, 'Smash' and show business 04/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 7, 2012 4:31am]
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