On the small stage that has been carved out of what used to be the Watson's building, six actors are in search of their lines. Forgetfulness is to be expected, of course. The first couple of rehearsals when the performers go off-book—meaning that scripts are put out of reach and are no longer crutches in hand—are always a bit rudderless. What's my line? Is this where I'm supposed to cross to the up-right corner and say those words? Or is that later? Wait. Where are we?
Call this rehearsal for Theatre Central's Little Murders an exercise in managed chaos. But the man who keeps this train from completely derailing isn't even onstage. He's dressed all in black and sits out in the rows of empty folding chairs, sometimes smoking a cigarette but, mostly, just intently watching. His silver hair is so closely cropped it's hard to see. He speaks infrequently, but when he does it is usually short and soft. "No pauses." "Move over there." "Energy."
"I used to rule by fear, years ago when I didn't know quite exactly what I was doing," Mark Moffett admits before rehearsal begins. "Now I'm mellowed out; I'm Sister Mark. Now just the intimation that I may be mad...I don't have to do it anymore," he says with a snide grin and a laugh.
When Moffett says "years ago," he's not exaggerating. Theatre Central, named after the street it first occupied in the Old City, has been a fixture of the Knoxville theater landscape for 13 years or, put in other terms, more than 260 different shows. It has survived two moves—from the Old City to South Gay Street to its current home in Market Square. A passel of the who's who of local theater has acted on one or more of its three stages: Peyton Wilson—now with Second City in Chicago. Katie Norwood—one of the founders of Actors Co-op. Steve Denton—now an Einstein Simplified regular. Glen Glover—co-founder of the Valleyfest Film Festival. Rick Baldwin—now graces the pages of Metro Pulse with his cartoons and illustrations. And the list could go on.
Despite the number of folks who have trod the TC boards, Theatre Central is and will always be Mark Moffett. He is the constant, the one-man band who works tirelessly to keep his this dream alive.
"Mark has been indefatigable about bringing theater to town," says Tom Parkhill, an actor/producer in his own right who also leads the Arts and Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville. "He's filled a very important role, which is as a consistent outlet for modern urban theater. He's provided working opportunities for hundreds—a lot of good, young actors have gotten opportunities and have grown and blossomed. He's created a fantastic niche for himself and provided wonderful theatrical experiences for years."
Moffett's move to Knoxville in 1988 was not the beginning of his theater career. In 1977, Moffett left his native Erie, Pa., to test his skills in New York City. While he had some successes, he "didn't like the person [he] was becoming, because you have to be kind of a butt-licker to get jobs in New York." So Moffett moved back home to open his own theater, which he ran for about five years, before the joys of lake-effect snow made him itch for more moderate climes.
"I was here [Knoxville] in February, and it was like 60 degrees. So I did a couple of productions to get enough money. Had a big yard sale. Hired a truck. And moved down here," he explains.
After spending a year and a half living and performing out of an unheated, un-air-conditioned storefront in the Old City, Moffett struck a deal with local real estate mogul Kristopher Kendrick for an old beauty shop on South Gay Street, across from Susan Key's gallery. After eight or so years in that small space, the reinvigoration of the lower end of Gay Street and the resulting rise in the value of that piece of property pushed Moffett out. Fortunately, David Dewhirst, who had acquired Moffett's old building from Kendrick, had a huge space that turned out to work just perfectly for Theatre Central—the old Watson's, where, incidentally, Susan Key's new gallery is just a few doors down.
"[Dewhirst] didn't want to put a whole lot of money in here until the city finds out what they're going to do as far as Market Square, so I'm here at the pleasure of confusion," Moffett says with a sly gleam in his eyes. "As long as they don't make any decisions—and I count on that—I'm here."
Over the years, there have been more challenges than just the search for suitable spaces. Moffett himself was sideswiped by the death of a good friend and a brain tumor in 1993. Small houses—sometimes cast outnumbered the audience—almost forced Theatre Central to close its doors in '96. New other theaters have opened that produce shows with a higher polish and can absorb what little attention the public-at-large can spare for theater, leading to still smaller houses for Theatre Central. Yet they always keep chugging along, with seven or eight shows per year, six weeks per run, despite all of life's tides that have threatened (and, certainly, will threaten) to suck it under.
Several things help keep it afloat, even when the water gets choppy.
One, of course, is Moffett himself and his never-say-die spirit. Two is his uncanny ability to keep costs at their absolute minimum—most of every set is scavenged from old sets or trash bins, and the theater also doubles as Moffett's home. But, perhaps most important of all, is that Theatre Central itself is a family, with Moffett as its patriarch.
