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VOL. 131 | NO. 64 | Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Buckman Performing Arts Center Becomes Community Gem

By Andy Meek

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It was 25 years ago that singer-songwriter Marc Cohn released his debut album that included the song for which he’s most known, “Walking in Memphis.”

Buckman Center’s 20th season includes, clockwise from top left, musician Marc Cohn, Phare Cambodian Circus, juggling 3-D comedian Mark Nizer and musician Loudon Wainwright III, with daughter Lucy. 

(Submitted)

He’s currently on a 25th anniversary concert tour that includes a stop this fall in the city that gave him some of the color and inspiration for his biggest hit. Cohn is set to perform in October at the Buckman Performing Arts Center at St. Mary’s Episcopal School – which, coincidentally, has reached a milestone of its own.

The performance space, seeded with funding from prominent Memphis philanthropist Mertie Buckman, is on the cusp of launching its 20th anniversary season. That means two decades of introducing Memphis audiences to artists like Cohn and others, with the intimate, 288-seat venue providing a much-needed spot for artists – and audiences – that don’t necessarily belong in an expansive arena.

Performances by singer-songwriters, says director Cindi Younker, especially showcase the interaction that naturally flows from having every chair less than 40 feet from the stage.

“The audience and artist pretty much have to interact,” says Younker. “You’re right on top of each other.”

The lineup for the upcoming 20th anniversary season, which kicks off in September, features global talent spanning several genres. They include the Jose Limon Dance Company; juggling 3-D comedian Mark Nizer; and singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, with his daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche, among others.

The season will also include offerings like Americana musicians The HillBenders performing an all-bluegrass version of The Who’s “Tommy.” Tickets for all shows are priced at $35 and under, with subscriptions to see all 10 performances costing $225.

“With a venue this size, you have so much more flexibility, because you can really try and take new risks and try new genres and artistic experiences that would be riskier financially in trying to pull an audience in another venue where you really have to rely on ticket sales a lot more,” Younker said.

The Buckman center isn’t just a concert space, though.

As its 20-season history has unfolded, it added after-school activities and classes. It also houses an art gallery that gives many new artists the opportunity to have a professional showing for their work.

“The audience and artist pretty much have to interact. You’re right on top of each other.”

–Cindi Younker
Director, Buckman Performing Arts Center

ArtsMemphis president and CEO Elizabeth Rouse says that’s an important role the venue and small spaces like it play in the Memphis arts landscape.

“Not every organization or production is meant for a crowd of thousands,” Rouse says. “The Buckman is a wonderful size for not only the groups they’re bringing in as part of their season, but also for local organizations like PRIZM ensemble (chamber music group). They’re a wonderful, easy place for organizations to do productions, because they have a first-class stage and equipment and process around all that.”

As part of successfully cultivating a space for itself among other venues in the city, Younker says it’s been important that the Buckman center – and others – not inadvertently counter-program against each other. Meaning, if one space is offering a particular world music event at a given time, another space will try not to duplicate that.

“Mertie Buckman gave a gift to St. Mary’s to build a performing arts center, and the requirement on it was this not be just a place for the (school) to put on plays and concerts – that this would be a place for the community,” Younker said. “And we get people from all over. We have people who consistently come and hold season tickets from places like Jackson, Tenn., we have a number of people from West Memphis and elsewhere in the area, too.”

The Buckman center’s 20th season kicks of Sept. 11 with Phare Cambodian Circus, an event that will weave theater, music, dance and acrobatics together to interpret Cambodian history and folk tales.

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