backstage (2006-22)

Outside the Lines

The Wild Thyme Players take a Crayola Big Pack to Shakespeare’s Othello

by Molly Kincaid

Why is it that theater folk always seem to wear black? Perhaps, as seems to be the case with the founders of Knoxville’s new theater troupe Wild Thyme Players, it’s to compensate for their effusively colorful personalities. Brandon Slocum, Orion Protonentis and JP Schuffman—despite uniform head-to-toe black—are a motley crew, unable to suppress their chromatic quirks under their drab dress.

“I’ll have the chocolate explosion, heavy on the hot fudge, and some coffee,” says Slocum dryly, after a brief uninterested perusal of the MacLeod’s menu. Everyone else orders less unorthodox lunch choices, but the coffee drains fast all around. Not that they need it.

“We are calling this our “affirmative action adventure of the summer,” Slocum launches in, over a big slug of joe. “Our Othello is white, Iago is black, and Desdemona is a wee bit long in the tooth [loud cackle].” Slocum herself, who’s 41, plays Desdemona, a character usually portrayed as a flighty teenager. Protonentis, though white, fits the hulky tough-guy persona of Othello, right down to the chilling glare as he strangles Slocum dramatically in the press photos.

“We say we specialize in the avant-Bard, but what we’re trying to do is get Shakespeare out of the box,” says Slocum. “Othello is one of those plays that’s always kept in the box. Everyone thinks it’s about race, but it’s not. It’s really about being a foreigner and an outsider.”

While Wild Thyme is a newcomer itself to the Knoxville theater scene, Slocum and company are no outsiders. Many members of the troupe have trickled in from Tennessee Stage Company, the local group that does Shakespeare on the Square, where Slocum recently left her post as assistant director. “I spent five happy years with Tennessee Stage, but it was time to move on,” says Slocum. “While I was there, I started a mentoring program called Process Project.” The point was to focus on the process of theatre, but the product would always turn out so good that I realized that’s what I needed to be doing full-time.”

And so Wild Thyme, which takes its name from one of Puck’s famed speeches in A Midsummer Night’s Dream , focuses on the nuances that go into the creation of theater. They welcome newcomers who want to try out acting, directing, stage-managing, and—most emphatically—“playing with swords,” a phrase each of the three founders are fond of mischievously edging into conversation.

This experimental approach to theater suits the chummy trio well; Slocum, sick of directing, says it’s a relief to just act for once. And Schuffman will make his directorial debut with Othello , but not without the counsel of  “Mama Bear” (Slocum’s self-proclaimed nickname).

“One of my really big things is staying with the script,” says Schuffman, who inadvertently convinced Slocum he was ready to direct after obsessively researching the play at Hodges Library. “In that regard our Shakespeare is a little more violent, a little more bloody, a little more lusty,” says Slocum, who has a habit of lovingly, but maternally, finishing sentences.

Protonentis, who plays Othello, is mostly content to stay quiet during the interview, stabbing at his veggie plate thoughtfully. But he perks up when violence is mentioned, his obvious passion for swordplay trumping broccoli for the moment. He recites delightedly the tagline of “Shake Rattle and Roll,” a combat course Wild Thyme offers: “strikingly beautiful violence for the Shakespeare stage.” While Slocum calls him “The Condor” for his “wingspan,” matching his 6’4” stature, Pronotentis insists that a 69-year-old newcomer in the class is really “the most dangerous” fencer.

While Wild Thyme’s motto seems to be all fun, all the time, Slocum assumes an earnest look when she recalls her list of thank-yous. “This community has just opened up and rained down gold on us,” she says. “We’ve had our rehearsals at the O’Connor Senior Center, and the Oak Ridge Playhouse and Two Bit Productions have generously helped us with costumes and armory.” Slocum’s most excited though, over the opportunity to perform at the Webb auditorium, a state-of-the-art facility that she calls “just gorgeous!”

The only glitch is, the high school schedule only allows a few days’ prep time for sets and technical set-up. The time squeeze doesn’t faze the close-knit group, however. Recalling the quicksilver transformation of the Market Square stage for last year’s Shakespeare in the Square, Slocum quips, “We built the Globe Theatre in six days; we can handle this.” The table explodes in recollection as paint-spattered overalls and work shirts are mourned facetiously. Slocum sums it up, “The biggest obstacle for us is to stop laughing for long enough to get some work done.”

What: Othello