Nowhere is that sense of family greater than in this Little Murders rehearsal, in which everyone is grasping at some sense of order. Rather than erupt into anger and bitterness—which has been known to happen in other theaters—these actors encourage each other. "You know this," someone offers from just off-stage, to an actress floundering for the right lines on-stage. "You can do this."
"It is a family," explains Ed White, longtime company member (over a decade, by his count) who was once described by Metro Pulse theater critic George Logan as "the Ugliest Actress in Greater Knoxville" for his role as Mrs. Boyle in The Mousetrap.
"One of the strengths Mark has over some other theaters is not over-directing. Sometimes you'll feel insecure, like 'Mark, am I doing OK?' and he goes 'you'll know if you're not OK.' And he'll tell you. He lets people find their own way through. Once he's cast something, he wants people to have as much faith in themselves as he has in them. I think he's built a lot of people's confidence and abilities that way," White relates.
"Maybe it has become more family-like than the first couple of years, in ways beyond the theater," White continues. "Mark doesn't have transportation, he depends on people to take him to the movies on the weekend—just various things like that. We look out for each other, care for each other. And we're all so different, too."
While it was a longish time ago, White remembers his first outing with Moffett's troupe, which was, in fact, the first time he had ever acted at all.
"He had ridden us real hard—me real hard—because I was so nervous. Then opening night, when he came back for places, his only comment was 'have fun!' It kind of flipped a switch and it was all downhill from there."
"Theatre Central is so special, so one-of-a-kind. I feel privileged to be there. I could go for more glamour and glory, but I get more for myself with the small audience, with the minimal production, with small pretensions, with the main pretension being to have fun."
Moffett thinks that's why he has managed to build a core company of 25 or 30 actors who jump at the chance to do one of his shows, where they will earn no money, spend most of their free time in a dusty old department store, learn lines and blocking and cope with the ever-present threat that no one will show up to see the show.
"Our secret here is that we have a good time," he says. "We like each other. That's the most important thing. If you don't like to do this, go bowling. This is their recreation, a lot of them. They have jobs, families, stuff to do.
"I like the people that I work with. And if I don't like them, you don't see them again. And some of them don't like me, and I never see them again."
Some people don't like Mark Moffett, and it is easy to understand why. He can be prickly. Cantankerous. Grumpy. And hard to get along with. His fierce independence can push people away. His insistence on doing theater the way he envisions it can make him unyielding and obstinate. But strange as it is to say it, his attitude is part of his charm.
To White, one of the best things about Moffett is "his irreverence. It's just refreshing, especially in Knoxville, where's there's so much conformity and conservatism. You have the Heartland image, the dogwood image—everything's-so-nice image.
"But Mark's not nice. He doesn't care what you think of him, generally. He has his opinions, and he doesn't think a lot of the things other people think are important."
Moffett's style of theater can be off-putting as well, filled as it is with non-stop energy—so much so that pauses are eliminated, as are any extraneous (to him) storylines and as many props as possible. Two-hour plays can be chopped down to an hour and fifteen minutes. One-acts last no longer than a blink. But that's all part of the Moffett madness.
"Tell the story. Entertain people. People don't want to pay money to sit and watch something they're not interested in. So you have to make them interested. The energy is important—people don't go to the races to watch the cars go around, they go to see the crashes. It's the energy and the output that people want to watch," he says.
And that wild energy seems to draw people in, even after all this time.
"I'm still open after 13 years. People still come," Moffett relates, drawing on his ever-present cigarette. "I have a lot of loyal audience members, too. They appreciate what we're doing. They like lighter things, I think. We're funnier and shorter than a lot of people in town."
Little Murders, a Jules Feiffer play about a wildly dysfunctional family in New York City (whose opening date was pushed back to Friday, Sept. 28, after the WTC and Pentagon attacks), should be one heck of a funny show, once these expected bumps are smoothed out and the curtain rises for a paying crowd. After its run, Theatre Central's season will continue with Just a Couple of White Chicks Sittin' Around Talking with company members Margy Ragsdale and Laurel Williams, whom Moffett describes as "two of my best actresses." And while working on these shows, Moffett will continue teaching an acting class at Vine Middle Magnet School and, maybe, take some time off to write his own scripts.
"Who has a job like me?" Moffett asks. "I do exactly what I want, when I want it. And at this point in my life, I'm really not qualified to do anything else," he adds with another laugh.
If nothing else, the value of a good laugh in the face of chaos and adversity may be Theatre Central's legacy—not to mention how it has kept on keeping on for 13 years.