Family Entertainment Series

Smith Wilkes stage to host alligators, monkeys, bugs



Submitted photo.

Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer

Normal guests for the Tuesday night Family Entertainment Series performances are children and their parents, but tonight’s two shows will have some guests of a different species attending and performing. These guests are the animals of Nickel City Reptiles and Exotics, and they will be the focus of tonight’s performances.

Animal handler Jeff Musial said tonight’s shows, at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Smith Wilkes Hall, are for guests of any age and will include a variety of animals people don’t often get to see. He said some of the guests in tonight’s show include a black and white ruffed lemur, a baby black-handed spider monkey, alligators and snakes.

To teach people conservation information about these animals, Musial said, he uses a fun method that involves mixing education with entertainment for audience members.

“We call it ‘edutainment,’” he said. “We like to educate people, but in a fun way.”

Musial invites guests up on stage with him at various points during the shows to hold some of the snakes and bugs. He said this allows guests to develop a love for exotic species while seeing them up close.

Musial said using a more fun method to teach kids and adults about endangered and rare species of animals helps them to focus throughout the entire show and to absorb the information given to them. This means Musial also gets to include a little bit of comedy and some “fun facts” about the animals.

Musial said that for almost 14 years, he has worked to educate the public on aspects of wildlife.

None of the animals at Nickel City Reptiles and Exotics are taken from the wild. They have all been brought from other educational organizations, are previous unwanted pets or were rescued from neglectful situations, Musial said.

Nickel City Reptiles and Exotics has appeared on several morning talk shows and late-night shows such as “The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” both in 2009. This has allowed them to reach an even broader audience in their goal of educating the public on wildlife.

Musial said after Chautauqua, Nickel City Reptiles and Exotics will make another appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” July 21.

Even after almost 14 years of working on animal conservation, Musial said he still loves to see an audience’s reaction when he brings out each of the animals in his shows. The most rewarding part of teaching audiences conservation is the fact that audience members laugh and smile, he said.

“I do it in a way where they get it all through fun and laughing,” Musial said. “I just like to entertain people. I’m a big kid at heart.”

Comedy, juggling and stunts come to Smith Wilkes Hall

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Nels Ross. Submitted photo.

Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer

A blend of clean comedy, juggling, flying props and extraordinary stunts comes to Chautauqua as Nels Ross, CEO of In Jest Inc. brings “In Jest: Comedy Variety Show” at 5 and 7 p.m. tonight to Smith Wilkes Hall. These performances come as part of the 2011 Season’s Family Entertainment Series.

Ross, a performer, comedian and speaker, began working on his act when he was 8 years old and said his main influence was his mother, who was a mime, fire-eater, singer, dancer and storyteller. After seeing Ross’s interest in juggling and performing, his mother gave him the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz, and his love grew from there.

“She was my first inspiration in learning how to juggle,” he said.

Since then, Ross has immersed himself in juggling and performing, even working with instructors from the Ringling Bros. Circus and Cirque du Soleil throughout his training. Ross also immersed himself by studying theater at the University at Buffalo.

At the age of 20, Ross took time to tour with a circus and then began his career as a full-time performer when he was 24 years old.

Ross has performed for audiences in Chautauqua as part of the Family Entertainment Series five times in the past, and he said he always makes sure to have something new for returning audiences.

“Whenever I return somewhere, I come back with a different show,” Ross said. “There will be some brand-new elements.”

Included in tonight’s performances will be a new balancing act Ross said is a combination stunt of several different skills. These include balancing, spinning and juggling props simultaneously. He said he also plans to have more unique elements in the shows, which will include “exploding and squirting things.”

In addition to providing family entertainment and comedy, Ross also does ministry work and said he believes his ministry work takes an active role in all his performances.

“I believe all of my shows are ministry in the sense that laughter can be a cup of cold water to somebody that is hurting,” Ross said. “The message really here is to enjoy life, and I hope my show does that.”

Ross said his ultimate goal in performing is always to bring mirth, joy and laughter to his audiences, and this is what he plans to do at Chautauqua this evening.

“Ringling Brothers sometimes calls their show ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’” Ross said. “I call this show ‘The Greatest Show on Mirth.’”

