If you want to learn lessons of humility, gratitude, patience and fortitude in the face of suffering, go to a Zen Monastery. Shave your head, put on a long robe and wander the streets carrying a begging bowl.
Or, you could try to open a theatre company. It’s the same journey, except with hair and blue jeans. But definitely WITH the begging bowl.
When I started this journey, I gave myself 2 years. That would be enough time, I thought, to get a producing organization off the ground and ready to become a full time operation. I knew there were challenges….but I had a wonderful partner in Staci. Fabulous and supportive friends. A deep understanding of this town and experience producing here. And an absurd confidence in my ability to learn on the fly.
We’re well into the 3rd year and still forming. My stepmom Nanne, a truly wise woman, says that any group goes through three stages. “Forming, storming and norming.” A theatre group seems to go through all stage simultaneously. Every time we think we have a norm, here comes that storm again.
Our biggest issue is the thorny problem of where to produce. We’ve used a temporary Gallery at the ET Historical Society, the lecture hall at the KMA, the meeting room at the Lawson McGhee Library, a hotel ballroom, a small restaurant and an actual theatre at Pellissippi. None of them fit our purpose. And I won’t even mention the strange places in which our actors had to rehearse… . But all that wandering around in the wilderness has brought us here….ready to find a space that will allow us to create a comfortable, intimate, technologically capable and economically viable home.
Do you want to test the limits of your determination and stamina? Your capacity for fear, hard work and measuring progress in millimeters? You could hire a team of Sherpas, buy a bunch of expensive gear and attempt to climb Mt. Everest. Or….you could open a theatre company.
Here’s my basic assumption: that it is easier to ramp up a producing organization and keep it in gear full time, than occasionally pulling together all the components and then breaking them down again in the weeks, if not months, between shows. I’ve done the one-offs. I remember watching the huge, lumbering and somewhat dysfunctional machine that was COMMON VOICES – The Bicentennial Musical come together at the Tennessee Theatre. (This was the OLD Tennessee, not the new, refurbished one.) Bob Deck and I had taken on the project of researching, writing and producing an original musical about this wacky town after everyone else had said it couldn’t be done in the 9 -10 month time frame we were given. But we did it. Damn near killed me, but I’m not sure I could have learned those lessons any other way. Wasn’t perfect, but when I sat in the balcony watching that huge, diverse cast singing about Malfunction Junction, on a wonderful set by Jim Prodger that filled the wide stage, with lighting by the incomparable John Horner….it was a singular and unforgettable thrill.
I remember producing several cabaret style Women In The Arts shows for the Knoxville Women’s Center at the Bijou. (This was the OLD Bijou, not the new, refurbished one.) We managed to pull off an original 16 mm film, coaxed the fabulous Edye Ellis into taking part, and generally, bit off far more than we could possibly chew (even with my big mouth) given the schedule and budget. Again – I learned as much from what didn’t work as from what did.
I remember producing shows for the Class Act Cabaret, which performed and toured in different forms and with a variety of casts for almost a decade. We played just about every Elks Lodges in East Tennessee. (And believe me, what happens at the Elks Lodge, should stay at the Elks Lodge!) We did late night shows at Richard’s Restaurant (what was, until recently, Chez Liberty in Homberg) at the Bistro, and Manhattans in the Old City (Now the Jig and Reel). We did one show in a huge hotel ballroom in Gatlinburg – entertaining the survivors of a US Battleship in Pearl Harbor with our 40’s show, Kilroy Was Here. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by curtain call, including the cast. Another time, Dana Wham, Cathy Rhea and I took a spicy show called Carrying A Torch to a LPGA event at a country club in Morristown or Greeneville and if ever there was a moment when the right show met the right audience, it was that evening! A wonderful memory like that keep you going for years!
Then there was a dismal Christmas show for a large bank, performed in the Convention Center (this was the OLD Convention Center, not the new one.). The audience was massive, the sound system puny, the show intimate and no one had a good time. I hated every single moment of that show. Those are the memories that make you question everything you thought you knew.
You want to learn about courage? About how to face your fear and still go forward, even though you know, YOU KNOW, you’re not going to meet your own high standards? You could sign up for a rodeo and strap yourself on a very angry bull. Or you could open a theatre company. You’re going to take spectacular falls, either way.
I remember directing a show for the ET Shakespeare Festival in the Amphitheatre on the World’s Fair site. The show was a wacky interpretation of Two Gentlemen of Verona and the space swallowed the show. When a single katydid settles in one of those fabric cones that make up the roof and starts singing, let me tell you, no actor has large enough lungs to be heard! But it sure was pretty to look at – with sets by Jim Prodger, costumes by Patti Rogers and lighting by Perry…. (Sorry, Perry, your last name escapes me.)
I remember producing a show at the Lab Theatre on the UT campus. I had formed Late Bloomer Productions and hoped to build it into a producing entity. The show was Shirley Valentine, and I was producer and the only actor, with big assists from Charlotte Headrick (director), Jim Prodger (set), Nelson Nichols, (lighting) and Susan Kemppainen (Stage Manager). It was done under the auspices of Actor’s Equity and I couldn’t have been prouder of it. Audience loved the show and still ask me to bring it back to this day. Everyone got paid, except me. And my Dad lost the $1000.00 he invested. Was it worth it? For me – absolutely. You’ll have to ask my Dad how he feels about it.
I learned from all of it – every moment of brilliance and bone-headedness. Every rental agreement and contract, every ticket sold or unsold, every press release sent out. Now I’m trying again, but this time, avoiding past mistakes. That includes being properly funded. Holding out that begging bowl is a new experience for me, but I’m beginning to get the hang of it. And now I have an amazing team of people to share in the journey. Staci brings a wealth of experience, amazing talent and a much-needed new perspective. Our Board expands our knowledge base exponentially – with expertise in business, law, architecture, non-profits, producing, performing, teaching, management, strategic planning and throwing great parties. In other words, we have a bunch of wonderful Zen monks and rodeo cowboys to climb this mountain with! (I’m so sorry. I do love to beat a good metaphor into submission.)
If you haven’t checked out our indiegogo campaign, (and honestly, how have you missed that? I’ve been harping on it incessantly), you can find it by going to indiegogo.com and searching for Flying Anvil Theatre. Tell us what you think. The vision, the space, the process – they may not be perfect, but Voltaire said it – perfect is the enemy of the good. Or the possible. We’re daring something new and different. It will be imperfect. And wonderful. You can help make it possible.
If you want to learn about joy, about your capacity to feel and grow and be stretched beyond anything you’ve ever imagined…..start a theatre company. Help us make Flying Anvil Theatre a reality.