It was a low-key place to hide a messiah.
When River & Rail Theatre Company debuted its musical, The Unusual Tale of Mary & Joseph’s Baby, last December, it did so in a rambling, one-story, industrial-born building known as the Fifth Avenue House. Parking signs at the nearby bus station in the center city directed patrons to the show being held at what is most often now a concert venue. Inside, where folding chairs ringed a staging platform borrowed from the Tennessee Stage Company, patrons put their phones away and stopped their chatter. The front house manager manually dimmed the freestanding lamps, and the stage lights came up on this reworking of the nativity story.
Four actors played all the parts across a bare-bones set, a few scattered crates in front of a clothesline ringed with garments in monochromatic browns, creams, and beiges. Surely and powerfully, with voice and presence and words and movement, the cast took the audience into the lives of a brave young pregnant woman and her scared husband. By the time the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, with the pinned sheets from a clothesline transformed into a fearsome set of wings, the magic in the air was palpable.
The spark of wonder and emotion that passes from a cast to an audience and back is what makes theater addictive, both to those who perform and those who seek it out. The “human scale” of live theater, the way it conjures feelings, makes you look at the world differently, is like no other art form, says local theater impresario Jayne Morgan.
“It haunts you in the most beautiful way,” adds local actress and theater dynamo Carolyn Corley.
The passion that these small, independent troupes are bringing to the local theater scene is creating a new renaissance for the theater in a town where the celebrated music scene has often eclipsed other arts.
Starting a new theater company—or growing an existing one—can be an unwieldy adventure. Locally, talent, experience, and passion are in high supply. The space, time, energy, and funds such ventures require can be frustrating for even the most gung-ho. But even when they are facing daunting logistical challenges, those who feel called to create and perform for the stage are always looking to connect, with audiences and with the larger community.
Does Knoxville have an appetite for drama? These professionals are betting that it does.
The professional theater company River & Rail is the newest new kid in town. Husband-and-wife co-founders Joshua and Amelia Peterson moved to Knoxville, her hometown, in 2014. The two had worked in professional theater in Texas and New York, and although they thought they would eventually get involved with a theater group, founding a company “was not what we thought we would be doing,” Joshua Peterson says. Still, as they watched performances and got to know the existing players, the question kept at him: “Does Knoxville need something? If so, what would that look like?”
It would look more diverse, he decided. Not just the cast and crew—Unusual Tale’s Joseph was played by a young African-American man, and Mary by a young actress of Iranian heritage—but the audience. How could a company reach audiences who typically didn’t go to the theater?
The answer was “get one, give one.” For every ticket purchased for the company’s inaugural performances, a ticket was given to a local nonprofit agency that serves a sector of the community that doesn’t typically see live theater. Joshua says he was inspired by the corporate models of companies like Warby Parker, where eyeglass purchasers fund eye exams and glasses for underserved communities. As the shows got underway each night, tickets that weren’t used went back on sale for those on the waiting list. Through this model, every single show but one sold out for Unusual Tale.
The musical was written by friends of the Petersons, and Amelia Peterson directed a version for a theater festival in New York in summer 2016. After bringing the show back for its Knoxville debut, and bolstered by a fundraising campaign that let them mount the ambitious production, the team worked with casting, set design, and the addition of six new songs.
It was a resounding hit. “The response meant so much to us,” Joshua says. The accolades that the team received from critics and audiences were important, but it was also important to Peterson to capture audience metrics. Surveys revealed that they were reaching a sizable sector of audience who had never been to a show before, and were skewing much younger than the typical theatergoer.
Ideally, River & Rail would like to mount two productions each year. Everyone who works for the company is paid, and so future offerings “are a matter of budget and timing,” Peterson says. Finding ways to reach new audiences is imperative.
“People ask what kind of theater we want to do, and the answer is good theater,” Joshua says. “There is a healthy theater community in Knoxville, but Knoxville isn’t known as a theater city. We want to cut across all the lines that divide a community and make theater that’s relevant.”
Theatre Knoxville Downtown has been the torchbearer for creative community theater for several decades. Founded in the 1970s with the idea of getting patrons to a dark and usually deserted downtown, the company now finds itself in the center of a city that’s livelier than anyone dreamed.
