“I am that merry wanderer of the night.” Denice Hicks, who plays Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, delivers this line — and many more — during her weekly performance at The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 Shakespeare in the Park series. Denise, who serves as the festival’s artistic director, has been working for The Nashville Shakespeare Festival since 1990. Having edited, directed and performed in more than 50 Shakespearean productions, Denice is no stranger to the stage, nor to Shakespeare. She deserves recognition not only for her award-worthy performances but for her instrumental role in shaping Nashville’s artistic community and theaters. Welcome Denice Hicks as today’s FACE of Nashville!
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Lenni, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Lenni is a little old mill town hidden in the hills like Brigadoon, now surrounded by suburbia. As the youngest in the family with much older siblings, I spent a lot of time outside with the ducks and geese, ponies, rabbits, chickens, cats and dogs. My whole family was involved in a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) minstrel show, which performed in the local firehouse hall and in veteran’s hospitals through the 1960s until the end of the Vietnam War. I started singing in that show at age 5.
What is your first memory of the theater?
Performing with the VFW minstrel show in veteran’s hospitals during the Vietnam War. Some of the people in the hospitals were old — still there from WWI, WWII and Korea, and some were 18 and 19 years old. My mother told me that if we could brighten those patients’ days for even an hour, we’d done a good day’s work. Ever since, I’ve always seen performance as community service.
What is your most memorable performance?
The most challenging performance for me was going on as King Lear in 2016 when the actor I’d directed to play the part was hospitalized. It’s a monster of a role, and although I’d studied the play intensely and had just directed it in rehearsal, I’d never actually spoken the lines out loud, much less played the part. The Shakespeare Festival could not afford to cancel any shows, and there were no other King Lears available on such short notice, so I went on in front of a full house for a 10 a.m. student matinee. My main goal was to make sure the teachers and students who came to see King Lear that morning saw the play. It was terrifying, but I felt like we succeeded.
How did you first get involved with The Nashville Shakespeare Festival?
Opryland brought me to Nashville from Pittsburgh, where I was attending Point Park University. In 1980 and ’81 I did the Country Music, U.S.A. and For Me and My Gal shows there, moving on to the Barn Dinner Theater and the early years of Nashville Repertory Theatre, when it was called Southern Stage Productions. I worked for The Rep for many years, and with a few of the original Rep company members formed an alternative company, which we called “Darkhorse Theater” in an old church on Charlotte Avenue. The first Shakespeare in the Park show was in 1988, and I attended that and fell in love with the spirit of guerrilla theater in Centennial Park. I auditioned for one of their shows and found some common ground between the Shakespeare Festival and Darkhorse Theater, so for a few years, the two companies were merged. Once we got the educational outreach work going for the Festival, it was time to leave Darkhorse, and I stuck with the Festival, first as an actor, then director and now as the executive artistic director.
Have you always been a lover of Shakespeare?
Growing up in a musical household, I have always appreciated poetry and wordplay. Shakespeare lives in the same place in our brains as lyrics. When people ask me how I remember all of my lines, I ask them how many songs they know by heart. Shakespeare is a storyteller poet, just like Woody Guthrie or John Prine. Although my mother quoted and misquoted Shakespeare frequently (to hurry my perpetual lateness along, she’d implore me to “lay on, Macduff!” and when something happened all at once it occurred in “one swell foop!”), my official introduction to Shakespeare came via an extraordinary English teacher at Penncrest High School, Mr. Polignone. He loved Shakespeare and enthusiastically read it out loud to us in class. He never conveyed that it was hard to understand or boring, but shared with us his appreciation for the specificity of the language and humanity of the characters. Consequently, when I was a sophomore in college, I auditioned for and was cast as Juliet, so my first Shakespearean role was in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Pittsburgh Playhouse when I was 18.
What is your favorite of Shakespeare’s works — to read and to perform?
I always answer with the play I’m working on now, and since I’m currently playing “Puck,” I must say A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Honestly, Shakespeare’s bold fusing of magic and reality is most interesting to me, so I also love The Tempest and Macbeth. The spirits in The Tempest and the Weird Sisters in Macbeth are in scenes with human characters going through tough times. I love how that plays on our imaginations now, just as it would have done to audiences 400 years ago. Twelfth Night is usually my favorite comedy, but I love all of the plays that have women dressing up as men and figuring out how to function in a male-dominated society.
