All posts by Burke Brewer

#Changemakers: Jill Bergeron & Free Spirit Theatre

Jill Stapleton Bergeron is no stranger to the theatre scene, and boasts over three decades of experience as an actor, director, playwright, and college instructor. Most recently she founded Free Spirit Theatre, a new company whose first production is fast approaching. A few weeks ago we sat down with Jill and the actors preparing for The Lesson to learn more about their upcoming show, and what makes them unique for Knoxville.

Why this play, now?
Well, my original play was Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang, whom I love, but it requires five actors. I didn’t have that many audition. I had three people who were interested and committed, so I went in search of a play to fit them. I looked at plays that I like, and I’ve always loved Eugene Ionesco and The Lesson. Ionesco is not only recognized all over the world of theatre as a master of the absurdist movement, he was also very anti-Nazi because of his experiences during the war. His ability to combine humor with tragedy and a marvelous fascination with language amazes me.

That’s sort of an atypical approach, right? Usually it starts with the play, and then you hold auditions, and you fill those roles.
Most theatre companies have an idea who is available and interested in their mission, so it is always a consideration in play choice. Unless you can pay people, you can’t pick a play without considering if you’ll have the cast. That was the position I was in since this is our first show. When I was the Director of Theatre at Maryville College, I knew which actors would be available, so I selected the plays with that in mind. Hopefully as we grow, and people get to know us, I’ll have a more dependable idea of who’s interested. Also, I underestimated how much goes on in October. Everybody’s doing a show right now. Tiger Lily just finished Fat Pig, Theatre Knoxville is doing Mousetrap, and Tennessee Stage is doing Philadelphia Story — there’s just so much going on. In the end, I have to say that I’m very happy with what I’ve got.

As an actress, having something picked that suited you guys, how did that compare with what you’re used to with the normal audition process?
Freddie Birdwell: Well it was a lot easier.
Emma Wright: I think it’s very interesting exploring the script as a group, because we didn’t get the script before the first rehearsal. We showed up and then found out what play we were doing. So that was a really different process.

What made you start Free Spirit Theatre?
I’ve been a director for a long time, but when I left Maryville I didn’t direct or do much theatre for a while. My kids were in middle and then high school, and my focus was mainly on them. I was the Artistic Director for The Trail of the Lonesome Pine Outdoor Drama up in Virginia for four years during the summer and my whole family was involved in that. When my son and daughter were in college and wanted to go to their first general audition in Atlanta, I went with them and got a job. I was shocked! I did about 10 years of shows during the summer when I wasn’t teaching, all across the eastern part of the country. I got to perform in professional theatres in Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, and Missouri. I really enjoyed that, but I don’t really enjoy acting that much. It can be fun, but I’m always thinking how I would do it differently. There wasn’t a lot of directing opportunities here in Knoxville, and it was kind of driving me crazy because that’s what I really, really love to do, so I just said, “I’m going to start a theatre and see what happens!”

This is your first production. Can you tell me a little about what you hope will be the result of this first performance?
Well, first of all, I hope it introduces us to the Knoxville theatre community and theatre lovers. When I had auditions, very few people even knew who I was, so I think once they get to know us, we’ll be a much more integral part of the theatre scene.

Do you have any trepidation about competing, because there are so many, in starting a new one, do you ever worry about the fact that there are so many companies? Or do you say, let’s go forward and give it a shot?
At first, I was a little worried about getting a cast, because there’s so much going on. Not so much competing like I win, you lose, or anything like that, but just having enough resources. That’s why Modern Studio is such a blessing to those of us who want to do theatre. I’ve lived in this area for 25 years, and this is the first shared performance space that is reasonably priced and accessible. Actually, I think that because there’s so much more theatre than there was before, even five years ago, in Knoxville, is inspiring more theatre. I think all of us are developing an audience here in Knoxville that we didn’t have ten years ago. Tom Parkhill has done amazing things with Tennessee Stage and developed it into a natural part of summer in Knoxville. Theatre Knoxville Downtown, Carpetbag, and the Word Players are also well-established along with a few others. It’s gratifying these days to go see a play with a full house. That says something about theatre in Knoxville that we couldn’t say ten years ago, so I think it’s an opportunity rather than a downside. I look forward to maybe even collaborating with other groups.

