Fifty miles southeast of Nashville—amid rolling pastureland, pristine horse farms and beautiful old Victorian homes—lies Bell Buckle, Tenn., pop. 405. Established in Bedford County in 1852, Bell Buckle is well known to day-trippers for its antique shops and quaint regional events, such as the recently concluded RC and Moon Pie Festival. This weekend, Bell Buckle seriously ups its résumé with the debut of the Tennessee Shakespeare Festival (TSF) and its production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. How the Bard has come to this land of bucolic charm and propane tanks is a story involving the interconnectedness of artists, the forward thinking of academia and the promotional efforts of local businesspersons and politicians.
The key player is artistic director Lane Davies, who returned to his mid-South roots in 2004 after nearly 30 years in Southern California, where he worked successfully as an actor, primarily in television (Santa Barbara, Third Rock From the Sun and countless other shows), and also founded the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company in Thousand Oaks.
Now residing in Dalton, Ga., just below the Tennessee border, Davies, 57, has acted and directed locally with Tennessee Repertory Theatre (I Hate Hamlet, The Underpants) while also keeping up his classical chops playing Shylock in Naked Stages’ 2007 production of The Merchant of Venice.
“I’m not really an artistic director by nature,” Davies says. “I’m much more like an old actor-manager from the 19th century. I’d rather find a wonderful play with a wonderful part for me and surround myself with friends.”
The friends have certainly rallied. Through a chain of coincidences, Davies kept linking up with fellow students from his days at MTSU’s theater department, including Ralph Jones and Ruth Cordell, both of whom now teach at Bell Buckle’s Webb School. In May 2007, the school’s headmaster, Albert Cauz, expressed an interest in establishing a local destination for Shakespeare.
“He offered us the school campus, plus housing,” says Davies. “Plus he pledged to help us raise money.... Later I talked informally with actor-lawyer Richard Northcutt, MTSU theater chair Jeff Gibson, the Rep’s artistic director René Copeland and various Bell Buckle movers and shakers. We created this alliance of all these disparate groups to produce this festival, but it all really goes back to people who had met in college and were strangely reunited.”
Cauz is in his third year at Webb, the South’s oldest boarding school. “We have a strong fine arts program,” Cauz says, “and we wanted to provide a venue for the festival and support it as much as possible. We want to turn kids on to Shakespeare.”
Bell Buckle alderman Jenny Hunt has been handling the public relations. “People come to Bell Buckle from all over,” she says. “The Webb School Art and Craft Festival in October will draw about 80,000 people. Because we’re small, we have an ambience that people feel good about.... We’re like Mayberry with awnings—but we know how to poke fun at ourselves, too.”
NSF’s execs dismiss any concerns that the new fest could somehow compete to the detriment of the more established Nashville Shakespeare Festival. “We’ll always support programs that present Shakespeare,” says executive director Nancy VanReece. ”We hope they’ll do well, and maybe we’ll find ways to collaborate. Hopefully there won’t be any branding confusion.”
NSF artistic director Denice Hicks cites the benefits of more work for actors. “It helps to stabilize our community to keep good actors here. We all work together, so there were no rehearsal or performance scheduling conflicts by design.”
Interestingly, Copeland has accepted an unpaid position as associate artistic director. “This is Lane’s baby,” she says, “but I could direct something down the line. We’ll see how it goes. At this point, the Rep is not providing anything but access to human resources.”
Under a rented tent, with seating for 300 plus festival grounds for additional theatergoers on blankets and chairs, TSF will present Davies’ Southern version of possibly the Bard’s most accessible, family-friendly play.
“I’ve done this particular version in California,” Davies says, “and it worked extremely well. It’s set in Athens, Ga., in the 1930s—sort of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? period—on the Duke’s Oak Plantation, which was burned out during the War of Northern Aggression. Oberon and Titania and the fairies are actually ghosts, and the Southern accents seem to work well with the text.” The large cast includes actors familiar to Nashvillians, including Cordell, Northcutt, Eric Pasto-Crosby, Patrick Waller and Bobby Wyckoff. Davies will play Oberon. “It’s not a star part,” he says, “but it’s a fun turn.”
Davies expects attendance equally from Huntsville, Chattanooga, Murfreesboro and Music City. “I’m thinking that people from Nashville can come down, hit the shops, go to the festival site with a picnic lunch, enjoy the play, and be home by midnight.”For more information, visit tennesseeshakespearefestival.com
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