After being introduced as "Mr. Memphis Theater," Jackie Nichols, Playhouse on the Square's executive director, casually took the stage and assessed his audience.
"You know, I'd like to take this opportunity to deny the rumor that TheatreWorks was only opened to launder drug money for Playhouse," he announced to riotous laughter. It was a chilly Sunday evening, and Nichols joined some of Memphis' edgier performing artists to sip some wine, watch some theater, raise some money, and celebrate the 10th anniversary of TheatreWorks, an experimental theater in Overton Square.
"How's that going for you?" shouted a doubtful heckler in the crowd.
"The money laundering?" Nichols asked innocently. "Well, you can see we're still open."
Although he was joking about the contraband, it's no secret that Nichols has hustled to keep live theater in Memphis. He traced TheatreWorks' roots back to 1978 and a performance group called the Downtown Dream Machine, which spent three years performing Shakespeare and Showboat in Confederate Park. It was, at one point, supposed to become the resident theater company for the Mud Island Amphitheatre.
In the mid-'80s, Nichols, along with a handful of DDM vets, converted an empty storefront at South Main and Huling into a performance space they dubbed TheaterWorks. That space folded in the early '90s as trolley construction made access difficult and rents in the district soared. In 1995, Nichols, responding to the needs of smaller performance troupes, convinced Overton Square to donate a plot of land, and the new TheatreWorks was born.
Over the past 10 years, the space has housed an impressive slate of resident companies. Some, such as the Black Repertory Theatre and New Bridge Theater Ensemble, are no longer around, but Project: Motion, Playwright's Forum, Our Own Voice, The Emerald Theatre Company, Voices of the South, and New Moon continue to produce original work and edgier plays that might not find production elsewhere.
The anniversary party wrapped with performances by TheatreWorks' six resident companies, which represented a veritable cross section of the Memphis underground. Under the jewel-toned glow of an upgraded lighting system, traditional plays were sandwiched between political satire and socially prescient comedy. Modern dance took place beside a narrative interpretation of Eudora Welty's Why I Live at the P.O., and great, innovative performances comingled with a few noble (if disastrous) attempts.
"Thank goodness that Mud Island thing fell through," Nichols quipped, launching TheatreWorks into its second decade. "Who knows where we'd be today?" -- Chris Davis