The Nashville Shakespeare Festival began life in 1988 as a collective endeavor of local theater artists. The organization operated in a more or less communal fashion until 1998, when Denice Hicks was formally appointed artistic director. A veteran actress and director who’s just about done it all in Music City theater, Hicks guided NSF progressively in the recent term, with its Shakespeare in the Park summer productions typified by interesting and innovative concepts.
Now is a time of transition. After what Hicks characterizes as a “grueling selection process” involving dozens of applicants from around the country, NSF will fall under the reins of a new artistic director, Steve Cardamone, who is still settling into his job and getting acquainted with a new town. Philadelphia-born and -bred, Cardamone comes to Nashville directly from the ShawChicago Theatre Company, where he served as outreach director. He has a solid teaching background and is both an actor and a director, his résumé boasting touring experience as a member of Shenandoah Shakespeare Express as well as work in Shakespeare festivals in Oregon, Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
“I think Steve will fit into Nashville really well,” Hicks says. “His aesthetic matches what the company has been doing all along. He wants to do Shakespeare that is relevant and not pretentious. His energy is really good, and he understands how to get things done within a budget. He’s charismatic, creative, he’s got great ideas and he’s working from a very honest place.”
Only in Nashville a few weeks now, Cardamone, 33, has been preparing in earnest for NSF’s forthcoming production of Romeo and Juliet, opening Aug. 7 at the bandshell in Centennial Park. Affable and unassuming, he springs from big-city Italian American stock and a family of pizza makers. He loves sportsliving and dying with Philadelphia teams for yearsand already proclaims an affinity for the Titans. “Eddie George is a Philly guy too,” he notes.
The friendly exterior notwithstanding, Cardamone is deadly serious about this theater business, and he’s come to Nashville to do good art and to move NSF in outward directions. In the meantime, he’s in a period of adjustment. “I’d never been to Tennessee before,” he says. “I thought Nashville was in the Deep South, and I had these notions'I better start liking country music,’ and so forthbut it’s not like that at all.” It’s not like Philly or Chicago, either, as Cardamone has noticed. “I’ve heard maybe two car honks since I’ve moved here,” he says in amazement. “Is this a city? There’s no honking here.”
Nashville may appear a little more laid-back in some ways, but as a theatrical executive, Cardamone suddenly has legitimate, typically pressing items on his docket. Besides staging his first Nashville production, he’ll be pondering the ongoing issue of funding a major arts enterprise. “Athletes get millions of dollars,” he says, “but theaters are always on the brink of folding. It’s frustrating. A Shakespeare festival should have an easier time securing sponsorship, but we’re limited in what we can do. We need more corporate funding.”
He’ll also be developing long-range plans for expanding the festival’s programming and educational outreach, and he’d like to affiliate the festival more closely with the university community. “If we could associate with a university, there’d be so many possibilities,” he states enthusiastically. “A lot of the major Shakespeare festivals are connected to universities. It just makes sense to me. Both sides benefit.”
Cardamone would also like to build up NSF to a three-show season. “Our mission is to do Shakespeare, but also the great plays and contemporary classics. I’d love to do Talley’s Folly, Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winner. I’d especially like to do a show in the winter, but the performing space and the funds aren’t there right now.” Obviously, it hasn’t taken Cardamone long to notice the lack of theatrical performance space in Nashville. “I wish there were more venues,” he says. “The bandshell is nicewe get the space for free and it’s centrally locatedbut it’d be great to have our own facility, like other festivals around the country.”
In the meantime, there’s his production of Romeo and Juliet, a play in which he’s performed on four previous occasions. “I know it pretty well, and I’ve taught the play for a number of years. Unlike other Shakespeare plays, we don’t have one definitive script to draw upon. You have to look at all the different editions and come up with your own. It took about five weeks to see what was the most stageworthy version. I want to make sure the action moves along; I don’t want it to be a laborious thing for actors or audience. It’s got to be clear prose, but urgent and have a drive to it.”
Casting the play in a new theatrical environment has offered its challenges, to be sure. The ensemble predominantly features Nashville stalwarts such as Hicks, Matt Carlton, Mary Tanner Bailey, Matt Chiorini, Brandon Boyd and Josh Childs. “We had general auditions,” says Cardamone, “and I thought I had the people here locally to do the play. Originally, I planned to bring in both Romeo and Juliet from out of town. I wanted to stick to the script where the ages were concerned, which is always a problem since the characters are so young. How do you get someone who looks like she’s 13 and sounds like she’s 13, but has the chops to really play the role of Juliet?” Local actor Jonathan Root, who made his NSF debut last year, eventually snagged the part of Romeo. Yorkshire, England, native Georgina Stoyles, an actress with strong Chicago credentials, will portray Juliet.
“I’m really excited about Georgina,” Cardamone continues. “She has the personality of a lion, and she makes big, bold choices.” Cardamone endorses bringing in outside talent under the right circumstances: “As long as they’re good ensemble people. If I have a chance to bring in a premier director, or a great actor, I’ll do that if it serves my overall goals. But I would always look locally first. There’s a much better talent pool here than I anticipated, and I’ve been impressed by the actors’ work ethic.”
Conceptually, Cardamone’s production aims to incorporate Elizabethan theater conventions, including actor/audience interaction, a lit audience throughout the performance, and a minimalist multilevel thrust stage, which will be designed by Paul Gatrell. Costume coordination and other period touches will also provide character and plot clues. “There are great opportunities here for dynamic staging,” says Cardamone, “and all of it is designed to make the story clear. Of course, the ultimate responsibility rests with the actors and the director. I really believe that if we can capture people’s attention, they will be stunned at the end. Shakespeare asks his audience to use their imagination and be involved in the play, and that’s one of my goals for the festival.”
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