Dramatic Tension 

The Rep and artistic director Mac Pirkle part ways, keeping their eyes on the future

The Rep and artistic director Mac Pirkle part ways, keeping their eyes on the future

In late October, Mac Pirkle announced that he was resigning as artistic director of Tennessee Repertory Theatre, the company he founded nearly 14 years ago with the support of philanthropist Martha Ingram. His decision unleashed a tidal wave of emotion among members of Nashville’s small performing arts community—grief, outrage, disappointment, fear, and sometimes a little joy.

As word began to leak out, Pirkle personally contacted the actors who were longtime performers at The Rep so they wouldn’t first learn of his departure in the news. After building a $3 million theatrical empire, Pirkle still clung to the concept of The Rep as an adamantine clan. “Mac always dealt with [the Rep performers] like a Southerner. We’re like a big, mildly dysfunctional family,” explains actor Chris Harrod. “We love each other to death, but we get pissed off at each other. We fight, but we care about each other.”

Harrod’s sentiment is being echoed time and again among performing arts devotees. The nut of those sentiments is tri-fold: Pirkle is excruciatingly talented; he has at times made questionable artistic choices; but in spite of that, he is unanimously respected for the contributions he has made. Says actor Barry Scott, “Mac was the big guy. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for Mac.”

Actress Nan Gurley adds, “You build a company, and you put your talent into it, your life, your blood, your sweat, and your tears.... If I’d worked for 15 years to create my dreams and had to walk away from it like this, it would break my heart. Whether the vision was right or not.”

“The vision” of building the largest professional theater company in Tennessee—one from which new American musicals would spring on their way to the stages of Broadway—defines Mac Pirkle and his relationship to Tennessee Repertory Theatre. The vision inspired him to form the troupe back when other professional theater companies had risen from Nashville’s soil and died there a short time later. The vision drove him on when market forces suggested he hold back. The vision led to a rift between the visionary and a board of directors more disturbed by the company’s bottom line. When Pirkle walks out of The Rep’s doors on March 31, 1999, bloodied but unbowed, he will take his vision with him. He is still determined to produce new musicals.

Because this is an emotional time for him, he asked to speak off the record but to record his perspective in writing. “The board developed a point of view that involved a change in my responsibilities. I made an earnest effort to make the adjustments that these changes required,” he writes. “Ultimately, I made a choice to continue my career outside the confines of The Rep. My decision is based on my desire to move forward with creative projects of my own making as well as a long-desired venture into the larger world of the American theater. I think that my leadership of The Rep has run a natural course and it is time for a transition—in my life as well as the life of the company.”

In evaluating how Pirkle got from there to here, one can draw an analogy to Oedipus Rex. Sophocles’ ancient drama describes how Oedipus, the mighty sovereign of Thebes, is brought to a tragic end not by any crime but because of hubris. Oedipus is so intensely determined to pursue his own truth that he tries to defy the gods—yet, in the end, the gods will not be denied. Ironically, the very traits that make this man great also lead to his downfall. Oedipus, like Pirkle, had trouble adjusting to changing times.

Beyond that, however, another aspect of this classic work has gnawed at audiences through the centuries. Given his human flaws, is this wise and generous leader deserving of such a terrible outcome? Sophocles opens the door to opinions, not answers. Two millennia later, as local dramas unfold, there are still no answers.

The Rep story begins around 1981, when Pirkle returned to his hometown of Nashville after earning a business degree from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and studying experimental theater in Europe under Jerzy Grotowski. One of his first moves upon his return was to found Southern Stage Productions at the brand-new Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Four years later, the Equity troupe of Tennessee Repertory Theatre was birthed as the regional theater-in-residence at TPAC’s Polk Theater. A core group of actors, including Pirkle, Myke Miller, Mary Jane Harvill, Barry Scott, Jackie Welch, Denice Hicks, Don Jones, and Robie Jackson soon glommed together into an artistic company.

“It was a very creative family, bent on making a difference here in this city. That was the heart of the company,” says Hicks, now artistic director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival.

“When I first came here, I said, ‘This place is run like a day-care center.’ It was loose, it was free, it was happening,” says Jennifer Orth, who arrived during rehearsals of The Rep’s first show in 1985 and has been the company manager ever since. “It was just me, Mac, and B.J. [Rogers]. We had a two-room office with no doors. I brought my own desk to work. And those were wonderful, exciting, frantic times because the entire organization could be all hands on deck, leap to the floor, and let’s make it happen. And I think there’s a part of Mac that has always missed that aspect of theater that’s immediate and visceral.”

