published Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Adding more (Barking) leg room: Local theater to close temporarily for renovations

Clockwise from left, Barking Legs Theater board members Ann Cater, Andrea Becksvoort, Marcus Ellsworth and Ann Law review blueprints while preparing for remodeling.
Clockwise from left, Barking Legs Theater board members Ann Cater, Andrea Becksvoort, Marcus Ellsworth and Ann Law review blueprints while preparing for remodeling.
Photo by Dan Henry.

THE CAMPAIGN

A fundraising campaign will begin June 2 on causeway.org in hopes of raising $10,000, which Barking Legs Theater owners Ann Law and Bruce Kaplan say they will match, up to that amount.

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    Barking Legs Theater will close down on July 21 in preparation for remodeling.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

Over the last 20 years, the Barking Legs Theater has earned a reputation as a great place to perform. It's also known as an intimate place to see a favorite act. But it does have its quirks, like having to go outside to get to a bathroom during a show.

Those quirks are about to go away.

"It's time to grow up," says co-owner Ann Law.

When she and husband, Dr. Bruce Kaplan, bought the old fabric warehouse on Dodds Avenue more than two decades ago, the emphasis was on creating a place where a variety of artists could perform in a space unlike any other in town. The couple had moved here from New York City, where she was a choreographer/dancer and he was doing neurological research at Cornell Medical Center. They believed Chattanooga was ready for a theater presenting avant-garde dances, theater pieces and music.

When they arrived, there weren't any venues dedicated to small artistic showcases like what Barking Legs presents.

"It was just bars," Law says. "You had to perform in the corner next to the bar."

Barking Legs has always been a place where artists could work and create. Dancers, especially, love the 24 1/2-foot-by-32-foot floor and its springy quality, and musicians and audience members, who are never more than 20 feet away from each other, enjoy being so close to each other.

"All of the artists we book love the space right away," says Bob Stagner, co-founder of Shaking Ray Levi Society, which presented most of its 22 shows in 2014 at Barking Legs.

After so many years focusing on the venue from the artists' angle, however, the husband-and-wife owners are remodeling the building to make it more comfortable for the patrons. The Benwood and Lyndhurst foundations have already agreed to provide grants covering most of the $150,000 cost, and a Kickstarter campaign via causeway.org gets underway on June 2. The couple is asking the community to kick in $10,000.

"We will match every dollar up to $10,000," Law says.

Grants are also being applied for through the Community and McKenzie foundations.

Work will begin on July 21 with a goal of reopening Oct. 1, and shows and classes will be suspended during that time.

Dan Bowers, president of ArtsBuild, a private, nonprofit united arts fund and arts council, points out that, while Barking Legs isn't a large venue, its impact on the community has been huge.

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    Owners of Barking Legs Theater Bruce Kaplan, center, and Ann Law, right, review blueprints with board members Ann Cater, Andrea Becksvoort and Marcus Ellsworth, clockwise from left.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

"Ann and Bruce are amongst those rare individuals that sacrifice out of love for the arts and have created a very unique place that greatly enhances the arts in Chattanooga," he says.

Most of the work will be done on the public areas, though sound and lighting equipment could also be upgraded. The wall separating the window facing Dodds Avenue and the theater will be placed in a new location making room for a new a social gathering place for discussions, classes and workshops during the day and hanging out before and after shows at night. A new wall will provide a sound barrier between the lobby and performance space, as well.

The seating also will be reconfigured to allow easier movement, with direct access to the bathrooms, which will be slightly reconfigured for more privacy. The theater seats, which were bought from a former theater in Fort Payne, Ala., will be repaired and reupholstered. The new design will also include mobile elements like curtain baffles and equipment shelving, allowing the space to be configured for any size show.

"It is going to be more comfortable and versatile," Law says.

Over the years, Law and Kaplan have heard very few complaints from patrons about things like the seating being old, or the fact that you had to walk outside to get to the restroom during certain performances. That is, until they mentioned they were considering remodeling. Since broaching the subject, they've heard from plenty of regulars who are thrilled at the idea of addressing the issues.

"We never knew the seats were uncomfortable, or that they are hard to get in and out of when a show is going because we are always working," Law says.

The fact that people put up with some of the venue's quirks is testament to how much people appreciate what is presented there, they say.

"Hopefully, these changes will entice more people to come because they want to and not in spite of what's here," Kaplan says.

When the couple opened the theater, which has 4,000 square feet on the main floor and about 2,700 in the basement, they did so with the idea of keeping things inexpensive, not just for the sake of their own wallets but also the budgets of potential presenters. In addition to getting the theater seats used, the curtains came from an old school and the sound system has been essentially been donated one piece at a time over the years.

"They did everything they could to keep overhead down so that made it accessible for anybody who has come to town with an idea," says Stagner. "I want to keep to them healthy in that regard and I believe this is a healthy move. Think of all the people who have walked through that door. There is no place like this in Nashville or Birmingham."

Stagner says he hopes all the people who have watched a show, presented a show or taken a class in the building will contribute to the fundraising campaign.

"Creativity leaches out of that building and we can't take these places for granted."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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