Producer, director and actor Dennis Ewing, a vital theatrical force in Nashville through the 1980s and ’90s, passed away on July 3.
“Dennis was the first person here to consistently do the type of theater known as off-off-Broadway,” says former Scene and Nashville Business Journal writer Angela Wibking Fox. “I’m talking shoestring budgets, controversial scripts, risk-taking direction and acting. You loved it or hated it, nothing in-between. And all in theater spaces that ran the gamut from an attic over a pizza joint on West End to a retail space in the old Church Street Mall.”
With companies such as Poverty Playhouse and Actors Playhouse, Ewing introduced Nashville to the idea that there was theater beyond community productions of South Pacific. “Dennis was a real theater guy, a controversial figure with an unpredictable vision,” says actor-director Denice Hicks, who moved to Nashville in 1980 and worked with Ewing in 1982. “He was very human and passionate, and he pushed the limits in his work.”
Ewing was also a longtime acting coach. Among his students was Robert A. O’Connell, now a producer with GroundWorks Theatre. O’Connell remembers Ewing cramming audiences beyond capacity into his storefront venues (“He crossed his fingers that the fire marshal wouldn’t show up”), staging scenes with nudity, and introducing Nashvillians to Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June.
“In my view,” says O’Connell, “Dennis single-handedly created the alternative-theater scene in Nashville.”
A veteran of the Vietnam War, Ewing was interred at the Middle Tennessee Veterans National Cemetery on July 7. Donations in his name may be made to Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Ingram Cancer Center.