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Magic Shows and Miracles

Playhouse on the Square opens Pippin — and a world-class performing arts facility — in Midtown



Every man has his daydreams Every man has his goals People like the way dreams have of sticking

to the soul Thunderclouds have their lightning Nightingales have their song And don't you see I want my life to be something more

than long.

— "Corner of the Sky," from the musical Pippin

It wasn't Shakespeare, but few soliloquies have moved an audience half as much as the one Playhouse on the Square's founding producer Jackie Nichols recited earlier this month at a party thrown to introduce the theater's alumni to the professional company's sparkling new $12.5 million performing arts complex.

First, Nichols introduced the assembled crowd to a five-foot length of nail-scarred 2"x 4" affectionately nicknamed Grace Slick. Grace, he said — showing where a techie had long ago written the name of his favorite recording artist — was once eight feet tall. She had been used in the first play Nichols ever produced, back in the days when budgets were practically nonexistent and he and actor Chris Ellis sometimes resorted to pilfering building materials from construction sites. Grace had been reused in hundreds of subsequent shows and would be called into service again as part of the set for Pippin, the first show opening in Playhouse on the Square's state-of-the-art theater at the intersection of Cooper and Union in Midtown.

"We'll find a place for you, girl," Nichols said, affectionately, as he tossed Grace aside and moved on to a more difficult subject, even closer to his heart.

"I've got to get through this," Nichols stammered, choking back emotions. "I'm sure most of y'all know that with Pippin's opening coming up, my son [Jordan Nichols] was supposed to be here doing the lead in the show. But as it turns out, my son was supposed to be here in Memphis to have an amazing waitress at the Blue Monkey bring him back to life."

There was no need to go into any more detail, since practically everyone crowded into the intimate 350-seat theater had spent the previous week glued to Facebook following Jordan's progress by way of status updates that spread rapidly through the Memphis theater community.

The 24-year-old performer grew up onstage in Memphis, taking on memorable roles in landmark shows like Urinetown and Ragtime. On Sunday, January 3rd, he fell over backwards in mid-conversation while having a drink with his castmates after a long rehearsal.

Without any warning, Jordan's heart stopped, the result of a rare genetic disorder with an unlikely but entirely accurate name: Unexpected Death Syndrome. Waitress Tara Miller performed CPR on young Nichols and saved his life.

"I encourage you all to patronize the Blue Monkey. And to learn CPR," Nichols concluded, to wave after wave of applause and raucous laughter.

Jordan has since been released from the hospital, with a cardiac defibrillator implanted in his chest to guard against future episodes. He's still pale as a ghost and hoarse from the tubes stuck in his throat, but his impossibly broad smile is radiant. He says he's feeling great and ready to get back on the stage. Although he's disappointed that he won't get to play the prodigal son of Charlemagne in Pippin, he says he's just happy to be alive and excited to be at home for the grand opening of the new Playhouse.

New Beginings

"Pippin is about magic. It's about new beginnings. And there's no greater new beginning than this theater," Jackie Nichols explains, as he sinks into a comfortable sofa in his theater's cafe. Nichols says the play was initially chosen — at least in part — because he thought Jordan would be great in the title role. "In the back of my mind, I thought this would be a show that my son could come back and do."

Jordan was in New York, performing in The Fantasticks, when the play was originally selected, and there was no certainty that he wouldn't continue to find more high-profile work on the East Coast.

"I take a great deal of pride in his talent and his personal journey," Nichols says. Pippin was Jordan's first show. He'd played the part of Young Theo when Beale Street Ensemble Theater performed the musical at Shelby State Community College 20 years ago. Even though Nichols says that casting his son wasn't the first thing on his mind, he saw the opportunity to create a deeply symbolic moment. And he was elated when everything seemed to be working out.

Contrary to Nichols' cosmic assertions, Pippin is as much about illusions and disillusion as it is about magic and miracles. The 1970s-era musical is about finding nobility in the commonplace and discovering meaning in even the most mundane chores. Anybody who has watched Playhouse on the Square grow over the last 40 years will immediately understand why this play is so appropriate for this occasion.

Less than a week before Pippin's January 29th opening, rubbernecking motorists on Union Avenue might have noticed Nichols — a non-smoker — puttering around outside, pouring sand into the ashtrays in one of the new theater's outdoor garden spaces. When he's not raising money for the theater's endowment or otherwise taking care of business, he's famous for embracing menial tasks and hard labor. He often jokes that he can't wait for the day to arrive when new interns mistake him for the handyman.

When construction costs turned out to be $2 million more than originally projected, Nichols responded by assuming personal responsibility for renovating the theater's five-story office building, an existing structure that was once the Memphis headquarters for Shoney's Big Boy restaurants. Nichols constructed decks and walls, pulled up strips of carpet, designed room spaces, and put down flooring for dance rehearsal spaces.

It's this hands-on approach to running his family of theaters, combined with a commitment to smart growth and adaptive reuse, that has enabled Nichols to make the seemingly impossible possible. In an economic climate that has seen the shuttering of professional theaters all across the country, Playhouse on the Square has built — and very nearly paid for — a world-class performance complex inspired by Chicago's famous Steppenwolf theater.

