Stage Preview: Shakespeare group's Germantown production opens door on big plans

Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s (Left to Right) Gabriel Vaughan, playing Silvins; Brittany Morgan, as Phebe; Melania Levitsky, playing Rosalind; and Julie Webster, as Celia, rehearse a scene from 'As You Like It' outside at St. George's Episcopal Church.

Photo by Mark Weber // Buy this photo

Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s (Left to Right) Gabriel Vaughan, playing Silvins; Brittany Morgan, as Phebe; Melania Levitsky, playing Rosalind; and Julie Webster, as Celia, rehearse a scene from "As You Like It" outside at St. George's Episcopal Church.

Shakespeare, like you've never seen him performed before, is the least of Dan McCleary's ambitions.

Sure, the play's the thing, and all that.

 Tennessee Shakespeare Company's Chris Basweidler (left), playing Touchstone, and Jenny Odle, playing Audrey rehearse a scene from 'As You Like It.'Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal

Tennessee Shakespeare Company's Chris Basweidler (left), playing Touchstone, and Jenny Odle, playing Audrey rehearse a scene from "As You Like It."Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal

But if it turns out that his new production of "As You Like It" in Germantown goes well -- really well -- Shakespeare could become another cultural feather in the city's cap, the same way classical music has bloomed through the acclaimed IRIS Orchestra.

Imagine, for a moment, an "arts park" where folks can go and hear sonnets recited by strolling bards. Where Shakespearean characters emerge from a wooded glen and perform scenes. Where kids can lose themselves in a garden labyrinth.

McCleary is dreaming big, and hoping that others will see the value of the vision.

His bravado and drive have been in full force as

Tennessee Shakespeare Company's first production nears its opening night.

At a recent rehearsal, he looked every bit the swashbuckling risk-taker, his white shirt unbuttoned to his navel and a strip of old T-shirt tied around his head like a "Survivor" contestant.

We were sitting in the back of St. George's Episcopal Church, a spacious, airy new building off Germantown Road as he explained the concept for "As You Like It."

"This is where we start the play," said McCleary, 41, who graduated from Germantown High School and, after college at Temple University, worked in various capacities at the acclaimed Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. "The actors will use all of the interior space. The aisles, the sides. And then ..."

He stood and led the tour out of the sanctuary, setting the scene for his visitor.

"... When the characters are banished to the forest of Ardenne, the entire audience will get up and, accompanied by a group of Celtic musicians, make their way outdoors."

We cross the parking lot and step onto a shady, 10-acre greensward owned by local arts patron Barbara Apperson. The city of Germantown issued a rare variance to allow the public show on private property.

Predictably, one neighbor in this protective enclave filed a lawsuit in Chancery Court to halt the invasion of verse-spouting actors and the inevitable hordes of rogues, vagabonds, beggars, rapscallions, cutpurses, peddlers, punters, cozeners, horse-stealers, bear-baiters, fishwives and whoremongers that were historically known to attend Shakespeare's plays.

The show will be allowed, if just this once, to assure local officials that a moving recitation of "All The World's A Stage" doesn't result in looting.

Walking down a slight hill into a sun-dappled copse of trees, McCleary points out places in the distance where characters will come and go during the outdoor portion of the show. (In case of rain, the production stays indoors, but the audience gets rearranged in the sanctuary so that the actors sit among them.)

During night performances, the trees are illuminated. The performers will be unamplified. McCleary says he doesn't want technical demands watering down old-fashioned, outdoor Shakespearean acting.

The size of the audience can't be more than 345 people on any given night. Union rules.

Did we mention that this is an Equity production? McCleary is paying union wages for his actors and technicians, a rarity in the Mid-South. The nearest equity theater company is in Little Rock.

So far, McCleary has raised $400,000 for the endeavor, much of it by going door to door and convincing donors that Shakespeare is a quality-of-life issue in Germantown.

"There are about 120 Shakespeare companies in this country and less than four percent are in the South," he said. "There's a real need for this in my hometown."

Guided by executive director E. Frank Bluestein, the innovative chairman of fine arts at Germantown High School, McCleary has already created a five-year business plan that includes an educational component and new play development.

His box office is the historic Germantown Train Depot, which he's renting from the city for $1 a year, so long as he maintains the historic integrity of its contents.

But the big dream of an annual, outdoor Shakespeare production, in a park specially designed for the event, came after touring the woody area behind the old Morgan Woods theater.

"There's practically a natural amphitheater already there," he said. "Initially, the people from the city listened very politely to my proposal. It probably sounded crazy at first. An arts park? A Shakespeare forest? They decided it was too much, too soon."

But, McCleary says, more people are starting to get it, and this performance will be the test case.

With so much depending upon the allure of the outdoors -- both now and in the future of Tennessee Shakespeare Company -- a line from "As You Like It" takes on added significance for both actors and audience members attending this debut performance.

"Let the forest judge."

"As You Like It," by the Tennessee Shakespeare Company

Opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 19. Shows are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at St. George's Episcopal Church, 2425 S. Germantown Road. Tickets are $34. Call 759-0604.

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