“We know what we are, but know not what we may be,” wrote William Shakespeare in Hamlet. The same was true of Tennessee Shakespeare Company (TSC) in its early years. In 2007, producing artistic director Dan McCleary had a distinct vision of developing a professional classical theater and education organization. Through generous support from donors like Connie and Dunbar Abston, it has continued to grow into a vibrant company that will reach 25,000 patrons and students in its 2016-17 season.
Connie is a poet and Dunbar is a consummate scholar, having—among other intellectual pursuits—moved with Connie to England in his 50s to pursue an advanced degree in literature from Oxford University. Fueled by their love of Shakespeare and impressed by the quality and ambition of TSC, Connie devised a special surprise for Dunbar at her own birthday party in 2009.
At that dinner, she announced the creation of The Dunbar Abston Fund for Sustainable Excellence with a cornerstone gift of $100,000. The objective of the fund, which is held at the Community Foundation, is to ensure TSC hires professional, classically trained artists and teachers. TSC hopes to grow the fund to $1 million, at which point it will form the base of the company’s endowment.
The Abstons are pleased for others to experience the professional company and to be exposed to classical literature. “Everything TSC has done is innovative and clever and well-thought-out,” states Connie. “They pull you in. You actually feel, in the audience, that you’re participating.”
The couple is especially impressed by the company’s education program, which serves students across the region through eight programs. Its cornerstone, the Romeo & Juliet Project, uses the play to encourage students to make more considered choices in the face of violence and peer pressure. The Romeo & Juliet Project serves 5,300 students in 16 schools. It has demonstrated remarkable results, with participating students reporting both that they are far more inclined toward peaceful, compassionate responses to violence, and that their class grades have increased on average by one letter.
TSC’s future includes expanded programming and a new, permanent home. Its continued success and the creation of the innovative Romeo & Juliet Project would not have been possible without the support of the Abstons’ fund and its donors.
Excerpted from the 2016 Community Foundation Annual Report.