Ruth Sweet, who ran the Acting Conservatory for a decade and died earlier this year, once said, “In those days Mac was like a Buddha. He was brilliant and we all followed him.”

Audiences felt the magic. “The first couple of years we had tickets, we were blown away by the performances,” says one former long-standing season subscriber. “At an early time in the company, we felt this connection.” The connection was so strong that this Rep patron was devastated when Myke Miller was killed in a 1991 accident, even though she only knew him from seeing him onstage during The Rep’s shows.

Over the course of time, The Rep began to blossom and grow. Pirkle and Orth stayed with the company, Donna Center was hired as financial manager, Brian Laczko came on board as managing director, and Don Jones was promoted to associate artistic director. The troupe became and has remained the largest presenter of programs for Humanities Outreach in Tennessee (H.O.T.). Actors, directors, and choreographers from New York and beyond were hired to move musicals and plays from page to stage. Performers like Matthew Carlton, Connye Florance, Carolyn German, Shelean Newman, and Ginger Newman came to town and stayed largely because of employment opportunities made available to them through The Rep. The shows got bigger, the sets more sumptuous, the costs more exorbitant.

By the same token, those 1,100 seats in Polk Theater became harder and harder to fill for a three-week run, especially when The Rep mounted something edgy like The Glass Menagerie, something non-Southern like Lost in Yonkers, or something without a track record like Frankenstein or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. TPAC CEO Steven Greil says, “The Rep grew because they were doing bigger and better work than other theater companies were able to do. But as they grew, they had to pay for all the infrastructure—the technicians, the set-design shop, marketing and development people. So their decisions and choices had to be based on whether a show would generate enough dollars to keep the machine going. And if you’re not aware that that’s happening to you, you can get trapped by it.”

According to Jones, the first year that everything got stark and scary was the 1994 season when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster The Phantom of the Opera came to town, sat for six weeks, and pulled thousands of dollars away from all the local arts groups. At the same time, Greil, fresh off the blocks as TPAC’s new CEO, began inserting spunky and exciting offerings into every available slot on the arts center’s calendar. Nashville rose from a B-level touring destination to the A-list, receiving hit Broadway productions their first and second years out on the road. To offset the onslaught, The Rep began scrambling for the rights to sure-fire moneymakers like The Sound of Music, Annie, and this season’s Cinderella.

“When Mac [opened The Rep] there was this mixture of [challenging] theater and what we had to do to be a commercial success,” Jones says. “But more and more it became more commercial, and things became less risky, more homogenized. But that’s happening in regional theaters all over the country.”

Hicks says that as the old favorite chestnuts began to take over The Rep’s season, many local actors grew frustrated by the drop in artistically challenging roles. Some quit acting, some formed other theater companies, some moved away, and some moved back when they discovered the problems were the same in other cities.

“As the company grew, it became hip to dislike The Rep,” Carlton explains. “I’ve had a lot of differences of opinion about some of Mac’s artistic choices, and you can do that—that’s art. But it became a situation where you were supposed to dislike The Rep if you were hip.”

No matter what was happening in all other aspects of The Rep’s programming, however, Pirkle steadfastly continued to mount new musicals. Some Sweet Day went on to play at the prestigious Goodspeed Opera House’s second stage, and Barry Scott’s expanded version of his one-man show Ain’t Got Long to Stay Here completed two national tours. In 1994, however, Pirkle’s vision got walloped when the original musical A House Divided, with music by Mike Reid, went head to head against The Phantom of the Opera. “We thought we’d be providing an alternative for people who didn’t want to see Phantom,” Orth says. “Unfortunately, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t want to see Phantom!”

As the seasons came and went, the financial rewards of mounting new musicals became harder to discern, although Pirkle always claimed that in this one area, at least, art superseded profit. The actors loved doing them, the critics loved seeing them, but single-ticket-buyers didn’t catch the fever. The numbers can be crunched any number of ways. Board president Howard Lamar believes that new musicals were largely the reason for The Rep carrying a long-term $300,000 debt (which has now been retired by a $350,000 check from an anonymous donor). Orth crunches the same numbers and insists that big-ticket original musicals have not brought The Rep to its knees, but rather have lent national credibility to the regional theater.

