After 20 years in the business of show, actor and director Dan McCleary is learning a new script and taking on a brand-new role. Sort of.
"I believe in synchronicities," says the boyish 41-year-old, who graduated from Germantown High School in 1985 and has returned to his old neighborhood with a five-year plan to found the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, a professional repertory theater dedicated to presenting the works of William Shakespeare in the great outdoors.
"A lot of people who don't live here have told me that the idea of trying to start a Shakespeare festival here sounds like folly," McCleary says. "But I decided not to believe all those people who don't live here. I've been going door to door a lot since I got back to town. And I have yet to meet anybody who said, 'Shakespeare? Oh no, we can't have any of that here.'
"I've jumped off a lot of cliffs in my life, and there has always been somebody there to catch me," McCleary says, acknowledging the risk he's taking by investing his time and resources in a project that might never come to fruition. "But," he adds, "I know what I'm doing right now is exactly what I need to be doing at this time in my life."
Three years ago, McCleary was involved with Shakespeare, but he was doing it on someone else's terms. He spent 13 years working with Shakespeare & Company, an innovative not-for-profit theater and professional actor training program in Lenox, Massachusetts. Shakespeare & Company is the inspiration and to some extent the model for what McCleary hopes to do in Germantown.
He started out at Shakespeare & Company as an intern at the ripe (for an actor) old age of 25. He soon became an artistic manager and worked his way up to the position of associate artistic director. Tina Packer, the company's founder and artistic director and a former Royal Shakespeare Company actor, praises McCleary's skills as an artist, fund-raiser, and marketing specialist.
Although McCleary took satisfaction in the work he did as an artist and administrator in Lenox, he eventually grew restless. He wanted to follow Packer's footsteps and establish a company and school of his own. So now instead of rehearsing Hamlet, McCleary spends his days reciting the "to be or not to be" speech for potential donors and lobbying Germantown's city government to partner with him to develop a wooded stretch of city-owned land behind Morgan Woods Theatre into an "arts park."
And what is an arts park? Nobody knows for sure.
"It would be a one-of-a-kind thing, at least in this country," McCleary says, describing his dream facility as a semi-forested area with indoor and outdoor performance spaces for plays, community use, and dance performances, along with music sheds, children's stages, flower garden, trails, art installations, and various other cultural amenities.
What would something such as this cost? Nobody seems to have a good answer to that question either, just yet.
"All 37 of Shakespeare's plays erupt from the [surrounding] forest," McCleary says, imagining his vision of an arts park in full bloom. "It will be like stepping into a Shakespeare garden. Or a fairy forest. Caliban [the monster] from The Tempest will be under a bridge delivering his speech about the island being full of noises. Fifty feet away, Romeo and Juliet are performing the balcony scene. Out in the distance, you can see King Lear howling at the moon. Occasionally Macbeth rides by on horseback.
"People will be escorted through the park by sonneteers," McCleary says. He speaks with the burning sincerity of an evangelical minister preaching salvation.
The city of Germantown is currently in the process of developing a master plan for the Morgan Woods property, and it appears that McCleary's arts park idea is being given fairly serious consideration.
"I think a professional outdoor Shakespeare festival could be important to the economy," says Germantown alderman Carole Hinely. Hinely is a past chairman of the board of zoning appeals, a member of the Arts Commission, and a liaison to the Germantown education and parks and recreation commissions.
"This is something the city's going to want to get on board with," she says, stressing the need to get a plan together and to determine how many performance venues the park might hold. "It could be really wonderful for Germantown."
"What exists on the property right now can, with little permanent infrastructure, be shaped in a very green way to allow us to get some things started in the next year," McCleary says. "There might be some slight grade-leveling for water issues, but that's it."
"This is certainly the right time to do this," says E. Frank Bluestein, chairman of the fine arts department at Germantown High School and executive producer for the school's television station. Bluestein, who is listed as executive producer in promotional literature created for the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, talked McCleary into acting in his first high school play. Shortly thereafter, Bluestein canceled a student production of Inherit the Wind in order to feature McCleary and his classmate, Chris Parnell (of SNL fame), in the Mid-South's first amateur production of the screwball comedy Greater Tuna. Bluestein has been a vociferous advocate for the Tennessee Shakespeare Company while also functioning in an advisor capacity. It was Bluestein who initially told his former student to think about giving Germantown a chance, back when McCleary, impressed by Memphis' urban renewal, was still thinking about starting his company downtown. Bluestein told McCleary that Germantown would prove to be an easier environment for launching a Shakespeare festival. And so far, at least, that advice has been golden.
Even though nobody can use the Morgan Woods space while the city is developing its master plan, Germantown has granted McCleary an unprecedented zoning variance that will allow him to launch a one-show season on private residential property on Germantown Road, next door to St. George's Episcopal Church. The city's decision to pass a variance didn't sit well with some neighbors, who didn't like the idea of strangers having such easy access to their backyards.
Shortly after the variance passed, Kevin Snider, an attorney representing one of the disgruntled neighbors, announced plans to file a lawsuit in Chancery Court to stop the festival. But nothing has come of it.
"I think everybody actually likes the idea of a Shakespeare festival," Snider says, allowing that there may still be some friction as a result of the city's ruling.
"We have to create a pilot season, even if we're not on the Morgan Woods property," McCleary says. "I want to be able to showcase this theory, to physicalize this theory — to see if there is foundation interest, and corporate interest, and audience interest out there. Hopefully, if we can pull this off, it will help further the enthusiasm of the city of Germantown to the extent of saying, 'This arts-park thing is an outstanding idea for the area.'"
On a cold, wet morning in early March, McCleary stares into the modest modern sanctuary of St. George's Episcopal Church and lays out his vision for a grand production of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy As You Like It. "This is where it starts," he says. "The action will take place in front of the audience, behind the audience, and up and down the center aisle." The epic production, tentatively scheduled to open October 1st, will then spill out of the church, beyond the parking lot, and onto the wooded 10-acre estate of Barbara Apperson, a Germantown arts patron adventurous enough to host the play's bucolic second act.
"Over there is where we'll see the shepherds," McCleary says, pointing to a clearing. "And over there is where we see Orlando writing his poems and hanging them from all the trees.
"It's all up close. The audience can actually change the performance," he says. "It's all so very Elizabethan.
For McCleary, all the world — or at least the neighborhood — really has become a stage.
"We have to figure out how Shakespeare might live differently with us today in the 21st century," he concludes. "Because I believe that Shakespeare really can change the world. He can change the education system. He can help children articulate how they feel. He can tell us how to run a business. Or prevent us from doing violence to other people or other countries. If I didn't firmly believe this, I wouldn't be spending all of my time and money trying to convince people to start a theater company or an arts park. My bottom line is not financial. It's about helping to change this little corner of the world. And I really love this little corner of the world."
If all fund-raising targets are met, As You Like It will open at St. George's Episcopal Church in Germantown Wednesday, October 1st. As of the first week in March, the Tennessee Shakespeare Festival was only $30,000 shy of its $400,000 goal.