Music City Confidential: Where Nashville Theater Stands Now

Music City Confidential: Where Nashville Theater Stands Now

"If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience." - George Bernard Shaw

Nashville theater has been abuzz since last week when a story appeared in the Nashville Scene about the state of "progressive theater" in Music City and whether or not audiences are ready for a shift in the accepted paradigm. Such cultural buzz is not unexpected and is certainly nothing new - if you've been around as long as I have, chronicling the happenings and profiling the personalities who bring theater in Nashville to life for 31 years, you are well aware that the same conversation has been a part of the discussion since Thespis first stepped out of the chorus to claim a leading role.

To put it succinctly, Nashville theater has always been progressive. There have always been people and companies focused on the cutting edge, delivering productions that challenge and compel their audiences to think and to consider where they are now and where they will go in the future, and there is no question that such forward-thinking creative types will continue to wield influence in the theater community for as long as theater is to be created here, there and everywhere.

In my limited scope of three decades, I remember the efforts of Dennis Ewing and Janet Claire at Actors Playhouse, of Shannon Wood, Peter Kurland, Bruce Arntson and Denice Hicks with he creation of Darkhorse Theater, of Stella Reed and Black Taffeta and Burlap, of Sean and Bob O'Connell and everyone engaged in the creation of ACT 1, of Barry Scott and American Negro Playwrights Theatre, of David Alford and Rene Copeland and Mockingbird Public Theatre, of Dorothy Marie Robinson and Nashville Public Theatre, of Mark Cabus and his efforts to broaden the horizons of local theatre with productions that still reverberate in the memories of those of us who've been around forever, of Maryanna and Chris Clarke and Tennessee Women's Theatre Project, of Vali Forrister and Bill Feehely and Actors Bridge Ensemble, of Scot Copeland and Nashville Children's Theatre, of Ross Brooks and People's Branch Theatre, of Arita Trahan and Big Bawl Baby Productions - and so many other visionaries who have sought to illuminate the human condition and to provide an outlet for progressive voices on the stages that have long comprised Nashville theater.

And while many of the people I have recalled in the course of a few moments sitting in front of a keyboard and the glow of a computer screen have moved on to other endeavors (whether real or imagined, in this world or the one beyond), there are just as many who have remained active and engaged in the creation of theater as we continue to witness on stages contemporaneous to this collection of words you are now reading.

Nashville theater is alive and well, just as it has always been. The difference? In a world of 24/7 media coverage (which includes social media), we are acutely aware of what is happening around us. And as Nashville in the larger sense has continued to grow - in fact, it has "boomed" since I started writing about theater in these parts since 1988 - we've witnessed some things that just don't make sense in the world of the creatives.

New theater people who come to town, dropping names and boasting impressive resumes, are nothing new in Nashville and my advice today remains consistent to what it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago: Don't, for a moment, think we don't know what we're doing in Nashville because you don't know our history. If you believe we're neophytes, then that makes you a cultural carpetbagger. Get to know us, to find your place in the community and you will be welcomed with open arms.

One would presume that as Nashville grows, so does the local theater scene, and as money is pumped into other areas of entertainment that theater would benefit from that largesse. But that's not necessarily been the case, of course: the production of live theater is an expensive undertaking and while the audience has grown incrementally in relation to the growth of our city's population, it hasn't taken off in a way that could ever compare, for example, to the explosion of interest in professional sports teams. The arts continue to be considered elitist - and sometimes unwelcoming and daunting - by many people who haven't had the exposure to them as easily and attainable as has been their exposure to big-time sports.

The effort to grow the arts in Nashville is a continuing challenge and one that requires constant reevaluation in order to remain effective and relevant. The key is making the arts, in general, and theater, in particular, available to and attractive to audiences that become increasingly divided and disjointed with every passing moment, and to encourage investment in the arts by those individuals and corporations who have the financial capabilities of helping to change the economic fortunes of companies struggling to survive in a fractured world.

It always comes down to money, doesn't it? Consider all the changes that have happened in the local theater community in the past six months - all the people who have left their positions, whether it's Matt Logan from Studio Tenn, Rene Copeland from Nashville Repertory Theatre or Martha Wilkinson from Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre - and you'll see, whether anyone will admit it freely and on the record or not, that money and finances have played a huge role in what's happened. Every company, regardless of their size, must focus on their financial viability in order to survive and if board members can't divine a quick and easy fix, they are likely to cut off the head of the animal in an effort to change course.

