Joshua, the Founding Artistic Director of the company, said he was in the offices of Robin Easter (who has been a big supporter) last fall when he learned Cor-Tenn would be moving. He walked around the corner from her office and talked to co-owner Gary Reeves and asked if they would sell the building. Gary responded by asking what he would do with it.
That began a series of talks about possible uses in addition to being the home for performances of River and Rail Theatre. Everyone acknowledged that the building could not sit idle between productions. Various ideas were floated, but eventually a shared vision emerged: downtown needed a performance venue with seating in the range of the low hundreds. Joshua talked to people involved in that arena, from Laurens Tullock to Liza Zenni and Chyna Brackeen, and they all agreed.
Joshua said that since the founding of River and Rail, they’d always imagined owning their own building and opening it up for other arts groups to use. “We want to be about this city, hence the name of our company.” River and Rail references the natural and man-made boundaries of downtown Knoxville.
He says the group is very committed to downtown Knoxville and wants to present a venue that brings together, “the full diversity of the community.” He mentioned the fact that River and Rail has been committed to giving a portion of its tickets to non-profits to bring in people who would not otherwise see a professional production. To date, they have given away 2,000 seats through groups like KARM, Emerald Youth and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
Once the vision for the space was developed and presented to Gary, the River and Rail board said the company could not afford to purchase the space. Gary was presented with a lease-to-own option and he agreed, strongly wanting to see something different that supports downtown, the Old City and the arts.
What followed was six months of negotiations and investigations of the site. Smee and Busby were hired for a feasibility study. At first they considered partnering with another group to co-lease and use the space, but ultimately, they decided the best course was to lease-to-own the space themselves and offer it to other groups for use. So, after twenty years at the location, Cor-Tenn moved out and an eighteen month lease was signed on March 15, with an option to extend.
The first phase in the start-up will be a fundraising effort. Assistance is being given to the group by the Alliance for Better Nonprofits and Chyna Brakeen will be project manager and consultant for the capitol campaign. Chris Hill, Marketing Director for the company will guide the efforts internally.
The building itself is already zoned correctly for a theatre, so no zoning issues stand in the way. The current vision calls for a black box theatre concept, which means the internal parts will be moveable in order to provide maximum flexibility for events. Portions of the building will be utilized for performance and for rehearsal. Rehearsal space is a real need for many groups in the city.
There will also be a retail component, though precisely how that is structured, is still under discussion. Joshua said that the current vision is for a grab-and-go food retail space with alcohol sales. It would be in the front of the building on State Street and would, during events, serve as concessions.
Joshua reference his experience with the Signature Theatre in New York City on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th. After Hurricane Sandy it became a hub for various theatre groups operating with no electricity, and hence no wi-fi. They allowed all groups to gather at their theatre, which did have power, so they could all get back to their business as quickly as possible. It fostered a sense of community among the small theaters that he’d like to see fostered at the Old City Performing Arts Center.
He’s planning to open it to all performing arts, imagining everything from theatre productions to dance, opera and music. It resolves an issue that many groups have when searching for a place to do a two-to-three week run: many venues can only offer single nights with no consecutive availability. The current design calls for as many as 450 seats, depending on the configuration.
And you can help. So far, eleven Old City merchants have agreed to donate a portion of proceeds on May 10 to the project in an effort called “PAC the Old City,” and they hope the number will grow to about twenty. You can check here soon to see a full list of participating merchants. That same day, from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM, 111 State Street will be open for you check the space out for yourself. Connect with them on Twitter and Instagram @OldCityPAC. A Facebook page will be coming soon. You can also donate directly to the effort here.