A! Magazine for the Arts

Mike Lilly (left) and Angus Watson (right) in a scene from JCCT's "The Dresser"

Mike Lilly (left) and Angus Watson (right) in a scene from JCCT's "The Dresser"

Johnson City Community Theatre is one of the oldest in the country

February 24, 2015

Johnson City, Tennessee, was a teenager (only 14 years old) when its first theatre group was formed in 1884. Preachers in the town took to their pulpits, promising hellfire and damnation to anyone who darkened a playhouse door, according to Johnson City Community Theatre's website.

A little more than 40 years later, in 1912, Johnson City's theatre group began performing at least three shows a year. That organization continues today, making the Johnson City Community Theatre the oldest continuously running theatre organization in Tennessee and one of the oldest in the country.

The group, known as the Johnson City Dramatic Society, put on its first production, "An American Girl," at the VA Memorial Theatre. "An American Girl" has been lost to history, but JCCT continues.

In the earliest years, the theatre was nomadic. Its plays were performed at St. John's Episcopal Church, Old Northside Junior High and Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church (the church had lightened up its views on plays by then). In 1924, theatre meeting minutes show Mary Gump was elected the first president of the Johnson City Little Theatre Guild (a new name for the group). "Since this is not a social club," she said, "there are to be no refreshments." Dues were $2 for the first year.

This group found a permanent home in 1956 at the former Temple Baptist Church at 600 E. Maple Street, where the theatre is still located. The theatre is an intimate black box stage, which allows a "memorable connection to be made between our audiences and actors due to the close proximity. While our space does require some innovation regarding staging and set design, it is a vital part of what makes us who we are as a theatre," says Emily Barnes, vice-president of operations.

"While all organizations go through ups and downs, currently JCCT is an incredibly stable and flourishing organization. Everyone is working hard to create a theatre tailored to the needs and wants of Johnson City, but we are always looking for more volunteers. We have an amazing legacy to continue, and we truly do want anyone and everyone to be a part of what we are trying to create for Johnson City," Barnes says.

The first production mounted at this location was "The Curious Savage," directed by Darryl Frank, wife of Bud Frank for whom East Tennessee State University's theatre is named. In 1967, the theatre group's name was changed from Johnson City Little Theatre Guild to Johnson City Community Theatre.

The theatre is an all-volunteer organization. "From cleaning the theatre to sets, costumes, directing, etc. We do try to gain monetary appropriations through grants with the Tennessee Arts Commission for musicians accompanying our musicals," says Barnes.

"During 2013-2014 we had a salaried artistic director position. With our building move coming at the end of 2016, the board decided that the duties overseen by the artistic director could be delegated among current volunteers, thus saving the theatre money over the long term. Once our move is complete, it is our hope to re-establish this position as well as a few others as we expand." The theatre is planning to move to downtown Johnson City to capitalize on its renaissance.

"We are a strictly non-profit organization and we operate as such. JCCT was founded in the love and dedication that comes with producing community theatre, not monetary rewards for donating time. Our current focus is creating a theatre that truly benefits the community, and to also provide an atmosphere where performers can come and have their talent nurtured and showcased."

The group is governed by a board of directors who help choose the plays for each season. A reading committee, headed by the board's vice-president, takes submissions from directors until June 1. Anyone who wishes to direct a show sends the name of the play, an outline detailing the creative vision for the show, preliminary budget and contact info to vp@jcct.info. Members and volunteers can simply submit the name of a show. The board also approves the directors, who are allowed to direct one show per year.

Once the season is set, volunteers step in to design sets and costumes, gather props, etc. "While some people volunteer to help with multiple shows, the backstage crew varies depending upon the show's needs," says Barnes.

Some actors audition regularly, some come from other local theatres and some have never auditioned or been in a community theatre performance before. "JCCT is your community theatre, and we strive to make it a place where everyone can come and pursue their theatrical passions," Barnes says.

Actors make a considerable time commitment to being in a JCCT production. A musical takes more than 120 hours of rehearsal, and a play takes more than 100. Rehearsals are held two to three nights per week and last two to three hours. Closer to opening, rehearsals can increase depending on the needs of the show. The week prior to opening (tech week) usually requires a complete show run every night, starting the Sunday prior to opening.

"The rewards come when the curtain closes opening night," Barnes says. "Producing a show, while fun, can also be stressful and tiring. While there is always the possibility of disagreements between the cast and/or crew members, we like to think that we promote an atmosphere that helps prioritize working together for the common goal: putting on a good show. We have an incredibly active board of directors who are working to help make JCCT a better theatre for the community.

"As with any non-profit, the hardest battle is getting people to care about our cause. JCCT is a historical landmark in the history of Johnson City, as well as the state of Tennessee. We are the oldest running community theatre in the state, and we rank in the top 10 oldest community theatres nationwide. This legacy, while it does speak for itself, is being rejuvenated and expanding with the election of the 2015 board of directors. They are an energetic and talented new group and are eagerly preparing to expand JCCT to benefit Johnson City," Barnes says.

Part of the expansion JCCT plans includes educational and community outreach programs. Plans are in the works for a children's theatre program, complete with a summer camp, workshops throughout the year and creating a fun and safe atmosphere where children of all ages can come and express their creativity and imagination.

For the adults, they hope to start offering workshops surrounding different elements of the theatre such as improv, make-up design, set building, lighting design, etc. They also want to have three or more Spotlight Shows a year, which will be more technically difficult so they allow actors to really push themselves.

"That is all part of the plan for 2016. For this year, we are working on making sure our productions become a solid foundation for us to grow, so most of our focus is on our 2015 season," Barnes says.

To find out about auditioning for JCCT or for more information, visit www.jcct.info.

Kingsport Theatre Guild