He also said a great benefit of laughter is stress relief, and this is something refreshing to audience members of any age.

“This is truly a show for all ages,” Ross said. “Bring the kids. Bring the parents. Bring the grandparents.”

‘Live 3D’ comes to Amp tonight

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Mark Nizer. Submitted photo.

Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer

Lasers, bowling balls, electric carving knives and comedy will fill the Amphitheater at 7:30 p.m. tonight. These all play a part in “Expecting the Impossible: Mark Nizer’s Live 3D Show,” a special Wednesday entry into Chautauqua’s Family Entertainment Series this summer.

Nizer, who has been working to perfect his act since he took juggling classes as a child, won the International Juggling Association Championships and has performed at such venues as the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Nizer said he plans to bring plenty of juggling, comedy and 3-D lighting effects to tonight’s performance. He added that incorporating comedy allows him to form a stronger connection with the audience. This means that while Nizer is juggling a variety of potentially dangerous objects, he is also working to make the crowd laugh.

“A lot of comedians rely on finding some common ground with the audience,” Nizer said. “I make that connection because we’re all experiencing that same kind of challenge together.”

Though it may go unnoticed by most in the audience, Nizer utilizes a unique tool to bring the various aspects of the show together.

“I designed this unique system that lets me run everything from my belt,” Nizer said. “I want to truly have it be a one-man show.”

Nizer controls all aspects of the show, from audio, lighting and video to fog machines and lasers. The only assistance he’ll receive this evening is having an individual throw him one of his props from the side of the stage.

Everything is controlled from his belt, which is programmed to change button settings for each routine in his act. Audience members typically don’t even notice that Nizer is controlling the special effects.

“It’s hard to even notice it’s happening, but the whole goal was to make it an easy thing to do,” Nizer said.

Nizer said although some of the smaller children in attendance tonight may not understand all the comedic aspects of his show, the use of lighting, music, juggling and lasers means that there is something for everyone.

“It’s perfect for everybody,” Nizer said. “It crosses all ages.”

The early start time of the event and Chautauqua’s outdoor Amphitheater will provide Nizer with a unique experience; the ambient light will allow him the rare opportunity to see the people he is performing for.

“It’ll be an interesting experience to be able to see the audience,” Nizer said. “I can usually only see the first two rows.”

Nizer said his show will be approximately 75 minutes long, and he will single-handedly entertain the audience the whole time.

“I’m always tickled by people saying, ‘I haven’t laughed so hard in my whole life,’” Nizer said. “I’m going to expect people to have a great time and laugh. It’s definitely different than anything you’ve ever seen before.”

‘Opera Improv Trunk’ introduces children to opera

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Pittsburgh Opera presents “Opera Improv Trunk” at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. tonight in Smith Wilkes Hall. Photo courtesy of David Bachman.

Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer

Audience members can find themselves taking an active role in tonight’s Family Entertainment Series performance. This is the Pittsburgh Opera’s “Opera Improv Trunk,” and it allows audience members to take part in making a finished “Opera-on-the-spot” improvisation alongside Pittsburgh Opera teaching artists.

The Pittsburgh Opera teaching artists who will be in the presentation tonight are Amy Stabnau, Bridget Steele, Liliana Piazza, Rob Frankenberry and Mark Trawka.

Each of these artists will offer the audience two arias, which are vocal pieces from operas. The audience will then have the opportunity to vote on which of these arias will go into the final improvisation story. The artists will also offer several story titles, and audience members will choose what story title they will then use to create the improvisation.

Marilyn Egan, director of education for the Pittsburgh Opera, said tonight’s presentations will teach audiences about opera while also making them a part of the improvisation process.

Unlike most performances, Egan said, the “Opera Improv Trunk” will not show up as a finished product for guests to merely sit and watch.

“It’s improvised on the spot,” Egan said. “It’s a cross between Disney street performers, teachers in a school and opera on a stage.”

Because of this, Egan said, the performance is more of a presentation than a planned event.

“The audience members will help to shape what the program is,” Egan said. “So many things are prepared in advance, but this is not one of those performances.”