You mentioned that you’re a writer as well. Playwright or novels?
I write everything pretty much. I have a novel that’s coming out in November (called Truth or Dare using my nom de plume, Anne Denmark), and I’m just now finishing up the proofing for that. I’ve written a lot of plays, some of them have been picked up by theaters, some haven’t.

Will you be producing any of your own work?
Probably not.

Why not?
Well, I want to stay with really good, tested literature. A lot of companies here use original scripts, which is wonderful because new playwrights need to get their work out there. But I think it’s best not to direct my own plays. A different director can show me where the holes are, and I would love to work in development with someone. One thing about theatre is that it’s the most collaborative art. Playwrights need directors and actors and vice versa. But my favorite thing is working on a really, really good play that I can sink my teeth into with a group of actors. We did script work for two weeks before we got on our feet with this one.

What do you do during that process? Walk me through what you guys did.
We did read-throughs first, just to get familiar with the script. We talked about the characters, there are a lot of terms in this play that I had to research to find out what they meant so we talked about that. We talked about Ionesco and the kind of writing he does, and what motivated him to write. He’s a French playwright from the Absurdist movement in the 1950s and early 60s. He endured WWII in Romania and he was very anti-Nazi, anti-Fascism, anti-indoctrination, which I think fits in with our current American situation just fine right now. The play was written in 1950, but it’s just a timely as if he wrote it yesterday.

You mentioned that you like doing plays that are “well tested” — from a directing and acting standpoint, what does it mean for a play to be “well tested” in your opinion?
A play that survives its own period for one thing. You know, there are thousands of plays from any period in history. Time passage is kind of sieve that keeps moving. A few works will fall through and last, and the rest will get tossed out because they weren’t that great or they were too topical, too dated. There were a lot of people writing plays during Shakespeare’s time, but how many can you name?

This particular play is about a professor and student — give me the premise of the play.
This student has come for private lessons with this professor, who has a big reputation in town because he used to teach at the university. She comes because in two weeks she wants to take her doctor’s orals, and all she has is a high school diploma. And of course, the absurdity part is that she’s here to prepare for her “super total doctorate” and they’re doing math that is 1 + 1 is 2. But she can’t do subtraction, which upsets him quite a bit. So they move on to comparative linguistics where he kind of loses himself and which she can’t do either. I won’t reveal the ending, but it’s very surprising. I love this play!

Are you already thinking about your next production, or are you waiting to get through this one first?
Yeah, I’m already starting to think about other plays. I really like Strindberg’s Miss Julie; I’m looking at a couple of other plays, one called Love, Loss, and What I Wore, it’s funny but poignant. I’m really drawn to Sara Ruhl’s plays. There are so many I want to do!

So you taught at Maryville College?
I was the Director of Theatre at Maryville College. We did one main stage show each semester. I was one of the founding members of the now extinct Knoxville Area Theatre Coalition. I loved getting to know other theatre artists in town—maybe we should revive it!

Comparing this to your time at Maryville College, in what ways have you had to be resourceful?
Finding rehearsal space is a big deal. Right now I’m footing the bill for everything, because it’s my dream so I need to pay for it. I’m hoping we at least make enough money to pay me back and get ready for the next one, that’s all I care about. If we get 100 people, we could cover the costs and have enough to rent the space again for January. It’s really just the financial stuff. I enjoy doing the program, set & costume design along with directing, but it would be nice to have more help.

So how else can people help you?
Right now, donations would be amazing! But just supporting us and coming to see what we do is great. I hope we can get more people involved on and off stage. This production is a long one-act, about an hour and a half. After Thursday’s performance, we’ll have a talk-back so the audience can ask questions, because it’s a play that you’re not going to see very often in this area. On Friday and Saturday evenings we will have an open coffeehouse with a dance floor for people to hang out after the show—drink coffee and eat desserts.

Why wouldn’t it be seen in Knoxville? Is it too topical, or not the personality of the local audience?
I think a lot of people just don’t know who Ionesco is, I mean, I know who he is because I had to read a lot of play in grad school. But a lot of people aren’t exposed to that, and if you don’t know it, how can you do it? That’s one of my goals—to introduce our community to a wide variety of good theatre without worrying about being overly commercial. Contemporary material is a little easier in terms of design, but I love good plays regardless of when they were written. I really liked what Amy Hubbard did with Actors Co-Op; she took a lot of risks with play choices and enjoyed success. I hope we can do something similar.

