Third Thursday Theatre #1: Get real!

Imagine what you could accomplish as a performer with unlimited resources…

Ok, now imagine what you could accomplish with just slightly less limited resources…

Seriously though, now imagine what you could accomplish when you didn’t have to spend more than half of your show budget just on venue rental, and could perform in a venue that actually put the needs of your production first. And now imagine that venue rental actually including production support like audience outreach.

Well, dream on and dream BIG! Modern Studio and the Knoxville Performing Arts Exchange are here to improve the way local performing artists produce their shows.

After years of producing, directing and performing in shows with various companies in and around Knoxville, I’ve noticed one common and gigantamous hurdle we’ve all faced: the cost and limitations of found space venues. Despite the size and diversity of our performing arts community – ranging from small community theatres and improv groups to professional theatre, dance and opera companies – up to now we’ve lacked a modestly sized theatre venue in which to rehearse and produce shows for any real length of time. Bars and entertainment venues (which can cost upwards of $1000 a night to rent) are geared mostly for music performances, with small stages and limited lighting capabilities. But to create a truly immersive, collective experience such as theatre or opera, you need a large performance area, you need good lighting, you need great acoustics. You need time to test your technical elements in tech rehearsal. Most importantly of all, you need comfortable seats and toilets really nearby.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for the found-space experience of performances. I’ve enjoyed them myself as both audience and performer in places ranging from a metal and woodworking shop to a marble works to a nightclub, converted car dealership, churches…and on and on. There is a unique intimacy that creates a singular connection between the audience and the performers. A special secret you share because you were there together for this one moment in this weird little space.

But being restricted to performing only in found spaces takes a toll. Time after time, we spend the better part of our budgets renting a venue for one-offs or one-weekend productions. We spend more money renting lights, sound equipment and extra chairs to lend the space somewhat of a theatre-esque quality. We exhaust ourselves and our wonderful volunteers loading everything in and schlepping everything out. We compete with the sounds of HVAC systems, street cleaners, sirens, and trains. We scramble to incorporate technical elements and navigate a new performance space in the wee hours just before an opening show.  Sure it’s a free adrenaline rush, but it gets old after a while!

It can also be hard to get you, our audience, to find us as we move from place to place to place. We put it all on the line, often only to barely make up our costs in ticket sales. “Where the hell is that? Where do you even park? Oh forget it, let’s just watch a movie instead.”

I’ve worked with so many incredibly talented artists in this town both onstage and behind the scenes, and so I found myself wondering what we could actually accomplish if the show budget wasn’t blown by venue rental. What if we could perform in a space that was actually intended for performance? What if we could have the luxury of time in such a place to test our technical elements. What if– what if someone working at that venue actually cared enough to help us out and even offered marketing and promotional support?

What if? Why not?!

So I came up with the idea for KPAX – the Knoxville Performing Arts Exchange (hoping against all hope that everyone has had time to forget that Kevin Spacey movie). I figured I had the chutzpah to pull a thing together for the betterment of the entire performing arts community. There are plenty of big buildings sitting cold and dark just in my neighborhood of Downtown North that could hold a theatre. Surely there are grants out there for this. Who wouldn’t want to give their money hand over fist for such a fantastic cause? Surely someone out there could see the brilliance of my plan!

Well, I had some chutzpah, but I needed more. There were empty buildings, but none that could support just shows. There were grants, but not for starting from the ground up.

Fortunately, there were several someones out there who saw the brilliance of my plan. I had the good luck of performing in Tiger Lily Theatre’s production of A Doll’s House with Victor Agreda, Jr. in December 2015. He’d had the idea of a multimedia/multi-use venue on his mind for years already. With that show, he got to experience first hand the hardships and hurdles a typical performing arts group faces in Knoxville. We performed in a dance studio, and we had one night to load in all our set pieces, build the set and stumble through a rehearsal to test our lights and sound. We waited for the last dance class to let out at 7:00 PM, and then started loading everything in. We blacked out the mirrors, assembled rod-&-drape rigs, focused lights, set up a sound booth, and brought in all our props, costumes and set dressing. By midnight, set construction still had not had enough time to complete, and we actors were sent home without a chance for a final dress rehearsal.

Still and all, we performed the show to small, but enthusiastic audiences. And then after just three days, we had to dismantle the whole production and pack it in. Didja get to see it? Didja hear about it? Didja want to?

Burke Brewer got to see that show. As an opera singer, she understood what we had to go through to put the whole thing on. She, too, wondered what we could’ve accomplished if we’d just a had little bit more…time, resources, SPACE!

Hard to believe that just over a year later Modern Studio is well on its way to becoming Knoxville’s premier venue for co-working, retail, music, and…da da da DA! Performing Arts!! I was more than a little thrilled when Burke & Victor came to me with their idea for the space. It seemed at once as improbable as it was impressive. And they wanted me and KPAX to be part of it. Would it really work? Would Knoxville go for it? Could we really find a developer to support it?

Shortly after one of my first meetings with Burke and Victor, I got a fortune cookie that said, “A new venture will be a success.” Well, I’ve never been lied to by a cookie. So the answer to all three questions, it now seems, was a resounding, “YES!”

Thanks to the wonderful support of Joe Fox of Fox & Fogarty, and Burke and Victor’s ingenuity, the building has transformed from decrepit realty to glorious reality. And thanks to their magnanimity, I’m able to make KPAX real, too. Modern Studio will provide a stable, affordable home for performing arts groups, with all the essential amenities and utilities for putting on top-notch shows. KPAX will provide production support ranging from promotional support and resource acquisition to complete project management consultation. It’s just the beginning of a beautiful friendship. You’re going to be hearing a lot from me, Burke, Victor, Kent Oglesby and Christian Rue about Modern Studio and all the shows and events we’ll host. Why not make yours one of them?

Contact me at for more information on KPAX and the performing arts at Modern Studio!

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