Written by McKenna Kelley | Photos by Gabriel Burgos
Discussing the qualities that make a great leader, Judy Lisi mentions the importance of having a clear vision — one that makes sense and gets people excited.
She speaks from experience, as her vision for the Straz Center for the Performing Arts has turned it into Tampa Bay’s cultural mecca. Since joining the Straz in 1992, Lisi has overseen the creation of the Patel Conservatory, which provides instruction in dance, theater and music to young people, and an expansion of the center’s outreach in arts education.
“Whether you’re young or old, arts education helps you to become a citizen of the world, not just of one small place,” she says. “The arts transcend everything that we do.”
Lisi’s leadership of the Straz stems, in part, from her own experience as an artist. She trained in musical theatre and opera and moved to directing when she had children.
“I think it’s great to have the lens of an artist,” she says. “I think that [being a performer] really helped me understand what artists need and what some of their anxieties are.”
To help alleviate some of those anxieties, Lisi puts an emphasis on supporting emerging artists. Some turn out to be Pulitzer Prize winners — like “Hamilton” scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda, who taught master classes at the conservatory while the touring production of his first musical, “In the Heights,” was playing at the Straz.
Moving forward, the Straz has unveiled plans for renovations, which include an expansion down to the Riverwalk and an event center, that will likely happen as the rest of downtown undergoes its own renovations. Lisi says becoming an anchor of Downtown Tampa was always part of the Straz’s long-term plans.
“My husband and I both committed to Tampa because if you want to build a community, it doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “Now to see everything coming to fruition, it just didn’t happen over a few years. When you see it actually happening, you say, ‘Wow, we actually made a difference.’”
How did you get into musical theatre?
I started many years ago as a performer, which many of us do, in musical theatre and opera. Then when I had children and I didn’t want to tour or do anything like that, I started directing. Then I became an artistic director, and I became the head of the Schubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven, [Connecticut], and I was there for many years. They did a national search for [the position at the Straz Center] because it’s one of the largest performing arts centers in the United States. I came here in 1992 because of that search.
How did your performing experience inform what you do now?
I think it’s everything. I think it’s great to have the lens of an artist because, at the end of the day, the soul of what we do here is the performing arts. I think it’s really important to understand the power of the arts and why people are drawn to it — why they come, and why they feel so much better after they see a show and learn so much more and understand our human condition a little bit more. The arts are so essential to who we are as humans. I think I also understand what the life of an artist is like, and it’s not always easy. You’re constantly a freelancer. You’re on the road. It’s challenging. I think that really helped me understand what artists need and understand some of their anxieties.
You offer such a wide variety of programming here at the Straz, from Broadway to standup. What factors go into choosing which acts to bring to the Tampa Bay community?
Broadway is one of our strongest genres, but that was my background, so I get Broadway. I’ve been a Tony Award voter for 35 years, and I have relationships with most of the producers who produce on Broadway. So many shows will go out on the road, but you just have to know the quality of the producers. Over time you learn to understand what’s better. But it’s also what people want to see. I mean, do I love everything that I put on stages? Maybe not. I have my own personal taste. But we’re not here for me; we’re here for what people want to see, especially new artists that are emerging. I think our work is very exciting because art is always changing and evolving constantly.
The Straz Center is the largest performing arts center in the Southeast and the third-largest on the East Coast after Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. It’s also already one of the anchors of Downtown Tampa. How do you see the Straz fitting into the overall picture of the growth downtown is about to undergo?
I can say this happened even before I got here. One reason why they built the Straz Center — it was actually Mayor Martinez when he was mayor here in the early ‘80s. He said if we’re going to make Tampa a great city it has to have a great cultural institution. When they built it, they didn’t just build one hall. They wanted a major commitment to art and culture. That’s why they built such a large place. When this performing arts center opened in 1987, it was on the cover of every professional journal around the world because of its stature. I think that was their stake in the ground of wanting to make Tampa great. When you think of where Tampa was then, this was built on a sawmill. We had the first little Riverwalk at this place. Now 30 years later, when you see the fruition of that kind of forward-looking thinking, it’s very, very exciting. I always say we were like the first catalyst and [first part of] Tampa’s commitment to becoming a great city.
Last year the Straz unveiled renderings of the master plans for a significant renovation of the center. What more can you share about that process?
The truth is we’re completely out of space. One of the major operating principles of the master plan is to relate to the river and the Riverwalk because that’s Tampa’s big statement. And even though we were the first Riverwalk, now we want to add new programming on the river so as people are enjoying the river they have things to do. We’re going to blow out our lobbies right to the water, and they’ll probably triple in size. The lobbies are going to be open to the public. You won’t need a ticket to come in. You’ll just be able to come in and enjoy all the things that are happening here. We want to use a lot more local artists, and then we have a plan to build an event center with parking, which we sorely need. Because we have so many people that come here now, they want hospitality events. We only have one small restaurant, and we’ve grown so much that we want to have a signature restaurant and event center that can handle different types of events and conferences. Then we’re going to expand the [Patel] Conservatory because that’s out of space, and then we’ll put our offices and more green rooms and rehearsal spaces in the back of the building.