I like that the name of your company, indicates more of a free spirit obviously, but you’re more of a purist, which I like.
Yeah, I guess I’m a theatre purist, you could say that. But, although I am sort of a theatre purist I do not consider myself a traditionalist. I examine a script in depth and look for new and creative ways to present the material without regard to how it’s been done before.

Did you mean for there to be a dissonance between the company name and your style?
Actually, I thought of free spirit as not being bound by having to make a lot of money or cater to popular trends. I just don’t want to do anything predictable. If we do an old standard, it will have a spin on it. I want to do Pinter, Hellman, Moliere. . .

How would you like to see the theatre scene in Knoxville grow in the next five years?
I’d like to see more places like Modern Studio, where we can have a place to do what we want to do. I would just like to see this growth continue, and thrive, and audiences learn to expect good theatre here with a lot of variety. The theatre community here is alive and has a lot to offer.
What have each of you enjoyed most about the production?
Sam Waycaster: For me, the most enjoyable thing, is working with Jill again. When we worked together last, we said it wouldn’t be the last time. I’m very glad that she contacted me and asked if I’d come along for the ride.
Emma Wright: I think the best part is learning how to do absurdist theatre. I graduated from UT two years ago, and I’ve taken classes in New York and London about it, but this is my first time working on it. Most of my experience has been with Shakespeare, or modern classic plays. Earlier this year I did Grease, but this is my first time doing something like this which has been really fun.
Freddie Birdwell: I’ve never done absurdist theatre either, and it’s exciting to me to be doing something that is really making a statement about our social and civic life, and the same statement from 1950 can still be made today. That, and I haven’t known these two as long as Sam has, but we worked together a few years ago and it was fun. Jill said, “Do you want to?” And I said, “Okay!” We were at Modern Studio, and we didn’t know what we were doing yet, but we said okay.
Was it at Moving Theatre or Cindy & Ella?
It was at Cindy & Ella.
Which was not that long ago! Wow.
Yeah! (Laughter.)

The Lesson runs Thursday, November 9 through Saturday, November 11 at 7:30 pm at Modern Studio. Tickets can be purchased here.

Artist Profile | Katharine Slowburn & The Garden

With seven dancers and 14 choreographed dances, “The Garden” promises to be an incredibly poignant and timely dance exhibition created by Katharine Slowburn. “The Garden” is Slowburn’s first original full-length production that promises to teach you to “grow and bloom in a world that doesn’t always nourish its soil.” The group has been rehearsing since early August for their performances in November. We sat down with Slowburn to learn more about “The Garden” and her creative process.

What is the Katharine Slowburn Experience? How did it get started?

The Katharine Slowburn Experience really is me. Katharine Slowburn is my stage name, but I didn’t want to lose myself in the process of creating a stage persona so I kept my first name. Slowburn describes my dancing style which is an overall feeling, whether I’m moving quickly or slowly, I want the audience to be enthralled, to feel something and go along that ride with me. When I started performing group works, the only thing I could think to call it was the Katherine Slowburn Experience because that’s what I was wanting to give people.

Tell me about your creative process — what is “The Garden” about?

I had several different ideas and I wasn’t sure where to go, but there was one dance called “Uprooted Desire” that I had already choreographed, and it was something that had always stuck with me. In the dance there are these trees and plants that find their soil to be an aphrodisiac, and in the end this nourishing soil has allowed them to uproot themselves and go forth. So I thought, why don’t I use this and make part of a show, and then I started to think about their story – how did they get there? So I thought I could have two acts and really look at, how does something get planted and how does it grow, and what happens when that first crop or that first yield doesn’t go quite how one would hope.

You have seven dancers and 14 dances — how long from idea to concept, did this take you?

I think it started in July, that was when the concept came. I already had one of the fourteen choreographed, and then we started rehearsals the first Sunday in August. Everyone has been coming to my basement every Sunday for three hours to rehearse for a few months now. Sometimes we have additional rehearsals.

How did you choose the dancers who are involved?

I’ve been very fortunate to work with some amazing dancers since moving back to Knoxville. I’ve been straddling two dance worlds in Knoxville, one with modern dance, so I met several amazing dancers through Circle Modern. The other world is cabaret, where I’ve met burlesque performers and cabaret dancers. It’s really interesting because I’ve always seen myself doing something in the middle. My cast is actually from both of those worlds. It’s been very interesting to see how they interact with each other, and what they learn from each other. I’m always thrilled by how much they support and uplift each other.

