"The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."
Those lines, uttered by Touchstone in Act V of As You Like It, rang particularly true on a summer night in 1988, as a ragtag crew of Bard-loving thespians scurried around the Centennial Park band shell stage. Though this newly formed troupe had rehearsed the Shakespeare comedy, they had never run it in real time. And somehow, the fact that it would get dark before play's end hadn't dawned — perhaps "dusked" would be more appropriate — on anyone. All the world may indeed be a stage, but this section of it had no lights.
"The sun went down," Denice Hicks says over a bowl of tom kha gai at PM, recalling the comedy of errors she witnessed from the audience some 25 years ago. "It got too dark to see the actors anymore, and they still had half of the play to do. So two actors went and got their pickup trucks and pulled them up and turned on headlights."
Shakespeare by pickup truck lights — how Nashville. But it could've been worse. Wait, did we mention it was raining?
Despite the technical and meteorological difficulties, or perhaps because of them, it was a memorable evening. It made quite an impression on Hicks, now the artistic director of the organization hatched that auspicious (if dark and wet) August night — the Nashville Shakespeare Festival.
"I don't even know if they had permission to do it in the park, but it was really fun," Hicks says. "I sat next to Clara Hieronymus, who used to write for The Tennessean. She was a really well-respected critic, and she loved it too."
This year, Nashville Shakespeare Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary. After 25 years of free Shakespeare in the Park performances — and since 2008, winter NSF productions at Belmont University's Troutt Theater — it's easy to forget just how weird it once seemed to be doing Shakespeare in Music City USA.
"At the time, we were so Hee-Haw-associated," Hicks says. "Back then, Nashville and Shakespeare did not go together. It was kind of a punch line of sorts."
No more. Shakespeare in the Park has become the most hotly anticipated annual theatrical event in town, drawing between 10,000 and 15,000 people annually — no mean feat in this era of Facebook, reality TV and streaming Netflix.
John Seigenthaler, longtime observer of the city's literary scene, is an avid supporter. "As everybody knows, Nashville wears a crown for excellence as a center of entertainment," he says. "The Shakespeare Festival is a star in that crown."
For a company to have developed such a devoted following in a town not known as a theater hotbed is downright remarkable.
Hicks acted in her first production with the company in 1990, and she's been involved ever since. She was the artistic director from 1998 to 2002, and she took back the reins in 2005. And though she's too humble to admit it, she deserves a great deal of the credit for the festival's success and longevity.
"We would not be celebrating our 25th year without her many, many years of devoted work," says Nashville attorney Donald Capparella, one of the festival's co-founders and a longtime board member. "It is her creative ideas that inspire the board and the theater artists to work so hard to make the art come to life."
Despite bigger budgets and more professional productions, Hicks says the attitude of NSF's Shakespeare in the Park productions is essentially the same as it was during that truck-lit inaugural performance.
"The spirit of Shakespeare in the Park is all about, 'Let's do a play!' Against the elements, against all odds," she says, summoning visions of The Little Rascals' "Let's put on a show!" episodes and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms.
Perhaps it's that playful attitude that keeps Nashvillians coming back. Mention Shakespeare to some folks, and it might bring back unpleasant memories of snoozing through high school lit or self-serious actors pontificating in stilted accents. Obviously Shakespeare's works were modern in his time, but sometimes present-day Shakespeare courses and theatrical productions get bogged down in dry minutiae or historical details, missing just how timeless and universal the Bard's works truly are.
That's never been a problem for the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. For one thing, Hicks' background precludes pedantry: She grew up doing vaudeville and variety shows, and moved to Nashville to be in the Country Music USA show at Opryland in 1980 — where, she remembers, "I was clogging in tap shoes and playing the gee-tar." Stodginess isn't in her DNA. Like the rest of the folks at NSF, she eschews pretension, preferring performing zeal and whimsical invention.
For example, in 2009, she drew on her vaudeville years to reimagine Richard III. "What is usually an infamously dour piece of endless betrayal and murder," wrote Scene theater critic Martin Brady, "is duly transmogrified into a slice of early 20th century vaudeville, replete with tinkling piano accompaniment, groaning one-liners (rimshot!), arch physical comedy, a little tap-dancing and juggling, delightful costumes (including derbies, skimmers and top hats) and an energetic and versatile cast of 17 who play the shtick to the hilt and make it work throughout."
For Hicks, that challenge to find an original take on works staged thousands of times is the beauty of doing Shakespeare. "You can't do it the way he did it," she says, "because he was playing to his contemporaries. ... Shakespeare's idea was, let's make these characters human. Let's hold the mirror up to nature. That's why to me, he's a playwright for our time. He wrote about humans doing funny things, and humans doing heinous things, and humans just being alive in a really full way."
Another challenge for any Shakespeare company is drawing younger generations with short attention spans. Last year, when NSF cast former Titans star running back Eddie George as Julius Caesar, the company made a real breakthrough with children.