For the past 12 years the theater has occupied a spot at 319 North Gay St.. Although it’s one of the few theater companies to have its own space, the theater seats only 50, and shows regularly sell out. The company kicked 2017 off with an ambitious campaign to raise $250,000 to move to a new space that would at least double current seating capacity and provide room for set construction and prop storage.
Theatre Knoxville Downtown is no stranger to crowd-pleasers: Coming shows include a Neil Simon favorite and a Sherlock Holmes mystery play. Earlier this spring, though, the company staged Clybourne Park, a biting comedy-drama about gentrification in a racially diverse community. Staging the Pulitzer Prize-winning play gave the company its first opportunity to do a community “talk back.”
“If ever there was a play needing one, this is it,” says director Ed White. “Our cast has been incredibly committed, and extremely eager to engage with the community over issues this play brings up. If anything, such dialogues are more important than ever.”
Getting audiences talking is a specialty of Tiger Lily Theatre, founded specifically as a woman-centric theater company. That doesn’t mean that all roles go to women, only that roles are cast gender-neutral. The actor who does the best reading gets the part, even if that role was thought to be specifically a male one. One of the company’s biggest successes by far was last fall’s Hamlet, which was staged at the Southern Railway Station downtown for two very successful weekends.
A dynamo of energy, Tiger Lily Theatre founder Jennifer Brown moved to Knoxville in 2010 and founded the theater company in 2011. A young mom who also has a day job, Brown is supported in this work by an all-female board of directors who are also involved in many of the community’s pop-up, limited-run, and improvisational theater groups.
Historically, Brown says, many plays have more prominent roles for men.
“There’s never been the availability of work for all of the talented women who were available,” Brown says. Brown and many of her board had worked with Tennessee Stage Company’s Shakespeare in the Square, which was also casting across gender roles, before staging their own Hamlet.
“It definitely increased our fan base,” Brown says. Each spring, Tiger Lily stages A Night of Shorts, a reading series of short plays and monologues. “It’s a happy day for Tiger Lily when the plays come in,” Brown says. “We try to encourage as many local authors as possible.”
Like other companies, Tiger Lily is often constrained by the lack of space for performance. Brown, who moonlights as a belly-dance instructor for Broadway Academy of Performing Arts, has staged many productions at BAPA’s dance studios. This means swooping in after a Thursday night class to cover the dancers’ mirrors and transform the space into a theater for a Friday night performance.
“It’s surprisingly complicated,” she says of the effort to turn a “found space” into a stage. “We’ve had to build, borrow, or buy for every production.”
It’s frustrating, she says, to know that Knoxville has such a reputation as a music town and know that some of those music venues could have been ideal theater spots, with just a little tweaking. Having stable spaces would go a long way to letting people know how and where to find the kind of theater they could support. Having more monetary support—patrons who were used to giving to theater the way they give to other not-for-profits—would also help.
“I feel like there’s a pretty solid audience” for community and experimental theater, Brown says, “and we’re going to do whatever we can to help that along.
“The differences between us are less than we think they are,” she adds. “That gets us a long way to understanding each other. We want to make interesting theater that everyone enjoys.”
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
There’s such a thing as wearing many hats, and there’s such a thing as juggling many moving parts. Then there is what Carolyn Corley does.
As an actress, she captivated local audiences with a spectacular performance in Venus in Furs, staged downtown by Flying Anvil Theatre several years ago. She went on to work in development and instruction with Flying Anvil, Tennessee Stage Company, Circle Modern Dance, and many more organizations. She’s helped the female troupe Yellow Rose Productions with its prestigious annual Henley Rose Playwright Competition.
A certified fight choreographer, she has lent her skill to productions throughout the city, including Tennessee Stage Company’s Shakespeare on the Square, Knoxville Children’s Theatre, and more. Most recently, she has been directing a new play by Linda Parsons as part of Tennessee Stage Company’s annual new play festival.
A background in project management (she has a day job in Oak Ridge) gives her a somewhat unique perspective on getting things done. She says it’s critical for arts organizations to build on past successes quickly.
“You really have to show and go in this town,” Corley says. “People who have donated to you want to see results.”
Most recently, Corley founded the Knoxville Performing Arts Exchange (KPAX) to provide a stable performing arts venue for theater groups at Modern Studio. Just recently opened after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Modern Studio is an arts and co-working maker-space arising within the old Colonial Cleaners building in Happy Holler.
