published Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Theater company founder meets ambitious goals

  • photo
    J. C. Smith, left, managing producer of Closed Door Entertainment and director of "A Christmas Carol," works with Jared Eddy during a dress rehearsal of the play at the Tivoli Theatre. Smith founded the production company, which will stage shows at the Tivoli and Memorial Auditorium in the coming year.
    Photo by Jake Daniels.
    enlarge photo

FACT FILE

• Age: 26.

• Hometown: Dalton, Ga.

• Day job: Document clerk for the law firm Grisham, Knight and Hooper.

• Education: Studied theater and music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

• Family: Oldest of six children.

• Roles he'd like to play: Willie Wonka, Billy Flynn in "Chicago," Artful Dodger in "Oliver," Shrek in "Shrek," Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast"

• Favorite shows he's produced: "Rent" and "Camelot."

• Shows he'd like to produce: "Les Miserables," "Shrek," "Cats," "Wicked," "Phantom of the Opera," "Chicago."

• Best show he's seen: "Beauty and the Beast" by national touring company in Huntsville, Ala.

• Favorite movie: "Casablanca."

A hurdle to J.C. Smith is just one more thing to get around.

Amid scoffing, he once said he'd write and play and did it. To a continued lack of support, he said he'd produce the play and did it.

Smith began a theater company at age 19, staged his first play at 20, mounted a musical shortly thereafter and never looked back.

Earlier this year, he moved his production company -- with all the attendant monetary and support risks -- to the Tivoli Theatre, the relative big leagues for the area.

Now, Smith's production company, Closed Door Entertainment (www.cdoorent.com), is preparing to offer Chattanooga a Broadway sampling of shows in 2012 that are complicated to mount.

"I think when people see a great thing is happening, they flock to it," he said. "We want the best of the best, and we tend to get it."

Smith is not afraid to wade into deep water.

From his first time on stage in middle school, he jumped to the musical "The Pajama Game" in high school at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, launched a long-running collaboration on the "Tuna" comedy series with friend Ed Huckabee and, 40 productions later, in addition to a full-time job and his upcoming series, helps his brother with a catering company and offers separate murder-mystery and musical review dinner shows.

"Our [heavenly] Father has been very, very gracious and blessed us every step of the way," Smith said. "He is bounteous. He is plentiful. Not just in money but in people. We have incredible talent in this city. And it's nice to be able to start pulling them [together]."

Q: What distinguished Closed Door Entertainment from other local theater companies?

A: [What] we do that a lot of community theaters don't are large-scale musical theater. We don't stick to traditional straight plays or just to the classics that everyone's heard of -- we certainly love doing the classics -- but we want to branch out. A lot of community theaters stick between the lines of either family friendly or not family friendly. And we offer a bit of both. We like to pride ourselves on offering a classic and edgy theater but doing it with class and an edge.

Other things that set us apart are the caliber and quality we can offer in our staff. We have our own custom painters. Our head artistic designer restores Byzantine chapels and then comes and paints backdrops for us. Our set builders either remodel after homes have been destroyed or build million-dollar homes for a living. Our seamstresses have ... over a century's worth of experience sewing. We're very blessed in what we have, and we just put on great shows.

Q: Why did you move from the Colonnade in Ringgold to a venue the size of the Tivoli Theatre

A: We had been in Ringgold [Ga.] for a number of years -- four years -- and we had been their premiere theater troupe there for a long time. ... We kind of outgrew the space. We have to have enough space to be able to rehearse, to build, to paint, to sew and, when you're sharing space with so many others, it makes it very difficult. All of our patrons in Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe were very faithful and devoted, but we needed a bigger venue. At theaters like Tivoli and Memorial [Auditorium], we can do shows that ... would potentially be boycotted or picketed in Ringgold or Fort Oglethorpe. ... Chattanooga is a little bit more accepting of the risqué and the adult-natured shows.

Q: What will you offer in your upcoming season?

A: We're very happy with how it landed. ... We're starting off the season with "The Foreigner." It's just a straight [comedy]. We're intending to be the first [company] at the new venue in Memorial Auditorium, in fact -- their new Community Theater upstairs. After that, we'll have "The Sound of Music," so we're bringing that classic to the Tivoli. ... One that a lot of people have heard of, but not a lot of people have seen, is "Into the Woods." ... And then we're going a little further into the edgy side. ... This year, we've chosen "Spring Awakening." It's only been off Broadway for a bit of time now -- very popular there, and it enjoyed a very successful tour. We're going to be one of the first people in our area to do that. We're very excited about that. We're also blessed ... to be one of the first amateur companies to have the rights to "Les Mis[erables]." So we'll be doing that in Memorial Auditorium. The royalties literally just became available last week. And to close the year in November, we're also going to be one of the first amateur companies to do "Shrek" here at the Tivoli. Those royalties also just became available.

Q: How do you tackle a full-time job and a production company?

A: I could not do it without the people around me. I have an amazing staff. I have an incredible board of directors. Every one [is] just devoted and passionate about every individual thing we do. One of the great things about my staff is all of us have a niche that we're really good at, and we play to those strengths. Many of them can do lots of different things but stick to the strengths that we have. We have over 40 players in our orchestra that we're very proud of. We're one of the largest nonpaid orchestras around. Our maestro has decades of experience with choral and orchestral conducting. We're just blessed with the people around us. My soon-to-be-wife [Grace Kling] is our marketing director. I can do most any things theatrical. Marketing was my downfall, and she has taken that and [run] with it and is doing wonderful work.

Q: What has been missing from community theater in this area?

A: What was missing was a homegrown group that was using the spaces that are available to us. We have beautiful, beautiful venues in the Tivoli and Memorial, and they're used by wonderful touring companies and large artists but not by people right here at home. It's great to be able to see a great artist come here and take the stage and then leave the next day. It's another thing to see a massive production of "Les Mis" or "Grease" and be able to walk out the next day and see the guy that was on stage in line next to you at Starbucks. A group that has both the internal and external support to utilize these beautiful venues is what we're missing, and we're glad to provide that outlet.

Q: What is in the future for Closed Door Entertainment?

A: Of course, there's always dreams on the horizon. We want to continue to offer large-[scale] productions at a high-quality value. One thing we're very proud to do and want to do in the future is we've started partnering with local schools. We work with about four local schools, offering them backdrops and set pieces and costumes so that their students can truly begin to grow and create a passion for this art just like the rest of us. ... We still rent things out to [theater] companies. We've rented things to New Jersey and to Atlanta [and] as far out as Texas, but we offer considerably cut rates to be able to provide those same things to local students. We'll be more than likely after next year slowing down a bit. ... We're going to do a really knockout season next year and then we'll probably scale back and only do three to four a year.

Q: What gave you the acting bug?

A: I had acted some in high school, but it was never a huge, prevalent [thing]. I love music. That's my thing. When I was 19, I wrote a play, submitted it. It got pretty far. It almost won the Pulitzer [Prize]. It didn't quite, but almost. But I wrote that, and I hate to say it was a dare, but I mentioned to someone I'm going to write a play. And they said, "Well, that's nice." And I'm going to produce it, and they said, "Sure you will." So I did it, and then I decided I want to write a musical. So I did that. And then I said I think I want to try something bigger. I want to do a full-fledged, real musical, and I did "The Sound of Music." And by that time, we had garnered so much support and so much of a following that halfway through the run of "Sound of Music" people were saying, "What's next?" And it just kind of never stopped. We would plan one, and I would be in the middle of one, I'd see another one, and go, "I want to do that show." And we would.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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