"Let's put on a show" is a movie trope made famous in MGM musicals, such as "Babes in Arms." Frequently it's accompanied by "My uncle has a barn, we can put the show on there." That fictional locale was reality for the Kingsport Theatre Guild in its early days, when plays were performed in a barn on Eden's Ridge. KTG has been in continuous operation for more than 60 years.
"J. Fred Johnson, one of Kingsport's founders, may have been the city's first prominent thespian," Tina Radke, executive director, says. "He appeared in a 1920 theatrical production titled "Everybody's Husband' for the benefit of the future public library. It wasn't until 1947, however, that an official community theater was formed, and Kingsport Theatre Guild presented its first formal offering, "Yes and No.' Through the years, the Kingsport Theatre Guild has performed in a variety of venues, including the barn on Eden's Ridge, a school auditorium, church fellowship halls, a community center on Sullivan Street, a fine arts center on Church Circle, and, currently, at the Renaissance Center." In the 2015-16 season, the guild is adding a KTG:Downtown series that performs in various locales, including the Kingsport Higher Education Center.
The KTG's theatre seats more than 300, and when the guild produced "Nanyehi" in October 2014, they had three sold-out nights. "Most people were surprised to find out that not only were all but one of the actors from here locally, but it was also the first show for 50 percent of the cast. The general mindset seems to be "Kingsport Theatre Guild, the little community theatre,' but we are trying to show this community that we are their community theatre; and we are "the little community theatre that can' and are doing amazing things with some amazing talent," Radke says.
Overcoming that "little community theatre" mindset is KTG's biggest challenge. "Most people I talk to or tell about a show aren't even aware that we are here and still doing shows. Because our theatre can seat so many, a crowd of 50 to 60 still looks small, and that affects the actors' and the audience members' experience," she says.
From the humble beginning in a barn, KTG has accomplished much. Growing audiences and increasing financial support from local businesses and individuals have enabled KTG to offer a year-round schedule of musicals, dramas, comedies and thrillers, as well as children's theater produced specifically for school groups.
"For an arts organization to exist for more than 50 years requires the vision, commitment and determination of many people. The Kingsport Theatre Guild appreciates the businesses and individuals who support community theatre through sponsorship, membership, volunteerism or by their attendance at KTG productions," Radke says.
Radke is one of two part-time, paid employees. She serves as executive artistic director and Hailey Williams is the part-time office administrator. The organization is governed by an 11-member board of directors.
"Our directors for each show are paid, but our actors, costumers, set builders, etc., are all volunteer," Radke says. "I estimate we get a total of 200 volunteer hours per show."
Those volunteers even help choose the offerings for each season. "Each year we accept suggestions from actors, directors and the community. Then a member of the Board of Directors reads each suggested script and summarizes and offers feedback to the rest of the board. Choosing the plays depends on a variety of factors: cast size and requirements, set size and requirements, royalty cost and the content. We want to choose plays that have a high artistic content, are family friendly yet still thought provoking. This coming season we are adding KTG:Downtown, which will contain some more adult-driven shows," Radke says.
Once they have chosen the shows for the season, they hold an open call for directors.
"We also have a training program for those interested in directing or stage managing," Radke says. "We tend to hire directors for only one show each season. Each director has their own style and skill set, and we want our actors to learn from a wide variety of skill sets." Directors, musical directors and choreographers are paid positions.
The director of each show determines the direction of the costumes and scenery, and the plans are finalized by the executive artistic director to ensure quality. Volunteers from the cast and crew make the costumes and build the scenery, with help from members of the community who like hands-on projects.
"Being housed in the Renaissance Arts Center and Theatre, we have a small storage/classroom space on the second floor we use for costumes and props," Radke says. "There is a scene shop located in the theatre where we store all set building materials and larger set pieces, such as refrigerators, beds and more. We keep everything and reuse it as much as we can. Because we are supported by our community, we are very frugal and strive to be good stewards with funds we receive. Often, as we are building a set, we will pull walls from prior shows to use, and our actors will reminisce about their involvement in those productions. Most of our walls have years of layers of paint on them. The same goes with costumes. As actors go through the closets, it is not unusual to hear "Oh, do you remember when so-and-so wore this?'"
When the actor finally wears the costume in a production, it is after at least six weeks of rehearsal. Actors may be called to rehearsal from one to four times per week. Rehearsals for musicals last at least eight weeks.
While audience members may see some of the same people from play to play, there are always new faces. "We have an amazing group of actors that fluctuates with each show. KTG has become an extended family to many who have gotten involved. Every show, we add new actors into that mix and welcome them into the fray. A lot of people say that sense of family and those personal connections are what bring them back to audition for more shows.
"The rewards always far outweigh the challenges in community theatre: seeing actors, directors, volunteers and audiences grow; making connections to new friends; and learning new skills. We often have actors of all different levels on one stage. Sometimes this can be a challenge, because each actor has different needs from learning stage directions to working on creating a character with goals, obstacles and accents. Some experienced actors who join us for the first time find this a challenge, but most soon take the opportunity to be a mentor to someone and find their own reward in that," Radke says.
Off-stage relationships are also vital to the success of KTG. "We have an amazing relationship with the city of Kingsport. The Renaissance Arts Center and Theatre is a city-owned building, and they allow us to use rooms for meetings, auditions, classes and rehearsals in addition to a small grant each year," Radke says.
They also have relationships with other donors such as the Tennessee Arts Commission, Eastman, Eastman Credit Union and individuals. Those grants and sponsorships, along with ticket sales, support the organization. The group also accepts donations of "everything from paint to clothing to hand tools to power tools to scrap lumber to just about anything someone would have that they want to get rid of during spring cleaning," Radke says.
Their newest relationship is with Barter Theatre and its Youth Academy. Through that partnership, Barter offers its eight-week training program for young actors in Kingsport.
"In addition to this, we offer classes and events throughout the year. Currently, we are offering a "Shakespeare 101' workshop and an "Acting Basics for Adults' workshop," Radke says. "We also offer makeup, costume and technical workshops, and an afternoon "Theatre Learning' workshop for students where they learn everything from acting to set building to designing."
If you desire to audition or attend a KTG production, details can be found on their website, www.kingsporttheatre.org. The guild uses Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in addition to the local media and e-newsletters.
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