That all-encompassing yet inadequate word love – at least in the English language, where unlike the Greeks and others we haven’t bothered to come up with more than one word (synonyms not included) for that powerful feeling. It’s possibly the most hackneyed word in our tongue, used for just about anything or anyone for whom we have great affection: I love my family, I love my friends, I love pizza, I love paisley ties, I love sunshine, I love rain, I love London, I love New York, etc.
It’s inadequate but still the only word that does justice to my feelings about theater, and in particular Nashville theater. As far as my middle-aged memory can recall the seed for that emotional connection was apparently planted when I attended a Nashville Academy Theatre (now known as Nashville Children’s Theatre) performance of “Beauty and the Beast” – it is fine there were no dancing candelabras in that non-Disney version – during its 1972-73 season with other schoolchildren from Byars Dowdy Elementary School in Lebanon (I was born at the old Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville but raised in that nearby community where my father was a lawyer and my mother was a schoolteacher). I’ll never forget the instant when the beast was transformed into a handsome prince by a kiss; it was a magical moment and although I might now be able to work out how it was accomplished I don’t ever want to figure it out.
There were other theatrical excursions in Nashville during the 1970s thanks to my parents; an enjoyable production of “Pippin” by the Advent Theatre Company (which called the old Church of the Advent Episcopal site at 17th and Edgehill Avenues home before that group’s sad demise) still sticks in my mind. But I was also involved in a group formed in Wilson County during the nation’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 – Sound & Light Theatre Company (my talented mother drew their logo, incidentally) inspired me not only to enjoy but participate in theater as a youngster, including such roles as Whitney in “Life With Father” and Snug the Joiner in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Those experiences and others set me on a convoluted path to an Equity debut in Tennessee Repertory Theatre‘s 1989 production of “Romeo and Juliet” that led much later to membership in the stage actors and stage managers’ union.
I’ve been lucky enough to see theater on six of the seven continents (if there’s any going on near those weather stations in Antarctica let me know so I can aim to say that about all seven), including a delicious 1999 Company B production of “As You Like It” at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, Australia. I treasure the audience experiences I’ve had at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays and the Stratford and Shaw festivals in Canada as well as several stages in Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Dublin and elsewhere.
But all roads lead back to Nashville for me; I also treasure the experiences of watching a great longstanding community theater like Circle Players, the more than a quarter-century of attending Nashville Shakespeare Festival plays in Centennial Park and all the companies that have called Darkhorse Theater home among many others. I certainly treasure founding and running AthensSouth Theatre in Nashville before low ticket sales and the 2001 recession finally consigned that short-lived troupe to history. I greatly lament the demise of such seminal groups as Dennis Ewing‘s Actors Playhouse and People’s Branch Theatre as well.
It’s been an incredible privilege and a dream gig to review local theater since Kevin Nance kindly asked me to write for The Tennessean 13 years ago; old companies have gone in new directions and new companies have sprung up to take us where we’ve never been before. Like the rest of life my reviewing work has been much more of a winding road with stops here and there than a straightaway – particularly when I took time off in 2007 to work for a great man and public servant by the name of Howard Gentry – but one thing has been consistently present: the happiness I get from watching performers create worlds where any story can be told.
I believe there is a God and that God is omnipresent, so I don’t look for God merely in the solemnity of a church building or the beauty of the great outdoors; I feel the warmth of God’s smile in the atmosphere that develops inside an active theater and glimpse a divine spark in the noble creativity of playwrights, directors, designers, crew members and actors.
And because I appreciate their work I also appreciate them: I’m not much for going to parties and other social events, but when I’m among theater people I absolutely ache with joy (all pleasure in that painless sensation, I assure you). I was reminded of that again Saturday night when I attended Nashville Repertory Theatre‘s highly enjoyable production of Gina Gionfriddo‘s “Rapture, Blister, Burn” and sat among some of the sweetest folks I know watching some other really sweet folks tell a splendid story. Spending time in various conversations before and after the show as well as intermission was as much a welcome and necessary part of the experience as the performance.
I think that’s ultimately what creates my love for theater in general and local theater in particular – members of this eclectic community gathering to watch and listen to a tale and then react to it collectively and individually. It’s true that concert halls and movie houses have similar experiences, but for me theater (dance and opera are great arts disciplines on their own but also theater to me) puts all the storytelling elements in one electric place and time. And in the Music City where melodies and harmonies underscore so much Nashville theater provides the taleful tunes that make my heart, mind and soul truly sing. The love affair that began for me more than 40 years ago continues and hopefully with only end with my last breath.