Commissioned by Tennessee Women’s Theater Project and written by Christine Mather and Sara Sharpe, Voices of Nashville tells the stories of immigrants and refugees in Middle Tennessee through a unique documentary style of theater. The fourth wall is broken, and the four actors — David Chattam, Colette Divine, Keri Pagetta and Becky Wahlstrom — introduce over a dozen characters to the audience, all based on the stories of actual immigrants and refugees. When it premiered in September of 2013, Amy Stumpfl of the Tennessean called it “Both thoughtful and engaging . . . we hear the voices of these new Americans, ringing out with strength, resilience and courage.”
Directed by TWTP founder and artistic director Maryanna Clarke, Voices of Nashville gets a reprise this month at the Alexander Z. Looby Theatre, with all four actors returning for their roles. For those who missed it the first time, it’s a chance to experience a gutsy theater production and fresh take on the immigrant experience. For those who caught it in 2013, it’s a unique opportunity to revisit these characters with fresh eyes after a year and a half of shifting national discourse on America’s role as a resettlement destination. The return engagement at the Looby opens March 6, 2015 and runs through March 22. Thursday to Saturday performances are at 7:00 p.m. Sunday Mantinee performances are at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12-$15 and available in advance on TWTP’s website.
As the show prepares for tech week and final rehearsals, we caught up with co-writer Sara Sharpe for an email exchange about the play and its return engagement. An award-winning actress, writer, coach and social entrepreneur from Nashville, Sharpe is also the founder of both Festive Evolution: Art and Change-Making in the 21st Century and The Arete Institute.
HowToPlayNashville: A lot has happened in less than two years. For one, there is Nashville’s increased stature as a destination for tourists and creative individuals; and two, local, regional and national recognition for Nashville’s rich and diverse immigrant culture and role as resettlement location for refugees. At the time Voices premiered, it was likely still a surprise to some that Middle Tennessee had such a diverse population. President Obama’s visit last year, following his executive action, changed all that. All this to say that the show is opening in a different climate than it did the first time, and in a city with a lot of new people in it. Can you talk about this a bit, and how much that did or didn’t play into the decision to bring it back?
Sara Sharpe: Certainly, renewed focus on the rich, cultural diversity in Nashville, which has been called a “new Ellis Island,” played into the decision to bring the show back. The ongoing political debate around immigration was also a factor. Folks have strong feelings about this issue, which is a deeply polarizing one. But beyond the raging debate are real stories about real people, which can get lost in the political circus. So at this moment in history, in the U.S. and in Nashville, this particular conversation and these particular stories are vitally important.
For those who saw it the first time, are there any changes in the reprise?
Only minor changes, really. We talked about introducing a new character, as there was one new story I was longing to include. In the end, however, we decided we couldn’t add more time to the show, and we weren’t willing to cut any of the existing characters to make way for new ones. That said, it was a real luxury to have an opportunity to fix the little things that drove us nuts during the first run.
What has it been like for these four actors, who have spent so much time with these characters and each other, to return to the roles? Has their approach changed? What have the discussions and rehearsals been like?
I haven’t been in on the rehearsal process this time, but I hear it’s been wonderfully productive. I ate dinner last night with Maryanna, who was saying that rehearsal these past few weeks has been really delightful. The actors have been away from their roles long enough to experience them in a fresh way and, apparently, they’ve discovered lots of new things. I’ll be around for tech week this week and I can’t wait to see it again.
I’d like to say, too, that reprising a show like this, while thrilling, can be challenging for actors. At least it would be for me. One puts so much into performances such as these, that at the end of a show one goes through a very real process of letting go and of moving on; so kudos to our actors for being ready and willing to do it all again. I’m cognizant of the fact that we are incredibly fortunate to have the original cast back. One of my favorite things about this experience has been the ongoing commitment these wonderful actors have demonstrated—not just to the show itself, but to the broader issue and to the people whose stories we tell and whom we have come to love.
For those who haven’t seen it, what can they expect? Why should they see it?
Well, for starters, audiences can expect to see jaw-dropping performances. Four actors—David Chattam, Colette Divine, Keri Pagetta and Becky Wahlstrom—perform dozens of roles, moving fluidly from one to another, seemingly effortlessly. They make it look easy, but it’s a truly amazing feat. Becky once said, about performing in this show, that if acting was a video game she was on level nine! Indeed.
Most importantly, folks can expect to hear the brave and beautiful stories of new Americans from all over the world. Each story is based on interviews Christine and I conducted over several month’s time, right here in Nashville. We invented some language to give the play structure, but the stories themselves we didn’t alter in any way. Together, they offer a rich narrative of the immigration experience. Audiences can expect to leave the show with the feeling that they know more about their new neighbors than they did before they came. Also, you never know—you might be sitting next to the person on whom a character is based! I love when the folks we interviewed come to the show. It’s such an honor for all of us.
What are you, as a playwright, working on now?
I’m always most interested in telling the stories that give voice to the voiceless and inspire audiences, large or small, to participate actively in bringing about social and political change. I’m working now on a play called “Sophia Speaks,” about manifestations of the Divine Feminine throughout history. That sounds hopelessly woo woo, but it’s actually not. It’s an interesting look at the ways in which we have devalued the feminine throughout history, and about women who have exerted their power and influence anyway. Also, I just did some work at the Nashville Public Defender’s office and dream of creating a docudrama based on clients of public defenders. When thinking and talking about it, I call the piece “Those People,” because, of course, the perennial question is, “How do you represent those people?” Through story, we come to understand. Finally, my org., Festive Evolution, hopes to sponsor a series of international reality tours to the front lines of the global women’s movement. Our hope is to use the power of art to shine a spotlight on women around the world who are actively engaged in preventing conflict, building peace, advancing gender equality and empowering women. Every artist who travels with us will collect stories and tell them through their chosen, artistic medium. So I’m sure I’ll write something as a result of that.
The Tennessee Women’s Theatre Project production of Voices of Nashville opens Friday, March 6, 2015 and runs through March 22 at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre across from Watkin’s College of Art and Design. Thursday to Saturday performances are at 7:00 p.m. Sunday Mantinee performances are at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12-$15 and available in advance on TWTP’s website. The return engagement of Voices of Nashville is supported by Tennessee Women’s Theatre Season Sponsor HCA/TriStar Health and funded in part by grants from the Tennessee Arts Commission and Metro Nashville Arts Commission.