In Stages

Can Playhouse on the Square reinvigorate the Memphis arts community?



In medieval times, the only equipment a theater troupe needed to put on a show was a mule and a portable stage known as a pageant wagon. Acting troupes rumbled from village to village, playing Everyman at fairs for farthings

The bucolic pleasures of roving minstrels are now, as they say, history. These days, any arts group trying to mount serious work needs a "home": a well-trod stage, comfortable seats, and state-of-the-art lighting and acoustics. Not to mention a roof.

If a city's artistic landscape is at least partly measured by the amount and quality of space available for the performing arts, then it's a big deal when a new venue pops up; an even bigger deal when it pops up mid-recession, daring backers to unclench their pocketbooks.

The skeletal structure rising at the corner of Cooper and Union is more than a theater company's audacious growth spurt. Its impact affects numerous arts groups, and possibly the future of the arts in Memphis.

On January 29th, Playhouse on the Square opens its new $12 million home with a production of Pippin. A series of pre-opening galas take place January 6th through the 10th. It's the crowning achievement of executive producer Jackie Nichols, who started the nonprofit theater in the late 1960s with his circle of hippie college students. They first performed in empty swimming pools and abandoned hotels — any place they could find.

Forty years later, his professional company moves into a multipurpose theater and arts complex designed by John Morris, architect of Chicago's Steppenwolf and Lookingglass theatres.

It will bring the number of Nichols-founded stages in Midtown to four, including Circuit Playhouse on Poplar, the current Playhouse on the Square on Cooper, and TheatreWorks in Overton Square. For a city the size of Memphis, that's a lot of theaters. After the opening, Playhouse will likely turn over its Poplar Avenue location to other arts groups in need of performance space, allowing some established companies like Voices of the South to expand their repertoire.

(If there's any proof that Memphis is an arts town, it's that TheatreWorks, built for fledgling arts groups, is booked two years in advance.)

"The new theater is going to be one of the best performance facilities in the South," Nichols says. "The big thing is that there's a very intimate relationship between the performer and the audience. A lot of local arts groups want that."

Intimacy is a more recent buzzword that arts presenters use to mean closeness. It's both a spatial suggestion — that the audience will be right up in the artist's face — and a spiritual one — that the people will not just be watching, but communing with the performers. Intimacy does not require binoculars. Nor should a spectator in the front row feel as if actors are playing to the back. In the new Playhouse, all 347 seats are within 10 rows, or 30 feet, from the stage.

For years, Ballet Memphis has tried to find the perfect scale of performance space. The Orpheum theater may have the city's most glorious proscenium, but the company hasn't been able to fill its 2,400 seats on a Saturday night. Dancing to a half-empty room gives the impression that the professional ballet company is struggling, even though its box office improved last season. It's not an image artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh, with her often risky and probing commissions, wishes to continue.

The Hyde Foundation, a major dance patron, chipped in more than $1 million to the construction of Playhouse so that Ballet Memphis could perform in a space that fits its audience. The company's first show in the theater is February 27th through March 7th.

The Hyde agreement also assures Ballet Memphis a two-weekend run, a prospect that could boost ticket sales if the reviews are good. Pugh explains the artistic benefits: "The dancers rehearse choreography for weeks and months and then only have two times to perform it. This new situation will let them really internalize their roles. I wouldn't be surprised if the second weekend is a very different experience for the audience."

Both Opera Memphis and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra have looked into the space, and will likely have performances there within the next two years.

Playhouse isn't the only new venue in Memphis trying to bring audiences closer. Minglewood Hall, at 1555 Madison, opened last February in the sprawling building formerly occupied by Strings & Things Music mall.

"The original idea [behind creating the concert hall] was that there was a void of places for bigger acts to play where you could also get an intimate performance," says general manager Mark Smith. "Most clubs were too small, but the next level was too big, like the Mud Island Amphitheater. Memphis needed something in the middle."

Using a system of curtains, Minglewood can adjust its capacity from 500 to 1,500. When not showing rock concerts, the hall is rented out for private functions. Acts are usually booked 90 days ahead to take advantage of tour routing.

"Memphis is usually a drive-through city for big acts," says Smith, "so we've had great success booking artists on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays — nights they might otherwise be passing through." Unlike most local rock venues, Minglewood starts its weekday concerts reasonably early, making concert-going amenable to people with day jobs.

Last year's restoration of the Levitt Shell at Overton Park revived the Memphis tradition of free outdoor performances in the spring and fall. But the Shell is also available off-season for rentals, giving arts groups yet another alternative to the traditional concert hall.

After a difficult season of cutbacks and layoffs, some members of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra are investigating flexible, less expensive venues for certain concerts. In 2003, when the orchestra moved into its new home, the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, its ticket sales peaked.

Nichols expects a similar box office jump when the new Playhouse opens. Theatergoers won't just find a stage and some seats. They'll find art galleries, a rooftop garden, a small café, and plenty of lobby space.

"People are looking for a more personal connection in their art-going experience," Nichols says. "Audiences are smaller today than 30 years ago because there is so much more to do. But people who do come to theaters want something tangible. They're looking for answers that aren't on a computer screen."

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