TSC Takes Step Away from the Bard

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

Tennessee Shakespeare Co. will celebrate the holidays by proving that it’s not a one-horse rodeo.

Stephanie Shine, who directed Tennessee Sharekspeare Co.’s “Romeo and Juliet,” tackles Truman Capote, O. Henry and other southern writers in “A Southern Yuletide: A Celebration in Story and Song” at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. (Photo: Courtesy of Joey Miller)

The professional theater company will stage its first non-Shakespearian production by branching out into works by Southern writers.

“A Southern Yuletide: a Celebration in Story and Song” runs through Dec. 24. in the auditorium of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. It will showcase short stories by Mark Twain, Truman Capote, O. Henry and others.

“In the same way we approach Shakespeare, we want to be as true to the writer as possible,” said Stephanie Shine, director of the production. “These are great works and great writers.”

TSC is best known for outdoor performances of Shakespeare’s blockbusters like this season’s “Macbeth,” which was staged in a newly revamped amphitheatre at Shelby Farms Park.

The back lawn of the Dixon was also the site of last season’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Typically, its productions contain original, live music, audience participation and plenty of drama occurring in the aisles.

Though “Southern Yuletide” is taking place indoors, Shine said audiences will get the same live experience as before in the 150 seats spread into three elliptical rings around the stage area.

Music and carols will open each show accompanied live by violin, guitar and drums.

“We were hoping to give it that feel of family and friends gathered together to celebrate,” Shine said. “When in the round, the audience gets to interact with each other, so it’s an intimate experience.”

Dramatic presentations of Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” and Twain’s “A Letter from Santa Claus” will open each show, but the feature performance will rotate between Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”

Shine said that the Truman Capote Literary Trust allowed only a certain number of performances of “A Christmas Memory,” so the remainder of TSC’s shows will offer “The Gift of the Magi.”

“Hopefully people will enjoy it so much that they come back twice,” Shine said.

“A Christmas Memory” was published in 1956 and is based on the author’s recollection of his family in Monroeville, Ala. The 7-year-old Buddy and his elderly cousin Sook find the joy of life even though the family survives on very little.

“You will hear every word of the story – it’s not an adaptation,” said Shine. “To me it’s one of the most perfect short stories ever written. The reason is that the language is so potent in the story. It’s very Shakespearian in sound sometimes. The words beg to be an oral experience.”

But the presentation is memorized, not read off the page, which Shine said will lend itself well to dramatic interpretation in spite of the narration.

“The Gift of the Magi” tells of the ironic outcome when a poor, young couple give up their treasures in order to buy presents for the other.

“It talks about the selfless giving one does and the good humor involved in it,” Shine said. “Both stories deal with people who don’t have anything and yet they give and give and give.”

Additionally, on the nights when “The Gift of the Magi” is presented, audiences will also hear “A Letter from the Trenches,” a narrative by Pvt. Frederick Keith, a 19-year-old British soldier in World War I who died shortly after writing it.

Both shows are kid-friendly, and TSC artistic director Dan McCleary said he hopes children and adults alike learn something that perhaps they missed while reading these stories in school.

“I didn’t know that O. Henry was a southern writer, but he’s from North Carolina and has his own personal back story,” said McCleary. “Trying out the holiday season, launching this new (non-Shakespearian) series – there are a lot of firsts for us. We hope to make it an annual event and alternative to the typical Christmas fare.”