Located at 319 N. Gay Street, Theatre Knoxville Downtown isn’t on everyone’s map. In case you’ve never noticed it or don’t know where that block is located, it’s just across the street from the old Regas Restaurant. It’s on the “other side of the tracks,” as Bonny Pendleton pointed out when we sat down to talk about the theatre’s past and its future. It’s also just across the Gay Street viaduct and just out of sight for most of downtown’s residents.
The small theatre began as a group in 1976. They staged productions in a wide assortment of spaces in the early years, including “Watson’s on Market Square before it was Not Watsons,” as Bonny put it. They also performed at the Black Box Theatre in Bearden as well as a number of other places – for their first thirty years. Ten years ago they settled into their first permanent space and their current home. A board member wrote a check for $125 – the cost of the first month’s rent – and they were in.
They’ve made the most of their time in the space. Originally there was no stage or risers and they’ve added them. The first set was made of crates and of bamboo from a board member’s yard. Now the sets look more professional. The space had no air-conditioning and, with the support of a local technical school they had that installed. Seats were salvaged from a theatre which was in the process of replacing them with newer ones.
The organization is entirely volunteer driven and currently includes six board members – one of whom has been on the board for a quarter century. If my visit was an indication, the board members are active. Bonny planted and watered flowers out front while board member Joe Jaynes changed light bulbs. They’ve also utilized volunteers from UT’s theatre department. They work twenty-four weekends a year just to build and break down sets.
Bonny, who had a career in nuclear medicine, feels passionately about community theatre, saying it provides, “a way for people to test the waters before they move on.” She points to a local writer who had his play produced by the group before moving to New York City to pursue play writing as a career. She mentioned Laura Beth Wells who first performed for the group and is now on Broadway in the production of “Spiderman.”
While they have operated in the black since opening, each season in their permanent home, which, depending on the production, includes about fifty seats, their success has grown. Beginning in 2014, they began regularly selling out entire runs of productions and having to turn patrons away at the door. After the shows sell out, potential patrons continue to call to ask if they could fit a few more in – which they can’t do in the space they have.
The current production, “Sealed for Freshness,” sold out opening night (the night I attended) and will likely continue to do so for its run. Directed by Doug James, the comedy moves from hilarity to poignancy in the course of two acts. Set in a middle class home in 1968, most of the action takes place at a Tupperware party in which the women proceed to drink a bit more alcohol and get a lot more honest with each other than they had planned. In addition to being funny, the play examines women’s roles and the struggles each of the characters carefully hide from their friends.
This has all brought them to this moment: They’ve made the decision to move from the premises into a new home and they are beginning to raise money for the anticipated costs of moving, purchasing new seats and other needed items and especially for the anticipated increase in monthly rent for a larger space. They would like to have three years’ rent on reserve before the move. They are calling it, “The Second Act Campaign,” and the goal is to raise $125,000. It’s ambitious, but they feel it is doable.
Finding a suitable new home has proven difficult. They need about 3,000 to 3,500 square feet of space. They don’t need windows and they don’t need foot traffic. They do need parking and at least some of it needs to be very accessible to the new space. They need high ceilings – preferably at least 15 feet – and the space needs to have few, if any, support columns. They will need to have restrooms for the cast in the rear and for the public in the front of the new theatre. They are on a tight budget and they want to remain close to downtown. It’s a tricky combination of variables.
They hope the increased seats will allow them to do more than break even. Currently the director and stage manager are paid a very small amount, while the actors go unpaid. They want to change that and think the move may help them progress to the point of paying their actors. Each production involves five to six weeks of rehearsal, the performances and often extra shows they do for at-risk youth.
While the campaign officially kicks off August 29, donations are currently being accepted. You can read more about the fund-raising effort here and you may donate here. You also may call (865 / 544-1999), but be aware that you’ll likely have to leave a message. Bonny chuckled as she recounted how many times she’s heard someone complain that they called the day before and had to wait for a call back. They’ll call you back, but it will be the next time they check the voice mail, so be patient. Want to volunteer, serve on the board or offer a space which may be suitable? Give them a call. They will be very happy to hear from you.
The photographs you see here are from the current production. As a side note, I had a delightful conversation with Edith Williams, a former regional director for Tupperware, who shared all the vintage pieces from the 1960s out of her private collection. A sweet touch, which she pointed out with some pride, was the inclusion on the coffee table in the set, of a photograph of her and her husband on their first date.