Barking Legs Theater still kicking at 25

Entertainment and arts venue marks 25 years with fresh energy

Bruce Kaplan and Ann Law stand outside Barking Legs Theater, the arts and entertainment venue they opened in the Ridgedale area 25 years ago.

I didn't want to support what the community theaters were doing. I wanted to do original work.

Online: Listen to a podcast featuring an in-depth interview with Dr. Bruce Kaplan and Ann Law discussing 25 years of Barking Legs Theater at

For 25 years, Barking Legs Theater has played host to an eclectic variety of entertainment, from the funny to the thought-provoking, from emotionally draining to intellectually straining. So you would expect their anniversary party to be no different.

For three days Nov. 1-3, they will offer an evening of full cabaret inspired by the songs of Cole Porter. A specially created menu of food and drinks has been designed for each performance, which will feature jazz, hip-hop, dance, spoken word, drag and much more.

In many ways, the story of Barking Legs is the story of how the arts world in Chattanooga has progressed in the last quarter century. When the venue opened, the city had several well-established traditional arts organizations, including a fine-arts museum, a symphony and opera, two ballet companies and several community theaters.

If you go

* What: Let’s Misbehave! Our 25th Anniversary Kickoff Show* When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Nov. 1-3* Where: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave.* Admission: $20 admission only; $50 admission and cocktail pairings during the show; $150 VIP admission, cocktail pairings, reserved parking, meet-and-greet with the cast one hour before the show, photo with you and the cast, bottle of wine from the cellar of Bruce Kaplan; $200 couples VIP admission, including all of the above, with one bottle of wine per couple.* Phone: 423-624-5347

"But it didn't have a space for new works, and I was interested in presenting new works," says Ann Law, a professional dancer and teacher who moved here from New York in 1990 with her husband, Dr. Bruce Kaplan, a neurologist.

The two had become friends with Dennis Palmer and Bob Stagner, two musicians who performed often enough in New York City that the four became friends enough that Stagner and Palmer crashed on the couple's studio apartment floor during visits.

Kaplan at the time thought he wanted to be a researcher and work in a lab, but soon realized that wasn't for him, so the idea of moving and starting a new practice was hatched. Because of their relationships with Stagner and Palmer, co-founders of the arts organization Shaking Ray Levi Society, they settled on moving here.

While he focused on setting up his practice, she was trying to find her place in the art world here.

"I wasn't sure what I could do," she says.

"I was doing some gigs in public schools with Bob and Dennis and meeting other artists and checking out possibilities. One thing that is so important to a place is space, and the only space we had available was the Tivoli [Theatre] and the Memorial [Auditorium], and the [Chattanooga] Theatre Centre, and even though it's a community theater, it is more of private entity to itself.

"I had no place to do any performing, and creative space making is important. When you have small places, that also creates [new] work."

In 1993, Law and Kaplan opened Barking Legs Theater in a 4,000-square-foot building on Dodds Avenue. It is located near the end of East Main Street at the foot of Missionary Ridge. It was once bustling part of town, but today is surrounded by a few restaurants, gas stations and resale shops.

A few years later, Kaplan opened an office for his practice in a house across the street. The theater site was chosen because it was affordable, but also because the building was under a trussed roof that spanned the entire distance, meaning there are no columns inside to block views.

"Even in New York, your seating choice has a lot to do with the pillars," Kaplan says.

Law says the building offers patrons an intimate experience like no other.

"The performances really come into you," she says. "I just think it's the best space ever."

"We made our decision not based on real estate value," Kaplan says, "but based on the utility of the structure, and it worked perfectly. And it was affordable, and that helped a lot."

After it opened, Law spent several years producing her own new works and bringing in the kinds of shows she was used to in New York. Through the Contemporary Performing Arts of Chattanooga organization that Law created, she introduced Chattanooga to a wide variety of dance, comedy, spoken word, performance art and thought-provoking salons, workshops and panel discussions.

The performers

Featuring performances by:* Floami Fly* Tanqueray Harper* Juicy* Marcus Ellsworth* Cherokee Ellison* Monica Ellison* Beth Markham Herring* Terrance Wright* Kyle Dagnan* Ann Law* The Nancy Westmoreland Group

There were several shows dedicated to the LGBT community, including a performance with nudity by Tim Miller, one of the so-called "NEA Four." Miller, along with Karen Finley, John Fleck and Holly Hughes made headlines when their National Endowment for the Arts grants were denied on the basis of subject matter after passing through the peer review process.

Miller's show here was well attended, though it did draw a few protesters.

Law soon realized that the community wanted something different, and the two adapted.

"We were all over the map," she says.

Kaplan partnered with local businessman and bluegrass music lover George Bright to create Flying Fingers Productions. They've presented Butch Baldesari, Col. Bruce Hampton, The Infamous Stringdusters, Alison Brown, Norman and Nancy Blake and dozens of other award-winning acts who loved playing solo or scaled-down shows in the intimate, acoustically stunning room.

"Ann was ready to scale back on programming, and one thing I always noticed was that the music always sounded good. I don't remember who initiated it, but I know I said, 'George, the music always sounds good, and he said, 'Well, let's start doing some music.'"

The theater shut down for remodeling in May 2014, reopening on Oct. 24 of that year with a new lobby, updated bathrooms and green room area, an outside gathering and performance space and improved sound system.

Throughout it all, neither Kaplan nor Law has taken a salary, though they have had paid employees over the years. They work as volunteers with the theater and have always worked to at least break even on everything they present.

"I always maintained it could never be a money suck," Kaplan says.

The goal ongoing is to find a way to provide enough funding to pay for full-time staff members, including a theater manager.

For now, they are proud of what they have created and what the venue has meant to the city.

"I can tell you from dealing with countless artists that what we have here is not typical of cities our size," Kaplan says. "In fact, people in larger cities are jealous of what we have. We are proud of it."

Law adds that she would love to see the city realize the need for such small work spaces and maybe look around at some empty, available spaces that could be repurposed.

"I think we have helped this little part of Chattanooga rise up over the years and hope there will be others," Kaplan says.

"It is such a pleasure to be here for shows and to experience sound like you normally never get a chance to hear. I don't know if it sits on some great meridian line that syncs up or what.

"It's just that the energy is just so fresh here."

Contract Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.