In a world without COVID-19, the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus would be well into its 10th anniversary season, bringing a smorgasbord of Americana music, dance, theater and Broadway productions to Blount County.
In this world, however, Clayton Center General Manager Blake Smith and his team have had to make some adjustments, to put it mildly. The first official fall offering from the facility takes place at 3 p.m. Saturday with a livestream concert by the Moody Blues tribute band GO NOW! It’s not the same thing as a live-and-in-person performance, but those are coming, he told The Daily Times this week — and virtual experiences like Saturday’s show are a way for the venue to continue its mission as a cultural, musical and entertainment hub of Blount County.
“We have more opportunities we’re looking into as a way of filling the gap until the world around us sort of changes back more to the normal we know and love,” Smith said. “We have some announcements coming up for more work we’re going to do, but for this first time, we wanted to make sure that if we’re going to provide a virtual experience, it’s going to be the best. If we’re going to send from our stage or someone else’s, we want it to be top-notch and not look like (it’s filmed with) a cellphone camera in the fifth row. We really want to capture that essence of a live performance, so this will be a very professionally done opportunity for those of our patrons who choose to do this.”
When the pandemic reached East Tennessee in March, Smith and the Clayton Center staff spent most of the spring simply navigating the challenges faced by the entertainment industry as a whole. That involved numerous conferences with other facilities, managers, booking agents and various and sundry other representatives to determine two things: Could live performances proceed, and could they be done safely?
For Smith, it was an especially painful realization as spring transitioned to summer and the answer became apparent. The 2020-2021 season would have been the 10th anniversary milestone for the facility, but instead of announcing a lineup that would have mirrored previous years in terms of opulence and marquee appeal, the Clayton team found itself trying to determine whether they would be able to present anything at all.
“We continued through the summer to talk regularly with the artists and their agents about what this was doing to them and what the future was going to look like, and no one wanted to pull the plug completely and say, ‘That’s it. We’re going to walk away for a year,’” Smith said. “By late summer, however, many presenters started realizing that without some major changes, whether that be the addition of a new vaccine or something, that really the way forward would be finding ways to both maximize virtual technology and reduced live capacity live.
“That’s where we’re sort of sitting today as we look to the future, especially in this next year, and it’s taken a long time for us. A lot of our peers launched virtual programming right away, but we sort of sat back listened, learned, asked a lot of questions to see what would be the right fit in our market, and to some extent, were hoping for better news.”
That news didn’t come, but Legend of a Band Productions did, pitching the idea of a livestreamed performance from the Harlequin Theatre in London of GO NOW!, founded by Gordon Marshall, who served as drummer for The Moody Blues for 25 years. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees are known for such hits as “Nights in White Satin,” “Tuesday Afternoon” and “I’m Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band),” among others, and Marshall and his team of musicians have put together a setlist that holds true to the original material, filmed with some of the best technology on the market, Smith said.
“It’s the type of show we might have thought about bringing here in the next year or so,” Smith said. “They reached out to see if we might be interested in joining in with other theaters around he world to provide this virtual performance, and because they’re providing the technology and the platforms, there’s no financial risk to us.”
Which, he pointed out, is good, because as with any new entertainment format, getting patrons of the Clayton Center to opt in will be a challenge. Surveys conducted by the venue staff of regular patrons found a desire for the facility to do something, but the learning curve for virtual performances has been steep. In addition, the time differential between London, where the concert will take place, and screens in Blount County mean that a 3 p.m. concert on a Saturday during football season is a tough sell.
But, Smith added, it’s something. And in the time of COVID-19, that’s most definitely better than nothing — especially if it serves as a precursor to future events, some of which will indeed be live.
“Unfortunately, the large touring shows are still difficult, because even if we could provide them with all the seats they normally have, their logistical challenges are immense,” Smith said. “We still have some spring dates on the books, but the reality is that we may see those restructured and repositioned, because I think that’s inevitable. However, with what we’ve learned about ways to keep people safe in a limited capacity through really small test events, we’re going to capitalize on that in the next year.
“We’re in strong discussions with WDVX-FM radio about possibly bringing back the ‘Smoky Mountain Jamboree’ we started a couple of years ago, because that’s an opportunity to tap into more regional artists and help them out financially as well as providing great shows in limited capacity. We really anticipate having an announcement for after the first of the year for folks to come enjoy live music again in a socially distanced and safe manner.”
And hopefully, he added, there will be another virtual experience before the end of the year. In the meantime, the Clayton Center will continue to serve both Maryville College and the Blount County community in the best way it can, Smith added, while navigating the uncharted waters of live entertainment in the COVID-19 era as best it can.
“We’re going to come out of what we’re calling a very long intermission stronger and with a very broad base of fans I think we’re going to pull in from some of our virtual work,” Smith said. “We’re telling people to see it on your big screen TV now, but when we bring it to you live a year from now, come experience it for yourself in person.”