Setting the Stage for the Future of Theatre at UT
The first thing Jenny Boyd noticed about the Carousel Theatre when she walked into it for a school trip to see Annie Get Your Gun in the 1960s was the shape.
“I just loved it,” Boyd said of the theatre-in-the-round format. “I thought it was the coolest building I’d even been in, and I wanted to be an actor just like Annie.”
In the decades since that first awe-inspiring experience, Boyd’s connection to the theatre has only grown and, on May 3, 2021, she learned how her impact on the theatre would impact students and community members alike for decades to come. Thanks to a generous gift from Randy and Jenny Boyd, both 1979 alumni, the Carousel Theatre will undergo a historical transformation that, when complete, will carry a new name: the Jenny Boyd Carousel Theatre.
“For me to have my name on the building just means everything to me,” Boyd said. “I can’t wait to see the looks on children’s faces when they wander through the doors for the first time once it has been remade. They can learn so much and are so impressionable, and so I’m very proud of that and will be there for opening night for sure.”
Setting the Stage for the Future
The new Jenny Boyd Carousel Theatre will provide state-of-the-art technology and infrastructure and be built in place of the existing theatre, which has been used to train generations of actors, set designers, and other performing arts professionals who value its unique design.
“Jenny Boyd is familiar with the Carousel from her days as a student dancer, and she did shows with the Clarence Brown [Theatre] as well. She was really jazzed that we were thinking into the future, as is Randy, who is very forward thinking as president of the University of Tennessee,” said Calvin MacLean, former theatre department head and artistic director of the theatres who retired in May 2022. “We are profoundly grateful for their gift, which has been transformational and made the future of the building certain, and also for all of their moral support.”
Katherine Stepanek, a third-year master’s student in scenic design, said the much-needed upgrades will help future graduates prepare to work in a professional setting. When she designed the set for Detroit ’67, challenges included an uneven floor, blind spots for the audience, and lighting and acoustic problems. Because the Carousel began its life as a tent and was constructed bit by bit over the years, it has numerous idiosyncrasies.
“It’s still my favorite space here, though,” Stepanek said. “I’m glad it exists, and it was the first space I designed as a graduate student. Yes, it’s complicated to work in, but the flexibility of the theatre is amazing. During the show, audience members could literally reach out and touch the stage, that’s how immersive it is. We’re all very excited for a future where students learn in the special aspects of this space but with up-to-date construction and technology.”
A collaborative project funded by the university and community, the theatre has an opportunity to be packed with state-of-the-art technology in its next iteration. The new construction and technology will be befitting of UT’s theatre programs, which enjoy top rankings. The university’s Master of Fine Arts in Acting program was ranked eighth in the United States and United Kingdom by Hollywood Reporter in 2019, marking its fourth year on the list.
“The Carousel Theatre has outlived its purpose for 30 to 40 years, but now, we have an opportunity to reimagine the space and set the stage for our community of actors, dancers, students, and patrons alike,” MacLean said. “The UT theatre department’s relationship with the community will continue, as will the legacy and personality of the Carousel as an intimate space for our theatre community.”
The Carousel Theatre began with a dirt floor and tarp covering in 1950. Its three-show season took place during the summer months, which turned out to be very successful. Community members attended shows regularly and soon, a partnership between the university and community resulted in what was described at the time as a temporary theatre-in-the-round.
Through the years, it gained its structure through piecemeal projects, such as tent flaps to protect it, actors, and patrons from the weather, but still retain its outdoor flavor. Folding walls were added that could open up during the summer months, but close during colder months to have a longer season. It became a performance space for theatre, which was part of the English department at the time, and finally, the Carousel was the go-to theatre for all theatre productions in the area through the 50s and 60s.
“It was always thought to be replaced with something more permanent, comfortable, and user-friendly, but when the Clarence Brown Theatre was built in 1979, the Carousel sort of took a back seat,”MacLean said. “Throughout my entire career at UT, there has been an effort to replace the theatre with something more state-of-the-art, modern, comfortable, and usable for the audience and the arts.”
In 2018, that dream finally started taking roots in reality when UT committed half of the $15 million target for a new Carousel Theatre.
“The university challenged the theatre department and our community supporters to raise $9 million and we got to work immediately,” MacLean said.
For Liz Stowers, who co-chairs the Carousel Theatre Capital Campaign along with Lyle Irish (’88), one of the greatest successes of this new phase of UT theatre is the opportunity to enhance the performing arts at the university and in Knoxville. It will be done with great care for the legacy of the theatre, which has always served as an opportunity for UT and the community to come together, she said.
“When we, as a group, participated in a survey and held focus groups, community input was loud and clear that we should ‘preserve the magic of the space that has so many memories for so many through its 70-year legacy,’” Stowers said. “The architects we’ve worked with have said that they’ve never worked on a project like this with such strong emotional ties.”
To learn more about the campaign and help set the stage for the future of the Jenny Boyd Carousel Theatre, visit tiny.utk.edu/new-carousel.