Sherry Landrum and Rex Knowles sit in their dark office, backs facing one another, working on the backdrop for scenes in a play that will open Friday. Periodically, the two look down through a window to see men on a stage building sets.
It seems like any weekday at a playhouse preparing for a show — rehearsals run from noon to 3 p.m. and then from 6 to 9 p.m. — but Ms. Landrum and Mr. Knowles, who are married, recall six years ago when this burgeoning theater was more trouble than excitement.
The Chattanooga State Professional Actor Training program, which began in 2002 with about 20 students, was born out of controversy but has recovered to nearly double in size.
“We have fought many battles to do this,” Ms. Landrum said. “We went through a lot to establish the program.”
In the fall, Ms. Landrum, the program’s artistic director, and Mr. Knowles, the executive director, expect to have 40 students enrolled, accepting some students from as far away as California and Washington state. The success of the program has driven administrators to form a two-year professional dance program that will be launched in the fall, Chattanooga State Technical Community College President Jim Cantanzaro said.
The program’s growth has been accompanied by more mature, riskier productions. In the first year, student actors opened with safe offerings such as “The Boyfriend,” “Cinderella” and “Once Upon a Mattress,” but selections have changed over the years.
UPCOMING SUMMER PRODUCTIONS
* “Luck of the Draw: the Fully Improvised Musical,” June 6-8, 13-15
* “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” June 20-22, 27-29
* “Hedda Gabler,” July 4-6, 11-13
* “West Running-Brook: the Poetry of Robert Frost,” July 18-20, 25-27
* “Macbeth,” Aug. 1-3, 8-10
In recent seasons, they’ve staged productions such as “Bat Boy,” a blood-and-gore slasher musical; “Angels in America,” a play with homosexual themes; and “The Shape of Things,” a play with sexual themes. Posters for these plays read: “Adult themes, adult content, not suitable for children.”
The opportunity to act in plays with provocative themes is welcomed by some students, said Jennelle Gilreath, 21, who graduated from the two-year program in May and will be in two productions this summer.
“I appreciate them picking stuff like that and taking the risk because it gives us more range as actors,” Ms. Gilreath said. “Just because it isn’t a fairy-tale story that people like doesn’t mean it isn’t good.”
Ms. Landrum and Mr. Knowles came from New York City and trained with well-known people such as director Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Catch-22,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) and Paul Sill, who helped create Chicago’s Second City improvisation theater. They say their Chattanooga State productions are in line with productions at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the avant-garde Chattanooga Theatre Centre CircleStage productions.
Today daring productions aren’t questioned, but there was a time when their very existence raised eyebrows, Dr. Catanzaro said.
Around the same time the Professional Actor Training program began, Chattanooga State was embroiled in a controversy over developing an arts program at the two-year college.
Lawmakers, particularly David Fowler, a former state senator from Signal Mountain and now president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee in Nashville, questioned Chattanooga State’s investment in a campus magazine, a sculpting program and the acting program. He called for the Board of Regents to audit the programs, according to stories published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
ON THE WEB
“It was two years that we were under the gun to prove that this program was worthwhile,” said Dr. Catanzaro. “They had to get the program in the black within a year. They worked under great duress. I think it was a real damper, but we decided it was good for the community.”
Several attempts to reach Mr. Fowler were not successful.
Chicago native Malachi Nimmons, 23, graduated from the acting program in May and said it has equipped him to do what he loves.
“(The program) has done so much for me,” said Mr. Nimmons, who said he has received several job offers since graduating. “It has changed my dream into a reality. I will never have to be a starving actor that works at a restaurant. I am a different person because of the training I got there.”
Video: Luck of the DrawChattanooga State Repertory Theatre will present a professional summer theater festival employing more than 45 professional artists. Luck of the Draw, the improvised musical conceived and directed by Sherry Landrum, will be presented Friday through Sunday and June 13-15. The Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday performances are at 2:30 p.m.