CURTAINS UP AMERICA! 'Nashville Shakes' Shakes Up 2021 With New Partnership

By Kimberly Dijkstra

For more than 30 years, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival has been bringing the bold and brilliant works of William Shakespeare to the Mid-South Tennessee community, following through with its mission to educate, entertain, and enrich the lives of its audiences.

Executive Artistic Director Denice Hicks has been with the “company run by artists” for most of its history and is more committed than ever to make Shakespeare and theater in general available to everyone.

“It’s a family-friendly, dog-friendly, all-accessible, no barriers festival every summer,” Hicks said about the annual Shakespeare In the Park productions, offered free-of-charge as a service to the community.

A number of disasters have hit Nashville in the past year – from a devastating tornado and record flooding last March to a shocking bombing downtown on Christmas morning – all while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Yet residents, and the theater community in particular, have proven resilient.

“The local professional theater community is pretty tight,” Hicks said. “It’s a very friendly and mutually supportive community [and] we do our best to support each other when we need it.”

Nashville Shakes, as it is affectionately known, was fortunately able to complete a successful winter season before making the decision to shut down due to COVID. Hicks canceled a show scheduled to tour in between seasons, then held out hope that a smaller scale reading could take the place of the festival before ultimately deciding for the first time in 33 years to not do a summer show.

“It was a really hard decision,” she said. “We had to make a lot of decisions for our company, for our audience, and for our artists to be sure that safety was the absolute top priority.”

In addition to full-time staff and seasonal contracts, the festival hires a number of young volunteers, senior citizens, and serves a very diverse community.

As COVID raged on, Hicks carried on with the 13-year tradition of leading a public reading of a Shakespeare play the first Saturday of every month. Instead of at the downtown library, readings have shifted to virtual attendance.

“The Zoom readings work effectively the same way they do at the library – we read round robin so everybody gets to read,” she explained. “I have loved being able to serve some of the elderly that couldn’t quite make that trip anymore. Now they can get back to participating.”

Hicks and her team have also held virtual classes and workshops for students where they've learned a variety of skills, from the Suzuki method to writing and presenting their own sonnets. Following the workshops, the instructors coach the students individually and help them improve on all of the skills they've learned.

Another positive that has come from the downtime created by the shutdowns is the official launch of a partnership with a black-owned theater called Kennie Playhouse Theater, led by Founder/Artistic Director Kenny Dozier.

“Kenny and I have been talking for a couple of years about how do we collaborate,” Hicks said. “2020 gave us the opportunity to really plan and figure out how to make it work.”

Together they did a virtual co-reading of “Sweet Water Taste” by Gloria Bond Clunie and will present August Wilson’s “Jitney” and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare In the Park this summer. 

“We’re really hoping the message is that we’re not doing an August Wilson play for the black community, we’re doing an August Wilson play for the whole community, and we’re not doing Shakespeare for any particular community. It has always been our mission to serve everybody,” Hicks said.

Shakespeare was, after all, “the people’s playwright.”

“The messages in [his works], the relationships, the stories that he tells really transcend cultures and I’m always striving to have people understand that,” Hicks said. “It may be a challenge, but it’s worth it.”

Hicks and the Nashville Shakes board have been grateful for the time to reassess and re-envision their practices. They have recently renewed work on a five-year plan and are back on track with a new, more inclusive, more equitable agenda that involves an ongoing partnership with Kennie Playhouse Theater.

“I’m really looking forward to everybody getting together again and creatively solving problems together and then sharing them with our wonderful community.”

Opening day is set for August 12, 2021. Hicks plans to follow all CDC guidelines, with sensible additional precautions, and have a fully vaccinated cast, crew, and staff. But this opening day much more than just an opening day, it’s renewed optimism after facing much adversity.

“Last spring was probably the most beautiful spring we ever had,” Hicks said. “There’s this sense of yes, things are hard, but look at how much beauty there is and look at how willing people are to help each other.”

For more on The Nashville Shakespeare Festival, visit nashvilleshakes.org.

With additional reporting by Waldo Cabrera

 

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