Overview of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival

by Lily Norton

The Nashville Shakespeare Festival began in 1988 with a production of As You Like It. At the time, it was simply a group of local actors who thought it might be fun to do an outdoor production. They had no money, no standing in the community, and nothing in the way of costumes or elaborate set pieces. The Nashville community responded positively, and Pericles went up as the following year’s production. Among the founding members were Denice Hicks, who is now the executive artistic director, Chamber Stevens, Donald Capparella, and Jill Jackson. When Denice Hicks reflects on the success of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, she notes that there are many families and parents who brought young children with them to their first few productions, and now those children are bringing their children. She credits this generational tradition as a big factor in the way the company grew over the next few decades.

Before too long, other supplemental programs began to emerge, starting with Shakespeare Samplers in 1992. These were 50 minute abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays, and they were the first educational outreach program by NSF. By this point, the company was doing professional shows, and they offered their first equity contracts in 1995. To this day, the NSF has one of the longest contracts in Nashville. Another pivotal educational initiative began in 1999, with the birth of the Apprentice Company. This program started because Denice had recently cast five young girls in Twelfth Night, and she wanted a way to train students and young people to be a part of future productions on the same level as the professional actors. Currently, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival boasts some of the largest arts educational programs in the state.

Yet another milestone for the company arrived in 2008 with the first Winter Shakespeare production, Hamlet. Since then, the winter productions have taken up residence in the Troutt Theater on the Belmont University campus, and are continually a success.

As of 2017, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival has three full time staff members, several part time staff members, and exceptional Teaching Artists, who lead workshops and training sessions. It is governed by a Board of Directors, and its funding is from a combination of donations and grants from local, regional, and national arts organizations. In 2014, it was selected as one of fourteen Shakespeare festivals in the United States for inclusion in the “Shakespeare on the Road” project funded by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

In a recent interview with the Nashville Shakespeare Performance Archive, Denice Hicks noted that the most breathtaking part about her job is speaking with audience members (and sometimes actors) who recount their first experiences with Shakespeare in the Park as young children, and thank Denice for having such a big impact on their lives. She also stated that the NSF is, at its core, a fulfilling way for her and others to connect with and serve the community through Shakespeare and the arts.

For additional information, see the Nashville Shakespeare Festival website.

The Shakespeare on the Road website