Some roses among the thorns in 2008

In tough economic times, a few arts groups shine

Dan McCleary, director of Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of 'As You Like It,' wanders through the audience of students in character as Jaques during a recent matinee performance.

Photos by Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal

Dan McCleary, director of Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of "As You Like It," wanders through the audience of students in character as Jaques during a recent matinee performance.

My careworn Magic 8-Ball is no help at all.

It keeps changing its mind about what's to come of our cultural lives this year, once local arts supporters add up the damage to their investment portfolios.

Outlook hazy.

In October, the new Tennessee Shakespeare Company staged 'As You Like It'  at St. George's Episcopal Church.

Photo by Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal

In October, the new Tennessee Shakespeare Company staged "As You Like It" at St. George's Episcopal Church.

Theatre Memphis'  'Oklahoma!' was choreo-graphed by Jesus Pacheco, who also acted in the production.

Theatre Memphis' "Oklahoma!" was choreo-graphed by Jesus Pacheco, who also acted in the production.

See, the arts in Memphis rely heavily on a small pool of generous Daddy Warbuckses, and not on the Bedford Falls-style of fundraising, i.e., an entire community kicking in nickels and dimes for a needy cause.

Many big givers fund the arts through investments or foundations. They'll likely write fewer checks in 2009, and that could mean hard times especially for arts groups that appeal to and survive because of the wealthiest patrons, including the Memphis Symphony, the IRIS Orchestra, Opera Memphis and Ballet Memphis.

People who make a living as classical musicians, dancers or actors are at the mercy of financial advisers this coming year.

And visual artists face a related horror. Like a scene from "When a Stranger Calls," each new ring of the telephone shall bring them the dreaded question: "What have you got for our art auction?"

The year's best

And yet, the past year was a time of optimism and cautious growth for several arts groups.

One Germantown man scraped up $400,000 to start a professional theater troupe.

In October, the new Tennessee Shakespeare Company performed its first production "As You Like It," half of which was staged in a church and the other half in the colorfully illuminated field behind it.

Dan McCleary gets our congratulations for sneering in the face of the economy. He eventually hopes to run an annual outdoor Shakespeare festival in Germantown, turning a local park into a place where literature comes alive for spectators.

The year also introduced a rocking new fall concert series at the renovated Overton Park band shell, renamed the Levitt Shell. The Mortimer Levitt Foundation subsidizes 50 free musical acts per year at the park. These days, free is good.

The Levitt Shell is a huge bonus for local artists, whether they're doing rock or children's theater. Performers in every genre should be thinking about non-traditional ways of reaching people.

As funding to non-profits shows, guerilla-style productions around town could help smaller arts groups stay afloat -- and visible -- during the cash crunch.

Looking ahead to 2009

Each February, hundreds of performing artists come to Memphis for the United Professional Theater Auditions (UPTAs), one of the country's largest cattle calls for stage actors.

Nearly three months ago, UPTAs quit taking applications. No more room.

A pessimist might interpret this as a sign that droves of actors are out of work. An optimist could point out that so many theater companies hire out of UPTAs, that the auditions can only expand once Playhouse on the Square finishes construction on its new, larger theater across the street by the end of the year.

An arts group building a new theater? In these dark times? Yes, Virginia, there is growth in a recession.

Not only that, Playhouse launches a new series for solo artists this month. If it's successful, executive producer Jackie Nichols says it could become an annual festival, sort of like a little Edinburgh Fringe, right here in Memphis.

Other artistic risks are just as welcome in a time when eyes are on the box office.

Opera Memphis' "Treemonisha" this month is the first opera since "Corps of Discovery" that the company is building from the ground up.

And, of course, there are some big Orpheum shows to look forward to, such as "Wicked" and "Fiddler on the Roof" staring Topol, the Tevye of film.

Can we afford to go to see all this good stuff with the looming housing crisis, an undulating stock market and many people out of work?

Maybe I need to trade the Magic 8-Ball for a Harvard economist.

The Best on Stage in 2008

Theater critic Christopher Blank picks his favorites of 2008:

Top Newcomer: Dan McCleary, for starting the Tennessee Shakespeare Company in Germantown. His vision is an eventual Shakespeare festival that would take place in a specially designated park.

Top Artist: Jesus Pacheco, a dancer with Ballet Memphis, has been sowing his multiple talents all over town, and earning accolades for being a gifted collaborator. At Theatre Memphis, he played the lead Shark in "West Side Story," and both acted in and choreographed "Oklahoma!" For Circuit Playhouse, he gave the five singers in "Altar Boyz" their bouncy dance routines.

Top Drama: "Fences," at Hattiloo Theatre, was a special achievement for the black repertory company on Marshall. With a home-run performance by local actor T.C. Sharpe and a cast that grasped August Wilson's sense of realism, the classic drama stood out from every other local show, including Theatre Memphis' "Pride and Prejudice," which took the Ostrander Award for best drama last season. The quality of "Fences" should tell the awards committee that it's time Hattiloo got added to the judges rounds in community theater.

Top Musical: "Oklahoma!" at Theatre Memphis comes in just ahead of "West Side Story." The community theater just keeps on churning out these enormous productions that look great and feature top-notch local casts. Praise can always be lavished on longtime costume designer Andre Bruce Ward. But Christopher McCollum's thoughtful set designs have taken a starring role. From a technical standpoint, Theatre Memphis has never been better.

-- Performing arts writer Christopher Blank can be reached at 529-2305 or e-mail blank@commercialappeal.com.

© 2009 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

billypullen#664518 writes:

Congratulations to Tennessee Shakespeare Co. and Dan McCleary. This group will likely be in future "Best" lists to come.

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