Theater isn’t often mentioned in the conversation about the growing creative communities in Nashville. For instance, Street Theatre Company has been in existence for ten years, yet the name did not sound familiar at all to me. While the music scene has long been conquered and visual arts are growing more every day, theater is the final frontier of Nashville’s artistic growth. Street Theatre Company wants to break down that wall and show Nashville how much they could love theater.
Jason Tucker, the new artistic director of Street Theatre Company, leads me down a hall in the warehouse where STC once did their performances. Now it is filled with costumes, pieces of sets, and props. He introduces me to Cathy Street, the former artistic director and founder of STC.
Cathy moved to Nashville from New Hampshire in 2003. “I didn’t come here with the plan to start a theater company at all,” she explains. “I just wanted to be a part of the theater scene because that was a part of my background. But then I saw that something like this was missing. There were a lot of community theaters and a few really professional companies, but I didn’t see a lot of in-between, which is the semi-pro or regional kind of vibe, the theaters where you can make a little bit of money. It’s not going to be your full-time job, but then you can raise your quality because you’re paying people, so you get better talent, and that’s what I felt like there was not a lot of here.”
After putting together a couple of shows, Cathy decided that if she wanted to do more, she was going to have to become a nonprofit. “I didn’t have any background or experience in that, so I bought the Nonprofits for Dummies book, and I read it and I did it.”
Street Theatre was obviously named after Cathy, but it also holds another meaning relating to the type of theater she wanted to create. “As we were thinking about what to call the company, I did look up street theater, and I really believed in what the whole idea of street theater was, which was theater for the masses, accessible, usually socially and politically relevant. And all of those really spoke to what I believe theater can do. I believe that theater can make people have conversations. I believe that everybody should be able to come see it, that money shouldn’t be a reason you can’t go to the theater, and so it was a really great play on words.”
Making theater accessible was especially something they focused on in their 2015 season, when they tried out a pay-what-you-can system for ticketing. “We said,
‘Let’s take money out of the equation and see if we can get bigger audiences,’” Cathy explains. “It did everything we hoped it would do. Our audiences were larger; we sold out a couple of shows.”
“That discussion of value versus what people will pay,” Jason adds, “is an important discussion . . . finding that balance and then growing with that, it’s a really difficult discussion. It requires a community to contribute, which is cool! The community has to be a partner for there to be a pay-what-you-can theater. The community has to be on board with that and support it, which is why there are very few. I can think of six in the country . . . We’re riding along a precipice the whole time, which feels very rogue.”
Jason uses the word rogue often when discussing STC. “It’s theater that feels on the edge; it feels like it might break a few rules and it might grab a little bit . . . it might feel a little dangerous to you, it’s not necessarily comfortable—it’s not aggressive, but—”
“It’s not safe,” Cathy chimes in. “We’re not doing any safe shows; we won’t ever do Oklahoma. We’re doingshows that a lot of the times people aren’t necessarily familiar with, but we’ve also developed an audience for ten years of people that trust us and they know that when they come—even if they don’t know what the show is—they’re going to find it interesting. Generally speaking, it’s going to be something that’s been writ- ten in the last fifteen to twenty years, so it’s modern, and a lot of times it’s shows that no one has done here.”
In their most recent season, three out of four shows (Memphis, Dogfight, Heathers: The Musical) were the premiere productions in Nashville. For their fourth show, they did Bat Boy: The Musical, a production they introduced to Nashville in 2007.
“[Rogue theater] is about finding a way to challenge,” Jason further explains. “To have a conversation that you might not have had otherwise and to entertain in ways that are unexpected.”
“I agree, but I will say we don’t do it just for the shock value,” Cathy adds. When they performed The Full Monty, in which the actors are nude, while it was edgy, shock was not the main point. “The thing about The Full Monty is that by the end of the show, the process of doing the ‘full monty’ becomes a microcosm of the show because these actors, who are not supermodels or anything, have to get up in front of their friends and strip. So that’s what’s happening in the show and that’s what’s happening with the performers, and by the end of it, your audiences are cheering them on. A lot of the shows we do have content that can cause people to raise their eyebrows, but we always do a show [where] there’s a reason for the [questionable content], so that hopefully you do leave and have a conversation about it.”
Their small budget is focused almost entirely on the artists themselves. The performances you will see at STC tend to have a simpler production style than a big theater, but that is because they put a lot of their focus (and money) on the talent.
Owning their own space is another goal they are currently focused on for the future. For the first four years, they didn’t have a theater space. In 2010, they moved into the space we are now sitting in, but in 2014, it was no longer cost-effective, and they have been paying a small amount to use it as storage for the theater until the owner rents it once again. They made the decision to be a transient company for their 2015 season.
