This weekend’s Clayton Center Theatre Festival brings art and community together under one roof
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Chances are they’ll never see their name in neon on Broadway or hear it announced as the winner of a Tony Award, but the actors and actresses taking part in this weekend’s Clayton Center Theatre Festival are no less dedicated to their craft than their Broadway counterparts.
And that, say the directors of the six productions that will take place during the three-day event, makes them even more dedicated. They do it for the love of acting and for the opportunity to transform themselves before an audience of friends, family and neighbors, and that’s what makes community theater a vital and vibrant part of East Tennessee culture.
“Community theater, as opposed to educational or professional theater, allows you the opportunity to experiment and contribute and be part of a grassroots art form in your community,” said David Horton, director of “The Silver Whistle” for the visiting Morristown Theatre Guild. “It’s done by people who are volunteers — they’re not doing it for the money; they’re doing it because they care about it. And when you’re surrounded by that kind of energy, it makes for a much more palpable and emotional experience.
“I’m a Morristown native, and I started out at the theater guild when I was in high school. So many of my friends and associates who are now professionals started out in community theater; without it, we wouldn’t have professional theater. So many people got their chops in community theater.”
This weekend’s festival will feature six productions from various community theater groups from Morristown, Norris, Athens and Knoxville; it’s designed to give actors and directors an opportunity to network with one another and check out the talent pool of the other groups, and it brings all of the groups together under one roof. For fans of community theater, according to Clayton Center Executive Director Robert Hutchens, it’s a one-stop shop for comedy, drama, musicals and more.
“Last year turned out to be a surprisingly good success, and everybody wanted to come back,” Hutchens said. “The participants themselves had a good time, and the audience response was enthusiastic. It left us feeling really good.
“People were really excited about the plays. It was familiar enough, and the price was great — and there were actually people who sat through five plays, people who have sciatic nerves no better than mine, which amazed me.”
For the second year, Hutchens said, organizers have faced a bit of a challenge. Last year, the festival was anchored by several productions familiar to casual fans of theater — “Annie,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “The Fantasticks,” among them. This year, the most recognizable production is “Ragtime,” presented by The WordPlayers.
However, the caliber of last year’s performances, Hutchens said, will hopefully convince patrons that quality is assured, regardless if they’ve heard of all of the productions.
“We’re coming into this second season with more plays and more organizations, but also more unknown names,” he said. “We’re counting on the fact people trust us and know that we’re offering good stuff that they’re going to like, even if they don’t know the name as well as ‘The Fantasticks’ or ‘Annie.’ For example, ‘The Last Five Years’ (presented by the Clayton Center) is a quality piece I’m very proud of.”
The WordPlayers, which recently wrapped two weekends of “Ragtime” at Bearden High School in Knoxville, is one of those organizations new to the festival this year. Last year, WordPlayers representatives set up an information booth as part of the festival; this year, they’re honored to bring “Ragtime” to the Nutt Theatre stage, said WordPlayers Managing Director Jeni Lamm.
“We enjoy giving people the opportunity to experience working on a play,” she said. “There are very few opportunities for people who want to act but can’t give their entire life to it. It’s a wonderful experience to see these people working together creatively to bring a production like this to the stage, and to keep it affordable and accessible so that people can come and be a part of the theater experience.”
The WordPlayers was established in 1995 as a company of Christian theater artists; organizers choose productions viewed through a Christian perspective, and while not every play or musical is a religious one, they all include an element of faith, Lamm said.
“‘Ragtime’ is about justice for all people, which as Christians is obviously something we’re very much in favor of,” she said. “It shows how as a country we haven’t always done that, and we don’t do it perfectly now. There are themes of redemption and forgiveness, and a lot of elements of faith and God working in this story. It’s an important story, and one we were excited to tell.”
For Theatre Knoxville Downtown, last year’s production of “Almost Maine” at the festival resulted in a bump in ticket sales to Blount County residents, according to Margy Ragsdale, who will be directing this weekend’s production of “Tuna Does Vegas.” Many TKD shows sell out in advance, a respectable feat for a troupe that shares its Knoxville audience with close to a dozen other theatrical groups.
“It certainly helped us out a lot by bringing a lot of people to our show,” Ragsdale said. “Over the past year, our audience has seemed to have grown quite a bit. The festival is just a smattering of the community theater groups in the area, but we hope it will resonate with folks who want to explore all of the opportunities that we all offer.”
For Josh Ginsburg, the box office manager at the Clayton Center who’s directing “The Last Five Years,” his work this weekend will be a springboard into graduate school at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in dramatic writing and was recruited to the program after administrators read one of his original plays. Thanks to his work with community theater in Maryville, he said, he has a much broader understanding of the role theater can have in a community’s cultural development. That’s one reason, he added, he’s excited about bringing “The Last five Years” to the Clayton Center stage.
“It’s not a show on the level of ‘Oklahoma!’ or a show everyone would normally get a chance to see, which I think is a really important thing,” he said. “It’s nice to get a little variety out there. The old gems are great, and they are so popular for a reason, but it’s nice to have something to put a stick in the wheel and be a little different. I think any opportunity you have to spread theater to people who may not always be in a position to see it is a good thing.”
And even if they are in a position to see it regularly, added James Harshbarger of the Norris Little Theatre, an event like the Clayton Center Theatre Festival shows theater patrons that there’s a plethora of talent in East Tennessee. And while folks from Blount County may not know the actors coming down from Anderson County to put on “A Grand Night for Singing,” the concept is the same as it is for productions involving Maryville’s own Foothills Community Players: It’s a showcase for family, friends, neighbors and co-workers to see a different side of one another. It gives those who yearn for the stage but not the glory of the marquee an opportunity to reach within and share their inner artist with those they live and play among every day.
“There’s a family cohesiveness built into community theater, and the fact that the audience knows people on the stage, they’re amazed by it,” said Harshbarger, the artistic director for “A Grand Night of Singing.”
“They’re seeing a side of people that acting brings out that they’ve never seen before,” he added. “This isn’t some TV person they’ve never met up there; this is the person down the street or the small town lawyer, and they didn’t know these people had this in them. It really does bring out the ‘wow’ factor, and we’re very proud to be a part of this festival.”