High Drama 

The emotional struggle of Nashville's theater companies

The emotional struggle of Nashville's theater companies

It’s a Thursday night, and, on TV, the Braves and the Cardinals are tied in one of the most dramatic pennant races ever, the game that will clinch the Series lineup. Because it’s a Thursday night, it’s also the night when Friends is on. Seinfeld too. Same with ER. All new episodes. On this same Thursday night, Nashvillians can flip to any one of the 65 other channels that glow dusk to dawn. Or maybe they can take in a movie. Almost every neighborhood has its own movie theater. Across Nashville there are almost100 screens. On the other hand, this is the perfect night to stay home. Severe thunderstorm warnings have cleared the streets. The temperature is predicted to dip into the 40s.

Given such circumstances, it’s a wonder there’s even one seat filled at the Darkhorse Theater on Charlotte Avenue. However, word of mouth has been strong for the Mockingbird Public Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened at at Darkhorse the previous weekend. The opening weekend of Earnest was, in fact, the biggest in the Mockingbird’s two-year history. Reservations for the coming weekend suggest almost-full houses.

Still, Mockingbird’s audience on this Thursday night is disappointing. There’s no problem with their responsiveness. Every time David Alford, as the rakish Algernon, or Rona Carter, as the imperious Lady Bracknell, dashes off one of Oscar Wilde’s dazzling epigrams, the couples in each row rock with laughter. On her way out, a blond woman in a red sweater repeatedly giggles and tells her date, “That was so silly!

The only thing wrong with this Thursday night’s audience is its size. Of the Darkhorse’s 123 seats, only 24 are filled. At $10 a ticket, that means the theater made $240 for the entire night—assuming every ticketholder paid to get in.

Now put this performance in the perspective as part of Earnest’s entire 11-show run. Alford, Mockingbird’s founder and artistic director, estimates that it costs between $13,000 and $18,000 to mount each of his company’s productions. Since the script for The Importance of Being Earnest is in the public domain, Mockingbird doesn’t have to pay performance royalties this time around, and that means significant saving in costs. Still, there is the cost of the sets and the costumes, and there is the overhead of renting the Darkhorse facility. What’s more, Mockingbird is one of the few small theater companies in town that pays its actors. To break even on ticket sales alone, the company would have to sell out every remaining performance of its current run.

Such a thing could happen. Earnest is a lot of fun. And it can perform at the box office. Wilde’s comedy of manners is required reading in many high-school and college drama classes, a fact that almost guarantees an audience. Many of Nashville’s small theaters have discovered that the size of the audience is directly proportionate to the name recognition of the play.

Fifteen years ago, it looked as if Nashville’s homegrown theater community was experiencing a burst of activity virtually unmatched in our city’s history. For a brief period, exciting new theater companies opened with surprising frequency; they were stoked with fresh talent and original ideas; they dared to present plays that hadn’t previously been performed in Nashville. Some of the actors and directors active in local theater at that time remember envisioning Nashville as a community that could support theater of all kinds, and at all levels, from high-gloss professional productions in a multimillion-dollar arts center to experimental, avant-garde shows staged in out-of-the-way venues.

That dream has faded considerably. In the past few years, many of Nashville’s promising companies have disappeared, unable to find or draw audiences. Others have survived, but their energies have been sapped by a constant struggle for funding—as well as a never-ending struggle against audience apathy. Even Nashville’s most established theater companies are starting to wonder just how much interest the public has in live theater, especially when the repertoire ventures beyond a limited selection of musicals, light comedies, and name-brand dramas.

George S. Kaufman once defined satire as “what closes Saturday night.” For the past few years, Nashville’s theater companies have begun to wonder whether any locally produced show, regardless of its genre, can have a real chance of surviving past its Thursday opening night.

In 1994 the Metro Arts Commission released The Arts in Nashville, a comprehensive study that surveyed 1,300 supporters, patrons, or participants in the arts, along with 1,303 Nashvillians selected at random to represent the general public. Results of the survey showed that 34 percent of the general public in Nashville attended a play during the 12 months covered by the study. That figure was 20 percent higher than the national average. However, the study also showed that even arts supporters attended plays an average of less than four times a year. That means competition for patrons is tough among Nashville’s theater companies.

