By Amanda Morgan Fann, Staff Writer–

Renovations to the Fine Arts Center at UTC forced the Theatre Department to adapt to different ways of planning, rehearsing and performing for the next year and a half.

The much-needed renovations to the center will be beneficial to students and patrons and will include new plumbing and lighting, a face-lift for the lobby, and new draperies for the concert hall and theatre, explained Chair of the Theatre Division, Steve Ray. Accessibility for wheelchairs will be improved by the addition of an elevator and more accommodating seating in the Dorothy Hackett Ward Theatre and the Roland Hayes Concert Hall.

“We have been waiting on this [renovation] for a number of years and we are all really excited even if that means relocating to smaller areas than we are used to,” said Ray.

Finding areas on campus for a scene shop, costume stop, and storage have been a challenge. The scene shop has been significantly reduced in size after finding a space in the EMCS building; this reality requires the department to get creative with what plays they pick to perform.

Ray sees this as an opportunity for students to learn how to adapt to different conditions they may face in the theatre world. Students have been very open to the change and feel it’s beneficial to their education, but they still miss having a central base to call home.

“It’s weird to not have our green room,” says sophomore theatre major Tate Runyon, “[It’s] a space we can all just go to hang out.”

Theatre professor Gaye Jeffers added that although the movement and the department being so dispersed around campus has been hard on both students and professors, it has offered experiences the students may not have received otherwise.

“We are using the move as a learning opportunity in terms of utilizing non-traditional theatre spaces for both performances and building the productions,” Jeffers said.

The Theatre Department has not only embraced the challenges the move has provided but has rebranded it to their advantage. They are calling their new way of performing “Outside the Box” performances.

“The theatre is traditionally a big box and we put everything inside it and invite the audience inside our box to see us work,” Ray said. “So we are playing of the idea of the saying [thinking outside the box] since we are literally leaving ours to perform without boundaries in the community.”

The idea exemplifies a way for the department to take their shows on the road while partnering with local business and venues to bring their productions not only to campus but to the greater community. To find a space that is affordable, usable, and within walking distance of campus is definitely a challenge, notes Jeffers. For this concept to work, the professors have to use a “found space,” which is a space that works with the concept of the play and in turn allows the director to use the architecture of the found space as the main design element.

“As a director, this often means hours and hours of preparation, really thinking about how to use everything for the benefit of the audience,” Jeffers said.

Jeffers was the professor who directed “Love and Information,” UTC’s first Outside the Box performance that took place Feb. 12 to 16, 2019. She decided to use the 901 Lindsay chapel as the found space for the performance. The chapel was fitting for the theme of the play, love, and with the limited room for props, screens of various digital sources were used. Jeffers set the space up in a thrust configuration (three-sided seating) for a more intimate feel, which also taught students how to work outside the typical theatre set up.

“With the audience on three sides of you and no backstage, we had to learn quickly how to be in the moment and stay composed for the entirety of the performance,” theatre major and actress Kimberly Rye said.

With the Outside the Box performances, everyone learns different tools of the craft, added Rye. For example, the set people are having to build in a workshop then take down move and rebuild in a new temporary space. The actors are learning how to adapt to a multitude of different stage condition they would not usually experience.

Many professional theatres like Broadway and LORT theatres rehearse in a space with a ground plan taped on the floor, and actors have to use their imagination in different ways, said Jeffers; The Outside the Box performances teach students how to do this. What usually is only talked about in the classroom becomes reality. It forces students to be flexible in the theatre field, which prepares them even further for jobs opportunities after their time at UTC.

The next Outside the Box performance will be the musical Cats, performed on the on Chamberlain Field Pavilion from April 9 to 13. This “found space” was chosen because of its Victorian architecture and outside feel of an alley, said director Ray. In preparation for the performance, students will be practicing in the UC auditorium and have extra dance rehearsals at the Chattanooga Ballet studio, whom they are partnering with for the production.

“Theatre can happen anywhere. Keeping a progressive mindset and being committed to growing the art form are important,” Gaye said. “We all can get stuck in a rut in one way or another. Perhaps this is a time to explore new plays, new ways of doing things, and finding new voices.”

According to Ray, the Outside the Box experience is so beneficial to the education and comradery of the students that it may be added to the curriculum and continued even after the Fine Arts Center is up and running again. For now, though, everyone’s focusing on what’s coming next.

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