By the People 

People’s Branch Theatre’s new artistic director looks ahead

People’s Branch Theatre’s new artistic director looks ahead

It’s been more than three years since People’s Branch Theatre mounted its first production in the fall of 2000. The company has gone on to establish itself as Nashville’s premier alternative theater, but the road to solvency has been a bumpy one. While former artistic director Brian Niece passionately spearheaded a program that brought the plays of Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka to the stage, a major misstep occurred in late 2002 when the Beckett Estate brought legal action against PBT for the casting of women in the lead roles of Waiting for Godot. Bouncing back from financial difficulty hasn’t been easy. Since then, PBT has mounted Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams (a co-production with Mockingbird Theatre) and a reprise performance of Niece’s one-man show Vincent. Now, on the heels of Niece’s recent resignation (he’ll remain a PBT board member), the company will continue under new management, with plans to mount a four shows in 2004-05.

“Brian did a really good job of building the company,” says Matt Chiorini, a well-known Nashville actor and PBT’s new artistic director. “Some productions were more successful financially and artistically than others, but each one was different and something unexpected. Brian established an audience for that. We’re going to continue to be the outlet for progressive fare.”

Things are tough all over in Nashville’s professional theater scene, what with shakeups at Tennessee Repertory Theatre and the limbo status of Mockingbird Theatre. PBT, for now anyway, is operating out of Chiorini’s apartment.

Needless to say, every company is looking for funding and ways to boost attendance. PBT will launch its first subscription drive in 2004, kicking off with a big fundraiser March 25 at 3rd & Lindsley. “We have a deficit,” Chiorini says, refusing to offer specifics. “We are in no way a sinking ship, but in order for us to maximize our potential as an honest-to-God experimental theater, we need to have help. We see the fundraiser as a way to reintroduce ourselves to Nashville, and we’d like to think we can bring in new subscribers who formerly attended the Rep’s Off-Broadway Series and Mockingbird.”

Chiorini will tackle his artistic and business duties with the support of one other PBT staffer, associate artistic director Holly Allen, a gifted actress in her own right. Both enter this new venture with several years of corporate entertainment experience, Chiorini as a cruise-ship talent coordinator and Allen as a casting agent. “We both have an idea of how entertainment in the for-profit world works,” Chiorini continues, “and we want to translate that into the professional nonprofit arena.”

From a marketing standpoint, maybe the best news for Chiorini & Co. is the announcement that PBT will be producing its shows at the Belcourt Theatre. “We have a partnership with the new management under Steve Small,” he says. “It’s a great fit. The Belcourt has its challenges as a performing space, but every place does. We’re happy to be back in there.”

Chiorini has been focusing on material planned for the new season, including his own adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, followed by a new version of Alice in Wonderland, which Chiorini calls “kind of a Tim Burton-esque take written by a local playwright, incorporating modern dance and live music.” Also in the offing is Erin Cressida Wilson’s Cross-Dressing in the Depression, an erotic, lyrical and poignant tale of a teenager growing up in the 1930s. The play was first produced in New York in 1992, and a musical version called Wilder is currently running off-Broadway. “It’s a sexy, adult-themed show,” says Chiorini, “with possibly some nudity. But it’s a beautiful and elegant piece and a way to bring the best of New York underground theater to Nashville.” The PBT season will conclude with The Madwoman of Chaillot, Jean Giradoux’s wicked social satire.

With a strained budget, PBT’s shows will be light on the technical side, but Chiorini prefers to place his faith in theater’s fundamental pull. “I think what has been successful about PBT is that you remember the actors and the script. Our shows may not be pretty next year, but I think the direction we’re going with the plays will create a memorable experience.”

The PBT program promises to feature larger casts in 2004-05, the majority of players operating under union contracts. “We’ve changed our status with Actors’ Equity,” says Chiorini. “We’ve dropped down a couple of pay levels, but union actors will continue to receive the same health and pension benefits. Non-Equity actors will be paid as well.”

Chiorini’s belief that PBT can assume a more mainstream persona may be his strongest asset in today’s competitive entertainment climate. “I think we can make it work,” he says. “PBT has always been able to surprise and keep people on the edge of their seat. We’re not about diversion or forgettable entertainment. We want to give audiences something to meditate on. Our work has always had comedic elements, but it can also be progressive and mind-bending, haunting and moving, hilarious and dark and rich. We’ll do theater you won’t necessarily get at TPAC.”

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