The study also ranked the frequency with which arts supporters attend performances at various local arts organizations—including theaters. Ranked first, by a wide margin, was the TPAC Broadway Series; 87 percent attended the Broadway Series, at least occasionally. Tennessee Repertory Theatre came in second among theater companies, with 75 percent. Only 12 percent of arts supporters said they attended Darkhorse Theater, perhaps Nashville’s best-known alternative theater. Eighty-eight percent of the respondents said they never attended Darkhorse.

The people who responded to the survey gave a variety of reasons why they took advantage of so few events. Most often, they complained of not having enough time. Ticket prices were another frequently mentioned concern—which may concern relatively expensive productions by professional presenters like the Rep, Chaffin’s Barn, and the TPAC Broadway Series. However, Nashville’s small theater groups face a whole other set of problems:

Inconvenient locations. Because small theater companies must keep overhead low, they often settle for performing spaces that have low rent. Many times, they mount their productions in unused restaurants, in warehouses, or in abandoned storefronts. Artists’ Cooperative Theatre I (ACT I), Actors’ Playhouse, and Dennis Ewing’s Theatre Horizons have all struggled to lure audiences to unfamiliar locations. Since ACT I moved from the Looby Theatre to the Darkhorse facility, audiences have increased dramatically, says artistic director Bob O’Connell.

Safety concerns. “You can’t expect people to sit through a play while thinking, ‘I wonder what’s happening to our car?’” says Mockingbird’s David Alford. Bob O’Connell learned that audience members were staying away from the Looby Theatre because, rightly or wrongly, they feared their cars would be burglarized during ACT I’s productions. Actors’ Playhouse faced a similar problem when it moved to Marathon Village, even though no incidents were ever reported and despite the fact that the company hired extra security.

Lack of publicity. In the early 1980s, it was not uncommon to see a play opening covered on the front page of the Tennessean’s “Living” section. Cast lists and photos were often run in advance, and virtually every show received a review. However, when Gannett commissioned focus-group studies to determine which features drew the most readers, theater news and reviews reportedly came in near the bottom of the list. Today, Tennessean theater reviews appear alongside the obituaries. That may be the only space the morning paper can allot to a next-day review, but it sends a mixed message. “Maybe they’re trying to tell us something,” quips Dennis Ewing of Theatre Horizons. Obit page critiques notwithstanding, active participants in local theater companies note with dismay that they have a hard time gaining the attention of most local publications.

The TPAC Broadway Series, Tennessee Rep, Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre, and Circle Players delight thousands of Nashvillians each year with staples of the mainstream theater. Each flexes its creative muscle every season with at least one bit of challenging fare, whether it’s a Shakespearean tragedy, a regional work, or a play developed by the company itself. The Rep is currently staging The Tempest with Barry Scott and Denice Hicks, two actors who, Alford says, are the biggest draws in town. Next year, Circle will follow its current production of On Borrowed Time with Miss Evers’ Boys, a dramatic treatment of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. The Barn recently produced Hamlet, which stunned the dinner-theater industry by drawing an audience. “It was my gift to myself,” Barn owner John Chaffin says with due pride.

Nashville’s small theater groups, on the other hand, stake their fortunes on risky fare. Their missions are vastly different from those of the more established companies. Mockingbird considers itself a regional theater; ACT I performs classics such as Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Crucible. Theatre Horizons specializes in recent off-Broadway plays; an upcoming production is Nicky Silver’s ferocious comedy-drama Raised in Captivity. When their gambles pay off, as was the case with Mockingbird’s Love & Privilege, the Darkhorse’s Triple X Love Act, and Actors’ Playhouse’s The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, the results can combine fresh material, innovative staging, and daredevil acting. Even when they don’t—and some local small-company productions have been real lemons—the audience cannot fall back on the crutch of a thrice-familiar script. At least there’s an element of surprise.

