Thursday, December 11, 2008

An Exciting New Theater Near Completion

Kenley Smith doesn't look much like a theater guy. Or a writer. Or much of anything else creative. He's even wearing a NASCAR-like jacket broadcasting his former business, Car Guys, which taught people how to drive like maniacs on race tracks before he sold it eight years ago. Executive driving nutcases.

But Kenley is, indeed, a theater guy. He is, at this very moment, building a new theater in the finest Shakespearian tradition, at 30 Campbell Ave. in downtown Roanoke, former home of one of the best places in the region to buy a pink and lavender zoot suit, New York Fashions.

Kenley has a master's degree in creative writing from Hollins and has taken a lot of courses in the master's program for the theater. Nevermind that he looks like a Civil War foot soldier--reminiscing 20 years after the cessation of hostilities. He uses that image to his benefit, often employing it onstage at Mill Mountain Theatre's Waldron Stage as part of the troupe for No Shame Theatre.

It was his run there with director Todd Ristau, a Hollins professor, creative director and inventor of No Shame (out in Iowa some years ago) that got him interested in theater. Todd's the creative director at Studio One (and he's teaching a class at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference Jan. 23-24, if I'm allowed a plug here--and I am 'cause it's my blog). Kenley signed up for the master's program and Todd--the brilliant Ernie Zulia--became his mentors.

Kenley says Studio Roanoke will not be in competition with Mill Mountain Theatre or anybody else because it wants to put on edgy plays, adult plays, "stuff that's not family friendly." Mill Mountain Theatre's support has been soft of late and its plays have been pretty much the same tired fare: musicals with an occasional musical thrown in for diversity. Did I mention they do muscials?

Studio Roanoke will offer something different because its works won't only be challenging, they'll be new. Kenley plans to feature the work of students and new playwrights (himself included) and he hopes to interest some hotshot directors to visit here and put some of these plays on.

Kenley bought the building for $295,000 and hopes to keep his total investment below $500,000 ("that'd be good," he says). He will establish a non-profit 501(c)3 in order to quality for funding for some of the theater construction that will be necessary. He can't get any breaks on it if he's simply improving the building to make it more valuable, he says, but all the theater stuff will be portable and not tied to the building's costs.

Kenley wants to open in June or July for a full-length play, but there will be soft openings with readings when he gets a certificate of occupancy. He'll also hold theater classes in the building and it will be something of an arts community center.

Next door, meanwhile, in the old Woolworth's, my friend Bill Elliot is searching for something creative to do with that huge space. Any suggestions?

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