Fresh Start, Again 

Tennessee Repertory Theatre enters its next season with new leadership and other, smaller changes

Tennessee Repertory Theatre enters its next season with new leadership and other, smaller changes

Inherit the Wind

Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre

Sept. 11-25 at TPAC's Polk Theater

Tennessee Repertory Theatre's recent history has at times been as tempestuous as the weather in Florida this week. But with some key changes in the company's leadership and modifications in the forthcoming season's scope and budget, the company once again attempts to win the allegiance of a committed Nashville audience. The first production of the new era is Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind, which begins previews on Sept. 11.

"I've always believed that regional theater shouldn't be called that just because it's not in New York," says Rep artistic director David Alford, in his first season at the helm after David Grapes' five-year regime. "We have to sort of 'own' that title and do things that are relevant. This is the Rep's 20th-anniversary season, which is remarkable and worthy of celebrating. We have a different artistic direction; we want to focus on plays that will have resonance for people living in Nashville in 2004."

It could be reasonably argued that Alford's predecessors took a similar tack: mounting works with a Southern sensibility or with some kind of demographic hook. Inherit the Wind, the Truman Capote stories of Holiday Memories (Dec. 4-18) and August Wilson's The Piano Lesson (April 23-May 7) all have Southern linkage. A.R. Gurney's Sylvia (Oct. 30-Nov. 20) concerns midlife crisis—"The majority of our audience has had one or is going through one," Alford quips—and Michael Frayn's Noises Off (Feb. 26-March 12) concerns daffy goings-on behind the scenes of a British acting troupe. "Noises Off is the biggest stretch," Alford confesses, "and I justify it by saying that it's about theater people. It's our one selfish moment."

Recent Rep seasons have offered eight productions. This season was originally sold at six shows, yet the previously announced Santaland Diaries has already been canceled, primarily due to cuts in Metro Arts Commission funding, down $100,000 from last year. The Rep's projected budget is $1.7 million, but even that may need to be reduced.

"We're holding out that we'll hit our subscription projections," says Alford, whose target of 2,700 is realistic enough. "I've felt for quite a while that Nashville theater, to paraphrase Alan Greenspan, has been in a period of irrational exuberance. Frankly, we have more going on than our community will support, which is an unfortunate statement but I think true. Everyone is scaling back, and the Rep is doing so to more accurately reflect the demand in the community."

The Rep's recent deficits have been covered by reserve funds from the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC), which serves as home to both the company's administrative offices and its productions. "That money is not infinite," Alford continues. "What I do think is good—even though the cuts are painful—is that we're taking a very mature look at our finances." Other changes include extending runs over three weekends to tap more effectively into word-of-mouth marketing, and closing the balcony of Polk Theater to enhance the intimacy of the space. "We haven't cut any personnel," says Alford, "but production costs have been reduced. We're not doing as many shows, and hence not hiring as many actors—Inherit the Wind being the exception."

The season opener features a cast of 40. Alford has tapped into the local professional acting community in a big way, offering plum roles to veterans Mark Cabus, Cecil Jones, Matt Chiorini and others. He's also drawn from the Nashville community theater scene with equal enthusiasm to fill out the large ensemble.

"I'm really proud of the fact that the show is all local actors," says Alford. "I think there have been a lot of cases in the past where people have been brought in for roles that could easily have been handled by someone here in town. I'm passionately dedicated to trying to pay the people who live here and are trying to make a living as an actor." Inherit the Wind is Alford's only directorial assignment for the season. Cabus directs Sylvia, Rep associate artistic director René Copeland directs Holiday Memories and Noises Off, and New Federal Theatre producing director Woodie King Jr. will be brought in from New York to mount The Piano Lesson.

Inherit the Wind, based in spirit on the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" in small-town Dayton, Tenn., was first produced as a play in 1955. A well-known 1960 feature film starred Spencer Tracy and Fredric March as the fictional counterparts of the real-life courtroom adversaries Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. "People always think of it as the 'evolution play,' " Alford says. "And that's a testament to the trial scenes, which play like gangbusters. But evolution vs. creationism isn't the real issue. In fact, the play was Lawrence and Lee's response to McCarthyism. It's about intellectual curiosity vs. narrow-mindedness, and how new ideas are always met with hostility, particularly in the way they affect how we think about ourselves and our place in the world."

Alford reached for strong actors to carry the show, and he found them in Cabus, who plays the Darrow counterpart Henry Drummond, and in Jones, who plays the Bryan figure, Matthew Harrison Brady. "Cecil is a big man with a big voice," Alford says, "and he knows how to work a room. And Mark is just a terrific actor. But I'm particularly proud of the younger secondary leads, Pete Vann and Anitra Brumagen, for mining some rich emotional material out of scenes which, on the page, read like 1940s film writing."

Coming full circle

Now in its 54th season, Circle Players, Nashville's oldest community theater, announced this week that it has ended its 20-year association with TPAC, and that the company will no longer perform in TPAC's Johnson Theater. Circle's upcoming production of Blood Brothers will be performed at Hume-Fogg Magnet School, and the remainder of the current season will be presented at the Gordon Jewish Community Center. Permanent long-term plans for the company remain in abeyance. Blood Brothers producer David Williams, speaking unofficially, states that termination of the TPAC affiliation was by mutual agreement. "We're looking at this move as an opportunity to grow," he says.

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