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VOL. 132 | NO. 251 | Wednesday, December 20, 2017

To Be or Not to Be: Tennessee Shakespeare Company Expanding With New Facility

By Don Wade

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Dan McCleary is the founder of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. But that hasn’t obscured his view of reality, of the fact that many people were first introduced to Shakespeare in a high school classroom in a less than engaging way.

Read this. Memorize that. Provide answers on a test.

“Almost everyone will tell me they know Shakespeare,” McCleary said.

Know him, but don’t want to necessarily spend time with him if it’s going to be like it was back in school. McCleary says Shakespeare’s first impression too often was a boring one, and totally disconnected from the student’s own life.

A still image of Tennessee Shakespeare Co.’s 2017 production of “The Comedy of Errors,” directed by Tony Simotes. (Joey Miller)

It was true when he went to school and, without intervention from the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, which he founded in 2008, it would be true now.

“You’re forced to watch some black-and-white film of talking heads like Laurence Olivier, who are dead from the neck down, and they’re speaking in another dialect,” McCleary said of the way Shakespeare was once universally taught. “What does that have to do with me? Absolutely nothing. So we get turned off of it.

“Shakespeare’s not meant for the English class. Arts should be at the center of every child’s educational career. That’s part of our mission for our education program and the vision of the company is that Shakespeare is for everyone.”

Big goals. And a huge vision.

But McCleary is hopeful that their $1.9 million purchase of the old Ballet Memphis building at 7950 Trinity Road will help them expand cultural and educational horizons. The 18,484-square-foot facility was acquired – debt-free – on Aug. 31.

The glass-and-steel building will house all of Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s operations under one roof: performances, training, education, administrative offices, storage, costume shop, scene shop and commercial kitchen.

“The intent was, and remains, to create not only Memphis’ first, but the state of Tennessee’s first, permanent home for professional, classical theater and education,” McCleary said.

The company has an operating budget of $723,000 for fiscal 2018, McCleary says, but the goal is to increase it by 20 percent in fiscal 2019.

An image from the Tennessee Shakespeare Co.’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Stephanie Shine. (Joey Miller)

Renovations to the building should begin in early 2018 and are anticipated to cost about $2.5 million.

The company is in the midst of a $5 million capital campaign that includes the $1.9 million purchase price.

A 501(c)(3), Tennessee Shakespeare Company annually is supported by more than 300 individuals, corporations, foundations, and granting organizations in Memphis, and by major gifts from the Tennessee Arts Commission, Arts Midwest, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Significant Memphis corporate season sponsors include FedEx Corp., International Paper Co. and Independent Bank.

“We want to turn this into a very festive space,” McCleary said of their new digs. “We want to re-landscape the front, glass in a new atrium, we’ll light the heck out of it. Like Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre (in London) would have been 200 years ago. When they had a play on at two o’clock in the afternoon, they flew the pennants.”

Because the building formerly served Ballet Memphis, it will need some acoustics work. The floors were designed to go easy on the knees, but not necessarily to support a stage.

When renovations are finished, McCleary envisions the walls that separate three dance studios being made into movable partitions.

That would allow his company to alter the space as needed – whether for education and training, for renting out for meetings, parties or weddings, or in the area that will become a new 4,500-square-foot theater with a 30-by-30-foot stage and seating configurations from 120 to 220 that easily can be adjusted.

About five years ago, the company launched the Romeo and Juliet Project, an arts-in-education initiative that’s now in Germantown, Collierville and Shelby County Schools and reaches more than 5,000 students each year. The project goes into ninth-grade classrooms because that is the year when Shakespeare appears in the curriculum.

It is nothing like your father’s introduction to Shakespeare.

“What we’re able to do is introduce them to Shakespeare the way Shakespeare intended, through actors, rather than being read,” said Stephanie Shine, Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s general manager and education director. “It was never intended to be read. We’re thankful it is, because that’s kept it alive in the education world, but we when we can add this other element to it, we find that it’s more accessible to them in the future.

“We have two leaders and change the classroom into a semi-thrust arrangement. The kids come out from behind their desks. They’re allowed to perch on their desks. So we change it into a playing space.”

The Romeo and Juliet Project is ongoing and McCleary says it started in response to a plea from former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton for the arts community of Memphis to engage in the community-wide effort to lessen violence among young people. Overall, Tennessee Shakespeare Company programming has reached more than 160,000 students in 168 schools across several states.

“So much of what happens, especially to our young men – and we know this because we’re in the penal farm, or the adjudicated youth court system – is when they act out, it’s out of shame,” McCleary said. “There’s a strong sense of distinction between living a life of honor and being shamed publicly. And that’s no different from 400 years ago when Shakespeare was writing.

“We see all sorts of mortal violence in Romeo and Juliet from a place they know not of. They don’t know why the families are feuding. They can’t put their finger on it. But they know when they’re shamed.”

Now, the company is going to extend its outreach to fifth-graders and seventh-graders to introduce Shakespeare earlier through works that are heavier on comedy and lighter on tragedy.

This new outreach Shine calls “playshops,” as opposed to workshops.

McCleary says the new facility also will allow them to go deeper in other outreach endeavors, such as their work with dancers that have Down syndrome and children with major disabilities or illnesses and military veterans in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.

They also want to create an aftercare program for students.

“Not just to come here and do Shakespeare, but to come here and do their homework,” McCleary said. “Or fence. Or sing. Or dance.”

McCleary reminds that Shakespeare is all around us every day.

“Whether you know it or not, you’re speaking it,” he said. “I see more Shakespeare text in sports headlines than in any other literary form.”

For example, “I hear `wherefore art thou?’ all the time, and it’s almost always misused,” he said. “Wherefore doesn’t mean where, it means, `why are you?’”

And of course there is the always-popular, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” from “Henry VI.”

Most overused, he says, is “to be or not to be,” adding, “of course for Hamlet it means, `do I take my life or do I not take my life?’ And if you’re an actor, it’s at the core of performing Shakespeare. It means, `what should I do with my life?’”

McCleary happens to be a Memphis Grizzlies fan and he agrees there is bit of “to be or not to be” coming from Marc Gasol these days after Grizzlies’ losses.

Whether Big Spain knows it or not, when he stands at his locker postgame and contemplates all the moving pieces within the basketball universe, he is doing Shakespeare.

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