This is the first time the “Opera Improv Trunk” will be in Chautauqua, and Virginia DiPucci, president of the Chautauqua Opera Guild, said one of the main objectives of today’s presentation is to broaden the opera audience by sparking an interest in opera. DiPucci said this could be very difficult if audience members don’t have an initial understanding of opera.

“People look to opera as a very sophisticated art form and keep away if they’re not very knowledgeable in it,” DiPucci said. “If you want an audience that’s going to be with you for a long time, you have to start from when they are children.”

The other main objective of the presentation is to offer musical enrichment for children.

“We wanted to bring opera to all levels of society and to all ages,” DiPucci said. “This is the opportunity for cross generations to enjoy and learn about opera together. I think that that’s really important.”

DiPucci, whose love of opera began when her mother brought it to her attention as a child, said individuals who are exposed to and educated in opera from a young age tend to stay tied to it throughout their entire lives.

“There’s wonderful setting and wonderful music to opera,” DiPucci said. “You have to show people that, and you show youngsters that, and they get very attached to that.”

Overall, Egan said that making opera available to people who aren’t necessarily familiar with the art form is a major objective of the presentation. To that end, the teaching artists try to incorporate facts about opera into the presentation.

“Opera can be accessible, and it can be fun,” Egan said. “Teaching artists can help people think about opera in new ways.”

The two performances will take place at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. tonight at Smith Wilkes Hall and are sponsored by the Chautauqua Opera Guild.

Ventriloquist set to amaze families tonight

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This article originally appeared on Page 3 of the Tuesday, June 28, issue of The Chautauquan Daily

Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer

Families looking to enjoy a stress-free Tuesday night have to look no further than tonight’s Family Entertainment Series act.

Michael Harrison. Submitted photo.

, a ventriloquist, puppeteer and comedian will perform at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. tonight in Smith Wilkes Hall.

A semi-finalist on the 2008 season of “America’s Got Talent,” Harrison takes his passion for entertaining kids and families very seriously. He has performed on many cruise lines, including Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean International and Holland America, and he just finished his 10th year with Disney Cruise Line.

He also expanded his talents to the TV realm when he wrote and starred in “Kids in the Firehall.”

While Harrison, who is from Vancouver, British Columbia, has never been to Chautauqua, he said he has known for approximately six months that he would be bringing his show here during the 2011 Season. He was approached about performing in Chautauqua after doing a performing arts showcase in New York last year.

With a background in improvisation, Harrison said he tries to go with the flow in his performances. This allows him to adapt to unexpected factors in any show.

“It’s good as a performer to be slightly nervous,” he said. “You don’t want to be so comfortable that you get too relaxed on stage. You never know what kids are going to do or say, so you just have to go with the flow.”

Harrison’s show typically runs from 45 minutes to one hour long, and he said determining the length of his show can be challenging when dealing with
young kids.

“I cater to the family market, so we don’t like to go much longer than an hour,” Harrison said. “I play it by ear, and if they’re still engaged, I keep going. Every audience is a little bit

While the majority of Harrison’s show is dedicated to entertaining families, he said he often has to spend time making sure his audience understands different aspects of the show.

“I spend the first five minutes of the show explaining the art because many don’t know about ventriloquism or puppets,” Harrison said. “It’s just something kids don’t really experience anymore.”

From there, Harrison tries to make each performance fun for audiences.

“Each routine is unique and different,” Harrison said. “I’m not the traditional ventriloquist. I try to find things that are unique, one-of-a-kind, family-friendly and engaging.”

For tonight’s performance, Harrison said he is excited about the “many, many special guests” he has for his audiences. These include a 20-foot talking snake puppet named Ana Conda, a talking tennis ball and racquet named Mr. Tennis Ball and Dunlop, and a human puppet, which will be created from a member of the audience by throwing his voice while making the audience member’s mouth move.

Harrison said one of his goals in entertaining guests is to “take them on a little bit of a ride.” He does this by providing them with entertainment for entire families of any age.

He also said he enjoys the fact that he can “get kids away from the TV for an
hour or so.”

Overall, Harrison said he wants to see his audience in Chautauqua “have a good time and forget their worries.”

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