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VOL. 129 | NO. 156 | Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Curtains Up

New Season of Tennessee Shakespeare Co. set to begin

By Andy Meek

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As counterintuitive as it might sound, the more digitized and interconnected people get, the more they seem to appreciate the handiwork of Dan McCleary and the fellow live theater proponents who work with him.

Dan McCleary, founder and producing artistic director and Stephanie Shine, education director, general manager and gala coordinator, prepare for the new season of Tennessee Shakespeare Co. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

At least, that’s how it seems to McCleary, the founder and producing artistic director for the Tennessee Shakespeare Co., judging from the audiences he encounters.

His organization is preparing to kick off its seventh season of plays this fall, and one of the patterns he’s seen – as his professional classical theater company continues to bring a range of different programming as well as educational and training opportunities to Memphis audiences – is a powerful connection with audiences that has sustained the effort since its earliest days.

“The opportunity to be artificially disconnected (from devices), while being genuinely connected to people around them and to the people on stage – it has an awakening effect,” said McCleary, who in 2006 first started sketching out what would become Tennessee Shakespeare Co. while living in Massachusetts.

At the time, he was about to turn 40 and was hungry enough to pursue his vision that he ignored the question marks and focused only on his interest in seeing more professional classical theater in his hometown.

“When an audience member has an epiphany, we see it,” he said. “And when audiences see that has an effect on us, it makes them hungry for more. We care an awful lot about the audience, and, in fact, the majority of our audiences come back to see us.”

They come back to see productions like Tennessee Shakespeare Co.’s newly announced 2014-2015 slate of plays, which includes several by Shakespeare, as well as a continuing partnership with Dixon Gallery & Gardens and a new summer partnership with the University of Memphis.

Tennessee Shakespeare Co. also has planned a new Musical Works Festival sponsored by the Broadway licensing company of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “The Color Purple” and other top works.

“We’ve expanded every year, and this season is one of expansion for us and also partnerships for us,” McCleary said, adding that the season features performance programming year-round for the first time in his organization’s history.

The season includes things like the May 2015 launch of “Memphis-Broadway: A New Musical Works Festival” that runs through August 2015 and will involve choosing three musical scripts in various stages of development. The shows’ creators will be invited to Memphis for several days of working on the piece and rehearsing with professional performers from around the country.

One night, they’ll also present a staged reading and singing of the musical at the University of Memphis. And one of the three new musicals will be tapped for additional development in New York and Memphis over the next year on the way to a more complete production in Tennessee Shakespeare Co.’s 2016 season.

Among other examples of Tennessee Shakespeare Co.’s new season, meanwhile, it’s presenting Shakespeare’s “Richard III” over Halloween at the Germantown Performing Arts Center. That will be followed by a music hall-type production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at Dixon Gallery & Gardens in December.

The organization’s Sixth Annual Valentine’s Gala, with a Broadway headliner to be announced, plays Feb. 14 at the Germantown Performing Arts Center. In the spring, the organization will bring to the Memphis area a series of literary salons, and it will team up with the University of Memphis to present Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in June.

As part of its recent growth, Tennessee Shakespeare Co. recently moved its longtime administrative office at the historic train depot in Germantown to a new space on Poplar Avenue in The Shops at Forest Hill.

The past 12 months also has been a typically busy period for the organization. Highlights from the organization’s past year include programming nearly 13,000 student interactions in an area that includes Memphis, Tennessee and five other Southern states the organization has reached out to as part of its education and professional productions.

During the past year, it also produced five productions for more than 6,000 audience members, 34 percent of whom were Memphis-area students under the age of 18.

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