August 25th, 2011

I sometimes like to sit in the back of empty theaters and empty churches and listen to the quiet.

There's a presence in both places, a purpose, a promise. There are stages, sets, props.

Both have the potential to inspire and instruct, but also to alienate. To delight, but also to disappoint. To rise, but also to fall.

And both depend on the interaction of those down front with those assembled before them, and all with each other, to determine what will happen in this space.

It’s not just the script. It’s the interpretation.

Break a leg, Memphis.

Photo: "Rain From Heaven," 1939, performed in the swimming pool of The Pink Palace

As published in The Daily News, August 26, 2011, and in The Memphis News, August 27-September 2, 2011

1939 Rain From Heaven0001


All are in the cast, all responsible for the experience, and all of us have a lot to show for it.

The lines may be drawn on a two-by-four to guide a saw instead of spoken on stage to guide an audience. The song might be whistled to accompany a hammer instead of sung to accompany a chorus. Equal parts sewing needles and director needling. Equal props for props and performances. Equal respect for those who guide you to your seat and those whose talent stands you straight up from it.

Community theater is a community enterprise everywhere. In Memphis, it’s a legacy.

Starting in the 1920s and for decades, the Memphis Little Theatre – what would become Theatre Memphis – performed on a stage set in the deep end of Clarence Saunders’ never-used Pink Palace indoor swimming pool with the audience stacked up toward the shallow end. It was so tight in there that you had to go outside to turn around and if somebody in the audience coughed, it sounded scripted.

Yet they tended to drown everybody in regional and national play competitions, becoming one of the country’s most recognized community theaters, twice representing the United States internationally.

In their own building since 1975, Theatre Memphis has watched the curtain and the economy continue to go up and down for 92 seasons – our shared fortunes rising and falling with each new act – and the show goes on.

Their fired-up executive producer, Debbie Litch, has more energy than the stage lights and a smile that competes for attention with the sequins and feathers she loves to wear. She could get a budget increase from the tea party. Their costume designer, André Bruce Ward, is to community theatre what Edith Head is to film. He could make me look good in a Speedo – okay, in anything but a Speedo. The professional staff and 600-plus volunteers do magic things every few weeks and turn plain boards and black boxes into other worlds for us to visit.

And Theatre Memphis is not alone.

Playhouse On The Square – professional in name but very much of this community – has taken abandoned music halls and movie houses and created great theater there out of baling wire, chewing gum, duct tape and the enormous heart of Jackie Nichols for 40 years, and has now raised the curtain on a brand-new, state-of-the-art theater.

Doctors, lawyers and candlestick makers by day play new roles by night at the Germantown Community Theatre, the Harrell Theatre, and the Desoto Family Theatre. Voices Of The South, Hattiloo Theatre and TheatreWorks experiment, stretch and challenge us to see, hear and feel in new ways.

And still more. On our college campuses, in our churches and neighborhoods, in our community centers and school auditoriums. Live theater is more alive in Memphis than in cities several times our size.

And if you don’t think The Orpheum involves local actors, you’ve never seen Pat Halloran pitch season tickets.

And the show is for us.

I’m a Memphian, and local theater gets a standing ovation.


Kevin Collier: Thanks, Dan! The McCoy Theatre at Rhodes tips its hat to you in gratitude.

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