Of late, however, Nashville theater companies have produced fewer and fewer recent off-Broadway works and experimental theater pieces. Actors’ Playhouse, which introduced local audiences to important plays by Lanford Wilson, David Mamet, Terrence McNally, Christopher Durang, and other contemporary American playwrights, has been nearly inactive for the past year, sidelined by renovation woes and the loss of income from its unproduced season. Dennis Ewing’s Theatre Horizons group soldiers on at Church Street Centre, but its new location—a space formerly occupied by a failed restaurant—and a lack of press coverage have not been good for ticket sales. For Nashville theatergoers who can’t afford trips to New York, Chicago, or London, the lack of access to new plays and new playwrights is frustrating.

“Sometimes having a good time is all people need,” says Rick Seay, whose involvement in local theater dates back to the old Theatre Nashville and Circle’s days on Hillsboro Road. “But having a variety means more choices. That variety has a lot to say about what a community is willing to support. What [the current theater scene] says about Nashville is that it’s pretty conservative.”

Perhaps a downturn was inevitable after the small-theater boom of the 1980s. The frantic activity at the time seems to have been triggered by two events:

The opening of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in 1979 focused enormous attention on local theater. Shortly thereafter, in 1981, the Advent Theatre closed.

Advent grew out of a theater company that had been founded in 1977, supposedly to lay the groundwork for a resident professional theater company at TPAC. When construction problems delayed TPAC’s opening—and when questions were raised about Tennessee Performing Arts Foundation funds being used to underwrite a professional theater troupe—the company took up residence in the old Episcopal Church of the Advent on 17th Avenue. In 1978, the theater severed its ties with TPAC and the Performing Arts Foundation.

As a site for a theater company, Church of the Advent should have augured well. The church’s former rector, the Rev. Walter E. Dakin, was the grandfather of Tennessee Williams; Williams himself had lived in the adjacent parish house in 1916, when he was 2 years old. Good vibes notwithstanding, Advent did not fare well. After two years of expensive productions that garnered poor reviews and small audiences, the Advent building was sold to evangelist Tony Alamo and his Alamo Foundation, and the Advent company gave up the ghost. Advent’s collapse left bad feelings for years, but it also opened a niche for the establishment of a new professional theater company.

Throughout the 1970s, Nashville’s best-known theater companies included Circle Players, the oldest community theater in Nashville; the venerable Nashville Children’s Theatre, which introduced generations of young Nashvillians to live performance; Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre, founded by John Chaffin’s family in the mid-1960s; and Theatre Nashville, which continued to thrive until the early 1970s. Meanwhile, performing opportunities at the recently opened Opryland drew hordes of young hopefuls to town.

Even then, however, there were alternative theater companies such as the Ensemble Theatre Company, founded by C.B. Anderson in 1973-74. Ensemble was housed on the top floor of a building on West End near Centennial Park, where Circuit City stands today. “They were doing great work,” recalls Clara Hieronymus, the Tennessean’s drama critic for 40 years. Nevertheless, the theater closed in the late 1970s, and Anderson moved away to New York, where he was associated with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “He was a genius,” says Ben Meeks, a friend who worked with Anderson in several Circle productions.

As established Nashville actors left in the early ’80s, however, new talents began to arrive in town. None of them intended to stay. Mac Pirkle, a ragged, longhaired Nashville native, moved back to town in 1981. Pirkle had a knack for marketing and a background in alternative theater; for years, as a member of Knoxville’s avant-garde Play Group, he had been traveling Tennessee in a beat-up yellow Chevy van. In 1981 Dennis Ewing also arrived in town. An acting teacher who had managed a theater in Memphis, Ewing only meant to spend the summer in Nashville before returning to L.A. Instead, he bought a $150 Toyota Corolla and started scouting out spaces for a low-budget alternative theater. The same year, Shannon Wood, who would go on to help found Darkhorse Theater, moved to town.

