backstage (2005-47)

Hand-Me-Down Theater

Out with the old, in with the older

by Leslie Wylie

For a theater company, the equivalent of “couch surfing” is “stage surfing,” drifting not between borrowed sofas but between loaned-out performance spaces. It’s an unstable lifestyle, and not especially conducive to any theater company’s growth.

Nor is the situation practical for those involved. In actors’ closets, moth-eaten costumes mingle with day-to-day attire; in their garages, vehicles are rearranged to make room for under-construction sets. Audiences are never quite sure where to show up, and the perpetual search for rehearsal space seems an unnecessary subplot in the script of any thespian existence. 

But for Theatre Knoxville, the city’s oldest community theater company, such transience is par for the course. Since it was chartered in 1976, the company has taken up residence on almost every stage in town, past and present: the Bijou, UT’s Carousel and Clarence Brown, the Moses Center, Harlequin Theatre, Black Box Theatre, and even the Knoxville Museum of Art. Yet it’s never cited a single one of them as its definitive home.

But the nearly 30-year stint of stage surfing comes to an end this week as the company moves into the performance space previously occupied by Theatre Central at 319 N. Gay Street, across from Regas. The building has a long history of housing the arts; a notable chapter in its evolution was the late ‘50s thru early ‘60s, when it served as the WIVK studio where the Everly Brothers and Dolly Parton got some of their earliest exposure.

“We hated to lose another performance-art space in Knoxville,” says Cheri Compton, president of the Theatre Knoxville board. “They’re so few and far between, especially a space that a small theater company can use and afford. It was one of those meant-to-be kinds of things.”  

Compton’s latter statement refers to the serendipity of events that followed the closure of Theatre Central. When its director, Mark Moffett, decided to move back to Pennsylvania to be with his family earlier this year, he offered the space to Margy Ragsdale, a company supporter who’d lusted over his theater for several years.

Ragsdale recalls, “I once told him, ‘If you ever leave town, I’d be interested in taking over your space.’” But when her wish was finally granted, she realized she wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. Shortly thereafter, she received a call from Windie Wilson, a friend and board member of Theatre Knoxville. Wilson asked Ragsdale if she’d be interested in working hand-in-hand to take over the theater, and Ragsdale emphatically agreed. With the click of two phones re-entering their cradles, Theatre Knoxville Downtown was born.

“I didn’t want the space to go idle and not be used, and to have the support of an organization already in place, oh man, it’s been so exciting,” Ragsdale says.

It was a win-win situation for both parties. “We’re just so excited to have a home,” says Compton. She encourages other local stage surfers to take advantage of their new residence as well. “We’d be happy to talk to any other performing-arts groups. We’re open to sharing the space.”

Ragsdale points out that the building is more sizable than it appears: “We have tons of space,” she says. There are actually three levels, with the stage on the ground floor, a costume shop in the works on the second floor, and additional rehearsal space on the third floor. Plus, it came loaded with additional perks: a 400-piece costume collection, chairs, tools, lumber…anything Moffett couldn’t fit into his brother’s SUV when he left.

For the past few weeks, Theatre Knoxville supporters have been busy sprucing up the space: painting bathrooms and hallways, cleaning carpets, untangling wigs and laundering costumes. Like a college student’s first apartment, it’s a charming sort of hole-in-the-wall, with eclectic décor and an aura of dramatic accomplishment. “It’ll look like the same space, but improved,” Compton says.

Rehearsals for a diverse lineup of winter shows are already underway. The inaugural season kicks off with a production of Graceland , based on a quirky interchange between two women in line to enter Elvis’ home. The show was well received at Black Box Theatre’s November Fringe Festival, where it was performed last week.

Three upcoming holiday shows include O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi , A Christmas Memory , based on Truman Capote’s short story, and Ragdale’s own A Christ-mouse Story , a light-hearted spin-off of the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol .

Ragsdale says she’s especially excited about renewed interest in the theater amongst young people. The company currently has five interns who will be performing in the winter productions. “I am thrilled with all the young people getting involved. They know their lines before the adults do,” she says.

The physical environment surrounding the theater is also a source of inspiration. “We’re getting a kind of renaissance going on our block,” Ragsdale says, pointing out last week’s opening of The Art Gallery next door and the growing popularity of the Emporium just a short walk down the street. Although the viaduct connecting them just closed, to be reopened December 2006, Theatre Knoxville is confident about its future.

In the spirit of “if we build it, they will come,” Ragsdale firmly believes that a temporary inconvenience won’t keep audiences at bay. “Yee-haw!” she enthuses. “There’s no telling what will happen next year.”


What: Graceland

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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