A Nashville Theater Tribute: GIVING THANKS FOR DENICE, Part 3

From January 2009: Denice Hicks, A Life in the Theater

By: Nov. 22, 2023
A Nashville Theater Tribute: GIVING THANKS FOR DENICE, Part 3

A Nashville Theater Tribute: GIVING THANKS FOR DENICE, Part 3 Denice Hicks is a national treasure who's been hiding out in plain sight in Nashville, Tennessee, for more than a quarter century. One of the most sought-after actors and directors in town, she has appeared on virtually every stage and her exquisite talents have been enjoyed by audiences and fellow theatre-types since her first Music City appearance as a cast member at the now-defunct Opryland USA theme park.

While she is one of hundreds of people who pursue their theatrical art in Nashville year after year, in many ways Denice Hicks might be considered "the face" of Nashville theatre, so prevalent has been her influence and her presence among the city's best. As the artistic director of Nashville Shakespeare Festival, she leads one of the city's most vibrant professional companies, and she is widely considered one of the region's most capable individuals, lauded for her artistic vision, her impeccable timing and her seemingly boundless energy.

With a critically acclaimed turn as Ouiser Boudreaux in Tennessee Repertory Theatre's 25th anniversary season production of Steel Magnolias last fall, she now finds herself in rehearsals for the high-flying role of Ariel in The Tempest, Nashville Shakespeare Festival's winter offering.

Somehow, the peripatetic and ageless (I always think of her as twentysomething, which somehow belies the fact that she's the mother of Middle Tennessee State University student Arlo Arntson) Hicks found time to sit down during the holiday season to answer our questions, to illuminate her "Life in the Theatre" for BroadwayWorld.com readers.

A Nashville Theater Tribute: GIVING THANKS FOR DENICE, Part 3 What was your first taste of theatre? When I was a child, my family traveled with a VFW minstrel troupe entertaining veterans in hospitals around the Philadelphia area. Everyone in my family was involved, singing, playing instruments and painting the set. When I was five my mother stood me up on a box at the microphone and said, "Sing. If you can lift the spirits of one of these guys for even a few minutes you've done a good thing." So, I learned from the start that theater is all about making the world a brighter place.

What was your first real job or responsibility in the theatre? From 1965 to 1973 I did those minstrel shows, but my first experience beyond those and school shows, was the Rose Tree Media Summer Stock production of Kiss Me Kate. That show marked the beginning of my career of "acting" like a singer/dancer. Kiss Me Kate has some major dance numbers, but I had only studied ballet for about a year before auditioning for it. The callback involved jazz, modern and tap dancing, so I was totally acting, channeling all of the Gene Kelly movies I'd ever seen and thinking about how Leslie Caron and Vera-Ellen looked when they danced. I guess I was successful convincing the director and choreographer that I was a dancer, because they put me in the chorus and I had a ball! I learned that on-the-job training is a huge part of this business.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in theatre? Nothing else ever really tempted me. I love serving the community and theater is the best way for me to do that.

A Nashville Theater Tribute: GIVING THANKS FOR DENICE, Part 3 Why do you pursue your art in Nashville? What are the best parts of working here? I moved to Nashville in 1980 to perform at Opryland. I had been in college in Pittsburgh, and the Opryland search team came to audition at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where Point Park U. performed. A piano player friend, Ricky Ritzell, talked me into auditioning, and I was cast in the Country Music USA show (where I acted like a country singer and clogger!). I moved here and fell in love with this city. I love Nashvillians, I love the weather, I love the pace of the city and the culture of kindness here. Nashville is a very creative place and the theater artists here are very grounded and mutually supportive. I love our theater community and love working with people I've known for up to 30 years.

If you could play any role, direct any work, design any production, mount any production...what would it be and why? I am extremely fortunate in that the challenges I find in mounting Shakespeare's works are very fulfilling to me. I had no idea that Richard the Third would be such a great experience until I directed it last year in a vaudeville style. I've had the great fortune to play many of Shakespeare's characters and look forward to playing many more in my lifetime. I also love new works and being involved in the development process and am very happy that we have some directors, producers and playwrights here who are highly motivated to get some new works out there. In other words, I'm up for the next challenge - whatever play that may be!

A Nashville Theater Tribute: GIVING THANKS FOR DENICE, Part 3 Who would play you in the film version of your life story? Robert Downey Jr., but if I had to cast a female, I'd bring Guilietta Masina back to life and put her to work again. She'd understand the role.

What's your favorite play/musical? I have many. Waiting for Godot, Our Town, The Tempest, Carnival. I could go on. Of course, it's completely dependent on the spirit of the production.

If you could have dinner with any three figures (living or dead, real or fictional) who are a part of the theatre, who would you choose and why? Shakespeare has quite a bit of explaining to do, so he'd have to be there. I'd love to spend some time with Meryl Streep, and hearing August Wilson's stories from the man himself would be glorious. They are who I'd choose.

Imagine a young person seeing you onstage or seeing a production in which you played a major role coming up to you and asking you for advice in pursuing their own theatrical dream...what would you say? Theater is a collaborative Art. Stay open to new ideas from your collaborators and constantly refine and clarify your own vision. Respect everyone's opinion, but don't let anyone's opinion throw you off track. Always work toward the absolute best art imaginable – as if every project is your last. Don't fear being original. Fear being boring.

A Nashville Theater Tribute: GIVING THANKS FOR DENICE, Part 3 One of the most important lessons I learned came from a hair/make up designer who yelled at rowdy actors who were not respecting her workspace in the dressing room. She said: I don't come on stage and distract you when you're working, so please be quiet when you're in here.

That taught me that everyone working in the theater is an artist - the techies, the ushers, the actors, the stage managers, everybody! We all come together to ensure that the audience has the best possible theatrical experience. Everybody deserves respect. The world is a rough and sometimes terrible place – we have the opportunity to create our own world in the theater. Why not create a fair, safe place where people can be creative and have fun while they are learning and growing? That's the world in which I love living!