Their performances in 2015 were at Bailey Middle School, where they created a yearlong partnership. “When we were leaving this space, the principal there at the time was a really big arts proponent, and he believed in what the arts could do for the school,” Cathy explains. “Bailey is a disadvantaged school, and there was no performing arts program in place when we got there. So in exchange for using their space in the evening, we beautified the space, added lights and set pieces, and then I teach a class over there and bring some street theater performers over there to work with the students sometimes. So it helps them and it helps us. But that was a program that was in place for 2015. We are finishing out 2015 there, but 2016, we’re not quite sure yet.”
“The number of places we have inquired at is unbelievably larger than the number of spaces we can actually have a conversation with,” Jason explains. “We get shut down pretty much immediately. Theatrical performance space in Nashville is a major problem. Especially for such a large and cosmopolitan city as Nashville is and becoming more of. Theatrical spaces are at an incredible minimum.”
With the exception of staples like Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre and Nashville Children’s Theatre, there are few Nashville theaters that actually own their own space. Not having enough available spaces to perform seems to be the defining reason for the Nashville theater community’s stunted growth. “And I think that the biggest thing too is validity,” Cathy says. “When you have a space and you have a home, you’re suddenly a valid company. If you’re transient and you have to be followed around, I think there’s a sense of ‘They must not be very good’ or
‘They must not be professionals.’” While both Cathy and Jason believe there needs to be a better focus on theater spaces, they also don’t want to complain too much, because being a transient company does allow them to experiment in ways they wouldn’t if they were always in a traditional theater. “We don’t mind doing theater in a space that isn’t classically a theater space. That’s actually kind of cool. You solve problems differently, and the audience comes in and they start a performance with a different set of ideas. You walk into a standard theater, there’s an understanding of what’s about to happen, which can be very useful. But another useful thing is to walk into a space that doesn’t look like a theater at all, and then the expectations of the audience change a little bit and they have to work a little harder to be a part of the performance, and that’s what we want. We want an engaged audience . . . So there are elements of a nontheatrical space that can be really useful. We’re fine doing it as long as it’s possible to do good theater.”
Jason moved to Nashville three years ago and has a strong background in musical theater. He reached out to Cathy when he moved and almost immediately began working as a director for STC. Jason has a new enthusiasm for reforming the way Nashville views theater. “I’d like Street Theatre Company to be a huge part of the conversation here in Nashville that gets an audience on that next level,” he says of his future plans. “That can then be supported by not just Street Theatre but also by The Rep and Studio Tenn and whatever other theaters might pop up to support different areas. There’s no reason that we should be in competition with other theaters. We should all be working together to build a community of not just actors, but audience . . . The biggest theater with the biggest audience is Nashville Children’s Theatre, and that’s awesome that kids are seeing good theater, but no one can see where the next theater is. There’s a line or something . . . It’s very frustrating.”
Cathy adds, “As far as how I think the theater scene has changed in Nashville—I think, woefully, probably not enough. My little soapbox is kind of what Jason was saying, which is with all of the growth we are seeing in Nashville and all of the influx of people, I think Nashville is still really stuck in being Music City, USA. There’s so much time and energy and marketing dollars focused on sports and country music and music in general. People just aren’t getting the theater audiences that this city should be having. Like in Chicago, or somewhere else, where you say, ‘What theater show do you want to see tonight?’ That doesn’t happen here. There are a ton of theater companies here. There is a lot of theater happening, but you have to search it out, and there are very few places. And there are one, maybe two reviewers in town who will do theater reviews.”
“If you like the arts, why are you not making it to see theater, and what can we do to make sure you’ve at least heard the name Street Theatre Compa- ny?” Cathy asks me. “You are a perfect example of someone who would love our stuff, so how do we reach Lindsey?”
Jason adds, “You are our goal, Lindsey—to find people who don’t know just how much they would enjoy theater
. . . how cool it is—I hate the word cool, but it is fun and it’s not your father’s theater. I respect what has come before, but I’m using it to have a conversation in 2015.”
The first show of the 2016 season will be In the Heights. “It’s written by the same gentleman who is doing Hamilton right now, and it’s an all-Latino cast,” Cathy explains. “It’s hip-hop flare, and nobody else has done that here yet, and it was big. It won Tony Awards for Best Musical just a few years ago, so this should definitely reach out to a whole new audience of people if we can get people to come see it.”
With the transition of artistic direc- tors, there are endless possibilities for what Jason’s visions will bring to the future of Street Theatre Company. “With a theater like this, when the founder steps down in the way that she is and hands it off to a new driver, that shows extreme fortitude, and it also shows that the theater itself can handle it,” Jason says. “And so, my goal for my first year is to make sure that all of our friends here in Nashville know that Street Theatre is here. We’re doing exactly what they expect us to do plus a bunch of stuff they don’t expect us to do. And then, my longer term goal is to make sure that Street Theatre—along with some other theaters in the city— becomes a force in this city and not just a sidebar. I’d like Nashville to be one of the main cosmopolitan cities in the country where you can go and see good theater.”