On a hot afternoon last spring, Ruth Sweet and I were holding forth over the telephone. She had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and while we spent time discussing her disease, we soon lapsed into our usual mode of hashing out solutions to problemshers, mine, the city’s, the world’s. In fact, we spent a good hour debating the issues discussed in my pieces for this year’s Arts Guide.
“Did you see the article in yesterday’s New York Times about performing arts centers?” Ruth asked me. I told her I’d read it, but that I didn’t have a copy. Within two days, a tear-sheet of the story arrived in my afternoon mail. Even when battling metastatic cancer, Ruth still found time to take care of business.
On Monday, Aug. 24, surrounded by loved ones and lucid till the end, Ruth Sweet succumbed to the cancer that had moved into her body with such startling ferocity. Suddenly people all over town were left wondering, “Who will we talk to now?”
During the 28 years Ruth lived in Nashville, she trained over 4,000 acting students, a handful of celebrities, hundreds of corporate employees and executives, and numerous local and national politicians. A long time ago, she’d decided that most of the world’s ills could be cured if people would learn to communicate. This would be her mitzvah, her good deed: She would teach them how.
An odd mixture of New York intensity and Southern gentility, Ruth was born in Brooklyn and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Emerson College in Boston. In 1970, she came to Nashville with her husband and two daughters, Haley and Shari, to work at Fisk University, where she ran the theater and drama program. Gifts should be shared, she believed, and her beloved students could set an example. She formed them into an all-black improv troupe that performed before inner-city schoolchildren. She wanted these youngsters to witness dreams fulfilled.
In 1973, after she and her husband divorced, Ruth met attorney Alfred Knight, the man who was to become her lifelong soulmate. She later left Fisk to head up the education program at Nashville Children’s Theatre, where she worked for four years.
By the end of the 1970s, Ruth hit full stride. Gazing upon the Tennessee Performing Arts Center as it neared completion, she marched over to then-managing director Warren Summers and convinced him that any arts complex worth its concrete would include an acting studio for adult artists. With 165 students in towmeeting under stairwells, in half-finished theaters, or anywhere else they could secure a spaceshe began to teach voice and articulation, improv, and technique.
Eventually The Acting Studio found a permanent home in the building’s Rehearsal Hall, “spreading sunshine in TPAC’s windowless basement,” as Ruth once mused. In 1985, she opened the Acting Conservatory, a 10-month, full-time training program closely associated with Tennessee Repertory Theatre. Those who benefited from her tutelage include a who’s who of local performers: Barry Scott, Denice Hicks, Mary Tanner, Mike Eldred, Pam Tillis, Roseanne Cash, and all three Judd women. Nashville Children’s Theatre’s Scot Copeland estimates that Ruth ultimately had a hand in training 50 percent of the actors in town.
She was a dear friend and loyal counsel to former U.S. Postmaster General Marvin Runyon. But she never lost her interest in the downtrodden either, and she spent countless hours helping female prisoners learn how to present themselves before a parole board. Whatever their station in life, Ruth loved all people equally. Driven by an Ashkenazic double-X chromosome, she followed the careers of her former protégés with unwavering devotion and an earful of advice.
On the other hand, Ruth was also quick to dismiss from her life anything that didn’t meet her standards, and at various times she boycotted red meat, the Tennessean, the Nashville Banner, and Tennessee Repertory Theatre. I often saw her at The Rep’s shows, though.
“Well, of course,” she’d say, “I had to come see [fill in the blank: Barry Scott, Mike Eldred, etc.].” Her protests were often more in principal than in practice.
The process of livingof being part of a familythrilled her. Other people were talented, but Haley and Shari were perfection. Last year, she called me after she’d returned from a vacation. “I had a fabulous time,” she said. “And do you know what I realized? I realized that I am totally, completely, madly in love with my husband!”
At that point, she and Alfred had been together for nearly 25 years. But that was Ruth. She brought to every relationship a heightened sense of adventurea sense that simply belonging to the universe put us all on the cusp of a wonderful discovery.
Today Ruth is a comet, sparks flying, streaking across the heavens. She leaves behind those who loved her to bask in her luminescence.
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