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Volume 24, Number 10 — November 2017

Theatre Bristol celebrates 50 years

Catherine DeCaterina, director of the Bristol Children's Theatre, helps Lisa Schoenhardt, seated, and Mary Capers Bledsoe with their lines for a future play.
Catherine DeCaterina, director of the Bristol Children's Theatre, helps Lisa Schoenhardt, seated, and Mary Capers Bledsoe with their lines for a future play.
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | February 24, 2015

Theatre Bristol is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

You can't talk about Theatre Bristol (called Bristol Children's Theatre in 1965) without discussing its founder, Catherine Fleenor DeCaterina.

DeCaterina, who grew up in Bristol, Tenn., studied classical voice and opera at Juilliard School, New York City. After graduating she performed contemporary music in nightclubs and theatres. It was at a performance that she met and later married Frank DeCaterina. They returned to Bristol, and she started a kindergarten in their basement. When she headed up the preschool department of the Episcopal Day School, she began after-school drama classes, which formed the beginning of Theatre Bristol, the oldest community children's theatre in Tennessee. When parents began to participate, the plays grew and became more complicated.

In the 1970s, Theatre Bristol incorporated and rehearsed and performed in various locations before settling in downtown Bristol, Tennessee at 506 and 512 State Street.

In 1983, DeCaterina was instrumental in the rescue and rebuilding of a neglected Bristol iconic landmark, the Paramount Theatre. Through her dedication, determination and vision, she spearheaded government grants matched by the generous local donations and support.

By the 1990s, she was ready to step back, and the theatre continued to grow.

"Going into 2012, the theatre began to be run by a volunteer-only board, keeping the theatre in operation with a few shows," Samantha Gray, board of directors' member, says. "In December 2012, Cathy passed away, knowing that her legacy would continue. Since that time, Theatre Bristol returned to the Paramount stage in 2014 for the first time in five years. The theatre intends to continue growing stronger, welcoming support and believing the love for live performance in the area and the great deal of talent will help it continue to thrive."

As an all-volunteer organization, Theatre Bristol relies on a multitude of people to put their season together. "We are trying to foster a positive atmosphere around the theatre and keep good, family-oriented productions where families can get involved," Gray says. "When you put that positive energy together with things families feel good about being involved in, you get a lot of volunteers. Get a lot of volunteers and especially several very dedicated volunteers working for the love of it, and you're able to get it done. Positivity, family friendly, hard work, dedication, repeat."

Theatre Bristol actors are a mixed group. Several audition and perform regularly, but there are new performers with each production. "Some of them have previous acting experience, but many of them have never been in a show before," Gray says. "They thought it would be fun to give it a try, so they do. Then they find out just how fun it is, and then they're hooked."

Chris McVey and Glenn Patterson often direct Theatre Bristol's productions. "They've worked with us for years," Gray says. "They have a love for theatre, the process, the organization and the people. They also understand the importance of putting on a quality production while keeping expenses to a minimum."

Patterson and other volunteers will be hard at work when Theatre Bristol produces the musical "Les MisÚrables," in June at The Paramount Center for the Arts.

Theatre Bristol's 50th anniversary season celebrates a decision the board made two years ago: to go back to its roots. "We were founded as a children's theatre. So we made the decision to either do shows that kids can participate in or that families felt good about bringing their kids to. So we base the shows we choose off of that criteria," says Mike Musick, chairman of the board of directors.

Their focus on children extends to education efforts. Theatre Bristol provides theatre camps in the summer, as well as workshops and classes. Its Youth Service Board promotes and participates in community outreach on behalf of the theatre. It stages a complete production, including directing, lights, sound, as well as acting, so young people can learn firsthand the ins and outs of theatre. This past year they produced George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." The theatre looks forward to re-establishing theatre camps for students in the coming year and growing the program.

"Cathy was dedicated to the notion that no student would be turned away from attending a performance," Musick says. "For many years, Theatre Bristol has provided affordable tickets to students and offered discounts to make sure students can attend shows. At this time, Theatre Bristol maintains it should be affordable for a family to attend and students to attend -providing excellent entertainment all the while -and looks forward to returning to bigger seasons and school shows."

"Over a 50-year history, we've had many triumphs but probably the greatest is the impact Theatre Bristol has had on children and people," Musick says. "We've been fortunate that we've had thousands of people see our shows over the years, and hundreds of people participate in our productions. Many of the people who have performed or worked behind the scenes at Theatre Bristol over the years have gone on to work professionally in the entertainment industry. We've had alumni perform at Barter and other regional professional theatres. We've had alums perform or work on Broadway, in national touring shows, in television series, movies and at Walt Disney Entertainment. We have a TB alum who is a BBC radio host and another who tours the country performing as beloved characters in a one-man show. But some of our greatest triumphs are the many kids who have found their niche by participating in theatre. Maybe they were painfully shy, or they weren't athletic, but they were creative and were looking for a place to fit in, a place to belong. We've given so many of those kids an outlet and a boost of confidence they needed to succeed in other areas of life, and that's why Cathy DeCaterina began this theatre 50 years ago. For every entertainment professional we've fostered, we've helped foster doctors, lawyers, teachers, business people and other professionals. Our greatest triumph is our people.

"Our greatest challenge is to continue our legacy and to do so in our building. We are blessed with a wonderful facility. But the building at 506-12 State Street is over 100 years old and is in desperate need of renovations; a new roof, an updated, more efficient heating and cooling system, an updated electrical system, updated plumbing, more energy efficient lighting. We want to remodel and expand our performance space. We want to make sure our building is vibrant for the next 50 years. While we are glad for all we're able to accomplish as volunteers, we recognize that the theatre needs to return to paid artistic, technical and administrative staff, supported by volunteers, as soon as possible to ensure its sustainability. Another challenge is reconnecting with longtime supporters. Fortunately we're doing some of that. There are a lot of Theatre Bristol friends and supporters from the past, and they're coming back around.

"Some of our greatest rewards are the faces of the people. The faces of the audiences enjoying our shows let us know about their reaction. Our audiences are so kind to us. And then the flip side, watching the kids who are performing respond to the audience's response. To an actor or performer, the applause of an audience is like pouring gas on a fire. The more you pour, the hotter it gets. Last August, we did a show few people had heard of called "Back to the "80s,' but everyone is familiar with the music and premise of the show. I've been doing this stuff for a long time, but I've never been a part of an opening night like that one. Our kids had worked so hard learning their music, their dance steps and their lines, they had totally embodied their characters and the feel and attitude of the decade. That night, that audience treated those kids like they were rock stars. They sang along with the songs, they raucously applauded, they laughed, they cried; and when it was time for the show to resume after intermission, the audience started a rhythmic clap and chant just like it was a rock concert. We didn't get through the curtain call before the entire audience was on their feet. The looks on our kids' faces were priceless. They were so excited and the more that audience responded, the more those kids gave them. I'll never forget that night. That is just an example of why we do what we do," says Musick.

To learn more about Theatre Bristol and to see details about auditions and upcoming performances, visit www.theatrebristol.org.

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Theatre Bristol Youth Service Board presents George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" in 2014. Left to right: Ben Fitton as Henry Higgins, Camille Gray as Eliza Dolittle and James Altman as Col. Pickering (Photo credit: Kaylie Crain, Photo design: Camille Gray). The production can been seen on Theatre Bristol's YouTube channel.