Allowing theater groups to have a stable performance space—one where they could do thorough tech checks and have multi-week builds for shows—would make a tremendous difference in helping them connect with audiences and sustain volunteers, Corley says.
“Going in and recreating theaters in found spaces is exhausting,” Corley says. “All of these groups expend a lot of energy and resources to make spaces. We want artists to focus on what they do best instead.”
One of the best things about theater, Corley says, is the way that what has been called “a dying art” for hundreds of years keeps reinventing itself and speaking to new audiences. Corley herself wasn’t a “theater kid,” but one stop at an acting workshop in Knoxville in 2008 changed that for her. “I’d found my tribe,” she says.
Stable venues, better communication, better coordination of the scene’s many moving parts—these are all things that will allow Knoxville’s theater scene to flourish.
“I’d like to see more collaboration among companies, sharing wisdom, sharing resources,” she says. “We need each other. We have plenty of very talented artists in this town. Let’s put them to work.”
A SENSE OF PLACE
Local actress and director Jayne Morgan has made a living exclusively in the arts since college and is widely regarded by her peers as a goddess of the local theater scene. A co-founder of the Flying Anvil Theatre, she knows the limitations of Knoxville theater as well as anyone and has regularly outsmarted and outworked them. Most recently, she’s been consumed with the need for a physical space for her theater troupe.
“When we talk about theater, we’re usually talking about the process of creating a story on stage. But theater is also a noun—it’s a place where we gather to bring that story to life,” Morgan says. “The space determines so much of what we do and how we do it.”
Morgan got her start with the University of Tennessee’s theater program and the Clarence Brown Theatre, where she still takes the stage. She has performed professionally in productions across the country and regularly teaches classes throughout the area. She’s the author of the buzzed-about Forbidden Knoxville comedy revue, and has directed for Tennessee Stage Company, Theater Knoxville Downtown, and other troupes. Most recently she directed Between a Ballad and a Blues for Carpetbag Theatre at Clayton Center for the Performing Arts. She also works as a casting director and film actress (a recent credit includes a role alongside former Dallas actress Charlene Tilton).
In 2011, with friend Staci Swedeen, she co-founded Flying Anvil Theatre, which formally got up-and-running as a nonprofit in 2012. (Although Swedeen is no longer officially involved with the company, she remains a fervent supporter, Morgan says.) From the beginning, Morgan says, the company’s main challenge has not been finding or creating stories or performances, but finding an adequate space in which to do so.
She explains that the need to create performance space in places that are not theaters—conference rooms, dance studios, event spaces, restaurants—is something that companies have been very willing to do, but it limits how much a theater company can grow.
“Every space is different, the capabilities are different. We rented spaces all over. This is what theater companies have done in this town forever. We’ve had big spaces and tiny spaces. Something in the middle, where you could stretch and grow and develop, that’s what we’ve been missing,” Morgan says.
In May 2013, Flying Anvil took a well-received production of a Staci Swedeen play to Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, the first Knoxville troupe to stage a play at the internationally famous arts festival. There they saw a production of Venus in Fur, an edgy, sexy, Tony-award-winning piece about a playwright and actress in a battle for dominance. By October of that year, the company was staging its own production of the play, with locals J.D. Sizemore and Corley as the principals, at 525 Gay St.
Known as the Jewel Building, it was being renovated at the time, and Morgan and her board had very high hopes about permanently occupying the space. The pop-up theater they created was a wonder—and audiences filled it. Then Knoxville’s shifting real estate fortunes took the area surrounding the building from neglected to developed practically during the run of the show.
“We just missed the opportunity to rent it,” Morgan says. Although the loss was painful, with the support of her board, she kept looking for a spot. “I don’t know that there’s a building in town that we haven’t peeked into the windows of.”
Last fall she was talking to a developer about a spot in South Knoxville, where a theater would have anchored a mixed-use development. Having this dream almost realized “made it hard to sleep some nights,” Morgan jokes. But plans for the spot, which would have seated about 250, fell through, and Morgan and her board picked themselves back up and started all over again. Just recently, she and her board were set to sign a lease on a venue in the Rocky Hill neighborhood, in West Knoxville.
Wearing a business manager’s hat, and becoming as ensconced in the details of nonprofit work as she is in acting process, has been a change for Morgan. It’s one she has welcomed.
