Up until the early 1990s, Knoxvillians could go to 525 North Gay St. to get their cars serviced, or even to buy a new one. The first company to use the address was Willys Knight-Overland Company, a dealer that sold Willys brand cars in 1924, according to city records. Today, the white paint that covers the brick front is peeling, and the blue awning that faces the street is fading. The big front window is dark and empty. But after decades of intermittent vacancies, some possible new tenants have expressed an interest in the old building: the Flying Anvil Theatre company.
Flying Anvil, led by friends Jayne Morgan and Staci Swedeen, is pretty unique on the theater scene in Knoxville. The Clarence Brown Theatre does the big shows, and the Tennessee Theatre often hosts family-friendly Broadway productions. But Flying Anvil prefers off-Broadway-style, edgier fare.
"I want to do theater that makes you feel, that is emotional, that you have a reaction to. That really hits you in an emotional place," Morgan says. "We'd like it to be a conversation with the community, the kind of shows that you want to stay after and talk about it, or you want to go to the bar and talk about it.
But Flying Anvil has been operating without a home base for the past few years. They've performed stripped-down plays and given readings with what lights and staging they have room for in venues that usually don't cater to what a theater company needs. And they also want more seats. If they can raise enough money, Morgan says they'll totally re-do the old car dealership to accommodate 250 people plus a flexible stage, and outfit it with lighting and sound equipment. But their would-be landlord, Tim Hill of Hatcher-Hill Properties, has given them a deadline: 90 days. And they're down to 44.
The company has until Sept. 13 to raise a total of $90,000 for the remodeling. But they've got a couple of things going for them. Morgan, a longtime actor, director, and jack-of-all-trades, says she has a few aces in the hole in terms of high-dollar donations. But to supplement that, Flying Anvil has also started an Indiegogo.com crowdfunding campaign. So far, they've raised about $5,000.
"It's almost more fun to get 10 people giving $1,000 than getting on check for $10,000," Morgan says. "It's satisfying."
Flying Anvil plans to use the Indiegogo campaign as a way to excite fans, entice younger fans, and to get the word out both about the possible new digs and the company itself. Morgan says that if the online campaign doesn't yield more than about $20,000, the funds that are raised will be spent on the company's fall season-opening play. (Morgan says she hopes it'll be The Great American Trailer Park Musical.)
Meanwhile, Morgan says she has appointments with at least two possible major donors (she won't name names) that could fund the whole project. She's offering the chance to name the theater.
Morgan is a Knoxville native, and got her start at a dinner theater here. She went north to New York and west to Los Angeles before returning to Knoxville. But along the way, she met Swedeen, who became a close friend. The two spoke about starting their own theater company for years, but when they both landed in Knoxville, they decided it was time to stop talking and do it. Flying Anvil received its 501(c)3 non-profit status in 2011, and started performing in 2012 in various non-theater venues around town.
"We've pretty much explored all the [non-theater venue] places," Morgan says. That could've been discouraging, but Morgan says she believes that there is a dedicated theater audience in Knoxville, and an audience specifically interested in the edgy, off-Broadway-style plays Flying Anvil prefers to produce.
"From the beginning, people have been giving us seed money when we didn't even ask, and that's been really startling," Morgan says. "I think it's a sign of how much people like the concept [of edgy theater]."
But even with seed funding, finding the right place for a theater company is not that easy, as Liza Zenni, executive director of the Arts and Culture Alliance of Knoxville, explains.
"Theater is unlike any other space," she says, starting her laundry list of requirements: parking, enough room for sets, distance from any ongoing loud noises (like trains), 24-hour access, lights and sound technical capabilities, a lobby ("Your audience can't be standing out in the rain!"), a place for sets and prop storage, and a box office.
Once you find a building that meets those requirements, Zenni says, "You have to support it. And that ain't easy. You've got to maximize the income."
Flying Anvil and Hill have a plan to address that. Morgan explains that if Flying Anvil gets to move into the old building, they'll build down time into their performance schedule to allow people to rent out the building for big events, meetings, or weddings. Hatcher-Hill has even agreed to handle the remodeling of the lobby (Morgan says it'll be a cozy place to get a drink pre- or post-show to chat with friends), while Flying Anvil tackles the installation of their stage, lighting, sound system, and seats.
Morgan says she knows how lucky Flying Anvil is to have found a prime spot. She says they were close to closing on a place in West Knoxville, though it was more expensive.
"There's what we like, which is downtown. And there's where this huge audience is. We've got to solve that problem. People downtown don't want to go past Bearden. People in West Knoxville don't want to come downtown. Well, we want to be so good...that we overcome those obstacles," Morgan says, which is why Flying Anvil is planning to have valet parking (since "people get weird about parking" downtown, she adds). "We want people to take risks about the content that they're going to be seeing. We don't want them to feel like they're risking anything else."
And with Theatre Knoxville Downtown just down the street and near the interstate, the Flying Anvil's would-be new digs could start to make North Gay Street Knoxville's new mini theater district. Morgan points out that theater districts work for larger cities, and adds that Flying Anvil isn't trying to steal anyone else's style (or shows).
"We're not really in competition. We all have our little area we've carved out," she says.
Zenni says it would be great to have a group of theaters in the same area, and would absolutely support it.
"We have so much more potential for the theater community in Knoxville," she says. "The missing link is the performance space."
And like the theater community, the area that Flying Anvil hopes to make home has lots of potential, too. Morgan acknowledges it's on the edge of what she calls the "mission district," where the Knox Area Rescue Ministries and the Serenity Shelter are located. But she wants to get them involved, perhaps tell the stories of the people they help and serve. And in addition to the theater company's possible neighbors, Morgan says she'd love to co-produce a play with fellow nomadic company the Carpetbag Theatre.
For Hatcher-Hill, though, revitalizing the building would be a step in the direction of connecting the block to several properties the company owns on Emory Place
"We just bought [525 North Gay] purely speculatively," Hill says. "We know that that block is getting a streetscape beautification, and we thought it was a potentially good-value property."
Hill says the building needed a lot of work when the company acquired it, but there are plans to give it "a complete make-over," Hill says. In addition to the renovation of the front lobby, his company will preserve the tile flooring and the ramp up which cars would drive to be serviced. And the building will get a new facade. (Those attached to that faded blue awning should say goodbye to it now.) The building's repairs should be completed by late October, says Hill.
Kim Trent, the executive director of Knox Heritage, says that getting the revitalization of the buildings on that block of Gay Street started could actually enable it to be added to the National Register of Historic Places either as part of the Emory Place District to the north or Gay Street to the south. And if that happens, the building owners could access various financial incentives to keep the buildings in shape, including tax credits. The buildings on that block all have pretty open floor designs and big front windows, Trent says, which make them ideal for pedestrian interaction. "The openness of the [car] show rooms makes it pretty flexible," she says.
Both Zenni and Morgan say that artists have played a big hand in downtown's revitalization and in the preservation of historic buildings.
"What always happens is in an area no one else wants to live in, the artists go in first because it's cheap. And they establish an atmosphere and make it kinda cool. And then the developers come in. We're going a little bit backwards," Morgan says.
Zenni adds that "20 buildings in the Central Business Improvement District have been redeveloped for arts and culture uses," though mostly for visual arts (and mostly static pieces).
Though Morgan flat-out says she feels "the odds are good" that Flying Anvil will be able to move into the building and able to produce a show by the fall, she says if everything falls through, they'll just have to find another place to perform.
"We're a theater. We sort of wither and die if we don't see our vision on stage. If we don't do it there, we've got to find another place to do it, and that's the challenge," she says.