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Exterior Night _ Carousel Theatre (1)
Rendering of the exterior of the Carousel Theatre design at night.

Students in College of Architecture and Design Professor Ted Shelton’s fourth-year Architecture Integrations studio embarked on a unique experience last fall to contribute to designs for the planned new Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s campus.

The iconic theatre, one of three performance venues for the UT Department of Theatre, has embodied an important history of community engagement, performance excellence, and educational inquiry for almost seven decades. After substantial use over those years the theatre is in need of significant updating and expansion, so a vision for a new Carousel Theatre was conceived.

In summer 2020 UT System President Emeritus Jan Simek, a former interim dean of the College of Architecture and Design and longtime patron of UT’s theatre program, posed the possibility of Shelton’s students contributing to the design process. With Simek’s introductions, Shelton and Cal MacLean and Tom Cervone from the Department of Theatre began collaborating.

Students joined the team soon after, challenged by the complex project and honored to be part of UT’s history.

“This project offered us a unique experience to immerse ourselves in campus life in a way we had never done before,” said student Carly Harland.

Student Grace Shoffner said, “I now see how difficult it can be to respond to the needs of students, faculty, the university, financial donors, and the overall community and create a building intended to last as long as the first.”

Students were able to reference the expansive programming document developed by the project’s professional team, which includes representatives, designers, engineers, architects, landscape architects, and others from the UT System, DLR Group, CRJA-IBI Group, Fulghum MacIndoe & Associates, O’Connor Construction Management, and Sanders Pace Architecture.

Throughout the semester, students learned from the client—the Department of Theatre—as well as key donors through meetings, interactions, a studio review, and a tour of the back-of-house spaces at UT’s mainstage venue, the Clarence Brown Theatre. This professional and donor input was integral to students’ understanding the project and producing designs that contribute to the design discussion.

“By the end of the semester, I really understood how the architect–client relationship can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the project,” said Harland. “It was in this intersection between client needs and our years of education that I recognized how integral understanding the different needs of the users can be.”

“I think the relationship between the two roles can balance itself out when you start to focus on what you’re really good at,” said student Alice Irizarry.

Aerial interior lobby rendering.
Aerial interior lobby rendering.

While respecting the Carousel Theatre’s heritage as a beloved campus and community icon, students were faced with developing well-informed designs that meet Tennessee building codes, UT campus codes and design and construction guidelines, and occupancy restrictions as well as elements specific to a theatre, including audiovisual and acoustic needs and stage requirements.

“[Fourth-year students] often get compared to jugglers, and I think the metaphor fit when we were being thrown a lot of requirements from a client, the building codes, our studio professor, and notions of what a theater is,” Irizarry said. “It gives you a great sense of accomplishment when very foreign ideas are suddenly familiar when you incorporate them with your field of expertise.”

Students worked to adhere to design stipulations—including a larger and flexible arrangement of fixed and movable seating; support features including offices and a new control room; patron amenities in a new lobby, including concessions, restrooms, and a box office; performer support features such as a new green room and dressing room; and building support spaces including an elevator and load-in space—all while meeting sustainability goals inspired the American Institute of Architects 2030 Committee on the Environment.

With a nod to preserving the intimacy of the current Carousel Theatre, the new design likely will retain the in-the-round configuration with improved sight lines. Enhanced accessibility accommodations and safety features will be added as well.

“Once we settled on the final plan and form, the building grew before our eyes,” said Shoffner. “It was satisfying to see all the details complete the spaces that we had envisioned in our minds. I think this studio is a great example of how the [college] can work with the university to design future structures.”

The Department of Theatre has initiated a funding campaign to raise $15 million for the three-year redesign and building project.


Amanda Johnson (865-974-6401,