The Memphis theatre scene permeates the area with as much vibrance as the city’s storied music history. Like a cultured artistic companion, Bluff City theatre doesn’t hog the spotlight. Rather, it completes the arc of Memphis’ creative bent. The range of live theatre offerings is quite large for a city of its size, and the local drama scene is as welcoming as you’d expect in a Southern town. Whether you know the difference between The King and I and King Lear, you are a valued member of the audience.
For this article, though, you should know that “theatre” will be used to reference the overall art form and “theater” the physical venue. Also, the distinction between a theatre company and the theater where its shows take place is important: In Memphis, there are theaters with dedicated companies and companies without a home theater. That said, you’re ready to get schooled on Memphis theatre — and its theaters!
Your Guide to the Memphis Theatre Scene
The oldest continuously running theater in town, Theatre Memphis will celebrate its 100th anniversary season in 2020. If you’re looking for tried-and-true community theatre, Theatre Memphis is your ticket. All of its actors, stage crew and ushers are volunteers and represent various age groups and skill levels. In the heart of East Memphis, Theatre Memphis has two stages — the classic, proscenium-style Lohrey Stage for larger shows, and the black-box Next Stage for more intimate productions.
Through Sunday, September 10, take the whole family to see Shrek the Musical, the 2017-18 season opener. Randall Hartzog, Theatre Memphis’ marketing and communications director, says the show is expected to break the venue’s sales record. In early January, be sure to check out August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Fences, a play recently popularized in the 2016 movie of the same name.
A nonprofit organization, Theatre Memphis also offers outreach and education programs, including youth summer camps and the ShoWagon touring company, which performs in schools and libraries.
Once a part of the vaudeville circuit, The Orpheum Theatre now centers on Broadway touring productions. That means all of the actors and crew members are professionals, and none of the shows are produced locally. If you can’t make it to a Broadway debut in the Big Apple, you might catch a “second run” when the tour group makes a stop in downtown Memphis.
“Touring Broadway shows are well-oiled machines,” says Kristin Bennett, Orpheum press relations manager. “When they get to Memphis, they are very efficient. There is usually about a 12-hour period of loading the sets and focusing the lighting. Then, there are eight shows over six days, followed by about six hours of load-out.”
In September, the Orpheum will host Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, winner of the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival. Other fall shows include Tony Award-winners An American in Paris and The Phantom of the Opera, which features a cast and orchestra of 52.
Perhaps the biggest news for the Orpheum this year was the announcement that Hamilton would be a part of its 2018-19 season. The Orpheum rarely releases such news two seasons in advance, so we know this one will incite pandemonium when tickets go on sale. SB TIP: If you’re a 2017-18 season ticket holder, you’ll have first access to Hamilton ticket sales if you renew for 2018-19.
Under the umbrella of Circuit Playhouse, Inc. (CPI), there are four venues: Playhouse on the Square (POTS), The Circuit Playhouse, TheatreWorks and The Evergreen Theatre. Of the four, POTS is the largest, with a 347-seat facility and a 10-member resident company.
“Playhouse on the Square, under the leadership of our founder and executive producer, Jackie Nichols, was the catalyst for the revitalization of Overton Square,” says Mike Detroit, POTS associate producer. “Once we put our $15.5 million stamp on the corner of Cooper and Union in 2010, the area, under the leadership of Playhouse board member Bob Loeb, has really come into its own as a destination arts district.”
There are currently 12 companies — including Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company, Cazateatro Bilingual Theatre Group and Friends of George’s — that call the spaces at TheatreWorks and Evergreen their home. In addition, CPI sets aside time on the POTS stage for groups such as Opera Memphis and Indie Memphis Film Festival.
This fall, you can catch Shakespeare in Love at POTS in September and October and Junie B. Jones: The Musical at Circuit Playhouse in October. In January, the world-premiere of Julianne Homokay’s All Saints in the Old Colony, the winner of CPI’s 2016 [email protected] playwrighting competition, will open at TheatreWorks.
Founded in 1973, Germantown Community Theatre (GCT) is housed in a refurbished turn-of-the-century schoolhouse just east of town. People of all ages and skill levels take part in GCT productions. In fact, at least one GCT show each season is an All Children’s Theatre (ACT) production; the next is An Irving Berlin Revue, which opens on December 1. Before then, you can catch Lost in Yonkers in September and Honky Tonk Angels in October.
“We pride ourselves on being a starting point for people who might not get a shot to direct elsewhere because of lack of experience,” says Justin Asher, GCT artistic director. “We strive to give them the chances they deserve and the support they need.”
ACT, GCT’s main outreach program, was created in 2005. Since then, more than 450 school-aged actors and crew members have taken part in dozens of performances. GCT also offers weekday classes for homeschooled students and weekend and after-school classes for all students.
With seats for 112, GCT offers up to a 40-percent discount for season subscribers. Seniors and students get in for $17 each, and every second week, $10 student tickets are available with a valid student ID.
Entering its twelfth season, Hattiloo Theatre fills an important niche in the Memphis arts community by spotlighting African-American playwrights, actors and musicians. Just down the street from Playhouse on the Square, the venues seem to work in tandem, offering the theatrical diversity that the city craves.
“Memphis is a city resplendent with stories and storytellers,” says Ekundayo Bandele, Hattiloo’s founder and CEO. “We are a communal city, inasmuch as we enjoy sharing time and space with one another. Theatre is the ultimate way to share a story, and it brings people together from various communities to participate as an audience.”
