The Care and Feeding of Playwrights in Nashville

Nashville, Tennessee is well known as the Music City, but the rest of the performing arts scene doesn't get much attention. This series highlights Nashville’s lively artistic community, built on a foundation of interdisciplinary collaboration. In this “It City,” artists are paving a way forward for live performance while wrestling with an economic boom and rapidly changing needs for representation on our stages. Leading the charge to make Nashville a home for new plays, Nate Eppler brings Southern hospitality and contagious energy to developmental opportunities for local and national playwrights. His "all wishes granted" policy creates a unique environment where artists can experience Nashville magic and build a strong community, whether this is their permanent or temporary home.—Daniel Jones, series curator

I don’t like working on the plays as much as I like going out for dinner after.

After we’ve heard a new play aloud at the table in the Ingram New Works Lab, after we’ve talked through the feedback from the room, after we’ve met with the directors and the dramaturgs, all the playwrights go out and have a meal together. Nashville has spectacular restaurants; locally grown ingredients and caring hands produce the distinct flavors that unmistakably reflect the culture of the city. It’s the kind of alchemy that can only happen when the right ingredients are paired with the clear intention to make room at the table for every taste. Sharing a meal here is part of Nashville’s magic, but it’s always more than just something to eat, it’s a means of creating connection. The conversation at those meals— a small group of playwrights working through their challenges together—is like nothing else. Sitting around a table, sharing food, supporting each other as we build and rebuild our plays…it all starts to feel like home.

Sitting around a table, sharing food, supporting each other as we build and rebuild our plays…it all starts to feel like home.

two people laughing mid-conversation
2017 Ingram Playwrights Party. Nate Eppler and 2016/17 Ingram Lab Playwright Gabrielle Reisman celebrate the 2017 Ingram New Works Festival at the Sutler Cellar in Nashville. Photo by Levon Simon Mkrtchyan.

I grew up in the rubble of Flint, Michigan—because everybody at that time in that city sort of grew up in rubble—and the only place I can remember that was really alive was the cultural campus where Flint Youth Theatre sits. In the middle of the rust belt in Money Magazine's worst place to live in America there's a cathedral for theatre for young audiences. The minute I walked on that campus at ten years old, I knew I’d found a home. It’s a feeling I’ve been trying to replicate in as many ways and for as many artists as possible ever since. I never planned to stay so long in Nashville—it was always supposed to be a stop along the way back to New York or LA—but once I was invited to the table, I knew I’d found a home.

Going out to eat together is a core component of the time we spend with playwrights during their monthly visits with us at the Ingram New Works Festival. Our Lab playwrights come to us from across the country and we provide them with travel, housing, and Nashville’s authentic, radical hospitality during their stay. We take them to our favorite local haunts that are distinctly Nashville, because we know there are some conversations that can only happen over cornbread.

Radical hospitality is our way of working and it doesn’t end at the good eats. We aim to feed whatever need our writers have, offering them access to anything we can reach while they’re working on their new plays. We give the play what it needs, when it needs it. This can mean everything from making sure they have the exact sort of donuts they like, to bringing in physicists to outline the multiverse, to taking a field trip to the zoo, to tossing together impromptu explorations of French Horror Theatre and throwing fake blood around to see what sticks.

five smiling people face the camera
2015 Ingram Playwrights Party. Left to Right: Nashville Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Rene Copeland, Bianca Sams, 2015 Ingram Playwriting Fellow Donald Margulies, Tori Keenan-Zelt, Nate Eppler. Photo by Michael Scott Evans.

We meet monthly with our writers across a table of our own, sharing the plays in process, and our local actors each add their flavor. Feedback here is truly intended to feed and lift up the playwright, as the room responds to what was most delicious in the creator’s work. We hone in on the unique strengths of every voice and support the playwright as they write the play they are dying to write.

The city was starving for this kind of connection, made newly possible by dynamic new plays, locally grown.

I know firsthand the impact this manner of care can have on a writer’s work. My play, Long Way Down, was part of the very first Ingram New Works Festival in 2010. Nashville Rep had been developing new plays for a few years, but this was the first time they presented those plays to Nashville audiences in a festival of readings. The response was immediate and overwhelming: the city was starving for this kind of connection, made newly possible by dynamic new plays, locally grown. The concept of cultivating plays was perfectly in line with the values of our maker-based community, and it was undeniable that Nashville has an appetite for new works.

They embraced my play in no small part because they saw the playwright behind it. Like local honey at the farmer’s market, where it was made, how, and by whom matters to this town. They desire to connect with the person behind the product and to talk together about its taste.

After the initial festival, new works exploded across the city. Local theatres started programming new play premieres as part of their seasons, the Nashville Ballet and even the Nashville Opera made commitments to original productions, and the Ingram New Works Festival thrived.

a line of people sit onstage facing an audience
Photo 1: A conversation with Christopher Durang at Oz Arts Nashville, 2017. Photo by Michael Scott Evans.

Inspired by this enthusiastic response from the city, I committed myself to carving out space for other writers, like me, looking for a home away from home where their plays could grow. Eventually, I was named playwright-in-residence for Nashville Rep and ultimately the Director of the Ingram New Works Project. Now, each year, Nashville adopts a new cohort of playwrights, cares for them over the course of the year, and celebrates their work in a festival setting. The festival isn’t just a showcase for new plays, it’s an opportunity for Nashville to experience what they have had a hand in creating and to connect with their neighbors.

Joining the Ingram New Works project means always having a place you can call home and an adopted family of support who will welcome you back or cheer you on in the world. Wherever our writers go, they take a little bit of our flavor with them. We love sending a taste of what’s new out into the world, not just because it signals that Nashville is whole lot more than hot chicken, but because we believe that what you grow and how you grow things matters and nothing tastes quite like something homegrown.

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Thoughts from the curator

Nashville, Tennessee is well known as the Music City, but the rest of the performing arts scene doesn't get much attention. This series, highlighting Nashville’s lively artistic community, built on a foundation of interdisciplinary collaboration.

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Nate -- wonderful to read about your love for Nashville and how it became home in so many different ways. And the Ingram New Works Project sounds great, especially because a writer is running it! Sending you and your colleagues there all good vibes. Maybe we'll have dinner sometime.