So you’ve taken dancers from the modern dance and burlesque worlds, what are the main differences between those two groups?

On one hand you have dancers who very much have a technical background, who are used to sort of more strict production and rehearsal schedules or expectations. For example, when I first started doing cabaret shows, I would show up and say, “Okay, when is our group warm-up? When is our dress rehearsal?” But it’s a different world, you know, they may have the venue for one night so it’s expected that you show up ready to go. I would say the more modern dancers are more ready to do things by the book. Then you have the burlesque performers, and some of them may not have been performing since childhood like many modern dancers, or if they were performing it was in different ways. What I appreciate about them is that there’s a sense of willingness to just throw themselves into anything and to take risks and connect with the audience. They know they’ll only be successful in that art form if they’re able to connect with the audience. I can pretty much as them to try anything and they’re willing to go with it.

How long have you been dancing?

I started when I was four. My sister is two years older and she was a dancer so I wanted to be a dancer too. I moved to California when I was 18, I wanted to be a music video choreographer. I was taking classes in Hollywood and it was a very different world from Knoxville. In some ways I wish I knew then what I know now in that I feel I’d have a very different time. The ego abounds out there, and it’s necessary, but my third year I ended up having several dance-related injuries, family members had a few issues, so I came back and finished my degree here, not only in dance but in Religious Studies. I actually quit dancing for about 3 or 4 years when I moved back here. After I finished by bachelor’s I knew I wanted to go to grad school so I went to University of Missouri for a Master of Arts in Religious Studies. I ended up focusing on dance and religion, which came about accidentally. I had a term paper and needed to pick a topic, so I ended up focusing on a dancer and how her religion influenced her approach to dance. At the same time I was doing a grad minor in Women’s & Gender Studies. At the end of one of the classes I ended up focusing on my life and dance, and created a pedagogy for how I wanted to teach dance. I came out of retirement and started dancing again. As much as I loved research, I really wanted to do more with dance and religion, and my advisor suggested I apply for Harvard Divinity School which had a lot of creatives who were combining creative pursuits with religion. My primary focus was using dance as a means to create a more compassionate body image. I graduated in 2013 and moved back to Knoxville, and started performing again.

You mentioned positive body image. I think when most people think of dance, they think of what a ballerina looks like – maybe tall, size 0. You are a full-figured woman. Do you think that’s made you more approachable in either shows or workshops? There’s an element to all of your performances that are very pro-female, pro-empowerment, very much a celebration of the female body. It’s all in the spirit of anyone can do this.

I certainly had body struggles a lot as a teenage dancer. For me, I want to portray the world as-is, not fantasy, which means having dancers of all sizes and age ranges participate. If I’m trying to say something as an artist, and I have a cookie-cutter looking cast, how’s that supposed to say to the audience, this is for you? But the other piece of that is I’m very interested in how movement can be a means to heal or feel at peace, feel okay in ones body, particularly after trauma. One of the things I talk about a lot is that dance is a way of creating a world. So at first there’s nothing and then I extend my arm and now I’ve created a path, I’ve created a narrative of sorts. I see movement as a means of making worlds, as a means of being an authority on one’s own self. I’m very interested in having people who embody who they are without shame or guilt, because if you can do that in dance, you can do that in the rest of your life. I had a turning point in Massachusetts, I took classes at the Boston Academy of Burlesque Education, and the instructor there said, “Because you’re doing an art form that involves removing your clothes, and showing yourself to the audience, you have a responsibility to not apologize for who you are, to be okay with who you are.” That blew my mind because no dance teacher, no movement teacher had ever said that to me before. I’ve taken that to heart as a dancer, and share that with my dancers. I don’t want anyone to read shame from me, because that says that you too should feel that.

Do you think that sense of authenticity and confidence connects with the audience easier than other art forms where that’s not the explicit message?

Yeah, I have this philosophy that I Have to be willing to be honest, I have to be willing to show some wounds, I have to be willing to stand there in front of the audience and be not okay, and to be honest about that. I try to think less of them-me, and more we’re all in this room together having an experience, and how can I make this a safe space for the audience. I know I can make that a safe space by saying we are feeling something together. I’m not here to try to make you feel this way, I’m here for us to have something collective that happens.

