Take Me Home, Country Road

Theatre carves a niche for itself in the hometown of the Grand Ole Opry

By Trav S.D.

Nashville has multiple-personality disorder. On the one hand, it is the "Buckle of the Bible Belt," the capital of the Christian publishing industry, with a skyline dominated by churches. On the other, it is the international capital of country music—a genre notoriously attached to barrooms, two-timing lovers and phrases like "take this job and shove it." Perhaps the only aspect the two subcultures have in common is their attempt to outdo each other in the repudiation of high culture.

But all that is changing. As if to dispel a national image of philistinism, the city appears to be trying to reclaim another of its old nicknames, the "Athens of the South." A large infusion of private and public money, and a great effort by certain concerned citizens over the last 30 years, seem aimed at restoring Nashville to its status in the glorious days when it boasted the nation’s second-largest theatre (the Adelphi, 2,500 seats) and many of the South’s first colleges—and was the sort of place where a full-scale replica of the Parthenon might be built (as one was in 1897). Spearheaded by book distribution magnate Martha Ingram (the 81st richest American, according to Forbes magazine’s 2001 tally), the movement culminated in the 1980 opening of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

Ingram served on the Kennedy Center’s board in the late 1960s, so it’s surely no coincidence that TPAC physically resembles the Washington, D.C., arts complex and is just across the street from the Tennessee State Capitol on "Capitol Hill." Like the Kennedy Center, TPAC is a multi-use facility, housing the Nashville Symphony, the Nashville Opera Association, the Nashville Ballet and the Tennessee State Museum. Its three theatres, whimsically named after Tennessee’s three U.S. presidents (the Jackson, the Johnson and the Polk) are home to two of Nashville’s most established theatre companies—the Tennessee Repertory Theatre and the Circle Players—and also accommodate Broadway road companies and other major touring acts. All of this owes its origin to Ingram’s dream. Says one local arts administrator, "We say a prayer to her every night."

When TPAC opened, downtown Nashville’s only non-children’s theatre company was the Circle Players, a revered community theatre group founded in 1948. Other than dinner theatre for tourists, Nashville had not had a fully professional theatre company since the antebellum days. In 1983, Ingram and theatre director Mac Pirkle (who had briefly helmed a previous venture called Southern Stages) founded Tennessee Rep. The only LORT theatre in town, the Rep is the state’s largest theatre and the fourth-largest theatre in the South. Its $3-million annual budget and 4,700 subscribers dwarf all other comers.

At the ripe old age of 19, the Rep is now a few years into its second incarnation. Pirkle had originally conceived of the company as an incubator of new musicals. Its most famous product from that time—a show called Dream, based on Johnny Mercer songs—went to Broadway in 1997 and promptly closed. Shortly thereafter Pirkle left, and the Rep’s board did a search for his successor.

The man they brought on to replace him was David Grapes, whose previous credits had included a stint as artistic director of ArtPark in Buffalo, N.Y., and responsibility for a $26-million musical called Utah! (produced in the eponymous state).

Grapes was skeptical at first. "I had reservations but decided to come down and have a look," he recalls. "I’d always thought it was just a country music town, but when I got here I was surprised to find Nashville had a symphony, an opera, a ballet. There were lots of progressive people; there was lots of philanthropy. And so I took the job."

Grapes immediately set about changing the Rep’s mission. "I thought it should truly be the area’s regional theatre," he says, "presenting a combination of classics and contemporary work and occasionally commissioning new work." In a recent step toward this goal, he has just engineered a deal that legally merges the Rep with TPAC, reducing overhead and moving the Rep’s offices from the previous locale (a former underwear factory on the wrong side of the tracks) into the TPAC complex. "We’re envisioning something along the lines of the Denver Center," Grapes explains.

Grapes’s programming has progressed from mainstage productions of such typical resident theatre fare as Wit, with Tandy Cronyn, and Driving Miss Daisy, with Karen Grassle of Little House on the Prairie, to plays that are, in his view, more challenging, such as last season’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, How I Learned to Drive and The Santaland Diaries--but the "regional" part of the Rep equation has remained primarily a geographical distinction.

As for what the future holds: Local critic Kevin Nance of the Nashville Tennessean, for one, has mixed feelings about the Rep/TPAC merger, "On the one hand, I fear that there will be less artistic independence," he says. "On the other, they will now have financial stability, and hopefully David [Grapes] can spend less time fundraising."

Art-and-money problems take different forms at the two dozen new theatre companies that have sprung up in Nashville in the last decade-and-a-half. The Nashville Shakespeare Festival, Dark Horse, Mockingbird Public Theatre, People’s Branch, Nashville Theatre Works, Actor’s Bridge—and others—have brought Nashville a step closer to having, in terms of diversity, quality and numbers, a genuine "theatre scene." In the process, these companies have developed a neighborly support network, routinely swapping actors, information and other resources.