Ten years later, each of these three actors was making a significant impact on Nashville theater. After the demise of the Advent company, Mac Pirkle raised $11,000 and, in November of 1981, started a fledgling professional theater company called Southern Stage Productions. By 1985, Southern Stage had taken on a new identity as Tennessee Repertory Theatre. In his first season with the Rep, Pirkle suddenly found himself working with an operating budget of $600,000. The alternative theater radical had been redefined as the director of the establishment company against which everyone else would react. In retrospect, Pirkle says he didn’t mind. “Without a large theater to be inspired by or to react against, there’s no critical mass,” Pirkle says. “A lot of artists have developed their craft because of us.”

Several of those artists joined Shannon Wood in 1991 to found Darkhorse Theater, which began to produce new plays with a remarkable group of actors, including Denice Hicks, Mark Cabus, and Jackie Welch. From 1991 to 1994, Darkhorse periodically confounded the conventional wisdom about limited audiences for unfamiliar plays. Productions such as Triple X Love Act and the environmental theater piece White People—which challenged audience members to walk through the performance, as if it were a living-history museum—drew overflow crowds.

Ewing enjoyed a parallel sort of success at Poverty Playhouse, the company he and Janet Claire founded in 1982 in the old Goody’s Warehouse on Second Avenue. Ewing says he longed to do “edgy, small, intimate theater.” With its first production, Poverty Playhouse drew a line in the sand. The play was David Mamet’s blistering, profane Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

From the moment the production was announced, Ewing says, people warned him that Sexual Perversity would never find an audience in the Bible Belt. O ye of little—or too much—faith. The production was scheduled for four weeks; it ran for 16, with 60 people wedged into the 37-seat playhouse for many performances. “Ever since then, I’ve thought about calling every show Sex, Sex, Sex,” Ewing says. “Sometimes just the titles’ll bring ’em in.” When the Goody’s building was sold, Poverty Playhouse was forced to seek a new home. It was not the last time Ewing would have to seek a new venue; in the coming years he would move from space to space around town, founding a string of small theater companies, including the Inner City Dinner Theater and the Laughing Stock.

In 1987 Ewing and his partners moved into a tiny upstairs space previously occupied by a company called the John Galt Theatre. The Galt enterprise had been founded by Steve Kelly, who had supported it for years with his business, Hot Wires Zinging Telegrams. The theater, which performed in a room above a West End sandwich shop, was rechristened The Actors’ Playhouse. Ewing’s productions were hailed by some and despised by others, but Actors’ Playhouse gave Nashville its first glimpse of a number of acclaimed contemporary plays: Mamet’s Speed the Plow, Stephen Sondheim’s dramatic musical Assassins, and Martin Sherman’s controversial Holocaust drama Bent.

A few years ago, Ewing and the Playhouse board of directors parted on less than friendly terms. Actors’ Playhouse continued to stage productions at its West End location before making an ill-fated move to Marathon Village last year. Ewing formed yet another company, Theatre Horizons.

Spurred on by the sense of excitement generated by these and other companies, more than 20 small theater companies have opened in Nashville during the past 10 years. The Avante Garage, led by Michael Bouson and Joe Correll, performed improvisational comedy and original comedies. The Carpenter’s Playhouse was a Christian theater company. The list also includes the Nightingale Theatre, the New Play Theatre, and the Cereal Killers.

Today, all of these theaters are gone. The fortunate ones have survived by evolving. For example, Theatrevolution ultimately transmogrified into the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. Other troupes died, apparently, because they never developed a long-term plan of action. Thomas L. Turk, executive director of the Metro Arts Commission, notes that some groups form companies to perform a single play and then dissolve shortly thereafter. On the other hand, there’s no denying that many of Nashville’s smaller theater groups have gone out of business simply because they could not lure audiences to unfamiliar locations, or because they could not balance expenses against a shaky income mix of ticket sales and public arts funding.

