Earlier this year, Tennessee’s six-year-old Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga opened a black box in the Eastgate Town Center, a shopping complex I always called “the old mall.”
When I was growing up in Chattanooga, Eastgate was a limbo-land, a place you sped past on your way to something cool. Now, however, it’s slowly becoming a community hub. Alongside the discount barn and the sketchy Chinese buffet, there’s an active senior center and paintings on the walls by local artists. Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga’s arrival is another sign of how things are changing.
More specifically, the new black box in the old, old mall is a sign that Chattanooga theatre is on the verge of a boom. Just a few years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a company like ETC—which isn’t a community theatre and isn’t connected to a university—to have its own space. Now, it’s one of several Chattanooga troupes with professional ambitions that have found a way to thrive. I never thought I’d say this, but my hometown (pop. 171,136) has something resembling a theatre scene.
That’s especially striking, given the number of companies that are folding in midsize cities around the country. So I went back this summer to see what’s happening in Chattanooga and whether or not this movement is likely to survive.
Before I report my findings, though, let me clarify how things used to be. In the ’80s and ’90s, when I was delivering grandma-approved performances in The Wizard of Oz and Raggedy Ann and Andy, my hometown scene began and ended with the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, a community theatre with a million-dollar budget and two spaces in a gorgeous complex on the Tennessee River. There were some dinner theatres and an improv troupe, but if you wanted a regular outlet as an audience member or as an artist, then you either had to embrace the CTC or get out of town.
That was still the case in 2006 when Janis Hashe came on the scene. A director and journalist from Los Angeles, Hashe moved to Chattanooga for “a new adventure,” and though she’s now writing theatre reviews for a local publication and running a small company called Shakespeare Chattanooga, those undertakings seemed hardly feasible when she arrived. “When I first got here, there were three things going on,” Hashe recalls, “the CTC, the two colleges and their programs, and the occasional touring show that would come through town.”
The two colleges are the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga and Chattanooga State Community College, both of which offer theatre training programs taught by faculty with significant professional experience. But for years, students had a paucity of local options after they graduated.
Then came 2006, when Allied Arts of Chattanooga, a local nonprofit, launched a granting program called ArtsMove. Among other perks, recipients got help buying a house, which meant painters and composers and restaurateurs could put down roots.
The ArtsMove program was transferred in 2007 to a now-defunct nonprofit called CreateHere, which (until it folded in 2011) also offered individual artist grants and professional training services for local creative types. These programs operated for several years, and the resulting creative surge met up with a decades-long push to make Chattanooga more environmentally progressive and technologically innovative. “It all resulted in a lot of people living in Chattanooga who crave things like theatre,” says George Quick, the Theatre Centre’s executive director.
Mike Rudez agrees. A Chattanooga native, Rudez graduated from New York University’s theatre department and didn’t plan on coming home. “But as I came back for visits, I noticed Chattanooga getting more and more artistic and funky and weird,” he allows. “I thought, ‘Well, you know, it’s not really happening in New York City for me for a number of reasons, so why don’t I go back to Chattanooga and try to start something?”
So, in 2011, Rudez joined forces with Blake Harris, who studied theatre at UTC, to found Theater for the New South, which quickly made its reputation as a scrappy company that performs challenging work in found spaces. (Last year, the company’s production of Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud was staged in a working warehouse.)
Garry Posey had a similar impetus to create ETC. Another Chattanooga native (he and I worked on several plays together in high school, including a rousing musical called Westward, Ho!), Posey left town to study directing but came back to work at the Theatre Centre. Eventually, he got an ArtsMove grant and used part of the money to launch his company in 2007. “When I was buying my house, I was planning the summer season,” he says. “I closed on the house on a Thursday, and that night we opened Angels in America.” Since then, the troupe has become remarkably prolific, producing everything from musicals like Avenue Q and Jekyll & Hyde, to thoughtful plays like columbinus and The Pillowman. ETC’s 2013 season boasts 13 productions, meaning its black box is almost always lit.
All of these artists want to redirect Chattanooga’s cultural energy. “I would go see things and think, ‘Why do people enjoy this?’” Posey muses. “Why is the comedy-mystery-nightclub thing across from the aquarium packing houses? That didn’t make sense to me. We have artists here that can do better.” Harris, from Theater for the New South, echoes Posey’s sentiments: “I was traveling to see experimental work. Now, we’re developing the work that we were leaving town to see.”
