Washing Ashore in Nashville’s Open-Arms Artistic Community

Nashville, Tennessee is well known as the Music City, but the rest of the performing arts scene doesn't get much attention. I’m proud to curate this series, highlighting 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.

This month, I celebrate my one-year anniversary in Nashville, a city with charming roots and a promising future that has darn well stolen my heart. As a relatively new citizen of Music City and native Tennessean, I’ve been swept off my feet by the unexpected, vibrant energy infecting the town, and through this week’s series I hope to share some of that energy with you. The attentive reader may wonder, Why are you curating a series about the artistic community of a city you’ve called home for such a short amount of time? But in many ways, the very reason this series exists is to look at why Nashville has recently become such a popular home for droves of young artists like me.

When cultural centers can no longer make room for the creative potential of bright young things, how do those creators forge new paths?

All across the country, folks are joining in a new wave of urbanization that is no longer focused on metropolitan strongholds like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. When artists can’t afford to create in these meccas anymore, who will open their arms to them? When cultural centers can no longer make room for the creative potential of bright young things, how do those creators forge new paths? What happens when theatremakers are interested in making art for audiences outside the oversaturated big cities? And why oh why would Middle Tennessee be one of the places people are flocking to?

But flock they do—at an estimated rate of 100 people per day. If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting Nashville, maybe you know why. Music City has always had a knack for embracing outsiders in a hospitable and authentic community. But with each new tech company that moves in or trendy restaurant that opens in a previously quiet neighborhood comes serious growing pains for a city working to reimagine its own identity. Nashville has shifted from being known as a quiet town with a roaring country music scene to a vibrant, quasi-urban hangout for hipsters, artists, and dreaded bachelorette parties.

Thaxton Waters sitting onstage
Artist and historian Thaxton Waters performs in his installation for Haunted, an immersive, multimedia collaboration between Actors Bridge Ensemble, abrasiveMedia, and FALL, directed by Jessika Malone. Photo by Kara McLeland.

As the cityscape visibly changes (crane after crane after crane), so does its cultural landscape. Nashville is a livable (and even desirable) city for someone like myself, a queer theatremaker who left a smaller Southern town a decade earlier to pursue a secondary education and live in diverse cities. But the cons of those cities soon outweighed the pros, and when I began to explore other options, Nashville suddenly seemed like the best of ideas. Who could deny a city offering biscuits and Southern charm, a city working to solidify its new identity?

Music City turned out to be full of surprises, only some involving music. Let’s start with the people: some of the friendliest, most vivacious around. The artistic community falls right in line. Moving here, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of creators who were willing to take a meeting with no agenda. Those same creators often went the extra mile to introduce me to their connections, which could spark interesting collaborations. This stood in stark contrast to New York (and, to a lesser extent, Boston), where time is a strict master. Too often in larger cultural ecosystems, it’s needlessly difficult for the young or unconnected to gain access to conversations with decision-makers. In Nashville, it’s an arms-wide-open policy.

performers onstage
Dancers from Banning Bouldin’s troupe New Dialect perform H E A P in Nashville’s Church Street. Photo by Robert Graves, courtesy of New Dialect.

Within a couple months of my arrival, I was ushered into the creative scene (by the marvelous Jessika Malone, who you’ll hear from later this week) with a producing opportunity for the local fringe festival. A few months after that, I found myself in a room alongside some of the city’s most respected actors, several talented dancers, some extraordinary visual artists, and an incredibly gifted creative team making the first multimedia, immersive experience to be produced in Nashville: Haunted. In no time at all, I was welcomed right on in. This openness can’t help but feel Southern. It’s not all roses all the time, of course, but there are some distinct advantages to living in a “non-industry” town. There’s an excitement in the air here about what is possible. Who are we now? Who will we become?

There’s an excitement in the air here about what is possible. Who are we now? Who will we become?

It turns out a lot is possible. The brilliant minds of this city have laid the groundwork for a cultural explosion. Artists like Banning Bouldin are toying with form to make some of the most brilliant dance pieces in the country. Aerialists from Suspended Gravity and FALL use circus arts to elegantly tell stories and wow hungry audiences with their physical powers. Children over at the Theater Bug are storming the stage with unabashed wonder as actors step into complex roles in original musicals that challenge viewers of all ages. International performers have found a stage for eccentric art at Oz Arts’ chic renovated factory. The larger institutions have invested in works that originate in this “Athens of the South”: Nashville Rep’s Ingram New Works Project, Nashville Ballet’s Emergence studio series, and Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s locally produced Broadway-style musicals, to name a few.

a group of children onstage performing
Local students perform in the Theater Bug production of If I Were You, an original musical by Cori Anne Laemmel and Laura Matula. Photo by MA2LA.

Music City isn’t just for music anymore—hallelujah. It’s bursting at the seams with so much more. This week, you’ll have the chance to read from some of our most distinct voices. You’ll hear more about the impressive new plays being developed here year-round. You’ll see the past and present of the city as marked by a damaging flood that heralded a new cultural wave to the city, but that brought with it distinct pain. You’ll learn about the women who lead the way in Nashville, and you’ll hear about the importance of creating work with artists of color in an environment that has a painful racial history.

I hope you’ll be as dazzled by Nashville’s creative forces this week as I have been for the past year. We’re excited to share work, to collaborate, to dream with you. Y’all come on down.

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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.

Nashville

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