Nashville’s 2002-2003 theater season more or less officially opened this week, with Tennessee Repertory Theatre raising the curtain on its first production, Greater Tuna, currently playing through Sept. 22. Now 20 years old, the play has reached the status of modern genre classic, that genre being “two-men shows written by and often starring Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, featuring 20 or so comical characters who live in a small Texas town.” Bertha Bumiller, Didi Snavely, Vera Carp, Sheriff Givens and the rest of the funny Tuna folk will certainly be comfortable on the Polk Theater stage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center, having played at TPAC in 2000 in the equally popular spin-offs A Tuna Christmas and Red, White and Tuna.
Attributed as the most widely produced play in regional theaters nationwide, Greater Tuna should find a welcoming audience in Nashville. But if, at first glance, it seems to be a fish slightly out of water as a part of the Rep’s otherwise somewhat classically structured season, there is sound thinking driving the company’s decision-making. And that thinking is driven by the fact that the Rep, as of last spring, now operates under a new working agreement with TPAC. While executive producing director David Grapes and his staff continue on their mission to provide Nashville with the finest professional theater possible, the Rep’s budgeting and programming will be under the watchful eye of TPAC president and CEO Steven Greil and his organization. So if bringing in the original creators of Greater Tuna to launch the new season doesn’t exactly qualify as a homegrown product, it most definitely serves the greater corporate good, specifically as an audience-grabber that will complement TPAC’s first big AmSouth Bank Broadway Series offering, the return engagement of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, running Sept. 25-Oct. 19.
“Greater Tuna is being presented by the Rep as a challenge opposite Phantom,” says Alan Yuspeh, a vice-president for HCA who recently assumed chairmanship of the Rep’s board of directors. “The Tuna shows were well-received in Nashville in the past. They have a different audience than Phantom, and we saw this as an unusual opportunity. It’s not likely that that’s the kind of show the Rep would be doing in the future. It’s a historical accident not indicative of anything long-term.”
While confident that Greater Tuna is the right show at the right time for the Rep, Yuspeh is even more excited about the remainder of the upcoming Rep Mainstage season, which includes Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (Oct. 30-Nov. 10), former Rep associate artistic director Todd Olson’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Dec. 11-22), Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (Mar. 12-23) and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (May 14-25). “I love the theater and think it’s important that we do high-quality work,” Yuspeh says. “I look to Streetcar to be a spectacular piece.” Grapes will direct an all-star local cast, and designer Gary C. Hoff is expected to work his typical magic with the New Orleans setting.
Citing new corporate and community leaders who have joined the Rep’s board, Yuspeh would seem to have the necessary enthusiasm and support to spearhead the company’s fund-raising efforts, to help raise popular awareness and to assist in shaping the Rep’s artistic vision. Of course, like his predecessors, he faces the challenge of trying to expand the Rep’s subscriber base, now currently hovering near the 3,500 mark. “If subscriptions climbed to the 5,000-6,000 range,” he says, “we could be more adventuresome in our programming.”
In the meantime, the Rep’s always interesting Off-Broadway Series, performed in TPAC’s Johnson Theater, will continue under the new regime. This season’s selections include Becky Mode’s Fully Committed (Oct. 3-12), the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Proof by David Auburn (Feb. 6-15) and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (Mar. 27-Apr. 5)all of them suitable antidotes to the less-than-highbrow programming represented by Greater Tuna.
While the Rep strives to balance fiscal and artistic concerns, elsewhere on Nashville stages, it’s pretty much a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Budgetary concerns continue to drive the engines of smaller professional companies, which are offering, by and large, small-cast shows and even smaller seasons. Only the semiprofessional Actors Bridge Ensemble will mount as many as four productions in the coming year. “Theater needs to be developed in a grass-roots way,” says Actors Bridge artistic director Bill Feehely. “It takes time. You need to grow incrementally. It’s often a losing proposition. At the best you’re breaking even. And you can’t judge the success of a theater from five years of work. Artistically viable institutions can take 20 years to develop their audience. You have to be optimistic. Otherwise, why continue to do it?”
Why, indeed. But there has recently been some very positive movement among Nashville’s smaller theater companies, who, under the sponsorship of the Metro Arts Commission, have convened a series of meetings to hear from outside consultants and to discuss the viability of a working coalition. Participating companies, besides Actors Bridge, include Nashville Shakespeare Festival, People’s Branch Theatre, Mockingbird Theatre, BroadAxe Theatre Company, Nashville Theatre Works, Nashville Children’s Theatre and American Negro Playwright Theatre. Tennessee Repertory Theatre and TPAC have also sent representatives to the forums, which have been coordinated by Mockingbird general manager Kara Kindall and have included input from, among others, Keith Martin, former managing director of Charlotte Repertory Theatre.
“This kind of dialogue has never happened before in Nashville theater,” says Kindall. Discussion has centered on the place of the arts in the community, the business of art and the arts as not-for-profit enterprise.
“It’s the first time these groups have sat down around a table together,” adds Feehely. “A smaller, vibrant theater may be able to collectively gain notoriety. This may be an opportunity to share space and resources.” Feehely concludes that the strong audience numbers for his company’s recent production of The Laramie Project “showed a strength in the public for certain things. So we look ahead to more work.”
Not a bad trip
While Nashville’s theater community has been asking some big questions about how to stay solvent and relevant in tough times, bare-bones alternative theater still manages to thrive. Witness the little production that opened last weekend at Bongo After Hours Theatre. The Bad Trip is local playwright Joe Giordano’s second effort to be mounted by his company, The Players.
Giordano and Players co-founder Dusty Shaffer are the stars of the two-man comedy-drama, which tells of the reunion of a frustrated writer and his somewhat goofball friend. The duo rehash some old issues, plot out an amorphous future, then attempt to make sense of the present through a hallucinogenic haze. The script offers some quirky, Sam Shepardian reflections on the protagonists’ esoteric world, a mélange of pop-culture references, a brief aura of menace and a neo-hippie sensibility that is punctuated by the music of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, et al. If nothing else, The Bad Trip is an interesting exercise worthy of a look by committed theatergoers. The show runs through Sept. 21.
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