When David Grapes was being recruited for the head honcho position at Tennessee Repertory Theatre, members of the search committee showed him the Polk Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, the main stage for The Rep’s productions. “Don’t you think a 1,000-seat theater is too big?” someone asked Grapes. “Not,” he answered, “if you have 10,000 subscribers.” A short time later, Grapes was signing a contract.
For several years, the constant lament at The Rep has been its quandary at regularly having to sell 1,100 seats for a show’s three-week run. In the past, departing artistic director Mac Pirkle and other administrative staff have addressed the issue by programming big-name popular musicalssure to fill the auditoriumwith substantive works less likely to draw huge crowds. The assumption was that the season would ultimately balance out.
Grapes claims he’s taking a different tack altogether. Early in the game, he is thrumming the phrase “season subscribers.” “We have to do a marketing campaign that promotes The Rep as a season, and not sell every show on its own merits,” he says. “People have to know that if they buy a subscription to The Rep, they’re going to see an eclectic season of exciting plays. They are going to have to trust me. I have to sell The Rep as an institution.”
Currently, only 4,000 of The Rep’s faithful followers are season-ticket holders. This, explains Grapes, is in comparison to New York’s Buffalo Studio Arena, with 13,000 subscribers, and Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, with 20,000. “My goals in the first year are modestto maintain the 4,000 subscribers we already have. Within five years, I’d like to double that to 8,000.”
A native of West Virginia with a master’s in fine arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Grapes has spent 20 years as a professional in theater administration, associated with companies and universities all across the country. Before moving to Nashville with his wife and two children, he served as executive director/producing artistic director for Artpark in Lewiston, N.Y., 40 miles north of Buffalo. While there, he mounted the musicals Blood Brothers, Forever Plaid, Barnum, and Always...Patsy Cline. He cofounded 3D Productions, which sent such shows as Lend Me a Tenor, Pippin, and Pirates of Penzance on bus and truck tours across the country. And he produced a $6 million outdoor musical drama UTAH! (equally vigorous, but not to be confused with OKLAHOMA!) for the TUACAHN Amphitheater near Zion and Bryce Canyons.
Although Grapes was not actively seeking a new position when a headhunter called him, he was impressed by The Rep’s potential. “Buffalo is a compressing economy right now. People are moving out rather than in,” he says. “When I came to Nashville I was stunned by the amount of activity herein construction, in job creation, in entertainment, in tourism. I looked on the Internet and saw there is also a vital theater community going on here. Nashville has a strong history of philanthropy, and I thought that was also extremely positive.”
He believes he’ll need about $1 million to fund the company’s transition “back to its roots” as Middle Tennessee’s most visible presenter of top-quality theatrical productions, including classics and hip, new off-Broadway pieces. “In recent years, the theater’s largest mandate has become the production of new American musicals. The board thought that while that was a noble and worthy endeavor, it’s not what the city needs right now,” Grapes explains.
He is moving the schedule back to five productions per season. (In a cost-saving measure, it was reduced to four during 1998-99.) He also plans to offer harder-edged, adult-themed works like Angels in America, How I Learned to Drive, and Nixon’s Nixon that would appeal to smaller, non-subscription audiences. These would have to play in a smaller space, like TPAC’s Johnson Theater. He also hopes to introduce viewers to such playwrights as Shaw, Ibsen, Molière, and Chekhov, none of whom have been tackled by The Rep. And he’d like to engage in partnerships with other theater companies in Nashville and other cities to grow The Rep’s audience base and to share production costs.
All this talk of big-picture, long-term goals raises several questions, foremost among them: Even if Grapes builds it, will they come? Pirkle has long maintained that they wouldn’t. Audiences stayed away in droves from The Glass Menagerie and Lost in Yonkers, for example. On the other hand, they flocked to traditional titles like To Kill a Mockingbird and Annie. Can Grapes put contemporary hits like Sylvia, Art, and Last Night of Ballyhoo on a season with Major Barbara, A Doll’s House, and The Cherry Orchard and not play to a great black void?
The Rep’s new executive producing director also has to figure out why the company has been losing season subscribers. Where are they going? Surely, some have trotted down the hall to the Jackson Theater to catch the latest multimillion-dollar touring Broadway megamusical. And, surely, others have simply run out of time, energy, and inclination for regular expeditions to TPAC. But, by the same token, some of those former subscribers must be out there waiting for somethingbut what? Big, corny musicals? Adult restoration comedies? Neil Simon? David Mamet? Godot? This is a major conundrum that Grapes is going to have to solve.
Finally, Grapes is going to have to revivify the local pool of actors. Nashville, he realizes, is blessed with a wealth of acting talent. But Opryland is no longer bringing youngsters up through the ranks. Many of the veteran performers, discouraged by non-challenging roles, have fallen into bad habits onstage, developing stock characterizations and mannerisms for every performance. Grapes doesn’t know these peopleand, as a result, they’re going to have to start busting their acting chops again or get shot down.
“The one thing I’d like The Rep to be known for is great acting,” he says. “I want our audiences to know that when they come to see a play, even if they don’t like the work itself, that the acting was excellent.” He adds that since he has produced shows all over the country, performers he has worked with previously are already shipping him their résumés.
Insisting he has “the passion, the energy, and the commitment” to overcome these hurdles and transform The Rep into one of the nation’s top regional theaters, Grapes now has Nashville’s ear. As a matter of courtesy, at least, the city should give him a chance to succeed.
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