A typical story is that of Studio Stage, which struggled for two-and-a-half years in a Donelson strip mall on Stewarts Ferry Pike. The group’s founder, Jill Massie, had pursued a career in Miami and L.A. before she arrived in Nashville. She intended just to stay for a couple of months while she worked on an original musical. “That was seven years ago,” Massie says, laughing. While still working on her musical, Massie took a job at the Acting Studio, a school run by veteran acting coach Ruth Sweet. When Sweet cut back on her local theater activities, she ceded her space to Massie.

Massie decided to open an 85-seat theater, Studio Stage, in the Acting Studio space. Studio Stage’s mission, as Massie planned it, was threefold: The company would present original musicals along with out-of-print scripts by British and American playwrights. It would offer a training facility. And it would function as a professional theater, ultimately developing into an Equity house. “We didn’t need any more nonprofessional theaters in town,” Massie insists. “You can’t bring in actors if there’s no paying work.” She spent about $10,000 on renovations and start-up fees.

From the start, Studio Stage was beset with difficulties. Zoning hassles delayed the theater’s opening for an entire year, depriving the company of a season’s worth of work and revenue. The wait was draining for Massie, both financially and emotionally. Finally, she learned that the theater would be ready to open in the fall of 1995. The first script was already prepared: It would be Maybe in Another Lifetime, the musical Massie had cowritten with her husband, Tom Montgomery. A local actor who had recently appeared in a New York revival of Jesus Christ Superstar was drafted for the cast; a New York producer came down to take a look.

Like most other small-theater organizers, Massie could not afford a major ad campaign. Press coverage was minimal. “One critic, whom I won’t name, told me [Donelson] was too far a drive for her to review,” Massie recalls. Another problem was the season’s late start. Because of zoning problems, Another Lifetime couldn’t open until November—months after other theaters were already up and running. Ticket sales were disappointing. In addition, Massie intended to pay her actors; that meant a minimum ticket price of $20. As it turned out, no other small theater company in town was charging more than $10.

The pattern continued with Studio Stage’s next show, Portrait of Jennie, and with the company’s next original effort, The Impostors. In desperation, Massie decided to trundle out Godspell, just to see what kind of response a big-name musical would spark.

Response to Godspell was “slow at first,” Massie admits. But by the end of the run, she says, “crowds had tripled.” The jolly-spirited musical ran for five weeks. Nevertheless, Massie says, “We still couldn’t get a single critic out.” On July 1, 1996, Massie closed Studio Stage for good. She’ll need five years, she thinks, to get out from under the debt she ran up during the theater’s two-year history.

“Art should not be a luxury; it should be part of everyday life,” Massie says. “But we realized we were serving a community that did not want to be served. Theater is not something people [in Donelson] consider on a Friday or Saturday night.” Massie insists that she is not sour on theater. “I know there’s a way to make this work,” she says. But as for trying it in Nashville, she says, “I don’t know that I’d do it in this town again.”

Almost every detail of Massie’s lament has been echoed, at one time or another, by every theater company in town—big or small, for-profit or not-for-profit. Especially common are complaints about the difficulty of performing original or unfamiliar works. From Tennessee Repertory Theatre to Mockingbird, many of Nashville’s theater companies have attempted to develop and stage original plays. All of them have met with mixed results.

If shows such as the Rep’s original musical A House Divided were brought into Nashville from another city, suggests Pirkle, they would probably stand a better chance with local audiences. “You have to have a bit of approval from outside,” Pirkle explains. “You’re rarely a hero in your hometown.” Until the Rep lands a show on Broadway, he figures, the company will have a hard time attracting Sound of Music-size crowds for original works.

Smaller companies, which don’t have the Rep’s advertising budget or its subscriber base, face an even more difficult struggle. Before the Nashville Shakespeare Festival and Darkhorse Theater parted ways in 1994, Darkhorse spent years cultivating an audience for original dramas. Results were uneven. “One show would have a lot of people, the next wouldn’t,” remembers Shannon Wood. “I tend to think people go to see things they’re familiar with, or things that have a performer they know.”

