Clarence Brown Theatre Announces New Season: A Conversation with Artistic Director Kenneth Martin



Clarence Brown Theatre has announced its upcoming season even as this one winds down. Kenneth Martin joined the UT Theatre Department and Clarence Brown almost two years ago and the concluding season was hist first chance to be involved from the planning stages forward. Their production of Kinky Boots had just begun its run when we talked (it concludes Sunday). I’d just seen the performance, so we started our conversation there.

“It’s good for us. The decision to do the show came after the governor decided to sign the drag bill last year . . . It isn’t a show about drag, it’s a show about accepting people for who they are. I could not think of a better play to do in that moment in time . . . in reality we don’t accept people for who they are . . .” He said the show has sold very well and has received lots of positive feedback from the community.

Kenneth, originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, started doing theater when he was in high school. A football player, he recounts, “I’d broken my hand and was standing in the hallway and the director told me, ‘Football is easy. You want to do something hard? Try theater.” Challenge accepted, he got cast in a show and fell in love with it.

“I’ve been doing it theater ever since. I did my first professional show in 1983.” In college he majored in Theatre and completed his graduate degree in the same.” Afte graduate school he freelanced and became the resident designer at a theatre in Ohio before becoming a theater instructor at Ashland University and eventually becoming full time there. He’d work in Sacramento, California for a couple of years before returning to Ashland.

It was during the next couple of stops at Universities, when he worked in Rhode Island that the seeds of his future connection with Knoxville and the UT Theatre program were planted. About 2008 he met a former student and current staff member at the Clarence Brown Theatre. “The way he talked about the theatre was like it was the best place on the planet.”

He looked into it and it became a place he thought he might want to work. “I looked at the way they taught. They had a professional theatre company in residence on campus. The undergraduates and graduates worked there. The company was part of the faculty . . . this is how we should be training future theater artists.” He said this used to be typical, but now is quite rare to have the two so integrated.

He was at a program that was not integrated in the same way at the University of Missouri at Kansas City when his current position came open. He doubted his chances, but applied because he’d had his eye on if for over a decade. He got an interview. “I met everyone and had a great time. I loved the interview, the people, Knoxville. I was very excited.” He’d been in Knoxville only once — to see Tom Waits at the Civic Auditorium sometime around 2015.

“I was over the moon to get the job and I’m still waiting for someone to wake me up . . . How many times do you target a job fourteen or fifteen years out and actually get it?” In addition to being Artistic Director, he is also Chair of the Theater Department, as he’d been at his previous stops. As Artistic Director, he’s involved with “show decisions, casting decisions, directors, personnel. It’s making sure that everyone is moving in the right direction at the right time. It’s making sure we all understanding of why we’re doing the things we are doing . . . We all want the same thing, to tell the best story we can. My job is make sure they have the resources to do their jobs the best they can.”

The level of involvement and production choices shows. For Kinky Boots, the main character, Charlie (played by Wes Williams) and most of the Angels were cast in New York. The director, Rusty Mowery, had worked with many of them before and directed this show multiple times. While the mix varies from show to show, Martin said a typical cast includes a majority of working professional actors, though some include local or company members and students.

The productions for the upcoming season include Knoxville (An adaptation of James Agee’s A Death and the Family), A Christmas Carol, and Inherit the Wind (About the Scopes Monkey Trials), and The Play That Goes WrongLab Theatre productions will include Cry It Out, How To Defend Yourself, and Failure: A Love Story.

“I want to tell great stories that matter to the community. We spend a lot of time in season selection talking about what is it that we want our community to hear and see and be a part of and what do we think they will actually come and see, and where does that Venn Diagram overlap?” He pointed toward Knoxville with its setting in Fort Sanders as an example of serious works that resonate locally. “That to me is a no-brainer. I hope the company will come out to see this beautiful musical.”

Inherit the Wind will be presented on the 100th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trials. “Of course we’re going to do that.” He said they presented it to the university and it grew as the university got behind it. They are now bringing in “Pulitzer Prize winning authors and they are programming all of these talks and arts events around Darwin Day. It’s going to be great.”

Of The Play that Goes Wrong, he says, “It’s the funniest play you’ve ever seen. Sometimes just sitting in a theatre laughing with your friends is the best thing you can possibly do as a community.”

Kenneth Martin (in heels) and Tom Cervone, Clarence Brown Theatre, April 2024 at Opening Night for Kinky Boots

Another big change coming is that the Carousel Theatre will be removed and replaced with a more modern, functional space. The structure will be moved to the UT Agriculture campus and repurposed. It will be a flexible space seating as many as 320, a bit smaller than the Carousel. “If we are going to continue to be a training organization, having a space that meets the needs of young artists so we can train them is a necessity.” He hopes the new theatre will be in place by late 2025 or early 2026.

He’s been pleased with the first full season under his watch. “I’ve been buoyed by the idea that we did the big Christmas Carol. Every show has sold over our expectations.” He’s happy to be here, saying it feels like “home.” “We love our community, we love our house, we love looking out the back door and seeing the mountains. I feel like I live in a weird dream I hope I don’t wake up from.”

If you’d like to grab your season tickets before they are gone, click here.