When I spin my vision for Flying Anvil – a full time professional theatre doing shows back to back, year round, people often ask me, “why do you think that will work in Knoxville?”
It’s a fair question. And the answer is, because it already has.
Back in the late 70s and early 80s, there was such a theatre, churning out performances six and sometimes seven times a week. It was called the Westside Dinner Theatre and some of you may remember it – a barn-shaped building way out in the boonies. In the middle of nowhere (back then) between Farragut and Dixie Lee Junction. This was one of about a half dozen ‘Barn Dinner Theatres’ built throughout the South in the late sixties and early seventies. They all had tiny ‘magic stages” – which descended from the ceiling by way of a massive concrete counter balance.
I worked at many of those theatres right after college…and it was a great training ground. Most of the shows were comedies, lots of Neil Simon and ‘sex comedies” – which basically meant the plot usually had to do with some philandering spouse juggling girlfriends or boyfriends and sooner or later, someone ran around the stage in their underwear. Many of the scripts were British and had names like Right Bed Wrong Husband, The Mind With The Dirty Man, and No Sex Please. We’re British. They were fast-paced and fluffy and audiences loved them. In the late seventies, I did three productions of Boeing, Boeing (one as director) and was shocked when this very sexist comedy enjoyed a successful revival on Broadway a few years ago. I guess funny trumps politically correct.
But the theatres did other shows as well – more meaty scripts like Same Time Next Year, Deathtrap and Picnic, plus musicals from They’re Playing Our Song to Oklahoma and Godspell. We rehearsed during the day – 10 days for plays and 15 days for musicals. Usually while performing another show at night. We were paid weekly and got free room (upstairs at the theatre) and dinner off the evening buffet. You did six shows a week with Monday off, except during the holiday season. From Thanksgiving to New Years, we rocked shows 7 nights a week. Many theatres covered their overhead for the rest of the year in those weeks.
Because the schedule was tight and the audience surrounding the stage on all four sides, the actors had to be good. My first show out of college, I was shell-shocked. You were expected to have good instincts and the ability to direct yourself. Plus figure out your own costumes. Fear is a great motivator and I learned fast – from some of the finest comic actors anywhere. It was thrilling. Crazy. Every night, the audience told you whether you were doing your job properly. By laughing, by holding their breath in moments of suspense. By telling you outright in the ‘joyed it’ line after the show, when we stood up in the lobby to shake hands with the audience as they left the theatre.
Sometimes we were given shows that were poorly written. We’d do anything we could think of to make them work. Rewrites, over the top costumes, outrageous asides to the audience, even one instance in which I played a character the playwright had never written lines for. The director took the stories about this off stage character and brought them on stage – which actually made more sense. We all panicked when the playwright called to let us know he was coming to see the show. That theatre was an Equity house, and we could have gotten in serious trouble – but fortunately, our playwright stayed too drunk during his visit to notice our changes. (And as a playwright myself, I AM NOT advocating for changing words in a script! But these small dinner theatres were the dramatic equivalent of the Wild West back then…)
But back to Knoxville. The Westside was a for-profit theatre and it chugged along successfully for a couple of decades. For a time, the programming was more ambitious than most and we enjoyed both great crowds and great reviews. (There were full time reviewers on staff at the two daily papers in Knoxville at the time.) Many actors, myself included, honed their skills and supported themselves by working in this informal circuit of dinner theatres. I would be hired for two or three shows at a time and traveled between Knoxville, Kingsport, Roanoke, Greensboro, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Ala. There were a few other theatres I never made it to, though my sister Carol did – in Nashville, Little Rock and Hurricane, West Virginia.
I remember the day my boyfriend, the manager of the Greensboro theatre at the time, was going through the archives (a large rusting filing cabinet), and found a favorable review from a show in the late sixties. The reviewer praised a promising young actor named Robert DeNiro. There was even a picture. We pinned it on the green room bulletin board as a reminder that anything is possible.
So what happened to them, these rustic Barns? Only Greensboro is still operating, as far as I know. Several others were built on cheap land near the airport and were demolished when the landing strips were extended. At least two closed after costly accidents with the ‘magic stage’. My friend, Hall Parrish was riding the stage down in Birmingham when cables snapped and half the platform dropped to the floor, sending furniture and actors into the audience. Even with a broken ankle, Hall managed to keep the audience entertained while they waited for the ambulances to arrive. Now that’s talent.
As for the Westside, it no longer exists. In its heyday, the manager tried to open a new theatre closer to town, but thought audiences wouldn’t mind stepping over rivulets of chicken blood in the parking lot that ran from the packing factory next door. Wrong. Undercapitalized and in the wrong location, he closed quickly. The old Barn Theatres weren’t built to last, and the Westside had never been well maintained. It sat empty for some years before a megachurch bought the property and let the local fire department burn down the building for a fire drill. I imagine it only took a single match to set the firetrap off.
Despite its ignominious end, the old Westside entertained thousands of people every year. Good houses were the norm, for a long time. Shows ran for a month or more and many, especially musicals, were extended. So can lightning strike twice? Can a full-time theatre of a similar size in a better location make it in Knoxville now?
There are differences in what we’re trying to do. We won’t offer dinner, except on special occasions. And though not much has changed in terms of theatrical competition, the sheer amount of other entertainment – concerts, festivals, movies, is daunting.
I believe we can do this. I believe the audience that existed then – roughly 1200 people a week, can be rebuilt. It just takes the right combination of factors – space, programming, and the daredevil talents of professional actors, designers, playwrights, and directors who are dedicated to taking the audience on a hell of a ride. – Jayne –