Quality is another factor. It must be said that audience members showed up for some offbeat shows and were turned off permanently by bad scripts, poor performances, or vulgarity simply for the sake of puerile shock value. By contrast, the Darkhorse achieved a measure of success with its productions because audiences came to trust its high standards.

Even so, corporate sponsors—so crucial to the survival of theater companies—seem reluctant to sink money into unusual productions that might result in a public-relations fiasco. “A corporate sponsor isn’t going to want people running around naked onstage,” David Alford insists. The current climate for arts groups, he says, is “very hostile” nationwide. “People already view art as subversive—countercultural, mean-spirited, smashing values.”

The money crunch also takes its toll on actors and directors. To put it bluntly, nobody’s going to get rich doing local theater. Mockingbird’s David Alford is one of the few local actors who has managed to support himself exclusively by pursuing his craft. Almost everyone else has day gigs. Rick Seay, who appears in ACT I’s upcoming Light Up the Sky, teaches Latin at Hillwood High School; Thais Hardison, whose production of Charles Ludlum’s farce The Mystery of Irma Vep opens Friday at Theatre Horizons, supports herself as a waitress at Mulligan’s Pub. Dennis Ewing has done everything from landscaping to distributing newspapers. Ironically, whenever actors earn the credentials to join their professional union, which gives them access to relatively lucrative Equity jobs, they’re barred from non-Equity work—thus reducing the talent pool available to smaller local companies.

Nevertheless, Nashville’s small theater companies agree that the biggest challenge is simply getting people in the door. Last year, in its new space at Marathon Village, Actors’ Playhouse produced Faith Healer, a work by the Irish playwright Brian Friel. Friel’s works are rarely staged in Nashville. According to word-of-mouth, the Playhouse production was a challenging one. The average audience, however, consisted of 12 people. One night, the cast performed for a whopping audience of three paying customers.

Don Breedwell, artistic director of Actors’ Playhouse, levels some blame at what he calls “the TPAC syndrome”—the perception that, if a play doesn’t feature costly sets, flashy costumes, and a general sense of spectacle, or if it simply doesn’t take place at TPAC, it’s somehow inferior. Breedwell may be right, but it’s also likely that a large segment of the Nashville audience simply has never had the experience of live theater, performed on a bare stage with minimal props.

Without a broad exposure to theater, Clara Hieronymus suggests, the audience tends to be “pretty undiscriminating.” She argues that audiences are too often cowed by touring productions that feature a single big name, such as Robert Goulet’s recent appearance in Man of La Mancha at TPAC. “The truth is, he was awful,” Hieronymus says.

Circle treasurer Maggi Bowden, who will appear in ACT I’s Light Up the Sky, recalls a friend’s classification of the three kinds of theatergoers: “the people who’ll go anyway; the people who’ll never go; and the huge number of people in the middle who might.” That enormous potential audience is the one every Nashville theater company—like every theater company everywhere—hopes to reach.

The challenges facing small theater companies are hardly new. In her 1965 thesis A History of the Community Theatre Movement in Nashville 1926-1951, Margery Hollister Hargrove observed that boosters of local theatre in the early 1900s fell into two categories. One group consisted of “drama devotees” who felt that theater was a “national necessity...to keep alive the art and literature of the stage.” A second group was composed of “grande dames” who found their social outings to local playhouses threatened by the advent of motion pictures. “Those ladies,” wrote Hargrove, “considered the restoration of the theater as a civic duty, and as such it assumed a certain moralistic overtone.”

It was the latter group that Mrs. A. Starr Best urgently addressed one April day in 1921. At a meeting of Nashville’s most prestigious women’s organization, The Centennial Club, she warned the assembled ladies that the people of Tennessee were bombarded by the “faulty and oftentime immoral productions” that toured the state. Touring companies still passed through Nashville then, offering everything from serious drama to risqué burlesque. Some of these plays, reported The Nashville Tennessean, exerted an “insidious and dangerous influence.” Mrs. Best offered a solution: a local drama league.