“My world right now is all learning fundraising,” she says. “When we hit the ground running, we have to hit the ground running.”
Morgan agrees with those who say Knoxville has always been more of a music town. “That’s a wonderful calling card,” she says, but she thinks it’s time that theater was supported in the same way. “It hasn’t had a visionary patron or patroness to make it happen.”
Once Flying Anvil has a stable venue, future dreams include turning it into a paying company.
“We really want to be able to give actors and designers an opportunity to earn money at their craft,” Morgan says, adding that “the simple dignity of being paid for one’s work” is huge in staving off discouragement for those dedicated to the craft. “We want to be a professional company that Knoxville can be proud of. We believe in what we’re doing. Now we get the opportunity to show what we can do.”
Here’s a tour of the Knoxville area’s wide variety of theatrical companies:
The Arts at Pellissippi State • pstcc.edu/theatre: The Pellissippi theater department regularly co-produces shows with local companies such as the Word Players, Dragonfly Aerial Arts, DuckEars Theatre Co., and Gryphon Productions. All events take place in the Clayton Performing Arts Center on the Hardin Valley Campus.
Carpetbag Theatre • carpetbagtheatre.org: This Knoxville-based company has a history of ambitious productions and workshops with a special spotlight on social justice work.
Clarence Brown Theater • clarencebrowntheatre.com: The University of Tennessee’s theater company not only produces professional shows, but also generations of theater professionals.
Encore Theatrical Company • encoretheatricalcompany.com: Morristown’s ambitious community theater company formed in 2006 with a goal to “to improve the quality of life in our community, to produce exciting plays and musicals, and to promote the performing arts in our region.”
Flying Anvil Theatre • flyinganviltheatre.com: This 501(c)(3) nonprofit has a mission to “producing edgy, ambitious emotional theatre you might not ordinarily see here.”
Foothills Community Players • foothillscommunityplayers.com: The Maryville-based nonprofit company has performed 20-plus works since its debut in 2008, including this spring’s Steel Magnolias.
Knoxville Children’s Theatre • knoxvillechildrenstheatre.com: This educational nonprofit trains children in the performing arts, as well as developing them as theatergoers.
Knoxville Performing Arts Exchange • facebook.com/knxpax: Partnering with Modern Studio in Happy Holler, KPAX aims to provide a stable performing space for local troupes.
Knoxville Theatre Club – knoxvilletheatreclub.
Lyric Theatre Company • lyrictheatrecompany.org: The Loudon-based community theater produced an ambitious slate of works this year, including Proof.
The Moving Theatre • facebook.com/MovingTheatreKnoxville: This new company specializes in combining theater with other artistic mediums, such as painting, photography, music, and more.
Oak Ridge Playhouse • orplayhouse.com: Since 1943, the Playhouse has been producing true community productions, and has been operating out of its own 315-seat auditorium on Historic Jackson Square since the late ’50s.
River & Rail Theatre Company • riverandrailtheatre.com: River & Rail hopes to be a unifying force for Knoxville, “to not just create professional theatre accessible to all Knoxvillians, but to create theatre true to the stories of Knoxville.”
Tennessee Stage Company • tennesseestage.com: For almost 30 years, TSC has been a giant in local theater, producing a new play festival in the winter/spring and the very popular Shakespeare in the Square.
Tennessee Valley Players • tennesseevalleyplayers.org: One of the area’s oldest companies borrows some of the biggest stages—the Bijou, the Clayton Performing Arts Center—for its big crowd-pleasers.
Theater Knoxville Downtown • theatreknoxville.com: Touting itself as “the longest continuously-operating, non-academic theater in Knoxville,” the ever-scrappy urban theater troupe is currently raising funds for a move to a new space.
Tiger Lily Theatre • tigerlilytheatre.org: Tiger Lily performs both classic and contemporary works, with a focus on creating opportunities for women.
WordPlayers • wordplayers.org: This Christian theater arts company keeps a full schedule of faith-based performances; the company debuted its touring show, A Woman Called Truth, in February.
Writer Tracy Jones lives in Knoxville, Tenn. One of the original contributors to Metro Pulse, she worked as a lifestyle magazine editor in Fort Myers and Naples, Fla., where she wrote about home, design, not-for-profit organizations and more.
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