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January 08, 2003

Nashville Theater: New Companies and an Influx of Talented Professionals

The People's Branch Theatre's controversial WAITING FOR GODOT: Mary Tanner and Jenny Littleton

Mockingbird Public Theatre's OF MICE AND MEN cast: David Alford, Mockingbird's Artistic Director, as George and Jeremy Childs as Lenny (photo by Joe Hardwick).

Nashville Children's Theatre: SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT cast members jeff obafemi carr and Misty Lewis (photo by Dan Brewer)

Tennessee Rep: STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE cast members Nan Gurley and Jeremy Childs

Actors Bridge LARAMIE PROJECT cast part 1 (left to right): Jeff Lewis, Actors Bridge Artistic Director Bill Feehely, Rachel Agee, DSon Griffiths, Vali Forrister

Actors Bridge LARAMIE PROJECT cast part 2 (left to right): Amy Chomsky, Matt Gerbig, Henry Haggard, Colleen Egan (photo by Kim Russell).

BroadAxe KARLA cast part 1 (left to right): Julie Rowe, Sara Sharpe, W. Earl Brown, Brandon Boyd

BroadAxe KARLA cast part 2 (left to right): Steve Earle - Playwright, Holly Allen, Darrell Larson - Director.

by Matthew Carlton

"Nashville, Tennessee"
When you hear those words, what springs to mind? To most of the world, it's "Music City", home of the Grand Ole Opry and the center of the thriving country music industry. But you might be surprised to hear not only the twang of guitars, but the songs of Sondheim and Rodgers or the poetry of the Bard ringing from stages all across this multifaceted, crossroads town. Nashville is Equity's newest liaison city.

When I arrived in Nashville in 1989, after a twelve-year stint in NYC, there was only one affiliated professional theatre in town, Tennessee Repertory Theatre, the city's large LORT company. At that time, it offered four or five shows per season in the Polk Theatre, a beautiful 1200 seat venue housed within the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The only other paid work in town was either at the Children's Theatre , the now defunct Opryland theme park or the local dinner theatre. And at that time, these venues rarely offered Guest Artist contracts. There was some opportunity for performers to work in the recording industry as session singers or as voice-over artists, but only if one could make the right connections. So back then, eking out a living as an actor, here, was tough at best.

But over the last decade or so, new companies and an influx of talented professionals have changed the local theatrical landscape. Today, several full-time professional companies including the Nashville Children's Theatre, the Tennessee Rep., Mockingbird Public Theatre, People's Branch, Nashville Shakespeare Festival and Actors Bridge offer Equity contracts. Also, the historic Ryman Auditorium and smaller companies such as BroadAxe and TheatreCraft and Amun Ra offer periodic employment for AEA members.

Actor/director Matt Chiorini says, "I moved here from Boston 3 years ago to work for the Rep, and I honestly didn't expect much from Nashville other than country music and good barbecue. It turns out that the theatre scene in Nashville is surprisingly vibrant and exciting, with many dedicated and talented professionals creating some compelling work. There's some great home-grown talent working alongside some of the best theatre artists from New York, LA, and Chicago. In the last few months, I've been able to go from an outdoor production of All's Well That Ends Well to a small experimental production of Waiting for Godot to a big and sumptuous Christmas Carol; all of it quality Equity work.. I think there's a lot to be said for a town that can keep so many actors working in so many different kinds of projects."

In the last calendar year, there were over twenty-five locally produced shows using various AEA contracts. The average number of contracted roles here is close to one hundred per season and "Music City" proudly boasts over a hundred active AEA members. And our ranks are swelling.

Here are some brief profiles of a few of Nashville's companies:

People's Branch Theatre

This is from Brian Niece, founder of one of Nashville's newer companies: "People's Branch Theatre, now in its third season, operates on a Small Professional Theatre contract. PBT undertakes work with an emphasis on a creative environment for artists to safely explore their artistic capabilities and challenge themselves in physically imaginative work that engenders a safe haven for our audiences to investigate their individual and shared life experience. In its first three years, PBT has produced three brand new works along with fresh interpretations of neglected classics."

Mockingbird Public Theater

David Alford, Mockingbird's Artistic Director, says, "We started Mockingbird in 1994, with an intent to try and re-define what a "regional" theatre company is. A de-emphasis on importing plays and artists from major metropolitan areas, and a commitment to developing and promoting theatre and theatre artists from this region. We went Equity in 1997, under an LOA and have been gradually creeping towards full LORT status since, showing an improvement in wages, hiring anywhere between 12 and 16 actors per year. We mount three or four special projects per year that we think have special relevance for our audience. Everything from classics for high school audiences to creating new work, our thrust is service to our community." http://dramafan.tripod.com/mockingbirdtheatre/

Nashville Children's Theatre

Dan Brewer, Production Stage Manager, Nashville Children's Theatre: "NCT is Tennessee's only professional, non-profit theatre dedicated exclusively to kids and families and is the oldest children's theatre company in America, established in 1931. The average NCT season spans 30 weeks and features over 150 performances for both school groups and family audiences. Altogether, Nashville Children's Theatre serves 80,000 children and adults annually." http://www.nct-dragonsite.org/

Tennessee Repertory Theatre

Tennessee Repertory Theatre, under the helm of Artistic Director David Grapes, is known for producing big musicals, classics and the occasional new work on their main-stage. Recently, TRT developed a strong second stage series, presenting smaller, more contemporary and challenging pieces. With ten or so productions per season, TRT is Nashville's largest Equity employer and is a LORT contractor. http://www.tnrep.org/

Amun Ra

Actor and playwright, jeff obafemi carr, has formed Amun Ra Theatre to celebrate African-American culture and to focus on issues of import to the community. Along with Tennessee State University-based American Negro Playwrights' Theatre, local actors, now, have prominent venues in which to perform and create pieces with African-American themes.

Actors Bridge & BroadAxe

Many of our companies, such as Actors Bridge and BroadAxe, support the creation of new plays and musicals by local writers. Mockingbird has its NeST Festival that celebrates Southern writers and plays. Award-winning composers and performers, such as Steve Earle, Mike Reid and Marcus Hummon have all created new pieces in conjunction with local theatres. The Broadway hit, BIG RIVER was written here by the late Roger Miller.

With one visit, you can see the appeal of this Middle Tennessee lifestyle. The town is large enough to support big-time sport franchises like the NFL Titans and the Predators hockey team as well as a world-class symphony, ballet and a growing opera company. It's also small enough where you can know your neighbor and make difference in the community. It's hard to believe, that with its tree-lined streets and compact downtown skyline, the greater Nashville community has over a million people. It's a genuine city, but Nashvillians pride themselves on a small-town ethic that characterizes the people here.

Like the other AEA liaison cities, Nashville can be a place for actors to carve out a life beyond the hustle and bustle of the two big coastal Meccas. I'll always cherish the time I spent living and learning in New York and I'll always go back for a periodic jolt of the special energy that belongs to the greatest city in the world. But out here in "The Sticks", I have a house with a dog and a yard and I get to put "actor" on my tax return. I don't mean to brag, but that's pretty sweet.

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