For a myriad of reasons, both personal and professional, the core group of veteran staffers began to splinter over the last two seasons. After a lengthy evaluation process, Lamar says, “We began to understand marketplace issues and staff desires that ultimately led the board to the decision that Mac was wearing too many hats. Mac is a very talented director, and we thought we’d take the shackles off him and let him focus more on the artistic side.”

In March 1998, The Rep’s board decided to promote managing director Brian Laczko to the role of executive director. Pirkle remained artistic director, and he admits that initially it was tough to accept the board’s mandate. The summer proved even tougher. After 11 years as The Rep’s financial manager, Donna Center left the company. The person hired to replace her died tragically, and Center returned six weeks later. Laczko decided to move on to more fiscally sound pastures and headed to Washington, D.C., for a position at Ford’s Theatre. Rather than shifting Pirkle into the top slot, the board instead bumped interim development and marketing director Clare Bisceglia into the executive directorship as a temporary measure. The view from the outside was that Pirkle was being squeezed out of his own company.

Lamar says this was not the case, and that the board was further trying to help Pirkle focus on artistic issues by having another person deal with the non-theatrical and non-production side of the business. Pirkle has remained above the fray, stating that he is leaving purely by choice and that he is excited about the opportunity to explore new career paths and to spend more time with his family.

In August, Don Jones learned that the associate artistic director job was being “alleviated.” Jones admits that he was already “beaten down” by the stresses of the not-for-profit world but traces his dismissal to earlier disagreements he had with Bisceglia. For her part, Bisceglia insists that she had to make a difficult call. “Beyond Diggin’ Edgar [the H.O.T. show that Jones wrote and directed this season], there was nothing on the calendar that required an associate artistic director, and financially it was a position we could not continue with,” she says.

Bisceglia has now hired former freelance performance consultant Sarah Reynolds as The Rep’s new development director. She has also hired Suzanne Swanson, who previously handled The Rep’s account for advertising firm McGee, Best, Frank and Ingram, as the new marketing director. An outside executive search firm is in the process of interviewing candidates for the position of “executive producer,” to fill the openings left by Pirkle and Laczko. Three candidates have visited the company and have been reviewed by a committee comprised of Bisceglia, two board members, and people in the community. The committee is hoping to have an executive producer in place by the end of the calendar year, at which time Bisceglia will leave The Rep to pursue other interests.

Whoever assumes leadership of The Rep will be faced with the same roadblocks that the company has faced trying to fill a 1,100-seat theater every night during a show’s run. The person will be up against dazzling Broadway blockbusters, TPAC’s New Directions Series of alternative performing-arts programs, and a deluge of other entertainment options available in Nashville.

Already, The Rep is starting off the 1998-99 season at a disadvantage: Because of late shifts in programming and because of snafus involving the rights to use Elvis Presley’s likeness to market Idols of the King, the company’s season opener played to dismally low houses; that means the new executive producer will have to play catch-up for the rest of the season. He or she will have to reclaim some of the season-ticket subscribers who have fallen off during the years. And, in the midst of all these obstacles, this individual will have to forge a new vision for the company.

“The only thing I fear as an actor is somebody coming in from out of town feeling there’s a second-rateness in Nashville,” says Carolyn German. “Mac has helped in the perception, even among a few people in New York, that this is no ‘podunkia’ down here. In fact, there’s a first-rateness. People live here because we want families and houses and jobs.”

Clara Hieronymus, the Tennessean’s theater critic for four decades, has formulated many opinions about The Rep’s artistic choices over the years. She feels a need to speak out about the company’s current situation, even though two years ago she had a stroke and has difficulty talking. “If [Mac] wanted to stay, fine. And if he wanted to leave, that’s fine too,” she says. “But [the profit motive] should never have been part of his decision. For 14 years, it wasn’t what he worked for at all. He might be successful. I’m holding on to that thought.”

In the end, it seems Pirkle has entered a new age of enlightenment. The chutzpah and fire that once spurred him to believe he could cut new artistic paths in Tennessee still burns as he anticipates his return to a simpler process of bringing theater to the people. “I do not believe that The Rep has lost its way. I believe The Rep is actually trying to find its way...,” he writes.

“It is time now for The Rep to grow up and leave the era of its founding. It is also time for me to leave The Rep and allow it to find its new direction. I choose to view these changes as good ones. I choose to look at the opportunities in front of me rather than rehash moments now in the past.... We must choose to help [Nashville’s regional theater] survive by attending productions; contributing money, time, and resources; and, through honest feedback, help those in charge make decisions of integrity.”

So saying, the maverick king hands down his scepter and turns to face another sunrise.

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