Where to be Dazzled by the Performing Arts in MemphisBy Peter Short
Though live music gets the lion’s share of attention, it’s probably more accurate to say that Memphis is a place where all art forms thrive. Theater is no exception.
Memphis theaters are highly diverse, extremely talented and focused on providing great performances to the public. Often times that’s as simple as hosting national Broadway musicals. Other times, it’s fostering and developing emerging talent before sending it out into the world.
Whether you prefer classical music or experimental dance, the Memphis theater scene is alive and kicking.
Arguably the crown jewel of theaters in Memphis, the Orpheum Theatre was first built in 1890 as the Grand Opera House on the corner of Main and Beale Streets. But then like a lot of buildings in the early days before advanced fire safety measures, it burned down.
After many different stages of restoration and care, the Orpheum has become one of the South’s finest theaters and attracts thousands of people from around the region.
This ornate theater has hosted Broadway shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked and Les Miserables to comedy and concerts such as Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Dylan and Arcade Fire.
Playhouse on the Square
The lifeblood of any good theater scene lies not in its ability to attract national tours, but what it actually produces itself. For Memphis, one of the most important and successful theater companies in town is Playhouse on the Square.
The only professional, resident theater, Playhouse on the Square is located at 66 South Cooper in the Overton Square arts and entertainment district and has been sharing its own take on a number of popular and well known productions, including everything from Frost/Nixon to Greenday’s American Idiot, for over 45 years.
As Memphis’ premier Black repertory, Hattiloo, obviously, specializes in producing plays authored by Black writers. But what’s less obvious about Hattiloo, and to an extent the entire Memphis theatre scene, is just how deeply committed it is to deepening multicultural understanding.
Since 2006, Hattiloo has honored playwright August Wilson’s contribution to America’s literary canon by producing one of his plays each season. And over the years has become an important ground for up-and-coming talent, including Memphis’ own playwright Katori Hall, who penned the award-winning play The Mountaintop.
Located in the Overton Square, Hattiloo offers visitors (and locals) a unique opportunity to see some of the best and most original repertory theatre in the country.
Under the artistic direction of Dorothy Gunther Pugh, a native Memphian, Ballet Memphis has become a hub of sorts for all things ballet. With an outstanding cast of dancers, the company features a number of different productions, from classics like the Nutcracker and Cinderella to more experimental productions.
In addition to its more traditional role as a touring company, Ballet Memphis has also developed a ballet school and Pilate’s center, making it a community center for everyone interested in physical grace.
Memphis Symphony Orchestra
Though Memphis is the Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll, not everything here moves along the 12-bar chord progression. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) proves that with a unique and pioneering past. Started in 1953 with just 21 musicians, the MSO has since become one of the region’s most important orchestras.
In 2003, they finally found their current home at the Cannon Center for Performing Arts. As one of the nation’s best acoustic facilities, catching an MSO performance – their season runs from October to May – is truly a magical experience.
Germantown Performing Arts Center
It’s easy to think that everything of note happens in Downtown or Midtown Memphis. But East Memphis and, specifically, Germantown offer visitors some unique theater options.
The Germantown Performing Arts Center, or GPAC as its known locally, is one of the finest spaces in the region of musicians, dancers, singers and actors. With nearly perfect acoustics, GPAC’s season is often an eclectic collection of performers, ranging from classical and jazz to singer-songwriter and swing revival bands.