Off The Square: Essential artists claim their stage in Memphis

Fifty years ago, the Memphis theater scene had several active companies from which patrons could choose. There was the Front Street Theater, the Little Theatre at the Pink Palace helmed by Sherwood Lohrey, and the Old West Theatre on East Brooks Road. You also can’t forget about the Circuit Players led by a young Jackie Nichols.

These companies produced a variety of plays and musicals, but there was something missing. By nature of the shows they presented, these companies mainly catered to a white audience and also produced work that was primarily directed and written by men.

There weren’t many companies that focused on speaking out for underrepresented populations. With today’s Memphis theater community, that has changed. Now more than ever, theater companies are producing art for and by those that have been left out for far too long.

Here are a few of those companies:
 

Emerald Theater CompanY

From their first production in the early 1990s, this company’s mission was clear -- to give a voice to the LGBTQ community through theatrical productions. Recently voted by Playbill.com as one of the "fifteen regional companies leading the charge in gay theatre,” ETC hasn’t wavered from that mission. Their first production was an original work titled Battle Scars which focused on the leather lifestyle among the gay community. It was produced at TheatreWorks when it was still in Downtown Memphis. Once TheatreWorks moved to 2085 Monroe Avenue in 1996, ETC became a resident company.

Dave Shipley, Bruce Bui and Jonathon Underwood from Emerald Theatre Company's 2006 production of "Drag Queens on Trial".

ETC Founder Den-Nickolas Schaeffer-Smith and Co-Artistic Director Hal Harmon, have produced over 80 productions since the company began its TheatreWorks residency 21 years ago.

The pair have a commitment to facing controversial issues without shame and have been long-time supporters of the ever-struggling new works playwrights. In 2016, ETC was chosen to produce the Mid-South premiere of The Pulse Project telling stories of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. Also, ETC’s Ten-Minute Play Festival honors all new work by producing the winning scenes and giving awards to three of the chosen playwrights.

As they continue into their second decade, Harmon said “We pride ourselves on producing original works as well as those written by established playwrights,” all in the name of giving a voice to the Memphis LBGTQ community.
 

FEMMEMPHIS

This female artist collective has big plans for the Memphis theater scene. At less than a year old, they are one of Memphis’ newest companies. In three months, they produced a completely original playwriting experiment, “No Minced Words”, and an absurd comedy, “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties”, where five women named Bettie confront what it means to be female. The project was written, produced, directed, designed, performed and managed by an all-women team.

Eileen Kuo as Betty Boop 4 in "Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties" written by Jen Silverman.

FEMMEmphis began with a group of friends who were frustrated with the lack of opportunity for women in their community. After combing through details of 126 productions offered in a single season by seven major companies in Memphis, they found that only seven were written by a female playwright and only eight had a female director. To meet that gap, they started their own all-women theater company.

First, they gathered female playwrights and actors from across the city and held a 48-hour playwriting experiment based on Paula Vogel’s Bake Off exercise. This culminated in a reading of ten-minute scenes at Crosstown Arts that also included a gallery of all women artists.

In December, FEMMEmphis plans on partnering with another company to produce a special “SHE-Mix” holiday show.

Co-Founder Rae Boller said they “are eager to bring exciting and provocative new works to the community.” When asked about their choice to not claim one venue as their theatre home, she said they wanted, “to explore new venues so that we can reach different communities and experiment with unconventional spaces that reflect and enhance our unconventional performances.”
 

Cazateatro Bilingual Theatre Group

Another Resident Company at TheatreWorks, Cazateatro Bilingual Theater Group came to life in 2006. The group celebrates Latino and Hispanic culture and act as a connector among the bilingual artistic community. Cazateatro presented its first full production, “Ramon” in 2011, and it has been an active and vibrant member of the Memphis theater community ever since.

Cazateatro not only performs at TheatreWorks and the Evergreen Theatre, the group also takes its unique brand of theater to festivals, libraries and schools. No matter where they perform, they offer a diverse variety of programming. In the span of just a few months this year, patrons could see “Monologos de La Vagina”, an annual fundraiser for the prevention of domestic violence, and a bilingual version of Peter and the Wolf. When not performing on stage, Cazateatro also offers kid-friendly workshops on topics like theater, face-painting, Day of the Dead traditions and shadow puppets.

Dorimar Ferrer, Abraham Arnau, Hortenzia Bastida and Rafael Arnau represent Cazateatro at the Day of the Dead Celebration: Las Catrinas & Catrines.

When asked about Cazateatro, Alvis Otero, past board president, said that “At a grassroots level, it’s beautiful to to see how not only the people from Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, but Memphis as well, get really involved.” When you attend a Cazateatro event, you can expect to walk away with a greater understanding of the diversity of Hispanic and Latino culture.
 

New Day Children’s Theatre

On the surface, New Day Children's Theatre is exactly what their name suggests -- theatre for kids. If you have ever worked in or around a children’s theatre, you know that involvement can be life-changing for the kids as well as the adults. Attend a New Day show at the Harrell Theater in Collierville and you’ll find the production quality to be completely impressive. From the sets and costumes to the young performers, they clearly put every bit of the same effort into their shows as any professional company. As if this weren’t enough, New Day takes extra measures to make sure they are making an impact on the Mid-South community and speaking for those that can’t always speak for themselves.

One program that is especially worthy note is for children with neurodiversities. New Day has committed to offering a free sensory-friendly performance of each of their productions. For one Saturday morning matinee of each production, adjustments are made that involve changes in light, sound and alternate forms of clapping. Those changes, among others, make the theatrical experience easier to enjoy for those on the Autism spectrum and with neurodiversities. New Day creates a judgment-free zone so all children can enjoy theatre. When asked about the sensory friendly performances, Leanne Chasteen, executive director and CEO of New Day, said they “... feel that theatre should be accessible to everyone regardless of any differences.”

Madison Alexander as Ariel and her flock of seagulls perform during New Day Children's Theatre's production of "The Little Mermaid".

Memphis has an especially rich history when it comes to the stage. Fifty years ago, theatre artists were starting and maintaining companies that helped make Memphis a hub for great theatrical programming in the Mid-South area.

While Front Street and Olde West Dinner Theaters didn’t last, the Little Theatre became Theatre Memphis, one of the oldest community theatres in the country, and the Circuit Players became a family of venues including Circuit Playhouse, Playhouse on the Square and TheatreWorks. The Circuit Playhouse family has encouraged a major revitalization of the Overton Square area due to the addition of a new building in 2010.

Today, the theatre landscape in Memphis stretches from Downtown to East Memphis, Bartlett, Arlington and Collierville. A large concentration lies along the Union and Madison avenues with Hattiloo Theatre, the only freestanding Black repertory theatre in the Mid-South, Playhouse on the Square, The Circuit Playhouse and TheatreWorks.

New voices like FEMMEmphis, Cazateato, New Day and ETC ensure that their productions speak to underrepresented voices in the Mid-South.

Read more articles by Renee Davis Brame.

 

Renee Davis Brame is a writer, actor and loyal Memphian.  She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The University of Memphis.  Her work for the blog, Pop Depravity, earned an award from the National Society for Newspaper Columnist’s 2016 Column Contest. She is also the founder of theatre901, a virtual community for MidSouth artists of all genres.  

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