And while everyone is quick to praise the venerable Theatre Centre as an important institution—it just launched its 90th season—almost everyone I interviewed distanced his or her own work from what’s happening there. These artists don’t want to make “community theatre.” They’re striving for something bigger. Something grander. Something certifiably “professional.”
But in a city like Chattanooga, what does “professional theatre” actually mean? It’s a question that’s vexing Kate Forbes and Stevie Ray Dallimore, a husband-wife team who moved to the city to raise a family (Forbes is a native). They currently run the Muse of Fire Project, which is modeled after New York’s 52nd Street Project, working with local kids to write plays and then staging them with adult actors. They’re both working actors, so when they’re not at Muse of Fire, they’re booking SAG and Equity jobs out of town. Forbes is currently in rep at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage in La Dispute and Macbeth, and Dallimore has recently been seen on such TV series as ABC’s “Nashville” and Cinemax’s “Banshee.”
“There isn’t real professional theatre here,” Dallimore concedes. “There are a lot of very talented people here, but nobody’s getting paid to be Equity actors. I can’t get a job here. Kate can’t get a job here.” It’s not just money, either. Forbes, who has taught at UTC, says that some local actors don’t have the openness expected in collaboration.
Posey has also struggled to find that professional mindset. He runs ETC with two colleagues, and this year, after the company moved into its new space, they tried to create a “senior ensemble” that would not only perform but also oversee departments like education and development. “We were hoping for take-charge individuals who would step up to the plate, because we three can’t handle everything we want to do,” Posey says. However, of the 11 senior ensemble members they added, fewer than half remain. Several were driven away, Posey believes, by the demands of the job, which only pays a little and requires quite a lot.
Audiences are part of a professional scene, too, and among many of the artists I spoke to, there’s a feeling that Chattanooga crowds are often too forgiving, praising whatever’s onstage. That’s especially frustrating for Harris, who says, “We have to get to a place in Chattanooga where audiences say, ‘Hey, that’s not good. We expect more.’”
No theatre community becomes professional overnight. Hashe says that as a reviewer, she tries to strike a balance between advocating for professional standards and respecting amateurs who act only on the weekends. She adds, though, that Chattanoogans do have the capacity to support professional artists. The symphony, she notes, is incredibly accomplished, and it charges up to $100 for tickets.
As they mount their shows, then, Chattanooga’s emerging theatres are trying to create a similar level of professionalism and audience support—or at least inch toward it. ETC may not pay much, but it does pay artists something: “I have people tell me they want to frame a check for $27.92 because it’s the first time they’ve been paid as an artist,” Posey says. “It’s changed their behavior.” And while Theater for the New South doesn’t pay artists, its leaders do have participants sign a “commitment form” that clarifies what the company expects from them and what they should expect from the company. “I don’t want this to be a community theatre, where maybe you show up, or maybe you don’t because you had a hard day at work,” says Rudez. “So we talk about our expectations and then say, ‘You’re also holding us accountable to these things.’ It’s a way of upping the personal investment.”
Meanwhile, ETC, New South and Muse of Fire all play regularly to full houses (of about 40–80 seats), and they have loyal followers. New South attracts a young crowd that responds to its experimental aesthetic and savvy use of social media. And even though the funding culture is rocky—nothing matches the scope of CreateHere—ETC still finds the money to keep afloat. According to Posey, most of its modest budget comes from ticket sales, but the company also earns revenue from program ads and a summer theatre camp for local kids.
No one knows what will happen next, or what should. Harris argues that Chattanooga needs even more small theatres to attract growing niche audiences, while Quick wonders if the city has enough patrons to support the groups it already has. Posey wants his company to keep doing more and more work, while Forbes and Dallimore bemoan the struggle of leaving Chattanooga to find union jobs.
Adding to the ambiguity, the companies rarely have meaningful collaboration, which might seem vital for a theatre community that’s trying to grow into something bigger. “If the theatre community is going to grow, there has to be more of a community feeling,” asserts Hashe. “Let’s figure out ways we can help each other—we’re not in competition.”
Certainly, most of these artists want to keep the door open to a professional future. Sitting in ETC’s black box theatre, Posey pounds his hand on a work table when he says, “We can’t stop this. This community has a stake in it now. We can’t stop.”
Mark Blankenship assures you that his performance in Raggedy Ann and Andy was sensational. He’s currently based in New York City and is a frequent contributor to American Theatre.