Letter: CBT's Mission

I thought Jack Neely's column ["Clarence Brown on World's Fair Park?" May 8, 2014] on the discussions regarding a possible move of the Clarence Brown Theatre to a new site, World's Fair Park or other, brought up many interesting points on the issues we face. It is true that in the 44 years of the CBT's life, both the university and the mission of the Clarence Brown Theatre have grown. He is right that the CBT's operation is experiencing increasing difficulty as its part of the campus changes to better accommodate student pedestrian traffic and limit automobile accessibility. More times than we would wish, we hear that parking limitations near the theater is the key reason why some people decide not to attend our productions. That problem is only going to get worse as streets are turned into pedestrian thoroughfares and parking is moved to the campus perimeter.

But Neely's article skips over one important aspect of the discussion: The CBT's mission is only partly fulfilled by its 44-year-old facility. There was a wing of classrooms and studios that were removed from the original building's plan even before construction started in 1970. In the nearly half-century since, the Theatre Department has added graduate professional training programs for actors and designers, added numbers to our undergraduate major, and has become a national model of how to integrate undergraduate and graduate students into its professional production program. The Clarence Brown has always had as its mission professionals working alongside student artists. I am proud to say that this mission remains our top priority. But while the Department of Theatre has three functioning performance spaces, its facilities for students (classrooms, studios, computer labs, and rehearsal/study areas) are scattered about from one end of the campus to the other.

Since the CBT opened its doors in 1970, the goal has been to bring into close proximity students in the Department of Theatre to an operating professional theatre. In any discussion of moving the Clarence Brown Theatre into a new "arts center," that goal remains the department's and the university's first priority. When the public thinks of the Clarence Brown Theatre, they see professionals perform and work with student artists, but many never imagine how these students prepare themselves to act, design, or work behind the scenes alongside these professionals. Understandably to our patrons, the educational and training mission of the Department of Theatre is largely invisible. Our performance facilities are also our professional laboratories and we often compare the CBT to "a teaching hospital" attached to a medical school to make clear how essential any theater is to our educational programs. And how important training and educational facilities are to our professional productions.

If such a move ever happens, the theater that bears Mr. Brown's name can and should be repurposed, as the university has need of a performance facility in the center of campus. And if such a move ever happens, any new facility will continue to house a professional theater company called the "Clarence Brown Theatre," for it is this mission that is Mr. and Mrs. Brown's enduring legacy. The complex we imagine should fully intend to help carry Knoxville into a vibrant cultural and economic future, but it should also fully and finally realize the great professional and educational vision of Mr. and Mrs. Brown.

Calvin MacLean

Artistic Director, Clarence Brown Theatre Head, Department of Theatre