Memphis is very fortunate to be the home of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company (“TSC”), one of only a handful of professional Shakespeare theaters located in the southern United States.
Founded by Dan McCleary in 2008, TSC has performed plays by Shakespeare and other classical writers for more than 53,000 patrons all across Shelby County. Developed in their beautiful new theater on Trinity Road in Germantown, this year’s programming—a season of “panache”— includes Pete Pranica, voice of the Grizzlies, as Mark Twain; a Literary Salon featuring Ann Patchett’s works; a world premiere about the emergence of Emily Dickinson; and Cyrano de Bergerac. TSC also performed Macbeth for free in outdoor venues across the greater Memphis area this past fall to a record-breaking 1,600 patrons.
But arguably more impressive than its theater or performances is TSC’s dedication to serving the Memphis community through its award-winning education and outreach programs. According to Dan, TSC is unique in that “we put education, outreach, and training at the same level of priority as performances.” Dan’s stated goal is to “build Shakespeare into the cultural fabric of our city,” and what better way to do that than to reach our city’s youth. TSC’s groundbreaking education program has already reached 120 schools and created over 285,000 student interactions.
Over a decade ago, at the request of then-Mayor AC Wharton, TSC’s Outreach Director Stephanie Shine created The Romeo and Juliet Project. The project’s mission is to combat teenage armed violence. Students who participate in the program are prompted to rehearse life-saving choices through Shakespeare’s characters and to speak on their feet in front of their classmates; the program has proven invaluable in increasing confidence, literacy, and compassion among the students involved. When working with young people, Dan and Stephanie like to approach their students as if they are professional actors, feeding them lines and watching them use their innate intelligence to determine the meaning of the text and relevance to their lives.
Dan and Stephanie are committed to the idea that reading Shakespeare is intended to be a healing experience. With that in mind, they created the Juvenile Justice Program to bring Shakespeare to incarcerated Memphis youth. TSC’s Director of Education Cara McHugh Geissler speaks about this program as “a way to teach students to embrace their own voices and use them for positive change.” Nic Picou, one of the teaching artists involved in the program, says “We are focused on helping these youth find some good in their tragic, troubling circumstances. The kids are vulnerable, honest and candid about the problems in their lives and their communities.” Nic and Cara are able to engage the students by making them feel comfortable sharing their emotions and making them feel loved and appreciated.
TSC has achieved national recognition for these successful, creative outreach programs; in fact, TSC is one of only a few U.S. theaters to be awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts four years in a row. Dan says, “Tennessee Shakespeare Company has happily evolved into a wide-ranging service organization for Shelby County through classical theater. William Shakespeare and his stories are for everyone – as diverse as the characters with whom he populates his plays.”