I’m rather fond of the term “cultural gravity,” for it seems to neatly describe the symbiotic effect that arts organizations operating in close proximity have on one another. While Knoxville’s diverse and expanding music scene is a great example of cultural gravity at work, the dearth of properly sized and equipped spaces for theatrical performances has worked against the same effect in Knoxville’s theater scene. This is not to say that there aren’t large and small theater organizations in Knoxville making significant theatrical efforts—the University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown Theatre, Knoxville Children’s Theatre, Theatre Knoxville Downtown, Oak Ridge Playhouse, and the Tennessee Stage Company certainly lead the list. Yet Knoxville’s theater-going audience probably yearns for more—and yearns to feel that there is a cohesive “there” to the efforts.
Enter Yellow Rose Productions, founded two years ago by Knoxville transplants Danielle Roos, originally from Iowa, and Long Island native Kerri Koczen. Since then, their company has endured the expected ups and downs that every fledgling theatrical enterprise encounters. However, the pair is currently enjoying a rather significant up—the acceptance of a current production, Princess Cut, into next month’s New York International Fringe Festival for five performances.
FringeNYC takes place each August in New York and runs the gamut of performance genres—drama, comedy, dance, musicals and opera, performance art, stand-up, and improvisation, as well as experimental works that defy traditional description. While notable past festival successes include Urinetown: The Musical, the expected 75,000 or so attendees generally go for the variety and alternative experience rather than to spot theatrical history in the making. Next month’s festival offers over 200 productions in 18 different performance venues, most of them in the East Village and the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
It was a search for new material for a play in early 2014 that led Roos and Koczen to the highly controversial subject that was eventually the basis for Princess Cut: a West Knoxville teenage girl’s story of being a victim of sex trafficking as a child at the hands of a cousin. “Both of our reactions when we heard her story were, ‘Really?’” Roos remembers. “Looking back on it now, I almost thought she was joking. She was always very engaging, always with a big smile.
“I remember we were sitting around the dining-room table trying to figure out how we were going to get this story out. We had thrown ideas around about taking different pieces of other people’s stories and patching it together, kind of like The Vagina Monologues. But the more we heard of her story, we thought maybe we should focus on her, because it was that powerful. We thought it was something that people could connect with. She’s from Knoxville, West Knoxville, middle class, went to school, good family. The parts that really spoke to us were our launching-off points. There were powerful moments just in her telling of it. We knew we had to translate that into a script.”
The script for Princess Cut, by Roos, Koczen, and Kelsey Broyles, came together over four months. The play’s first performance arrived in May 2014, with an overflow audience at the Square Room and Koczen playing the role of the girl, referred to as “Sarah.” Last fall, performances were given in Loudon, at the Lyric Theatre, and then two performances at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. The play’s most recent performances came in April of this year with a pair of shows at UT’s Carousel Theatre under the sponsorship of a UT student chapter of the evangelical Christian organization Freedom Movement.
Princess Cut will get five performances at FringeNYC between Aug. 14-21 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater on Bleecker Street.
“As soon as we found out we got accepted for the Fringe, we had to immediately figure out if our cast and crew were available,” Koczen says. “And we knew we had to put together some finances for the trip. Up to this point we had been doing everything out-of-pocket. So we launched a Kickstarter campaign and surpassed our goal of $10,000.”
Roos and Koczen also seem to have a sensitivity to “cultural gravity” as they look to the future. Their next endeavor is the creation of the Henley Rose Playwright Competition for Women, taking submissions from now until Oct. 1. The competition’s stated goal is “to honor both the writings of Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley and those of future winners of the Henley Rose Award.”
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