Cancel the concert; I have nothing to wear!

As much as I love local theater, there's too often a point in any play or musical I attend — somewhere between intermission and the final scene — where the dialogue seems forced, the accents become annoying and inconsistent, and I become painfully aware that I'm watching an actor and not a character. I silently curse the performers who dare turn a simple line of dialogue into a three-minute song, and I start to wonder if the babysitter has left any pizza.

I remember clearly that I did not have that experience while watching “Cabaret” at the Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse last May. For that reason, I applaud the decision to award the talented Benjamin Cox with the inaugural “Staci” Award for his incredible performance as the cross-dressing “Emcee.” This first-of-its-kind award was given in honor of the playhouse’s long-time executive director, Dr. Anastacia (Staci) Hawkins-Smith, and the winner was chosen from a list of other standout performers from the 2011-12 season. While I didn't catch every show last year, I can't imagine a more deserving nominee. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Mr. Cox with a Tony alongside his Staci someday.

As one of very few female conductors in the nation, Staci Cleveland of the Melbourne Municipal Band finds it challenging to find the women's equivalent of the tuxedo. But here, she scores big in simple black velvet. 
COURTESY PHOTO As one of very few female conductors in the nation, Staci Cleveland of the Melbourne Municipal Band finds it challenging to find the women's equivalent of the tuxedo. But here, she scores big in simple black velvet. COURTESY PHOTO Speaking of women’s clothes, last week I shared the softer side of the Melbourne Municipal Band and its female conductor, yet another Staci with an “i,” Staci Cleveland. As one of very few female conductors in the country, she faces a unique challenge before every performance — what to wear? I touched on the topic in last week's cover story, but out of respect for her talents and the accomplishments of the rest of the band, I didn’t delve any deeper.

You might think, “Who cares what she wears? I came for the music.” True. But to really appreciate the music, you have to appreciate the preparation that goes into every performance, musically and otherwise.

As Ms. Cleveland told me, nothing would be simpler than to put on a tux before each show, but she’s not a man and she’s not going to pretend to be one, she said. She loves to wear dresses and celebrate being a woman, but finding suitable attire is a constant dilemma.

First, to be able to conduct properly, she needs to have full range of motion in her arms, shoulders and neck. With the amount of movement a fast-paced piece of music requires, she can't risk something too low cut or revealing. It can’t be sleeveless or backless, as showing that amount of skin would draw attention away from the music. To make sure an outfit will work, she often finds herself “conducting” in the department store fitting rooms. I'm sure she spends a fair amount of time looking at her backside in the mirror, too, since the audience will enjoy that view through most of the concert.

Her top half isn't the only concern. She must stand firmly planted with her feet shoulder-width apart. Short skirts are definitely out — again, too much skin— so her choices are narrowed down to dress pants or long dresses and skirts. A slit in the skirt helps facilitate the required stance, but then she's subject to audience scrutiny, as she experienced at a recent concert. Even good-natured comments such as “Look at those legs!” seem incredibly disrespectful and distracting.

To complicate the matter further, she can’t conduct the band while tottering on high heels (previous foot problems prevent that anyway), so she must pair dresses with flats or open-toed sandals. In that case, she had better make sure she has a pedicure, too.

Don’t forget, she can't wear the same thing to every concert. While a man in a tuxedo can certainly get away with it, there’s a good chance that regular patrons will remember that long red dress or velvet top and snicker, "Didn't she wear that last time?"

It sounds exhausting, and it is, admits Ms. Cleveland. “I think it’s ridiculous the things I have to worry about,” she said.

Conversely, imagine the preparation that Mr. Cox went through to wear a bustier and garters on stage. I haven't asked him, but I imagine there was some major waxing going on.

Perhaps I’ve taken the topic a little too seriously, but I can’t help feeling empathy. At 5-foot-10, I have a hard time finding clothes, too, especially pants in the correct length. I often look into my closet to find a sea of shirts and far too few bottoms, and proclaim, “I’m not going. I have nothing to wear!”

Next time you attend a cultural performance, take a moment to appreciate the preparation it took each player to take the stage. Ponder what it takes to break the stereotypes and be a woman in a “man's job,” such as Ms. Cleveland or the late Carrie Rossetter, whose story appears on our arts cover this week. Or, simply applaud the guts it takes for a man to get on stage dressed as a woman (while speaking in a German accent). Props to Ms. Cleveland and Mr. Cox. Let’s all go shopping sometime. ¦

— Michelle Salyer, the Casual Culturist, covers the arts for Florida Weekly.

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