She was not a disinterested party. In 1910, in her hometown of Chicago, Best had helped to found the Drama League of America. The Drama League encouraged civic groups across the country to start affiliated drama clubs to promote higher standards of theater through productions and play readings. By the 1920s small local theater companies had become a nationwide phenomenon. Hargrove estimates that 400 such companies had sprung up across the country, including theater groups in Johnson City, Memphis, and Chattanooga. By September 1921, a Nashville Drama League had been formed, complete with officers and a board of directors.

It wasn’t until 1926, however, that a Nashville Little Theatre actually got under way. It brought together members of the Drama League, another local theater organization called the Stagecrafters, and a group of drama devotees that included Lark Taylor, a local actor of some renown who was a cousin of former Tennessee Governors Alf and Bob Taylor. A stage was secured at the old Hillsboro Theatre for a modest monthly fee, and the theater posted a slate of seven plays for the 1926-27 season.

Expectations for the season were high. “Nashville should be successful beyond most cities of its size,” read a press release quoted in Hargrove’s thesis, “when account is taken of the mine of intelligence, culture, and artistic capacity upon which the [Little Theatre] Guild can draw for its productions.” The theater presented works by popular dramatists such as Henrik Ibsen and George S. Kaufman; its performers included Dr. H.B. Schermerhorn, Sam Tarpley, and an actor named Sam Tompkins, who would go on to achieve success in Hollywood under the name Tom Ewell. And yet, after only six full seasons, the Nashville Little Theatre ceased production.

The reasons for its demise are eerily similar to the problems that plague Nashville’s small theater companies today. Functioning in the midst of the Depression, the Little Theatre slashed its ticket prices to remain affordable—especially since it had to compete with other sources of entertainment, such as movies and touring shows. But lower ticket prices limited the amount of money the theater could make on each production. Directors clashed with the Little Theatre board over everything from financing to the choice of plays, so there was frequent turnover. When the Little Theatre attempted a playwriting contest in 1931, it failed to generate much excitement, although the audience reportedly enjoyed the first-prize winner: The Lost Sheep, a “Negro comedy” by Andrew Lytle, which required its cast to wear blackface. To make matters worse, as Hargrove notes, newspaper coverage of theater had been greatly reduced.

By 1932 the Little Theatre board had decided that, unless it could get a better deal on rent for the Hillsboro stage and unless it could cut the director’s salary, it would have to move elsewhere. Instead, the Little Theatre never produced again.

In summing up the Nashville Little Theatre’s demise, Hargrove blamed the company for making “little or no attempt...to include and interest the general public of the city, thus making any great expansion difficult if not impossible.” She also lambasted the theater’s board for failing to formulate “plans and objectives...for even one season, much less for several.”

Nashville’s theater companies still face precisely these same issues. “We have to educate and enlighten before we can serve,” says Jill Massie. Smaller companies are attempting community-outreach programs, similar to those offered by Nashville Children’s Theatre or TPAC’s Humanities Outreach Tennessee program. The Nashville Shakespeare Festival has toured extensively with condensed versions of Romeo and Juliet and other plays, introducing thousands of schoolchildren to the experience of live theater.

There are signs that the clouds may be parting above Nashville’s small theater companies. Despite the odds, new companies continue to open; witness Dan McGeachy and Darren Stuart’s Theatre of Dreams and the performing space Ken Bernstein has opened above Bongo Java on Belmont Avenue. ACT I’s production of The Crucible was the most successful in its six-year history; reservations are already coming in for Light Up the Sky. The final performances of The Importance of Being Earnest are filling up for Mockingbird Public Theatre. Plays as diverse as the Rep’s The Tempest and Theatre Horizons’ The Mystery of Irma Vep are both in performance this weekend.

“The theater does come and go, but the need is always there,” says Denice Hicks, who plays Ariel in The Rep’s The Tempest. Durmg a rehearsal break at TPAC, Prospero’s storm is clattering and raging around her. But Hicks, who makes her living as an actress, is all confidence. “There has been an ebb,” she says, “and now it’s flowing again.”


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