The Wonderful World of Theatre Bristol
After playing phone tag with Asher Henson, the man in charge of Sales and Marketing for Theatre Bristol for the better part of 2 weeks, we were finally able to sync our schedules up to meet for an interview. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I was able to spend learning about this organization from someone on the inside. Because if you’re like me, you probably know vaguely where Theatre Bristol is located, or could picture their sign in your head. Maybe you’ve attended a performance or two, but other than that, don’t really know much about Theatre Bristol as a group.
I’ve probably walked by their building a thousand times or more, and often wondered what was going on inside. I’ve never been to a performance, but after talking to Mr. Henson, I hope to change that soon. I know he and I both forgot to mention it in the interview but the Rocky Horror Show will be running tentatively from December 3rd, through the 18th. From how Mr. Henson described it, and the amount of work the Bristol youth put into one of their productions, especially a larger show like this, makes me know that it’s going to turn out to be a lot of fun. Tickets will be a flat $15, as this is a fund-raising performance. All that information, and much more can be found on their website.
There’s the plug for this article.
I get so bogged down with looking at Downtown Bristol as a twenty-something person, and wondering why there isn’t more for people my age to do, that I forget about the kids! Well, I remembered the kids this week, and wanted to focus on Theatre Bristol, as I found out they cater to many young kids in the area. I’m just going to let my dialogue with Asher speak on its own for a little while.
Del Dotson: Can you tell me a little bit about the background of the organization?
Asher Henson: Yeah, Theatre Bristol was founded in 1965 by Catherine DeCaterina. She actually did a lot of acting herself, and was a recording artist as well. When she moved back to the area, she wanted to.. her daughter was very introverted and she was trying to think of ways to help her daughter become more extroverted. She did that by starting acting classes for children of her daughter’s age, basically in the basement of her house. And then in 1965 it had grown so much, they went ahead and incorporated it as “Bristol Children’s Theatre”.
AH: Then, I believe, in ’77, they actually changed it to “Theatre Bristol”. And started offering adult productions as well. But for 45 years we’ve had a focus on children’s education through the arts as well as adult’s education through the arts, offering acting classes and, overall you know, just being a community theatre.
DD: Right, well, that’s really fantastic. And do you get a lot.. do you see kids that come in and are kind of shy and everything, and then once they get into the program, and incorporated into it..
AH: Yeah, absolutely! We have story after story of kids that come through and have problems with drugs and alcohol, or have really rough home lives. Or they get picked on at school, and they find an outlet here, to where they become more confident. Obviously, and a lot of people don’t realize that acting actually instills in children a very good work ethic, as well it makes them a lot more employable when they go out into the work force. As far as, you know, you have to have some pretty mad time management skills to balance school.. because one of our requirements is if you’re acting in any one of our plays and you’re 18 or younger and you’re in school, you have to keep a certain grade point average at school in order to stay in the play. So we’re really, we always focus on what’s best for the kids. But yeah, the time management it takes to balance your school work, and then also memorizing your lines, is invaluable.
DD: And it probably gives them a whole lot of confidence as well.
AH: Oh yeah, definitely! And then performing in front of large groups of people obviously is public speaking skills, so they learn that through the acting on stage. Then just the memorization, working together with another group of actors to put on a play is really good team building exercise obviously and prepares you better for the work force as well. There’s just so many different factors that come into play on how valuable what the kids learn here is. A lot of people don’t really realize that it has very far reaching implications, as far as how beneficial it is for the kids.
DD: Right. Well it sounds great. So what brought it.. what did you say the founder’s name was again?
AH: Catherine DeCaterina.
DD: Catherine, okay. What made her bring it to downtown Bristol, specifically?
AH: Well this is where she was from. Like I said, she did a lot of recording, moved out of the area for a while then came back home. This was home for her, basically. So she wanted to set it up here for the Bristol community, and the surrounding region as well.
DD: So has it always been in this location?
AH: It’s not been in this location, necessarily. They were, like I said, it started in the basement of her [Catherine] house and then they moved to, the name eludes me right now, but a community center that was somewhere around here, back then. Then, about 25 years ago they got this building here. At one point they actually owned the Paramount, but then sold it.
DD: I didn’t know that.
DD: Okay, so I know that you cater to the youth around here, and I know that’s a big part of.. would you say that’s what makes it [Theatre Bristol] thrive, because of the age groups you’re trying to reach?
AH: Yeah, I mean I think that’s always kind of been our niche I guess. We do offer adult performances. For instance we’re doing “Rocky Horror Show” in December. Obviously not a kid friendly show. You actually have to be 18 or older to even audition for that particular show. So you’ve got that, but we’ve always have, every single season we have what we call our “Discovery Series” for young audiences, and it’s a series of 4 or 5 plays and musicals that are specifically geared towards school aged children. All of the actors, or most of the actors in those plays are school aged children, or younger people. Right now actually, for the month of November we’re still touring our Princess & the Pea show, to different local schools. So yeah, our focus has always been childrens education for the arts. Instead of just being a community theatre, we have a very intensive focus, like I said, on children. On the youth.
DD: Right. I think it’s great because I mean, there’s like bars, and there’s antique shops, and coffee shops, and stuff down here.
DD: And it’s everything for people that are a little bit older, you know?
DD: ..At least, “of a certain age”. There’s not really a whole lot to do in this area for kids. And as you said, this is a great outlet for..
AH: Yeah, especially positive things for them to do. I mean, they can go “cruise” in the K-Mart parking lot or go to Tinsletown and see movies of course, go bowling, what-have-you. but as far as actually, having activities that are fun for them but still very enriching, there’s very few things for the youth in this area to do.
AH ..To keep them away from the negative influences.
DD: Right. I read the mission you have on your website and it said “To use the performing arts to inspire, educate, and entertain people of all ages”. I’m sure that’s been your, you know, the mission statement for a very long time, probably since 1965.
DD: Do you think it’s grown at all to incorporate anything else? Or has it changed at all?
AH: Yeah! The scope of what the arts actually encompass is very broad anyway. So actually, we offer hula-hooping classes..
DD: Oh wow!
AH: Yeah! Whatever people seem to have an interest in, that can be encompassed in the arts, is what we try to focus on. It’s not just acting. We hope to eventually offer musical lessons, be-it voice or piano lessons, or instruments and stuff like that. Because all of that will come back to benefit us in the future, when we’re doing a production, we always need people be in the orchestra and stuff like that, so yeah it’s a very broad spectrum of things that we can offer and still stay within the scope of that mission statement.
DD: Yeah, I didn’t think about it that way. Is there any way, because I get a lot.. by doing this blog I’m trying to get as many readers as possible. Is there any way they can contribute? Like, can they come be a volunteer? Or…
AH: Oh yeah! Here, you mean?
DD: Yeah, here in Bristol.
AH: Yeah, definitely! Most of what gets done at Theatre Bristol is because of our volunteers. We just recently wrapped up the Haunted House..on Saturday. There would actually be no way for that to get done without our volunteers. Another thing with the youth, we have a youth advisory board that’s a huge part of Theatre Bristol. It’s a group of, I think, 19 school aged children from the ages of 14 to 18. They come and meet once a month, like a regular board meeting. They have their officers, you know, their President, Vice-President, and all that. They think of fund-raising ideas and ways that they can help Theatre Bristol raise money or be an active part in Theatre Bristol with anything that needs to be done. And they alone were probably the most critical part of what we did with the Haunted House. We couldn’t have done it without our youth advisory board. They worked hours and hours putting together, acting in the Haunted House. Helping clean up afterward. So yeah, anyone that wants to come volunteer with us.. they don’t have to be a youth. We have a lot of people that love the Theatre, that want to come in.. Emily Anne’s parents, when they’re in town they always come down and volunteer quite a bit. I have friends and family members that come and volunteer. The doors are open to pretty much anyone.
DD: That’s cool, how would they get in contact with you?
AH: By just contacting the Theatre. The phone number is (423) 968-4977.
DD: Okay. One of my questions that I thought of just… I thought of this a few months ago and it wasn’t specifically for Theatre Bristol, but as I was preparing for this interview I was thinking that there are a bunch of schools around here that have theater departments, like, I’m not sure if King College does, but ETSU and UVa Wise. Have you ever thought about kind of partnering up with one of them for a production? Because it would be.. synergy, first of all..
DD: ..and then also, I know the younger kids like doing things together with the big kids, you know? Like teenagers, adolescents, and stuff.
AH: Well we have a good relationship with those schools. For instance we have.. one of our actors that’s in Rocky this coming December, he’s playing a principle character in that, he’s in the theater department at Emory & Henry. A lot of the people that are involved with the theater departments of their schools come to the theater here, and in some cases they can apply it towards credit hours for the courses they are taking.
DD: Oh that’s good.