Meanwhile, Nashville Shakespeare Festival's Denice Hicks and Actors Bridge Ensemble's Vali Forrister will be spirited away to an undisclosed location in order to protect them. Like so many others, they are the heart and soul of our theater family.

Perhaps it is all a part of the current tenor of our times that such an administrative bloodletting, if you will, is happening in Nashville theater. But if you take a look at theater across the country, indeed throughout the world, you'll see that everyone everywhere is enduring this sense of course correction and, quite frankly, flailing about to ensure their survival. As the movers and shakers in Nashville's theater community consider their next moves, so too are top-flight Broadway producers: at least eight expensive musical productions are slated to close within the next few months, which possibly represents a course correction in the way productions are mounted on Broadway in favor of a tighter and leaner way of bringing new shows to new audiences.

Theater companies cannot depend upon the same audiences and benefactors to remain financially viable. Instead, new audiences and new streams of investment must be created, developed and nurtured to move into a future that's more encouraging to new art and the people who make it happen.

Theater folk can no longer depend upon local press, as we once knew it, to champion their work. When I first began to cover theater in Nashville, the coverage of theater in The Tennessean, Nashville Banner, Nashville Business Journal, Nashville Scene and other publications that would leave ink stains on your fingers was customary and expected. But those days are over and we are unlikely to see a return to print publications leading the public discourse.

We chose to include theater coverage in Dare/Query in 1988 as a means to get copies of our paper in the hands of an audience outside the LGBTQ community - and it worked! But when I decided to cease publication of Query in 2004, I stopped covering theater and it was not until ten years ago (2009) that I found a new outlet for my coverage on BroadwayWorld.com and have been writing for them ever since. Online outlets may not have the same impact as print publications, but they are the newest way for information about theater to be disseminated to readers interested in following what's happening in local theater. In fact, I take some of the blame and/or credit for creating a sense of a far more vibrant and successful theater community in Nashville by spreading the word to my readers all over the globe. I have always sought an audience outside the city limits in order to let people know of the wondrous efforts of theater people in my beloved theater town to further the scope of our imagination and creativity - and I know people who have moved here seeking to make an impression on local stages because they read what I have written.

Last year, I took the time to compute that I have written some five million words, give or take, about theater in Nashville since 1988 and I have remained consistently a champion of the local scene and a chronicler of what's been going on, yet I realize there are those who think I am not serious enough, that I like musicals far too much, to provide an accurate depiction of what's going on here. Like all Southerners, I admit that I detest hurting people's feelings and that I sometimes will soften my words in order to keep the peace and protect the people I admire. That's my cross to bear, however. No one else's.

Since last fall, when the production of The Wolves by Actors Bridge became something of a controversy and led to the company's banishment from Belmont University, I've found myself sitting on stories because people refused to go on the record for fear of their jobs, their livelihoods, of upsetting others and hurting the feelings of people they respect and admire - see my point? We're all in this together - and so I've been reluctant to push for people to go on the record so I could paint a more realistic picture of what's happening in theater in Nashville in the 21st century.

Because I have been around so long and have become the father confessor of so many in the local theater community - I know where all the bodies are buried, don't you know - I become privy to all the gossip and dirt and backstage ruminations of practically everyone in town (don't believe me? Ask the folks at Nashville Rep who was the first person to ask about recent events, the people at Chaffin's Barn who called up and asked what was going on out there or the folks at virtually every other organization who is most interested in the people who bring their shows to life. I know immediately when something is amiss, when something goes wrong or someone's head goes on the chopping block). But I am loath to write about it without being able to recognize who gave me the information or who is behind the rumors. I like to think of it as integrity, while naysayers may say I'm lazy and uninformed.

In conclusion (I've got stuff to do today), Nashville theater has always been progressive. Nashville theater has always been welcoming to newcomers, embracing them and their talents with a sense of hospitality and inclusion. And musical theater in Nashville is head and shoulders above what may be found in other regions and locales. What we must do to ensure I will still have things to write about for the next 31 years is this: Cooperate and work together. Accept one another (cooperation means NCT and the Rep will have to work with the people at Circle Players and The Keeton Theatre and not be judgmental about the quality of the work or performances) and band together to present a united front. We're all in this together, people, and on any given night, in a darkened auditorium, you may find magic happening and the transportive and transformative power of theater working on the most surprising and unexpected of audiences.



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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis