Three weeks ago, Nashville Repertory Theatre started up rehearsals to cap its 35th anniversary season with the practically perfect family favorite, Mary Poppins.
The night before, a 50.25-mile tornado ripped through Davidson, Wilson, and Smith counties.
“I realized this might be the perfect show even though so much craziness was going on in our backyard,” says Christine McNeal, who is set to make her Nashville Rep debut starring in the musical adaptation of Walt Disney’s 1964 masterpiece. “We all knew it was a weird time to start rehearsing a musical, but then we remembered what musical we were doing. It’s such an uplifting, nostalgic message of hope that everyone needs — especially right now.”
For McNeal, who’s inspiration growing up was Julie Andrews, there wasn’t much that could have kept her away from the rehearsals.
“This role means the world to me,” McNeal says. “This was on my list of dream roles since it happened on Broadway so if I could handpick a role, this would probably be it.”
The next week, another storm hit the Nashville community in the form of the COVID-19 outbreak prompting Executive Director Drew Ogle not to postpone the engagement to July 2-11.
“Our actors are like family and work in such close proximities, so the priority was the safety of the performers,” Ogle says. “We got rehearsals to a good pausing point to pick back up this summer.”
Well, for McNeal, there was just one problem.
“I was supposed to be getting married and going on my honeymoon during the week it had been rescheduled,” she explains.
The wedding McNeal and her fiancée had been planning for over a year now stood in the way of the role she’s been waiting to play her whole life.
“To me and my fiancée, there was no question. We figured France will still be there in the fall,” McNeal says. “We both felt that it was really important to see this show through. The whole cast and crew has worked too hard for us not to. Plus, like I said, it’s my dream role.”
According to Ogle, commitment like this is not out of the ordinary at Nashville Rep.
“That’s how committed our actors are,” he says. “We’re like family and we all support each other.”
“Usually at this point in the year, we would be flying in playwrights from all over the world to live in close quarters with local actors to develop their Ingram New Works plays,” Ogle explains. “Instead, that portion of the program is going online with virtual meetings so they can continue to develop their works. That is coupled with postponing the public event where people come see everything they’ve created until later this summer.”
Ogle reminds us that the continual creation of new works is the lifeblood of every arts organization.
“We’re all about keeping the work going for creative minds, especially in these times,” Ogle says. “Actors are losing guaranteed work left and right, so we’re doing everything we can to supply and support these artists with the resources they need.”
Young Playwrights is a new component of Ingram New Works in partnership with The Theater Bug which is also being adapted into an online format. As arts organizations like Nashville Rep continue to adapt, Ogle expects a new wave of artistic appreciation after all the dust settles.
“I believe when all this over, we will have gained a new appreciation or a re-appreciation of what it means to come together and experience live performance — to laugh, to cry and to feel things together,” Ogle says. “We will be here when all of this passes by, but it will require support from the community.”
So, hunker down now Nashville, but remember the arts institutions that are waiting for you when the world starts spinning again. Join Mary, Bert and the rest of Nashville Rep’s merry band of chimney sweeps this July.
Reach Michael Aldrich on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @michaelwaldrich.