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Nashville Scene Changing Roles

Longtime local actor Teddy Giles bids Nashville farewell

By Lisa A. DuBois

MAY 3, 1999:  For 19 years Teddy Giles did what he had to do to reach his audience. He dressed like a rat, moved like a ghost, and breathed fire like a dragon. Day after day, he clapped his hands, laughed, and invited little viewers into a magical world. But after 19 years as an actor and director with Nashville Children's Theatre, Giles will soon be moving on. Following the final performance of NCT's Jungalbook--in which he is currently roaring like a tiger--he'll retire from the company.

The behind-the-scenes saga of Giles' departure is as sad and ironic as any that NCT artistic/producing director Scot Copeland has ever put onstage. However, this story has no villains; instead, it only has one hero.

Giles was first hired as an NCT actor in 1980 and three years later became a full-time staff member. The company was small and intimate, the productions low-budget and high-quality. Impressed by his talent, work ethic, and dedication to his young viewers, Copeland cast Giles in 70 different shows over the years and had him direct over a dozen--most of them participatory pieces aimed at the preschool through kindergarten crowd.

"I never looked at it as children's theater," Giles says. "It was theater, period. I didn't look at kids as less than or more than; I looked at them as an audience--which put me head and shoulders above lots of actors who won't stoop to audition for children's theater. By being an actor and by doing my best every time, I was inadvertently supporting children's theater."

Sir Isaac Newton got it wrong. For every action, there isn't always an equal and opposite reaction, but there certainly is fallout. NCT has hit a huge growth spurt. Its annual budget now hovers around $760,000--split among 13 staff members, a pool of Equity actors, and six school-year productions that reach tens of thousands of Middle Tennessee schoolchildren. Known for its award-winning commissions, NCT is among the most respected children's theaters in the country.

Unfortunately, such unprecedented growth has rendered its organizational structure inadequate. Copeland had been handling the administrative ends of both the artistic and business staff, but as the NCT's girth widened, he became unable to juggle all his tasks. Eventually, he and the theater's board made the difficult decision to restructure the company--to eliminate Giles' current position of associate artistic director and to replace that job with a development/managing director.

"I've not had the time to devote to long-range artistic planning," Copeland explains. "And we're looking at going in directions like more guest artists and more commissioning of scripts that take more hands-on time from an artistic director. It was time to make some changes, and we had to adopt a structure that would serve the theater into the next decade."

"I'm not an administrator, I'm an artist," Giles sighs in response.

Although Copeland tried to lessen the blow by offering Giles the option of becoming a full-time freelance actor and director, Giles declined. Instead he has signed a six-month artist-in-residence contract with the Theatre of Bristol in Bristol, Tenn., and will take over the children's theater program there. He hopes he'll also find time to work in his first love, musical theater.

The dilemma imposed upon NCT is happening to arts groups all over the country. No longer can creative types just "put on a show." Now they must also have a marketing plan. In a perfect world, a fellow who'd devoted 19 years of service to a theater would accrue the seniority that would allow him to choose between administrative and artistic responsibilities. But, in reality, as budgets rise, so does the need to have people in place to manage those budgets. By necessity, MBAs are conquering the world.

When Teddy Giles empties his desk at NCT, he will be leaving behind a legacy of great performances--as the Rat in The Wind in the Willows; Otto in OPQRS, Etc.; Bottom in Robin Goodfellow; Gollom in The Hobbit; Shere Khan in Jungalbook; and most indelibly, the title character in The Reluctant Dragon, the misunderstood creature who'd rather make friends than breathe fire.

"The loss of Teddy," Copeland sadly admits, "is one we'll feel every day."

Giles says, "I'm sorry my job has been eliminated and NCT can't keep me on staff anymore, but I'm also looking forward to some change. Obviously, the Lord wants some change for me. So here we go."

There goes the Reluctant Dragon. The children of Bristol may not know it yet, but they've just hit the jackpot.

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