"We had 12 student matinees, and Eddie performed at every one," Hicks says, her enthusiasm clearly undiminished by more than two decades of immersion in the Bard. "Kids would show up in their Titans jerseys, for crying out loud! Here was their hero, doing Shakespeare — and very well! It was very exciting. I'm so grateful to Eddie for that. We're hoping to bring him back in 2014 for Othello. He's perfect for that role, just like he was perfect for Julius Caesar."
So what does NSF have in store for their 25th anniversary year?
For starters, the winter production, Macbeth — featuring members of Nashville Ballet as the three witches — opens Jan. 10 at Belmont's Troutt Theater. Former Nashville actor and director Matt Chiorini, now teaching theater at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, has come back to direct. Chiorini knows a thing or two about the Bard — he was the founding artistic director of the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival. (And you thought Nashville and Shakespeare didn't go together.)
Hicks says Chiorini is the perfect fit for Macbeth: "Matt is an edgy actor and a pushy director, meaning he pushes everybody beyond their comfort limits. In Nashville, we like things to be nonconfrontational. But Macbeth is just not a polite play on any level. I invited Matt in because I know he knows this community well enough to know how far to push us."
If that isn't enough to stir intrigue, Chiorini himself says audiences should prepare to be wowed. "When I was in Nashville at People's Branch Theatre," he says, "we set out (with varying degrees of success) to do things that really challenged the audience and pushed the boundaries of what a play can do, but we never had all the toys to play with that we've got with Macbeth. ... I hope that at the end of the show the audience leaves the theater blinking and disoriented — but in a good way!"
On April 21, NSF will host The Bard's Birthday Bash at Cumberland Park, featuring the biggest balcony scene ever. "This will be our fourth edition," Hicks says. "Anybody who wants to be Romeo or Juliet can take that part. We have scripts. All the Romeos talk together, all the Juliets. In unison. It's hilarious."
Stick around later that evening for Barderoo, featuring music inspired by Shakespeare characters and stories. Hicks hopes to have renowned songwriters like David Olney and Marcus Hummon — both of whom have written Bard-inspired music — not to mention an hourlong dance party to hip-hop tunes featuring Shakespeare references, courtesy of local DJ Indie Chris.
On May 17, the Discovery Center in Murfreesboro will host an NSF fundraiser, followed by the year's crowning event: Shakespeare in the Park, Aug. 15-Sept. 22 at the Centennial Park band shell. This year's production, fittingly enough, is A Midsummer Night's Dream. As always, Hicks & Co. have found a novel way to honor a work that remains green in many senses.
"My current idea is to make it a very environmental production," Hicks says. "In the fairy world, the king and queen of the fairies are at war, and according to their speeches, they are creating global climate change. That started me thinking about all of the potential of the invisible fairy world that we normal mortals can't see. There's always something biodegrading. There's always something stopping up the flow of the rivers." (This is, after all, the play that features the line, "The human mortals want their winter here.")
Hicks has dreamed up some environmental education opportunities, and she's brought on Urban Green Lab's Dan Heller as a consultant. "We've already partnered with the Big Picture School, because they're all about mentorship," Hicks says. "In the name of Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, we're going to seed-bomb forgotten spaces in Nashville in the spring. In the summer, when those places bloom, we'll take photographs. And we'll incorporate that into some public art. I think it will be really fun." For Puck's sake, of course.
That spirit suffuses many of the festivities the NSF has encouraged to brand the Bard. Hicks is encouraging Nashville microbreweries to make Shakesbeers. Just Love Coffee Roasters has already created a blend called "Much Abrew About Nothing." The Shakespeare Allowed series continues at Nashville Public Library, and a new Shakespeare Upright staged-reading series is in the works. Mangia Nashville is going to do an "Eve of the Ides of March" event.
As for the future, Hicks' biggest goal is a more up-to-date performance space at Centennial Park. Her dream is a Renaissance replica stage, but with state-of-the-art equipment, like the one she and Capparella saw when they traveled to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival over the summer. "It'd be really cool next to the Parthenon to have a Renaissance replica stage that kids could go to see as well," she says.
Judging by their track record, there's little reason to doubt Hicks and her cohorts will make it happen. If you'd told Nashvillians in 1988 that in 2013, our city would be celebrating the 25th anniversary of a thriving Shakesapeare festival, the response would have likely been something along the lines of, "Lord, what fools these mortals be."
To paraphrase a line from Act III of Titus Andronicus (or Act I of Henry IV, Part 2, or Act II of Henry IV, Part 1, or something): Fools, schmools.
And now, without much further ado (about nothing), behold your calendar of arts highlights for the season. May the winter of your discontent be made glorious summer by this Scene of yours. And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house in the deep bosom of the Cumberland buried.
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