Through September 3, you can catch the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined, which is set in war-torn Congo. Other highlights of the 2017-18 season include Fetch Clay, Make Man and Selma: A Musical Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hattiloo’s single tickets start at $21, and season subscriptions range from $98 to $154.
“We’re most excited about Katori Hall coming on as our next artistic director,” Ekundayo says. “She is an award-winning playwright best known for her play The Mountaintop that ran on Broadway starring Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson.”
To encourage theater-goers from diverse economic backgrounds, Hattiloo offers pay-what-you-want pricing on the second Thursday of every production run. These limited tickets can be purchased over the phone (for a $3 fee) or at the box office on a first-come, first-served basis. They cannot be purchased online.
In Collierville, not far from GCT, the Harrell Theatre will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. Funded by the Collierville Arts Council, the Harrell has produced more than 150 shows in its history. The 2017-18 season opens with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which runs September 15–24. Ticket prices range from $12 to $15 each and can be purchased at harrelltheatre.org.
Founded in 1995 by Alice Berry and Jenny Madden, Voices of the South (VOTS) is a nonprofit theatre company with the mission to create, produce and perform works from diverse Southern perspectives. The shows take place at TheatreSouth in Midtown, but its annual Memphis Children’s Theatre Festival is held at the McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College. Focusing on narrative theatre, many of VOTS’ productions are based on Southern literature, including last year’s Eudora Welty — Mississippi Stories. VOTS also offers touring shows for K–12 schools. For information on upcoming events, visit voicesofthesouth.org.
New to the Memphis theatre scene, Quark Theatre was born of a Facebook conversation about Samuel Beckett. Friends Adam Remsen and Tony Isbell were discussing their mutual love of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and decided to stage it themselves in 2015, along with Louisa Koeppel. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the show became the first unofficial Quark production.
“Our shows will tend to be newer, a little more cerebral, ‘smaller’ in scope and simpler in staging,” Adam says. “I hesitate to use the word ‘edgy’ because it sounds like we’re confrontational undergraduates, but it probably fits in this case.”
In March 2017, Quark put on Blackbird, a two-person show in which a child-abuse victim confronts her abuser later in life. Due to its emotionally challenging subject matter and therefore narrower appeal, Blackbird is not a show that larger theatre companies would likely take on. That’s where Quark comes in — to produce contemporary plays that deal with intense themes. Quark does not have a home theater, but has used TheatreSouth and Theatre Memphis for performance and rehearsal space in the past. Check quarktheatre.com for showtimes and locations.
The company’s 2017-18 season comprises two Memphis premieres: Allen Barton’s Years to the Day in September and Jennifer Haley’s The Nether in March. Note: Both feature adult language and themes and are not suitable for children.
Chatterbox Audio Theater is the only live audio drama production company in Memphis. You can access its 85+ productions, including “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Gawain and the Green Knight,” for free at chatterboxtheater.org and on iTunes. Basically, it’s theatre without the theater, so you can listen from the comfort of your couch or in your car on the way to work.
“Podcasts are booming, but scripted dramas are still a tiny, tiny minority of the shows out there,” says Bob Arnold, Chatterbox cofounder and executive director. “A few are really starting to catch on, and I think there will be an explosion of scripted podcast dramas any day now.”
Arnold and three friends founded Chatterbox in 2007, when they began recording shows in his living room. Since 2010, the group has recorded its shows in a dedicated space in the Marshall Arts building. So far, there have been 374 cast and crew members, and Arnold welcomes many more — experienced voice actors and newbies alike. He has even started accepting “virtual auditions,” in which actors record a few lines on their smartphones and submit the audio files via email.
“It takes away all the pressure of a live audition, and it allows people to really dig in and give us their best,” he says. “Plus, it’s fun for directors to cast based purely on voices.”
As for outreach, Chatterbox has performed at Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired and has partnered with story booth at Crosstown Arts for a kids’ summer camp. The group also teaches sound effects workshops at various schools in the Memphis area. To receive information about upcoming shows and auditions, sign up for the Chatterbox e-newsletter.
Just over the Tennessee state line in Southaven, Mississippi, DeSoto Family Theatre (DFT) performs its shows at the Landers Center, formerly the DeSoto Civic Center. Not only are its productions family-friendly, but DFT also casts actors of all ages — from children to senior adults. In 2020, the organization will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
“Many people view community theatres as second-rate or ‘not as good as’ other major theatres in the Memphis area,” says Trish Toomey, DFT business manager and former actor. “But DeSoto Family Theatre utilizes talent from all over the Mid-South. We’ve also been fortunate to have several Broadway professionals on our production staff as technical designers, actors, teachers and advisors.”
This fall, Mid-Southerners can catch Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, Jr., and A Christmas Carol: The Musical. Season ticket holders receive 25 percent off regular ticket prices. The DFT Facebook page also offers contests and coupons to fans.
To keep the talent pool flowing, DFT offers a summer camps for children ages 5 to 16 and gives theatre scholarships to graduating seniors. Throughout the school year, the group puts on matinee performances for schools, so more young people can be exposed to theatre arts.
Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center (BPACC) is a stronghold in the Memphis-area arts community, mostly hosting touring musical acts, but it also puts on theatre productions throughout the year. This fall, BPACC will produce the family-friendly musical Pinkalicious and the gospel musical Smoke on the Mountain. Through its TheatreKidz program, the center will put on Godspell in the spring. Other youth programs include BPACC’s summer drama camp and an annual Missoula Children’s Theatre production. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit bpacc.org.
So, support local theatre and book your tickets now!