It's outfitted with three art galleries, five dressing rooms, a cafe, two lobby bars, a variety of rehearsal spaces, a roof garden, and two full stories of empty office space Nichols plans to rent to other not-for-profit arts organizations.

The "Pipe Dream"

According to Michael Detroit, Playhouse on the Square's associate producer and an actor best known for performances in shows such as Chess and Jerry Springer: The Opera, even some of Playhouse's most reliable supporters thought the new theater was a pipe dream. No wonder there's so much talk about magic and miracles at the corner of Union and Cooper.

Today actress/choreographer and director of special events Courtney Oliver laughs when she thinks about the day she first heard that a plan was in the works to open a new building. "We said, with what? What money? We joked that Jackie was going to build a tree house and we were going to do plays in the tree house."

The joking stopped when Playhouse acquired and later demolished the dilapidated antique mall across the street from its longtime home. "As soon as we tore down the antique mall, I said, 'I want to watch this,'" Oliver marvels. "Jackie is so smart, such a visionary."

Nobody seems more surprised or pleased by Playhouse's fund-raising accomplishments than Detroit. When the economy started going south, a decision was made to go back to the companies and foundations that had pledged significant amounts, to make sure they were still on board with the project. "We said we know this is difficult," Detroit explains. "All but two said, 'We're with you. We may have to adjust our payout schedule, but we're with you.'"

Some donors even increased the amount of their contributions. Detroit thought there had been a mistake when the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation sent Playhouse a check for $650,000. The grant proposal he'd written was for $500,000, and he was sure he'd have to pay back the difference. Only there had been no mistake. The additional money was a reflection of how much the foundation believed in Playhouse on the Square's commitment to diversity and community building in Memphis.

The new Playhouse, with its elaborate fly system and beautiful hickory trim, began as a much smaller project. It was never intended to be the "Midtown Home of Ballet Memphis" or a place where Opera Memphis could debut an original a cappella version of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Initial plans were to build a new rehearsal hall and to renovate the former space on Cooper. Cost analyses showed that it would be much cheaper to tear down the old Playhouse on the Square building — a 1930s-era movie theater formerly known as the Memphian — and start from scratch than it would be to expand the property and bring everything up to code. But the Memphian, which is famous for being Elvis Presley's favorite place to watch movies, was a historic site and nobody wanted to destroy it. That reluctance to demolish the Memphian evolved into a decision to create something new and beautiful in a once-thriving entertainment district that needed a shot of vitality.

"We were the only major arts group in the city without a state-of-the-art facility," Detroit says, noting that the Memphis Symphony Orchestra has the Cannon Center, Opera Memphis has the Clark Opera Memphis Center, and Ballet Memphis has a facility in Cordova.

Also spurring the transition was the fact that the Unified Professional Theater Auditions, Playhouse on the Square's annual casting convention for actors and technicians seeking full-time employment, has grown to become the largest casting convention in America for professional theater companies and one of Memphis' top 25 annual conventions. "Every year it brings more than $1 million into the local economy," Detroit says. "And that's money from outside the city."

The time had come for an organization with a tradition of slow growth to take a giant leap into the future.

"There are a lot of fortunate people who work for Playhouse on the Square," Detroit says. He recalls his first audition, in 1989, when he thought Nichols' little theater would be a temporary detour on his way to Chicago and more glamorous points beyond.

"There are places you can go and make a lot more money," he says. "There are places you can go and work a lot fewer hours. But there's a vibe here that I've never had in all the different places I've worked. I didn't plan to stay, but I did. [Playhouse managing director] Whitney Jo didn't plan to stay, but she did. Dave [Playhouse actor and director] Landis didn't plan to stay, but he did. Courtney Oliver didn't plan to stay, but she did."

Now, they have all been rewarded with the opportunity to ply their trades in a performing arts center that any city would be proud to claim.

Like Pippin sings in the moments before the final curtain falls:

"They showed me crimson, gold, and lavender/A shining parade/But there's no color I can have on earth/That won't finally fade/When I wanted worlds to paint /And costumes to wear/I think it was here/Cause it never was there."

Magic To Do

Q&A with Pippin director Scott Ferguson

Flyer: Pippin has a 1970s vibe to it. Are you doing anything to bring it up to date?

Scott Ferguson: When I started the project, I thought that it was fun and cool in that it's retro, but we also wanted to find a way to make it resonate in a modern sense. So we've added little touches like projection images that represent modern things. Laptops and electronic things bring us into the modern world.

What do you think the play's about?

It's about a young man who wants to discover what his life is about. It's his search for meaning and truth and success in life. And he has trouble with that. He keeps trying things but never truly finds fulfillment. That touches me. The idea of the play ends up being, Are you settling? And, is settling for something okay for your life purpose? That's what Pippin ends up doing. But settling, per se, isn't just settling. It's actually meaningful and can cause you to have a happy life.

Has it been difficult to mount a show in a theater that's still essentially under construction?

It's good, because we have all of these new toys. It is truly a learning process for everybody, but, as it always does in the theater, things fall into place. And they are. This play has lots of little bells and whistles, and we've found creative ways to let all the things the new Playhouse has to offer find their way into the storytelling.

You've worked in several theaters around the country. How does the new Playhouse measure up?

This space is fantastic. Brilliant. Regionally, it brings a whole new ballgame to the city.

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