Nashville Shakespeare Festival celebrates 20 years of 'Shakespeare in the Park'

One of the most well respected and high-profile arts events every year is the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Park, which is held several weekends in a row during the late summer at the Centennial Park Band Shell. 

Shakespeare in the Park has become a yearly summer tradition for many in a city where professional theatre has not yet attained traditional status.
Indeed, many—if not most—of the 500 to 1,500 patrons who attend every night of the Festival’s presentations do not attend professional or community theatre anywhere else in the city. At a Shakespeare in the Park presentation one will find every age range, social and economic class, race, creed and cross section represented proving beyond a doubt that the Nashville Shakespeare Festival has with Shakespeare in the Park achieved that rare and often unattainable goal of returning Shakespeare to the masses as it was intended to be performed. 

In order to help celebrate the company’s 20th year of Shakespeare in the Park ,the Nashville Shakespeare Festival will be presenting two shows this summer instead of the traditional one. Opening August 16 is The Merry Wives of Windsor directed by Brenda Sparks. In this version of the show Windsor is a small town in southern Louisiana around a celebratory time not unlike Mardi Gras.

A week later on August 23 The Nashville Shakespeare Festival Apprentice Company will open Two Gentlemen of Verona, which has never been performed by the Festival before because of its high number of young characters.  The Nashville talent pool for youth has never quite been up to the demands of the script until recently and consequently resulted in a total blackout of the script by the Festival.

As of last year The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Apprentice Company has gotten incredibly strong and the training that the Festival provides them has finally paid off. The Apprentice Company will have the leading roles in this year’s performance of Two Gents and be supported by professionals from the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s mother company in what is sure to be an excellent role reversal because members of the Apprentice Company have traditionally been consigned to being faeries and spirits and other supporting roles in the Shakespeare in the Park productions. 

In an effort to reinterpret some of the harsher elements of Two Gents, the Apprentice Company will be staging the show in a clown world where life is always a circus.  In preparation for the upcoming show the Apprentice Company have been training hard this summer not only with traditional acting training but also such things as juggling and pratfalls.

The Merry Wives of Windsor will run August 16-19, 25-26 & 30-31 as well as September 3, & 8-9. Two Gentlemen of Verona will run August 23-24 and September 1, 2, & 6-7. All shows take place at the Centennial Park Band Shell. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. Pre-Show entertainment begins at 6:30 p.m.

Recently, Nashville Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Denice Hicks sat down with O&AN to tell us about this year’s productions.  For more information on the Nashville Shakespeare Festival or Shakespeare in the Park visit

O&AN:  Everyone is familiar with Shakespeare in the Park, but that’s certainly not everything the Nashville Shakespeare Festival does.  Why is the work that you do outside of Shakespeare in the Park so important?

Hicks:  I feel like we are warriors fighting hard to keep the English language important to young people.  It can be so empowering when you know how to express yourself through language instead of through fists or guns.  Every opportunity that we have to get Shakespeare into the mouths of young people we do.  We’re not going to show you how to do Shakespeare; we’re going to play with you and encourage you to do it too.

Young people really have a sense of what theatre is all about that seems to sometimes get lost on older professionals who have been jaded by working for money all their lives. We also subsidize with grant money for the poorer schools. For the production of Hamlet we have coming up at the new Belmont Theatre in January, we have some grant money earmarked for Title One schools to be able to bring their students to see the show. Hopefully we will be paying for their busses as well as for their tickets.

O&AN:  Do you feel that bringing theatre into public schools is even more important now as arts and drama programs are being forced out of the curriculum in many areas?

Hicks:  I think it’s even more important now than ever.  For the teachers who are kind of corralled into teaching Shakespeare it becomes less relevant if they don’t understand that it’s drama and not literature which is where Shakespeare is usually taught in school. Frankly, Shakespeare is boring when it’s read on the page.  That’s not what it’s written for.  Once those characters are in someone’s body and in their heads and they can come to life it is a whole different experience that is wholly unlike reading flat words on a page.  When you perform Shakespeare, you have a real sense that you are invoking something primal and unique that has been invoked over the years by every actor who has ever stepped into the role and if we can share that with someone then we really want to be able to do that.

O&AN:  Celebrating 20 years as a professional theatre company in Nashville is no mean feat. Other theatre companies who put on equally engaging offerings have come and gone at a seeming breakneck pace.  What is it that makes The Nashville Shakespeare Festival endure in the midst of all of this?

Hicks:  I really think we have managed to carve out a niche for ourselves over the past 20 years because we are always in the same place at the same time every year with a fairly consistent product that people have come to trust in expecting.  If they have been before, they already have a good idea of what their experience is going to be like. 

Our concepts may vary widely, but there is always the sense that you are going to get a quality performance unlike anything else that can be found in Nashville.  Between us, People’s Branch, the Tennessee Rep and Nashville Children’s Theatre—Nashville’s only four professional Equity (union) companies—we have a great talent pool from which to pull.

We are so fortunate to have some of the great actors like Ross Brooks and Jenny Littleton here in Nashville because they could work anywhere and do well. They choose to stay here. I feel a real obligation to make sure they stay employed so they will continue to choose Nashville over Atlanta or New York.  The more quality actors we keep here the more diverse and quality actors we will attract to the city.  We are totally committed to helping the great actors we have in Nashville keep their bills paid so they will stay.
O&AN:  How can people who are interested in helping keep The Nashville Shakespeare Festival alive and well best contribute to the cause?

Hicks:  Giving money is always the best thing that people can do to help.  The more money we raise the better shows we are able to put on.  Every hundred dollars that someone gives us helps a thousand people see our shows. 

About a third of our budget comes from donations. When the community supports our work it lets us and the local arts commission know that this is important to the community.  Without people who care enough to support our work we might go away, but I really feel like the arts commission and the other funding that we get is largely based on community service as well. Their support speaks volumes about how important it is to them

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