What are you hoping will happen during the performances of “The Garden”?

I think that because it’s the story that it is, there are so many layers. If you’re into sci-fi or fantasy, and you just want to come and see people being plants, fantastic. Be entertained. There’s so many types of movement and music, so people who are coming to be entertained will definitely be entertained. On the other hand there’s another narrative of growth, trauma, and regrowth. Pretty much all of us can relate to something like that unfortunately. For me, there’s that other hope that people can see something that speaks to their own journey, and maybe it’s a journey they’ve already walked so they can see that as a celebration of where they’ve been, or how they’ve arrived to where they are at the moment. Or maybe someone in the midst of that journey who needs to know they’re not alone.

Are you currently working on your next production, or are you waiting to get through this one?

I’m waiting to get through this one. I do have ideas, but nothing specific.

You recently left your day job to pursue things that more strongly feed your soul, can you say more about that? What was the impetus for doing that?

It’s relatively new so I’m still getting used to this, but I think it’s really difficult for a lot of creative people to be in routine, regular jobs where they don’t feel like they get to use their creativity, because then you get bored, you feel underutilized, and it very much becomes soul sucking. I felt like I was losing the best parts of who I was, and it was really interesting that as soon as I resigned, I felt like I was starting to come back to myself. I don’t know what’s next, which is great.

That feeling is very real for a lot of people, it’s almost inescapable, that fear of, I’m just doing this thing and it doesn’t matter to me. So what have you gotten back since you made that decision?

It’s been almost a week, but I think there was a sense that I had been censoring myself quite a bit. I’m kind of weird and creative, and the big recognition was how much I was self-censoring, and then the other thing was energy. When all of your energy is going into suppressing a part of yourself, or just kind of going through the motions, you’re suppressing yourself without being fed.

What would you go back and tell your 18 year old self about?

Don’t be so afraid to fail.

You can catch performances of “The Garden” at Modern Studio on Saturday, November 4 at 9:00 pm, and Sunday, November 5 at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $10 and are available online ( or at the door. Modern Studio is located at 109 W. Anderson Avenue, 37917 off of Central Avenue in Happy Holler.


What in the World is Co-Working?

“Co-working” is an unusual term. As the workplace continues to change and evolve, and more and more people start to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, the typical 9-5 job becomes more a concept thing of the past. Start-ups have been modeling co-working for years, sharing office space and rapid fire group synergy without the physical boundaries of walls or cubicles, but we see it everyday. Folks working on laptops in coffee shops are technically co-working.


We knew from day one that in order to keep Modern Studio financially supported, we would need multiple revenue streams. We also wanted the building to be used 80% of the time rather than sit empty during the day. Opening up the space during the day for co-working was our answer to that. Knoxville is a thriving entrepreneurial community, and we know from personal experience how distracting a home office can be. We wanted to offer something that responded to the changing needs of the workforce, and offered something unique to Knoxville.

the studio

So what does The Studio offer that you can’t get from squatting in a coffee shop all day? We’re offering an open concept floor plan with work tables, professional internet, semi-private meeting spaces, great coffee, as well as all the cool stuff you won’t find at a coffee shop – books, whiteboards, 22″ monitors, and a safe and professional space to conduct your daily work and business meetings. We’ll be open from 9-6 pm Monday – Friday only to those there to get stuff done.

Those are really the brass tacks of what The Studio provides to you. What you’ll personally gain from working in a room of other creatives, is a bit harder to describe. We’ve heard from many entrepreneurs who miss the social interaction of the traditional workplace. Work for many becomes a space where friendships are grown and creative ideas manifest. When you work for yourself, and from the confines of your home, this energy becomes stifled. Not to mention we all need human interaction. The Studio offers a unique opportunity to work beside other creative entrepreneurs and experience the energy that comes from a group workspace.

(Many thanks to Vessel Co-Working in Austin, TX for their guidance & inspiration)

We’ve taken great care to price memberships in a range that is not only financially accessible but also competitive. We’re not offering individual offices – not everyone needs or wants one. What we’re offering is the opportunity to be part of a unique and synergistic work environment that allows your business to grow, your productivity to increase, and costs roughly $1.25 per hour.

Ready to learn more? Take a look at our membership options or contact us to get started: