The history of theater runs throughout the Tennessee past. Early touring theater groups performed in the larger towns, with plays such as Child of Nature, or Virtue Rewarded presented in Nashville in 1807. Nashville residents established their first theater in 1818, and during the next two decades performances multiplied and became more elaborate with each passing season. Memphis’s initial theatrical performance took place at the Blue Ruin in 1831. Nashville’s Adelphi Theater opened in 1850 as the second largest venue in the country. A similar pattern of theater growth occurred in antebellum Knoxville and especially in Memphis, where troupes traveling along the Mississippi River brought a wide variety of performers during the 1850s boom.
The Victorian Age proved to be a golden era for theater in Tennessee. Major stars such as James O’Neill, Lillie Langtry, Julia Marlowe, Otis Skinner, Edwin Booth, and Sarah Bernhardt performed in the state while entrepreneurs in the four major cities, and even smaller county seats, built theaters and “opera houses.” The Ryman Auditorium by the turn of the century had become Nashville’s premier venue; Staub’s Theater (later the Bijou) in Knoxville and the Grand Opera House in Memphis held similar honors in their respective cities. Kitty Cheatham of Nashville became one of the state’s first major native-born theater stars in the early twentieth century.
Diversity marks the theater of twentieth century urban Tennessee. In 1921 the Memphis Little Theater, now Theater Memphis, was established. In 1931 the Junior League of Nashville established the Nashville Children’s Theatre, later called the Nashville Academy Theatre. A huge post-World War II success, the group opened a new 699-seat theater in 1960, the first constructed specifically as a children’s theater in the nation. In 1949 Nashville’s Circle Players were established. Led by Jackie Nicholds, the Circuit Players of Memphis began with summer performances in 1965; the Circuit Playhouse, Inc., of Memphis was organized in 1969, and the group opened its modern theater in 1975. In Knoxville the Bijou Theater was listed on the National Register and restored as a modern theater; large productions often take place nearby at the 1920s movie palace, the Tennessee Theater. In 1971 the Clarence Brown Theater opened on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It hosts college-produced performances as well as national traveling companies. Chattanooga’s Tivoli Theater, another National Register landmark, also was restored for the performing arts.
The Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) in Nashville opened in 1980. It became the state’s premier theater venue and hosted the Tennessee Bicentennial Arts and Entertainment Festival in 1996. TPAC also is home to the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, which was established in 1980 and is led by Mac Pirkle. It is the largest of the state’s professional theater companies, and through its Humanities Outreach in Tennessee program, the company has brought theater to over 250,000 students.
In the latter decades of the century, important theater companies were established statewide. The Oak Ridge Playhouse began in the 1950s. Certainly the most famous regional company is the Cumberland County Playhouse established by Paul Crabtree outside of Crossville in 1965. Today the playhouse’s complex includes a 220-seat outdoor theater and a 490-seat Paul and Mary Crabtree Auditorium. The Murfreesboro Little Theater started performances in 1962 in a former Boy Scout lodge building constructed by the National Youth Administration in the late 1930s. In 1996 the company moved into the newly renovated Center for the Arts, formerly the post office and then city library of Murfreesboro. In 2005, the Murfreesboro Little Theater returned to the lodge building, known locally as “The Log Cabin.” The Road Company was established in Johnson City in 1975 and presented its first performances in 1981. Important influences on both the Murfreesboro and Johnson City companies are the thriving drama departments of the respective state universities located in those towns. Colleges departments of music and drama have been invaluable in the development of theater across the state.
Locally produced theater thrives in many small towns. The Ruffin Theater in Covington originally featured movies but was restored in the late 1980s as a performing arts theater. Clarksville has the restored Roxy Theater for stage productions. The Center for the Arts in Woodbury, established in 1991, has become regionally known for its drama and musical productions. The Capitol Theater, restored 1996-98, has recently opened as a performing arts center in Union City. Lawrenceburg is planning a similar revival for its Art Deco-style Crockett Theater, as is Crossville for its National Register-listed Palace Theater.
Several African American groups also have established theater companies over the last thirty years. The oldest is the Carpetbag Theatre of Knoxville, established in 1969. The Blues City Cultural Center began in 1979; it performs in Memphis as well as towns throughout the region. Stella Reed established Nashville’s Black Taffeta and Burlap in 1990, and Nashville actor and playwright Barry Scott established the American Negro Playwright Theater in 1992.
Clara Hieronymus, “Spotlights: 200 Years of Tennessee Theater,” Tennessee Bicentennial Arts and Entertainment Festival Program (1996), 20-29