Talk to an artist about Chattanooga’s developing arts scene, and it doesn’t take long for the topic of money to come up. Finding, seeking or needing funding is epidemic. But that seemingly universal dynamic takes a twist in a conversation with the three producing partners of Ensemble Theater of Chattanooga (ETC). They’d rather talk about paying money out... to artists.
“Someone asked me what my greatest pleasure is in doing this work,” said Garry Posey ETC’s artistic director and an instructor at Chattanooga State’s Professional Actor Training Program. “I like signing 30 checks at end of a show and knowing that we’re the only theater in Chattanooga that’s doing it consistently. If ETC makes money, the people who help us make money as well.”
ETC has grown quickly. Posey began the company in 2007 by co-producing a summer theater festival with Chattanooga State. He did that again in 2008, then presented a small number of shows in 2009. The same year Christy Gallo and John Thomas Cecil, who had been Posey’s students at Chat State, joined ETC as producing partners, and all three planned the 2010 season. ETC is now in its third full season of 10-13 shows. Cecil and Gallo both also act in many of ETC’s productions.
“When I started this in 2007 I wanted to start a theater that paid actors. At that time we were a ‘whenever I have money we’ll produce a show’ outfit,” said Posey. Now ETC pays all its artists – actors, designers, directors, and stage managers – a percentage of box office receipts. But the company’s ambitions for creating professional theater go beyond just paying actors.
“Quality is something I’ve always harped on, the quality of the performances and the acting. We want to guarantee that quality time and time again for and with the community,” said Cecil, who serves as producing director.
“I think we’d like the experience an actor has with the company to be similar to any have other professional company somewhere else in the country,” adds Gallo, who is ETC’s public relations director.
ETC has worked to cultivate what Posey called a “symbiotic relationship” between the actors and the audience. “Both groups have to be engaged and artistically satisfied, in my opinion, for a performance to be successful,” said Posey.
Productions are characterized by minimalist staging and emotional engagement, where the “aesthetic distance” that separates audience and actors is small. Presenting Macbeth, for example, in a 45-seat theater means that no audience member is more than ten feet from the action, including combat.
“I want the audience to be a part of what they’re experiencing. It has taken patience to develop that with the community because it’s so different. We’ve lost people who say ‘I like my distance from the actors. I don’t like to be right up on top of them.’ And that’s okay. This may not be for everyone,” said Posey.
“What we’ve seen over time is that we are developing a very specific patronage who enjoy the experience they have, the material that we do and our approach to that material,” he said.
Some of those attempts at engagement fail to connect, he admits. The show scheduled for mid-October was Sweet Nothing in My Ear, a drama centered on the child of deaf and hearing parents that was to be cast with both deaf and hearing actors. It was to be performed in both English and American Sign Language, with both languages translated on stage. The production had to be put on permanent hold because ETC was not able to cast enough deaf actors in supporting roles, but Posey promises it will be staged in a later season.
Nevertheless audiences are growing – several performances of Macbeth sold out in September – and ETC is contemplating a move to a larger venue from its current black box space in the Saint Andrews Center in Highland Park.
And the company itself is growing, with the creation of a new group ETC calls its Senior Ensemble. Nine people who have been involved in productions over the last few years as actors and in other roles are formally joining the company to support the three producing partners and allow ETC to expand into new areas. The roster will not be announced until later this year when ETC announces its 2013 season, but Senior Ensemble members are expected to help cast shows, take youth plays into schools, offer acting classes, work with the producing partners to develop original scripts, and more.
“We dream big. That’s what we do,” said Posey. “With only the three of us it’s impossible to do it all. So we’re bringing nine more people into the mix, all just as passionate about what we’re doing as we are.”