One local thespian who has watched the scene grow is Denice Hicks of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. She arrived in town in 1980 to perform in a show called Country Music, U.S.A., at the now defunct Opryland, and became a founding member of Southern Stages and later of the Rep. In 1988 she and fellow actor Donald Capparrella founded the Shakespeare Festival with the goal of mounting "riskier fare." (That Shakespeare is considered "riskier" than what the Rep was doing would appear to be an indication of the flavor of the Rep’s work.) The company performs an annual summer production in a Centennial Park bandshell and a fall production at TPAC; it also tours schools and offers classes. Hicks considers it a measure of the company’s growing professionalism that its next production, this summer’s All’s Well That Ends Well, will be directed by Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s Audrey Stanley.

But the Shakespeare Festival wasn’t always so respectable. For four years, it was merged with a company called Dark Horse, based in a modest 136-seat venue in the former Nashville Presbyterian Church. All theatrical roads in Nashville, it turns out, lead to Dark Horse. Founded in 1990 by Shannon Wood, former stage manager of the Tennessee Rep, and her husband, Peter Kurland, Dark Horse first essayed original plays with titles like White People and XXX Love Act, but a variety of factors contributed to its evolution into a venue for other companies. Wood and Kurland cite "burnout" as the principal reason: In addition to raising two boys, Kurland is a sound mixer on films by the Coen Brothers and Barry Sonnenfeld, and Wood was a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 2000 (she polled third in the state primary). This doesn’t mean the Dark Horse has been tamed, however. When the Eggplant Faerie Players, Nashville’s premier gay theatre company, wanted to stage its drag version of Lysistrata, this is where it came.

Lately, in fact, the rental business has been a little too good. "There’s not enough space in this town!" moans Kurland. "There’s a huge number of companies and very few theatres. We’re dying for competition."

As if to demonstrate this fact, when I next meet Wood, it is at the Mockingbird Public Theatre’s production of Of Mice and Men, which is staged in Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium. The basement of this World War I-era building, managed by TPAC, houses the military collection of the Tennessee State Museum. To get to the theatre, one walks up granite steps past a neoclassical colonnade containing a small cannon and sculptures of war heroes, then enters a multipurpose room that contains 500 chairs facing a proscenium clearly best suited for patriotic speeches and amateur music recitals. How’s that for atmosphere?

But the artists of Mockingbird soldier on. For the purposes of this production, they’ve jerry-built a crude thrust that allows them to coax the action out of the cavernous proscenium. Furthermore, the actors proceed to give a performance of which any theatre—anywhere—would be proud. (Wood, who sat beside me, was convulsed with weeping by the end.)

The keystone of this production is its star, Mockingbird’s artistic director David Alford, who founded the company in 1993. Alford grew up on a dairy farm 45 minutes away in rural Adams, Tenn. He was discovered by playwright Arthur Kopit, who visited Alford’s high school for an educational workshop and advised him that he was good enough to pursue a career in theatre. Alford went on to Juilliard, and, after stints at Seattle Rep, Hartford Stage and other theatres, resolved to bring his work back home; he founded Mockingbird in 1994 with fellow Juilliard classmates Tucker McCrady and Paul Michael Valley. In 1997 the company was voted the city’s third most popular theatre, according to a Nashville Life readers poll.

Alford is a much beloved figure here, and clearly a leader in the theatrical community. He exudes a benevolence and an integrity—a squeaky-clean quality—that is refreshing. On the night I attended Of Mice and Men, the first person he greeted after the performance was his 90-year-old grandfather. The same qualities show up in both his acting work and the way he runs the company. During my visit, several people whispered to me, "Don’t tell anyone I said this, but David’s the best actor in town."

Largely through Alford’s instigation, Mockingbird "went Equity" in 1997—at the same time, by prearranged agreement, as the Nashville Shakespeare Festival and Nashville Children’s Theatre. "We did the jump together," said Alford, "We wanted to inspire more local actors to join Equity, and if only one of the companies had done it, it would have thrown everything out of balance. As you can imagine, it’s hard for an actor to make a living in a town the size of Nashville."

Such cooperation is the order ofthe day in this town where everyone seems to know everyone and theatre companies exchange actors like good neighbors share power tools. Some share addresses too: René Copeland, associate artistic director at Mockingbird (she staged Of Mice and Men), is the wife of Scot Copeland, producing director of the Nashville Children’s Theatre.

