By Lisa A. DuBois
Lately, Scot Copeland has been concentrating on slaying dragons. The artistic director for Nashville Children’s Theatre and director of the world premiere of The Hobbit, Copeland has turned his mind to fantasy and mythology, to puppetry and gadgetry—giant wings that sweep across a stage, a fire-breathing head that hovers over the proscenium.
He’s borrowing design ideas from the Broadway spectacle The Lion King to transport young audiences into a land of elves, trolls, wizards, and underground dwellers—a place known as Middle Earth to the thousands of young readers who’ve pored over J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels.
Like the little hobbits and dwarves in the medieval tale from which the one-hour play is adapted, Copeland has also had to square off with a few dragons during his tenure at NCT. But with the end of the 1997-98 season in sight, the company has notched an impressive number of victories in its fight for financial and artistic solidity. What began in 1931 as a makeshift drama troupe cobbled together by the Junior League of Nashville has become, by slow and steady design, one of the most respected professional children’s theaters in the country.
In 1985, NCT stalwart Ann Stahlman Hill championed Copeland, who was barely out of graduate school, to head her beloved children’s theater. Under his guidance, the organization has continued to thrive: Each year between 120,000 and 130,000 Middle Tennessee children attend productions at NCT’s two in-house stages, at several satellite touring venues, or at workshops and classes held in local schools. Expanding its mission and its audience, the company has recently entered into collaborative relationships with two other major student-focused arts organizations, Humanities Outreach in Tennessee and the Nashville Institute for the Arts.
And, thanks to some innovative programming, the Children’s Theatre is nurturing a growing base of public support. In the past few years, NCT has launched such acclaimed original works as The Emerald Circle, ...And the Tide Shall Cover the Earth, The Prince and the Pauper, and The Wind in the Willows. H.O. Plodder’s The Hobbit, which opened Apr. 6, is the latest in NCT’s long line of world premieres for young audiences. Not only are schoolkids attending the shows en masse, but this year the company is also consistently selling out its Weekend Family Series performances.
Copeland believes the Children’s Theatre has thrived in today’s tough arts climate because of a remarkably low staff turnover and because the staff is always reevaluating the company’s market strategy. “There’s a huge assumption that we have a built-in audience of school groups,” he says, “but the truth is, we have to adapt to a changing situation, and we have to be out in front of the curve. We constantly change the way we do things so schools continue to find us not just a convenient and exciting field trip, but the best—because they’re not allowed to choose as many as they used to.”
About five years ago, the field trip issue nearly decimated the theater’s budget. During the summer, the Tennessee Legislature passed a well-intentioned law stating that any child on the federal free-lunch program could not be asked to pay additional school fees. Schools were faced with canceling field trips for entire classes because certain children—some of whose parents had previously been able to spare the $4 for twice-yearly theater trips—were not allowed by law to participate.
“For years, we’d been taking thousands of kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to come. Nonetheless, [the fee-waiver law] did escalate our numbers,” Copeland says. “In that first year we went from giving tickets away to 6,000 kids a year to [giving away] over 20,000. It was a huge leap.
“The board voted—the only time in our history—to go into the red. We decided we were going to take every kid on fee waiver for free so kids in every school could come.”
Altruism can be expensive. The company took an $80,000 hit from fee waivers that season. Over the next several years, the theater eased its way through a period of belt-tightening and financial planning to retire the debt. Although the law is still in effect, NCT is now able to alleviate some of the financial burden through a statewide ticket-subsidy program and through funding by corporations and individuals. These days, the theater is back to donating about 6,000 free tickets each year.
Says Copeland, “It was a matter of getting back to that equilibrium, and doing it in such a way that schools could continue to bring their kids here, despite whatever difficulties there were.”
The choice to tough it out during tough times is now paying off. School groups and public groups are clamoring for seats not only at NCT’s marquee-name literary adaptations, but also at the more unusual presentations, such as last season’s Selkie, based on an obscure Scottish folk tale. “When people come to the Children’s Theatre and know that we can consistently put something onstage that not only meets, but goes further than, their expectations, then the audience follows us,” Copeland says.
“We have a calculated mom-and-popness. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. Theater is supposed to be a human experience.”
The human experience continues in next season’s lineup. Beginning in the fall, NCT is presenting two participatory shows for young audiences: Brian Way’s The Hat and In My Grandmother’s Purse, a play structurally based on a children’s repetition game about the relationship between a boy, his mother, and his grandmother.
For elementary-school children, Copeland has commissioned The Match Girl’s Christmas Gift, a new play inspired by the holiday tale of “The Little Match Girl,” but energized to go in a completely different direction. (Hint: she doesn’t die in the end.) NCT will also present a spring performance of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, in partnership with the Nashville Institute for the Arts. Middle-school audiences will see a new adaptation by Mark Rosenwinkle of Moby Dick as well as Most Valuable Player, a multimedia drama about baseball great Jackie Robinson.
A mark of its stability and stature, next season NCT becomes an Equity theater (as are Tennessee Repertory Theatre and Mockingbird Public Theatre), hiring actors under a union contract and providing health and pension plans for its stash of veteran performers.
In many respects, The Hobbit symbolizes just how good times are for NCT. All its fire-breathing monsters and other such challenges are currently onstage—where they’re out in the open and can be easily conquered.
In many respects, The Hobbit symbolizes just how good times are for NCT. All its fire-breathing monsters and other such challenges are currently onstagewhere they’re out in the open and can be easily conquered.
Nashville Children’s Theatre, 724 Second Ave. S., presents The Hobbit April 6-May 15. Weekend Family Series performances, which are open to the public, run 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 9, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 10. Sign-interpreted shows are May 9 and 11. Call 254-9103 for ticket info.
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