all the city's a stage 2
A disturbingly dark drama about a child’s imagination and its connection to a series of murders (“The Pillowman). A stripped-down, modern-dress version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Ingmar Bergman’s re-envisionment of Ibsen’s classic theatre piece “A Doll’s House” as “Nora.”
All of these are onstage now or in rehearsal here in Chattanooga, evidence of a developing theatre scene in a city long dominated by one major player, the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. The 80-year-old CTC, still and justly a community favorite, now has what is not so much competition as comrades in the art, as new companies form and flourish. Just like in other cities, you have to be willing to take a chance when you venture out to see new work in new places. Seriously, though—that’s half the fun.
The little ETC that could
Even Garry Lee Posey, founder and now artistic director and producing partner of the Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga, admits he did not foresee the tremendous expansion of the company he created in 2008. “I had just been able to buy a home with an ArtsMove grant,” he says, “and I felt an obligation to contribute to the arts landscape.”
Posey, who is also a theatre arts instructor at Chattanooga State, worked with Professional Actors Training Program principals Rex Knowles and Sherry Lansing on a 2008 summer theatre season. “We paid actors that first summer and I decided to move forward,” he says.
As serendipity would have it, a space became available to the fledging ETC at the former Methodist church that had become the St. Andrews Center. “It was a place where a bunch of friends and students could have fun creating theatre,” Posey says. And for four years, they did, doing show after show, slowly building a community and their audience.
“I can remember sitting at a performance with two people in the house,” Posey says, contrasting that with the recent “Avenue Q” sold-out shows.
The “Ensemble” in the company’s name is an integral part of what Posey and producing partners John Thomas Cecil and Christy Gallo emphasize about it. “We all do everything,” Posey says, noting that Chatt State students get a chance to find out what their skills are beyond performing. When the company moved into its new space in the Eastgate Town Center, it also reorganized and created a “Senior Ensemble,” in which members have specific company responsibilities beyond being onstage, such as acting as technical director or writing grants. ETC then shares part of its monthly income with ensemble members, a model that Posey feels may be the first step in developing a true professional theatre.
Challenges to this include expanding the theatre-going audience and finding the “right” number of shows to present, keeping income up without burning out ETC’s company. “You don’t always hit a home run,” says Posey. “But we’re committed to making sure our audiences have a positive experience from the minute they get out of their cars.”
At ETC now: “The Pillowman” 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22-23; 2:30 p.m. Feb. 24. Eastgate Town Center, 5600 Brainerd Road, (423) 987-5141, ensembletheatreofchattanooga.com
Worthy of consideration
After graduating from Chatt State’s PATP, and then spending the summer of 2012 working at the professional Utah Shakespeare Festival, Daniel Pound returned to Chattanooga wanting to create a place “for people who love theatre, or any of the arts. If you have a talent, we’ll find a place for it.” Out of this came the brand-new Nine Worthies’ Theatre, which Pound has envisioned from the first as a community theatre. He is the company’s artistic director, while his wife, Kristin, serves as production manager.
“Historically, the Nine Worthies were great adventurers,” Pound says. “And we plan to have adventures in theatre.”
Partly because of Pound’s classical theatre training, and partly because there are no royalties to pay, NWT’s entire first season will be Shakespeare. Its first show is a version of “Romeo and Juliet” that cuts some characters, combines others, and in general, says Pound, who is directing, presents the play “not as the greatest love story ever told, but as a tragedy. It’s about a couple of kids who really believe they are in love—but they make a lot of mistakes.”
In the NWT production, both Romeo and Juliet have been raised in single-parent homes. “Romeo has been surrounded by women all his life, while Juliet is a ‘trophy daughter’,” Pound says. A 10-member cast plays all the roles.
“We’ve had our challenges,” he says, with cast changes and losing the show’s original venue, the Ripple Theatre, because its renovation moved more slowly than had been expected. But the company found a new space through the good graces of the ReCreate Café, and “R&J” will open there Feb. 22.
As both the theatre scene and The Nine Worthies’ Theatre move forward, “I’d like to see the theatres in town become more of a community,” Pound says, possibly sharing some resources and helping each other. “What we bring to the table is another group of people who just love doing theatre for fun,” he says.
Opening at The Nine Worthies’ Theatre: “Romeo and Juliet” 7:30 p.m. Feb.22-23, March 1-3, ReCreate Café, 800 McCallie Ave., (423) 830-8059, facebook.com/nineworthiestheatre.
Facebook, meet Bergman
Michael Rudez returned to Chattanooga from college in New York with the theatre bee buzzing in his head. But it wasn’t until a 2011 playwriting lab, held at the former CreateHere space on Main Street, that the concept of Theater for the New South really took off. “There’s always been a talent drain out of Chattanooga,” Rudez says. “Theatre people go off to the big cities—not just actors, but directors and design talent.”
Rudez wanted to seize some of that young talent and give them chances to stay put. When he met Blake Harris, who was still in UTC’s theatre program, things began clicking. Harris was already making a name for himself as an innovative director. The two combined forces, resulting in 2012’s full season for TNS—a season that saw many sold-out houses and lots of buzz.
The buzz is no accident. TNS is known for doing shows in “found” spaces, such as the Collective Clothing Warehouse in St. Elmo, but even more for its reliance on, and masterful manipulation of, social media. Media maven Megan Hollenbeck has helped TNS become the company that has managed to draw in that notoriously fickle demographic—people under 30. During the summer’s production of “Medea,” cast members Tweeted from backstage, luring in followers who might well show up the next night.
Organization is evolving, Rudez says. “We don’t have an ensemble acting company, and right now we don’t have a board of directors,” he says. “We’re trying to find out what the company structure should be.” However, he says, “We very much want to make money, and are looking to create a model with which we can pay people.”
Rudez would love to see Chattanooga become “a theatre hub for the Southeast,” and he firmly believes that’s possible. “But there is a perception here that community theatre is professional theatre,” he says, “and there’s also still a certain fear factor when it comes to alternative theatre. Alt-theatre is in its adolescence here. Let’s see where we are in 10 years.”
Opening at Theater for the New South: “Nora,” an adaptation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” by Ingmar Bergman. March 15-24. For place, time and prices, visit facebook.com/theaterforthenewsouth. Theatre for the New South, (423) 503-0589, theaterforthnewsouth.com. A reading of Nicky Silver’s “Fat Men in Skirts,” a fundraiser for the company, will be held at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 2, Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds. Ave.
Don’t forget ...
Shakespeare Chattanooga will return this August in partnership with the Grace Players at Grace Episcopal Church to present the little-seen “All’s Well That Is Well.”
And don’t forget CTC’s production of “A Doll’s House,” in its final week at 7 p.m. on Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday in the Circle Theatre at CTC, 400 River Street in Coolidge Park, (423) 267-8534, theatrecentre.com.
Janis Hashe is a freelance journalist and a Pulse theatre writer and critic. A complete list of new productions at all of Chattanooga’s theatres is available each week in our Arts & Entertainment calendar, published each Thursday in The Pulse and here at chattanoogapulse.com. The Pulse strives to feature new productions in our Arts section. Pick up The Pulse each week to see what’s opening.