If you could ask Shakespeare one question, what would it be?
Mr. Shakespeare, when you wrote them, how did you know that your plays would be as relevant or even more relevant in the 21st century?
What can audiences expect from this season’s Shakespeare in the Park?
As always, family-friendly fun! The experience of coming to Shakespeare in the Park at Centennial Park, and now Academy Park in Franklin, is mostly about the quality time you spend outside, under the stars, in the fresh air, hearing well-trained actors bring a beautifully written play to life. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also hilarious and enchanting as directed by Jaclynn Jutting, with gorgeous costumes designed by Colleen Garantoni and brilliant original music composed and performed by Rollie Mains accompanied by Nashville talents Jeff Rogers, Natalie Bell, Matthew Cruz-Beneson and Brad Brown. The food trucks, “Talking Shakespeare” discussions with scholars and 30-minute sets of varying pre-show entertainers make the evening more festive. This year we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary season with some of the original organizers leading “Talking Shakespeare” on “Founder’s Day,” September 2.
What impact does the theater have on our community?
It’s a thrill to know that Shakespeare in the Park has become a beloved annual tradition for so many thousands of people, but I wish that all of those people would consider going to the other theaters through the rest of the year. Theater provides a meaningful and moving evening out, and not enough people in our community include going to a play as a weekend option for dates or group activities. Sports, of course, are the go-to pastime for most Americans, but I hope I live to see the day that just as many people consider theater, art galleries, dance and symphony concerts and poetry readings just as attractive. At live performances and art events, everybody wins.
What do you see as your greatest accomplishment?
When the work is never-ending, I don’t usually stop to count accomplishments, but being chosen by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon as one of only 14 Shakespeare theaters in North America to be included in their audio documentary and book about Shakespeare in America was surely one of the greatest honors of my career. They were thrilled with our production of As You Like It, impressed by the original music performed and written by David Olney and Stan Lawrence and boldly declared local actress Emily Landham Mahoney “one of the best Rosalinds” they’d ever seen. Additionally, the training, enrichment and experience that we offer young theater artists must also be considered an accomplishment. Theater prepares people to handle difficulty, to trust their impulses, to understand compromise and collaboration and to be confident in stressful conditions. The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Apprentice Company Training Program has been going for almost 20 years, and more than 200 apprentices and journeymen have worked, played and grown through that experiential learning initiative. I am as thrilled to see many of those young artists enjoying wonderful careers in the theater as I am to see them succeed in other fields. Theater training makes people stronger, communicative and more playful.
My wonderful son, Arlo Arntson, is a visual artist now living in Baltimore, and although he came into this world as his own person, I’d have to list him among my most amazing accomplishments! He and I have gone on many adventures together, including a year of homeschooling in a van while camping throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada. He has always been a trusted confidant to me, and I love watching his artistic abilities develop and bloom.
When you aren’t working, where can we find you?
In Shelby Bottoms on one of the woodsy paths or on my front porch in East Nashville listening to the birds with my partner, Jack Kingsley.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received, and who gave it to you?
My mother was a wise, tough, creative woman. She encouraged me to be me and to not try to compete with other people. She also taught me to live for the day, because you never know which one will be your last.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Coffee, laughter and seeing the sky
Shakespeare in the Park performances are held at Centennial Park Bandshell Thursdays through Sundays (and Labor Day Monday) through September 9. Additional performances will be held at Academy Park in Franklin September 13-16.
Thank you, Denice, and we’re grateful for your work in bringing accessible art to the Nashville community! To learn more about The Nashville Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare in the Park, visit nashvilleshakes.org. Thanks to Ashley Hylbert for the photos of Denice!
We’re excited to introduce you to Star Sellers, a nurse who has been with TriStar Health for 46 years. Though she’s newly retired, we wanted to let everyone get to know this amazing caregiver and wish her all the best in her retirement. It is our honor to introduce you to our newest FACE of TriStar, Star Sellers. CLICK HERE to read her delightful interview!