About five years ago, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Clarence Brown Theatre embarked on an effort to ramp up its community engagement activities with underserved communities and families, including veterans, young people, the deaf and hard of hearing, those experiencing homelessness, and individuals on the autism spectrum.
“Theatre is about community,” said Tom Cervone, managing director of the CBT. “Throughout our history, community has been our driving force, and we continue to expand thoughtful engagement with the greater Knoxville area every year.”
A recent performance of A Christmas Carol included Deaf Night at the Theatre, a barrier-free experience for members of the hard-of-hearing and deaf community. The CBT provides experience for selected performances throughout the season, with interpreters at the box office, concession stand, and usher stations, and up to four interpreters signing during the show.
“We had 55 kids and families in attendance,” said Cervone. “It was a tremendous success.”
On December 18, it will provide an open caption text display of the words and sounds of the performance. Three years ago, the CBT became the first professional theatre in Tennessee to offer in-house open captioning.
“A $10,000 grant from the Alliance of Women Philanthropists enabled us to buy the equipment and pay for the training for us to use it,” said Cervone, “so we can create the captioning in house. Our goal is to break down the barriers and make theatre more accessible to everyone.”
The CBT’s initiatives have flowed naturally from its tradition of innovative thinking and design, discovery, problem-solving, mentoring, collaboration, and community building.
“This was the Volunteer spirit that Clarence Brown (1910) brought to his career as a Hollywood director and that he made sure was instilled in the theatre that bears his name,” said Cervone. “Mr. Brown wanted UT’s theatre students to learn from the professionals who come to work and perform at the CBT—plus the students are learning valuable lessons in connecting with different parts of the community and even introducing their craft to middle and high schoolers.”
The theatre’s outreach initiatives are wide ranging:
Military and Veteran Discount
As a member of Blue Star Theatres, the CBT welcomes US military personnel and veterans, spouses, and children with discounted tickets to all productions.
“Pay What You Can” Preview Wednesday
To help make theatre accessible to those at all income levels, the CBT offers an evening for each production when people can attend for any price they choose.
In partnership with the Arts and Culture Alliance, the CBT participates in the Penny4Arts Program, offering every child in Knox County a ticket to select performances for a penny when accompanied by an adult. The adult ticket is offered at a 10 percent discount. These performances help promote creativity and art enrichment to children in the local community.
Faith, Hope, and Love Night
During prepandemic runs of A Christmas Carol, the CBT partnered with the Helen Ross McNabb Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley, Agape Outreach Home, and the Autism Society of East Tennessee to provide a complimentary evening of theatre—complete with cookies and hot cocoa.
In an initiative currently on pandemic hold, the CBT has partnered with Centro Hispano, the Knoxville Area Urban League, and the YWCA to offer families an opportunity to gather for dinner prior to a dedicated CBT performance. “The idea was to bring back that sense of a family meal,” said Amanda Middleton, the CBT’s external relations and community development manager.
A $10 ticket included a buffet-style dinner and a few words from a designer or production staff member. “It was available to anyone who attended as a family unit, however they may define family unit,” noted Cervone.
School and Youth Programs
The CBT offers reduced rates to school groups attending matinee performances of age-appropriate plays, including A Christmas Carol. In spring 2022 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, about a boy with autism, will be offered to high schoolers, and She Kills Monsters, about a woman who loses her parents and younger sister in a car accident, will be available for high schoolers and mature middle schoolers.
As part of their student outreach, Middleton and CBT Grants and Outreach Manager Hana Sherman attend career fairs at local schools, notably Austin-East Magnet High School, Karns Middle School, Sarah Moore Greene Elementary, and Vine Middle Magnet School. “We show the career paths you can take in theatre,” said Middleton.
In a longstanding summer tradition, the CBT offers high school students two weeks of intensive musical theatre training taught by faculty and graduate students and directed by Distinguished Lecturer in Musical Theatre Terry Alford.
Another summer program, Shakespeare in Shades—held at Vine Middle Magnet School in partnership with Community Schools and Knox County Schools—launched in 2016 and has been offered every year except for a pandemic break in 2020.
Undergraduate and MFA theatre students serve as teachers in the program, which is designed to smooth the transition to middle school by boosting confidence and increasing reading proficiency. Students blend theatre games with adapted Shakespearean texts as they prepare and stage a performance. In 2020, participants performed abbreviated versions of The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“By engaging and exposing young people to live theatre,” said Middleton, “we hope to inspire and build the next generation of theatre lovers, patrons, and actors.”
Assistance to Local School and Community Programs
The CBT also supports local theatre companies and performing arts programs in area schools. Led by Professor Kenton Yeager, head of both the Department of Theatre’s undergraduate program and its nationally known MFA program in theatre lighting, students in lighting and set design lend their expertise to help with complex lighting challenges.
They have assisted the dance department at Austin-East Magnet High School, the Bearden High School theatre department, the River & Rail Theatre Company, the Flying Anvil Theatre, the North Carolina Stage Company in Asheville, the Oak Ridge Playhouse, Pellissippi State Community College, and West High School.
“One high school theatre called and asked for effects they could use in Annie Get Your Gun,” said Yeager, “and we helped him. Sometimes it includes accessing antiquated lighting systems and upgrading them.
The CBT also donates used sets to high school theatre departments and local theatre groups. The set of Candide, which had many complex elements, was 90 percent recycled.
“Diversity and inclusion in all their forms are part of our mission statement,” said Sherman. “Whether we’re bringing performances to those who are often excluded, introducing children and youth to the theatre, or supporting local performing arts programs, the Clarence Brown Theatre is working to bring theatre to the widest possible community.”
Brooks Clark (firstname.lastname@example.org, 865-974-5471)