Nashville Theatre Works
June 6-9 & 22-26 at
TPAC's Johnson Theater
Four years ago, Catherine Coke returned to her hometown of Nashville, after living in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City, where she directed and developed new plays. Coke soon founded Nashville Theatre Works (NTW), a nonprofit arts organization that has functioned primarily as an outlet for emerging scripts. Locally, Coke has supervised play readings with some regularity, and several years ago presented a fully staged reading of Blue Plains by James Waedekin, a work that captured aspects of the life of painter Georgia O'Keeffe. The writing/directing team comes together once again when Waedekin's Dream Book receives its world premiere in a benefit production this week at TPAC's Johnson Theater.
This event holds more than theatrical impact. It also functions as a vehicle to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS.
"In Nashville, AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women ages 18 to 45," Coke says. "We need to turn our heads and deal with the problem, but we don't have the structure educationally to do so. This play is important because we're at a crisis moment as regards HIV/AIDS, and we need to be dealing with it as if we are not a small town but a town with big-city problems."
Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Dream Book concerns a passionate woman, Claire, who looks for love in all the wrong places and feels no responsibility for her own life. The play begins on the night of her lover's funeral, when she's in denial of her own medical condition. Claire interacts with family members, yet it is her lover's memory that spurs her to come to terms with her own history.
"I want the audience to feel the play's intimacy," says Coke, who is staging Dream Book in the round. "This is not a linear script. It's not typically Western. It's spatially oriented, and memory has an active influence. Waedekin writes in the style of magical realism." Coke has assembled an excellent cast, which includes Stacey Lyn Shaffer, Matthew Gerbig, Wesley Paine, Bill Shick and Julie Alexander.
Dream Book is NTW's first Actors' Equity-authorized production, and Coke has had to deal with the considerable practical issues that come with mounting an independent project. To that end, she has taken a grassroots fundraising and marketing approach. She put together an honorary board that includes Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz and the National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project, then set out to solicit tax-deductible advance contributions in relatively small increments from donors in Nashville and locales as far-flung as Boston, New York and Chicago. Meanwhile, she received rental considerations from TPAC and the necessary waivers from the actors' union. Institutional sponsorship has come from groups as diverse as Vietti Foods Inc. and Christ Church Cathedral. Tickets for the show have been priced at an affordable $12, with all proceeds going to Nashville CARES and the Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Program. In addition, various outreach groups will be on hand in the lobby of the Johnson Theater during the run.
"To me, this is an example of theater being integral to the community," says Coke. "But also, this is a play that I'm passionate about. It's about human relations and a family and love and denial and hate, yet there's humor as well. Dream Book is redemptive in the end, but it's a tough emotional ride. I think the play has legs, though, because we've had some outside interest from Actors Theatre of Louisville, Trinity Rep in Providence and some other small New York theaters."
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