New Theater Company Debuts With 'Pardon Me for Living'

John Rice Irwin, up at the Museum of Appalachia, a master showman himself, knows there’s nothing more impressively theatrical than an anvil flying through the air, having been launched by a gunpowder charge. Thus Flying Anvil is the name of Knoxville’s newest theater troupe, and it comes with an especially interesting pedigree.

If you associate new theater troupes with the young and enthusiastically naive, that’s not the case here.

Jayne Morgan is one of Knoxville’s most respected actresses; she’s played leading roles in lots of local productions over the last 25 years, while also writing for some cable-TV and advertising projects, and you can also catch glimpses of her in several interesting Hollywood movies (like Tim Burton’s Big Fish). She worked as casting director for Tom DiCillo’s unusual 1996 film, Box of Moonlight. It says something about her career that IMDB thinks she’s three different Jayne Morgans.

“My friends think I’m an air fern,” she says. “They’ve never figured out how I supported myself.”

About a decade ago, she directed a short film called "The Sleep Seeker" that got some festival attention. It was an unusual story based on a script by Morgan’s close friend and colleague from Seattle by way of New York, Staci Swedeen. We did a feature story about the project, shot in Sequoyah Hills’ old apartment complex, at the time; since then I had heard about Morgan and Swedeen’s far-flung careers in drama in bits and pieces.

Funny thing, though, is that Morgan has kept her base in her home town; she appeared in Clarence Brown’s production of Born Yesterday about five years ago, and has been working some in cable, mostly behind the scenes. She has also dabbled in some community-theater projects, like Theater Knoxville’s wildly popular satire (we couldn’t get tickets) Forbidden Knoxville.

And this year we learn that Swedeen has moved to Knoxville permanently. “Staci and I have talked about it in a vague way for years,” Morgan says of starting a theater company.

Morgan says she sees a big space between the University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown company, a nationally recognized professional company with a big budget, and community theater, which is often performed on a volunteer basis. “There are very few productions in which an actor can make any money at all,” she says. She sees Flying Anvil as Knoxville’s second professional company.

Last year, it started to seem more realistic when admirers started saying, “I’ll write you a check.” They formed a 501(c)(3), put up a website, and announced a maiden production.

Their biggest challenge, surprisingly, has not been fund-raising. So far, there seems to be so much interest that no one’s even turned them down. The problem has been time, especially coordinating Swedeen’s delays in moving from Westchester County, N.Y., to Knoxville.

“We want to be very audience-centric,” Morgan says. “We want to do plays that people really, really, really want to see: interesting and provocative and unusual,” favoring new plays without shunning older ones. Her goal is to do uninhibited theater, Morgan jokes (we think): “All nudity, all profanity, all the time. It’s something we won’t shy away from.”

Until a few weeks ago, Swedeen and Morgan were going to christen their new career with a local production of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. But days after Flying Anvil announced its own production of the monologue, Daisey admitted that parts of the show presented as true were not exactly.

Of course, most plays aren’t true. But the fact that Daisey presented his as true tainted it in the eyes of many. Daisey is still performing his show in big-city markets. But Morgan and Swedeen decided it wasn’t the ideal show for launching their theater company.

So they called an audible. Instead of The Agony, they are presenting Swedeen’s one-woman show, Pardon Me for Living, an autobiographical story they can vouch for, in part about a rabid-raccoon attack. It was hailed as a hit comedy when New York’s Hudson Stage Company produced it about four years ago.

They’ll give the one-woman play its Southeastern premiere on May 5 at the auditorium of the East Tennessee History Center, a gala opening for $35, with a second, $22 show the next day at the Knoxville Museum of Art.

Other shows should follow soon. On their long list of prospective productions are The Coming of Rain, based on the Richard Marius novel; Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer winner, Clybourne Park; and The Robber Bridegroom, a ’70s musical based on the murderous Harpe brothers, rumored to be up for revival on Broadway.

For now, the Flying Anvillians are vagabonds, but Morgan hopes not for long. The next step is to find a permanent theater. Ideally, 200-300 seats, “an intimate size to do some fun stuff, with enough seats that we can pay people.” They’ve been looking all over town, but as of this week, are still taking suggestions.

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