AH: As far as doing shows together or anything like that, the schools typically like to keep their productions separate from the community theatre, or what have you. Sometimes though we have schools that’ll call and say “Hey, we need ‘such-and-such’ prop!” and if we have it, we’ll let them borrow it. We have, obviously where we’ve been around for 45 years, we’ve amassed prop department, and costume department. So that’s something we’ve been really proud of.
DD: I can only imagine.
AH: Yeah. Yeah, we have a good relationship with them, but as far as doing joint-productions, that’s something that has not been done. Not that we would be against it necessarily, but the schools like to keep it specific to their department.
DD: Yeah, I guess I didn’t think of that. Is there anything special we can look forward to in the coming months?
AH: Ah, well the Rocky Horror Show in December is always a huge success. It’s always had a really large cult-following. Just a really fun show.
AH: It’s actually the first show that I’ve ever been in. I auditioned for it, and actually Emily Anne auditioned for it, so we’re both in the show. She’s been with Theatre Bristol for 12 years, and it’s her first show she’s ever been in.
AH: I kind of coerced her into doing it if I was going to do it.
AH: That’s always a great show, we’ve always had a blast doing it. It’s always had a really good response to this area, too. It’s not for everybody, but it’s a really fun show. And then tomorrow, er.. tonight actually we have, Wise Old River is going to be in concert tonight here. In March we’re going to kick off our season again, with Willy Wonka. Which is a childrens production, so it’ll be a really large production. And we’re actually going to rent the Paramount and perform it in there.
DD: That’ll be fun. Is there anything that we didn’t get a chance to talk about that you’d like to mention?
AH: The only thing we always kind of grit our teeth about is.. where we are sort of next door to the Paramount, people always confuse us with the Paramount. Like, “Oh, yeah, I know where you are, you’re in the Paramount, right?”, no! We are Theatre Bristol, completely separate entities. A lot of people even think that when they donate money to the Paramount, because the Paramount is also a non-profit, they feel like when they donate money to the Paramount, they’re also helping Theatre Bristol. And that’s not the case. I guess, just what we always like to try to remind people of is what we do, do for the community, what we do for the youth of this community, and not to forget about us. We’ve had our government cut by 75% in the last decade, with the economy going downhill our corporate and personal sponsorship has been cut severely. So yeah, we’re struggling just like every other non-profit in the country is right now. We just ask the community not to forget about us, and not to forget what we do for them.
DD: Right. What a wonderful message. Well, that’s it, I mean that’s all the questions I have for you. Thank you very much for your time.
AH: No problem. It was a pleasure meeting you.
Mr. Henson then made time in his schedule to show me the stage and talk in a little further detail about Theatre Bristol. I enjoyed the stage, the audience sits about 115 if need be, and as Mr. Henson says: “Anywhere you sit is an awesome seat.” The size is part of the charm, I think. On either side of the stage, there are pillars/support beams painted black to match everything. Mr. Henson informed me that they have recently bought a movie projector and are getting a custom screen made to fit perfectly in between the two pillars. You might not think that’s all that cool, but I certainly do! I remember a few months back I said something about the Cameo Theatre playing movies for special occasions. I’m all for it!
And just by the way… I honestly want to know your opinion to this, would you go to a “mystery movie”? Like seeing a mystery movie advertised, pay a few bucks to go see it, blindly? E-mail me at email@example.com or e-mail Theatre Bristol to give some feedback. I think it’s a great idea, that has the potential to be a boat-load of fun. But don’t let my opinion sway you.
I want to end this article by reiterating the fact that, as I have mentioned before, have been a pretty good judge of a persons character. I think I’ve honed that skill over the years to straight-up being ninja-esque about it. And I can tell after talking to Mr. Henson, and his “partner-in-crime” Ms. Emily Anne (Emily, I am so sorry if I spelled your name wrong!) that they are sincerely involved with Theatre Bristol with all their hearts. It’s something they want to do. Who can honestly say that they would quit a pretty decently paying job to work for a non-profit? Asher Henson can. In talking with him, I learned that. He didn’t bring it up to brag, or by any means try to be arrogant. I don’t think he brought it up at all, as a matter of fact, we just sort of stumbled across it in conversation. But he filled me in on all of that, and told me how much happier his life is now that he’s doing something that he’s passionate about.
I would like to take this time to personally thank Mr. Henson and Ms. Emily Anne for all the work they do for our youth, and for our community overall. I would also like to encourage anyone and everyone to help out their organization in any way they can. No donation is too small, no audience can be too large, and I hope to see more people (myself included) volunteering there. Thank you all.