"Ironically, that used to be juvenile hall up the road there," chuckles Scot Copeland, whose graying beard, ample girth and jolly demeanor resemble those of a youngish Santa Claus. He is showing me the layout of his facilities, part of which was once a Civil War hospital. The Children’s Theatre possesses the second-best theatre plant in town after TPAC. The fully equipped main stage seats 600 and is equipped with fly and wing space. In addition, there is room for a black box space for smaller productions, as well as for offices, dressing rooms and a scene shop big enough to play basketball in. The company is the only producing theatre within the city limits to have its own venue, and it is one many struggling theatres would kill for.

While its municipally owned status forbids the Children’s Theatre from hosting any of the other local companies, Copeland is able to employ their actors. He speaks with great enthusiasm about Laurie Brooks’s Devon’s Hurt, in which Denice Hicks portrayed a dog and People’s Branch’s artistic director, Brian Niece, played (against type) a vulnerable little boy.

"Denice is such a good actress," says Copeland, "that she chose a specific real-life dog on which to base her character."

Niece, who has consciously carved out a niche for himself here as Nashville theatre’s Bad Boy, worked in small theatres in Philadelphia and Chicago before founding People’s Branch in 2000. The name is meant to suggest a multiplicity of images—from an olive branch, to the act of "branching out," to the challenge of "going out on a limb." His mission, he considers, is to present "plays that are risky—progressive for this area, but standard anywhere else." His recent season (not radically more adventurous, in fact, than that of the Rep) included Waiting for Godot, two plays by Wallace Shawn (The Fever and Marie and Bruce) and a new adaptation of the novel Einstein’s Dreams.

An out-of-towner, venturing into the thick of Nashville theatre, may be struck by the fact that few of the plays on the boards are actually about Nashville—a circumstance that seems surprising, given the fact that, to fans of country and gospel music all over the world, the home of the Grand Ole Opry is as important a cultural capital, in its way, as New York or Los Angeles. Nashville’s theatre and music communities, however, tend to inhabit separate worlds. Though the list is long of Nashville recording artists who’ve been bitten by the acting bug (e.g., Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Reba McEntire, Wynona Judd, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, the late Waylon Jennings), few take part artistically in the local theatre scene. Attempts were made to get such collaboration going in the 1980s and 1990s at Tennessee Rep, when Mike Reid (who wrote Bonnie Raitt’s "I Can’t Make You Love Me") penned The Ballad of Little Jo for the Rep (the show later went on to Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago). Another successful Nashville songwriter, Don Schlitz, wrote the musical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which had a brief life on Broadway.

Nashville’s other power base, the "old money" community, does support the theatre scene through donations and ticket purchases, bestowing the twin gifts of patronage and conservatism, which are the boon and bane of regional theatres everywhere. And a few recent developments suggest that the city’s theatre community is beginning to move more in sync with local concerns and local writing talent. Providing a striking contrast to Grapes’s crisp, corporate demeanor, for example, is that of Jayne Rogovin, the Rep’s cigar-smoking, horseback-riding director of marketing, who, though also an outsider, has fully embraced Nashville culture.

"It’s Country—not Country and Western," she corrects this shamefaced writer over ribs at a Music Row watering hole. A former TV producer (music videos brought her to Nashville), Rogovin is hustling the Rep’s most promising project, an original musical workshopped by a local company called Actor’s Bridge. Written by top Nashville songwriter Marcus Hummon (author of hits for the Dixie Chicks and others), the play, Francis of Guernica, tells how Picasso was inspired to paint "Guernica"when he heard about a young American boy who became shell-shocked in the Spanish Civil War and awoke thinking he was St. Francis of Assisi. This is the fifth musical Hummon has developed with Actor’s Bridge, which operates out of a chapel lent by Hummon’s wife, an Episcopal priest.

Hummon’s work is strictly "New Country"—he seems closer to Stephen Sondheim than Hank Williams. Yet it is a start. A quieter but even more promising development is the two-year-old Nashville Theatre Works. Founded by Catherine Coke, a director with credits at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, L.A.’s Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, the company specializes in new-play development. When Coke held her first playwriting workshop at a local coffeehouse on the Vanderbilt campus in September 2000, 50 people turned up. In October 2001, when she held a series of play readings as part of Humanities Tennessee’s Southern Festival of Books, a dozen local theatre companies—including most of the ones described in this article—participated.

The response seems to indicate an acknowledgement on everybody’s part of a need for new material. Scores of superbly talented actors and directors live in Nashville, and the city could be on the verge of developing a national voice. That can only happen organically, just as country music evolved: from the ferment of a thousand local scribblers. When dozens of Marcus Hummons are producing theatre here regularly, and when that theatre is genuinely looking at southern culture—celebrating its positive aspects and taking a good hard look at its negative ones—then Nashville will surely deserve its former nickname, the "Athens of the South."

Trav S.D. is a 2001-2002 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support from a grant by the Jerome Foundation.

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