River and Rail Announces New Season Schedule and Memberships

(Photo courtesy of River and Rail)
(Photo courtesy of River and Rail)

Last night River and Rail announced its 2023 – 2024  season and ticket packages to a select group of sponsors. The enticing lineup includes productions that face the world as we know it in an honest fashion, while offering an element of hope. As is becoming their tradition, the lineup includes highly praised work and one original work making it’s world-wide debut. It comes at a challenging time for venues and production companies.

Theaters offering live productions have continued to quietly struggle since the beginning of the pandemic. A recent New York Times article noted that across the country major regional theatre groups are offering fewer and smaller productions and each month several groups announce their permanent closures. The root causes go to the heart of the pandemic, when theatres closed for extended periods and audiences turned away from live performances.

For theatre, many never returned. Additionally, companies and venues remained afloat with the federal relief money now see those funds drying up. Outside the few exceptions, like traveling Broadway shows, which feature blockbusters, the suffering is widespread. Even attendance on Broadway itself remains about 10% below pre-pandemic numbers.

I met with Joshua Peterson, Founding Artistic Director with River and Rail Theatre which owns and operates the Old City Performing Arts Center talk about the new season and to learn how the venue and company are navigating the headwinds. Officially founded in January 2015, the eight-year-old company has essentially started twice, according to Joshua, who said post-pandemic, after being closed for well over a year, felt like starting from scratch. The momentum was lost. While attendance has not recovered, it is improving.

(Photo courtesy of River and Rail)

Most recently they produced “Fun Home,” which was their most expensive production to date, featuring more theatre professionals, larger set and costume elements were larger. “The credentials of our production were the highest we’ve ever had.” He said that is the scale and scope of what they hope to do. “I think the last two shows are the best we’ve ever done.” Even at that, and I saw “Fun Home” and thought it was fantastic, the recent production was successful, but still not to pre-pandemic numbers.

A number of small business sponsors have stepped up as sponsors and that has helped provide support for the productions. Even there, recent events can sometimes have an impact on who is willing to sponsor a production. In the wake of backlash against businesses supporting LGBTQ causes, for example, finding sponsors for more edgy productions has gotten more difficult. He’s very appreciative of all their sponsors and is continually looking for others.

They’ve also gotten grants, including a large one recently from the Arts and Culture Alliance and are marketing their space to outside groups including, for example, Big Ears which used the space last year and will return in 2024. They’ve also signed agreements with local artists who are allowed to use the venue without charge in exchange for splitting revenue from tickets (learn more and buy tickets here). Artists scheduled in that series include Shawn Turner, Featuring Pinky Ring, Tinca Tinca, Chameleous, Kijon, Rhea Carmon, Cattywampus and the Knoxville Honkers and Bangers. Marble City Opera, Word Players, and others rent the space. It is available to other groups and will seat about 175, with standing room for over 200.

Turning to the new season, he said, “I’ve chosen stories that present hope against all despair. They are all incredibly hopeful in a very realistic ways.” It begins with a two person production featuring himself and Kenneth Herring, Managing Director for the Old City Performing Arts Center. He describes it as “a beautiful story,” called “The Case for the Existence of God,” by Sam Hunter, best known as the writer of “The Whale,” for which Brendan Fraser won an academy award earlier this year. The play “was in the Signature Theatre in New York City in 2022, one of the largest off-Broadway theatres in the city. It has nothing to do with God. He’s saying ‘stories like this make me believe that maybe there is something.'”

(Photo courtesy of River and Rail)

Joshua said the production is an example of the kinds of complex subject matter they like to present. It can make them hard to explain or promote because there isn’t a simple plotline. “This show is richly complex and very human.” It involves an unlikely friendship between two men, one white and one black, one gay and one straight, each raising children alone and facing a range of challenges. “It’s breathtaking. When I read it, I wept. But it was hopeful.”

He said he has learned that while titles matter everywhere, they really matter in Knoxville. Their production of “Sweat” he felt suffered because of the title, while “The Vibrator Play” (sex!) did very well. He’s similarly hopeful for “The Case for the Existence of God,” simply because of the provocative and evocative title.

For their Christmas show, they will produce “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” which was produced by Clarence Brown about a decade ago. The play includes the well-known story seen in the movie, but overlays that with the lives and complications of the voice actors who are live producing the radio show. “It doesn’t get any more ‘holiday show’ than this, other than ‘A Christmas Carol.’ It’s feel good and fun for the family and has lots of theater magic.”

Of the February show he says, “I’m thrilled to produce the most recent Pulitzer Prize winning, Tony nominated show to come off Broadway.” “Fat Ham” by James Ijams features a retelling of ‘Hamlet’ through the lens of a southern, black, queer character named Ham. It opens at a back yard barbecue. “It is a riot. Like falling out of your chair hysterical . . . I can’t remember leaving a theatre more surprised.”

(Photo courtesy of River and Rail)

It was also written with our area in mind, with the writer noting at the beginning of the script, “A southern black community, North Carolina, Virginia, or Tennessee, not Mississippi, Alabama, or Florida.” He said it is definitely a debut in the state (as is “A Case for the Existence of God”) and perhaps the regional premiere. “It was a real coup for us to be able to get it. It closed on Broadway July 2.”

The final production of the season may be the one that most excites him. “The Burn Vote,” an original play making its world premiere, commissioned by River and Rail, is written by the same writers who wrote “The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby.” Initially intended to be produced on the 100th anniversary of the passage of suffrage, the production was delayed due to the pandemic and Josh thinks it has benefitted from the additional time, becoming a better work. Focusing on east Tennesseans Febb and Harry Burn and the passage of the 19th amendment. It comes in a timely fashion, as primary season is in full swing for our next presidential election.

He expects it to be big, calling it “a blast, very human, and a big musical . . . but it’s not ‘Oklahoma,’ its more modern with rock and folk-rock music.” It’s a big show which will run April into May. “The end talks about how far we’ve come, but we need to go farther. We’re going to hand out buttons that say ‘You Have a Vote.’ What is more hopeful than the idea that we get to participate?”

With movie attendance recently recovering, he’s hopeful that live production attendance will follow and that they will see it with this strong season line-up. He said the long-term goals have not changed. “We want to be a theatre company that is incredibly local producing stories that our community finds necessary, intriguing and urgent, vulnerable and beautiful, but also a company with a national scope and reputation.”

Season memberships are only sale today, with single-show tickets to follow in coming weeks. Three different options are offered: A student membership and a community access membership, each of which are discounted and offer tickets to each of the shows and allows unlimited repeat attendance, which strongly appeals to some patrons. All memberships include a free drink at the show and discounts to local businesses for the day of the show. General admission membership is available and Premier Membership is also offered with reserved seating.