Which piece of the renovation are you most excited about?
I think it’s opening up the whole performing arts center to the entire community. We’ll still have great shows in our theatres, but this will be a place for people to come when they just want to be in a great, exciting ambiance. We’re going to have this big, iconic art feature in the middle of the river that’s going to be very exciting. It’s just going to be a very cool place. I think it’s going to be a little more informal, which is how younger people like to live. They just like to be together but be in great places.
During your time at the Straz, you’ve helped oversee vastly expanded community outreach and education programs, including the opening of the Patel Conservatory. Why is having accessible arts education so important to a community?
Whether you’re young or old, arts education helps you to become a citizen of the world, not just of one small place. The arts transcend everything that we do. Just in training in the arts, it teaches you to use your creative powers. It teaches you how to become your personal best because you have to work at something, whether it’s a phrase on an instrument or a dance routine, and you can work at it and work at it. Then you have a breakthrough, and all of a sudden [you can say], “I can do that.” [You] work together as a team — you can’t do the performing arts by yourself. You absolutely are depending on everybody working together to create it and to have the result be something that’s exciting. I just think these are all transferrable skills for young people, no matter what field they go into. Creativity, confidence, your personal best, working together — these are all valuable, valuable tools. [It’s important] to learn the arts so that you have an enjoyment factor in your life that you really can appreciate. I have seen lives transformed [by arts education]. Completely transformed.
What qualities does it take to be a successful leader?
I’ve asked myself that question so many times [laughs]. I think at the end of the day it’s just being able to really relate to people and listen to them. I also think that people have to trust you. You have to fulfill the promise of whatever you said you’re going to do. If you do that, then people will give you more trust. You know, every year we put out our Broadway subscription series. Well, I know when we book these terrific shows, not everybody’s going to like everything. But they’ve learned to trust us because they know the quality is there. Even though they might not like a particular show, they know that the quality is really good. I think leadership is one of building trust and keeping yourself open and listening to what people are trying to tell you and [respecting] the needs of others. And then if you have a vision, you have to believe in it in a way that’s so exciting that people see it. When you talk about it, they see it. They get it. Any vision has to make sense. It [has to] relate to where we are and how we’re going to get from where we are to where we can get to. I think you have to be able to demonstrate that.
Do you have a dream show you’d love to bring to the Straz Center?
I’ve had dream acts that I didn’t know were dream acts when I first booked them. Like the first time we did Michael Bublé, he was this little kid. I remember him playing Frisbee on the riverfront. We had him in one of our small theatres, and then he just got bigger and bigger and bigger. Or the first time we did “Stomp.” Nobody had ever heard of it. I said, “What do you mean? How are you going to sell a show about people banging on cans? That doesn’t make sense at all.” So sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and go with something, and they become your dream act. To me, that’s more fun than getting something that’s a sure thing. That’s supporting artists when they need it most.
Right. Because everybody will come see “Hamilton.”
Right. The obvious thing would be to say “Hamilton,” and of course it’s wonderful that we’re getting “Hamilton.” It’s going to be great. But what if no one had believed in Lin-Manuel Miranda? As a matter of fact, we did his first show, “In the Heights,” here when the tour was opening. He was here with us for three weeks. He was great. He would do outreaches, and he would do master classes in the conservatory. But that’s when it’s exciting — when people don’t know who these artists are.
Most people don’t go to New York. That’s why we bring these things to Tampa. These are for our people and our citizens to be able to have a rich, enhanced existence. Not everybody can afford to go to London or the big artistic capitals of the world. But we can bring [the artists] here.
What has been your proudest achievement thus far?
Personally, of course, is my family. I have a wonderful family that I cherish. Professionally, my husband and I both committed to Tampa because if you want to build a community, it doesn’t happen overnight. I turned around a lot of arts organizations that were struggling, and you can do that, but it’s another thing to really build a community — and that’s what we committed to. Now to see everything coming to fruition, it just didn’t happen over a few years. It happened over many years of people working and trying to make this a great community. Then when you see it actually happening, you say, “Wow, we actually made a difference.”
Of everything here — and I’m proud of everything here, it’s like asking me which child I like best — but I think it’s probably our education programs. They’re unique, and now we have performing arts centers from all over the country coming here to look at this model and to see how they can replicate it in their communities. That’s very exciting.
Who in the Tampa Bay community do you admire?
There are so many, really. [I’m thinking] of people that are not the obvious choices. We have a 98-year-old volunteer named Margaret Goodson who still comes here every day. She has never missed a day except when she had an illness, and she commits every day to making Tampa a better place through the performing arts center. I look at her, and I go, “Wow. You are extraordinary.” It’s people like Margaret that change the world, really. And she inspires me.