Shakespeare finds following in ’burbs
>‘ Dream’ production and bard’s education outreach exceed plan
Special to The Commercial Appeal
If, as Shakespeare has written, “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact,” then Dan McCleary is in good company. He makes his living quoting Shakespeare, and if that weren’t looney/romantic/poetic enough, he aims to do it in Germantown.
About two years ago, McCleary announced plans to start a professional Shakespeare troupe out in the suburbs. By “professional,” he meant that he’d bring in actors from New York, pay union wages and present Shakespeare to the masses in a way they’d likely never seen.
The Tennessee Shakespeare Company debuted its first production, “As You Like It,” last fall in a wooded lot behind St. George’s Episcopal Church. Over the course of the run, 3,600 people came to see the show.
What happened next, also in the words of the bard, was “such stuff as dreams are made on.”
“It was a wildly successful first year,” McCleary said at a recent rehearsal for his second show. “People were using a very Southern term to describe it. They were calling it a ‘blessing.’ ”
The word stuck with McCleary. He’s instructed his actors to keep it in mind as they perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” opening Saturday at the Poplar Pike Playhouse.
Shakespeare, he says, wrote the play to bless a marriage in the court of Elizabeth I. Now he hopes it will impart blessings on his rapidly expanding endeavor.
Some might say that the show is a reality check for the company. There’s nothing gimmicky, outdoorsy or “environmental” about it, performed in a small, traditional theater at Germantown High School where McCleary graduated.
But the director is as enthusiastic as ever.
Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s educational outreach, which he’d planned to implement within five years, is already in full swing. The city of Germantown earmarked $89,000 to fund student matinees. A full-color study guide, thick as a textbook, was sent out to classrooms. The company is holding Shakespeare workshops in a handful of local schools. This summer, kids ages 8-17, can take part in a Shakespeare summer camp at Hutchison.
Raising funds for the company’s $500,000 annual budget has been a dream in itself.
It turns out that Shakespeare is popular with locals. A recent fundraising gala grossed more than $100,000. Incredibly for a company only a year old, it already has a $100,000 endowment, thanks to a big donor.
And what about McCleary’s ambitious plan to turn Morgan Woods Park into a 300-seat outdoor amphitheater where the company can put on al fresco plays in repertory? The city has earmarked money for that too: $250,000 for Phase 1 of the design. The blueprints are almost done.
To paraphrase Mark Antony, ambitious is what they called Caesar. Maybe it explains why McCleary will direct a compact, tour-worthy “Julius Caesar” in the spring, performed by a cast of eight women and one cellist, a piece, he says, that could be performed on the steps of City Hall.
Until then, audiences can ready themselves for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” inspired by the artist Marc Chagall, composer Bela Bartók, and Dr. Carl Jung, with hints of Joseph Campbell thrown in for good measure.
Memphis actor Darius Wallace says that McCleary’s “Dream” is unlike any Shakespeare production he’s ever worked on.
“His standards are so high that none of us leave the stage without sweating,” he said. “We’ve been told that it’s a production about blessings, and all of us are playing it straight from the heart.”
Titania (Charlotte Schioler) rides Bottom (Tony Molina) as Peaseblossom (Caley Milliken) and her fairies create her bower in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” produced by the Tennessee Shakespeare Company.