By Dave Ongie
At the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre, a crew was hard at work putting on the finishing touches on the set for “I Love a Piano.”
But even with all the hustle and bustle leading up to opening night, it was hard to ignore the sounds of saws and hammers that came drifting through an open door next to the stage. Those sounds signified a steady march toward a bright future for both JRT and the arts in general in the town of Jonesborough.
Jennifer Ross – the artistic director at the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre – took a seat on the stage and pondered a future in which JRT will be able to stage more elaborate productions in front of larger crowds inside the newly-renovated Jackson Theatre. JRT’s current home seats 140, and virtually every performance happens in front of a full house. But once the Jackson opens its doors, the sky will literally be the limit.
“It’s going to be amazing. The seating capacity is going to be around 325,” Ross said. “We’re still going to continue to produce shows in this arena, as well as the Jackson, so our larger shows will move to Jackson, but we’ll continue to do our smaller shows here.
“There are some shows we would never produce in this arena,” Ross continued as she motioned toward the low ceiling. “An obvious example is Peter Pan. If we were going to do Peter Pan, we’d have to fly people, and we can’t do that here.”
As it stands, the cast and crew at the JRT use every square inch of their current space to put on productions. Every show must be carefully choreographed onstage and off to be sure everyone has enough room to maneuver.
Workers are well on their way to completing the first phase of a three-phase project that will eventually restore the three-story Jackson Theatre to its former glory. The first phase is outfitting the old Charles Allen building that sits between the Jackson and the JRT with restrooms, a concession area and a box office that will service both the Jackson and JRT’s current home.
When completed, the Jackson will have the feel of an art deco movie house straight out of the 1940s. While the JRT will occupy the third floor – which will include a rehearsal space, costume shop and scene shop – the refurbished theatre will also be equipped to screen movies and host concerts, making it a vibrant hub of activity many evenings out of the year.
That is exactly what former Jonesborough mayor Kelly Wolfe envisioned when he began championing the project. Early last year, he told the News & Neighbor the renovation of the Jackson would be “a game changer” for Jonesborough’s Main Street.
“The main reason for all of this is that we feel like tourism in Downtown Jonesborough and activities in Downtown Jonesborough, and quite honestly restaurants in Downtown Jonesborough, have a hard time making anything happen past 6 p.m.,” Wolfe said at the time. “The types of businesses that we have now, just don’t provide the traffic that would justify anybody staying open (past 6 p.m.). With this venue, our goal is to have something going on 300 days a year, associated with this theatre.”
Ross said the International Storytelling Center and the McKinney Center are evidence that the leadership of the town fully supports the arts. And when it comes to the Jackson, she said the project wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the efforts of town leaders like Wolfe and town administrator Bob Browning.
“They made many, many big trips to Nashville and have been in many conferences and conversations,” Ross said. “That is on them. They have made this happen. They have been vigilant and dedicated and we are so, so thankful for both of them.”
Due in part to those efforts, Gov. Bill Haslam’s latest budget has $500,000 allocated for the renovation and restoration of the Jackson. State Rep. Matthew Hill, who holds a seat on the House Finance, Ways & Means committee, said he also sees the project as a key piece in Jonesborough’s downtown.
“I have fought to ensure that the Jackson Theatre receives the support it needs, and I am satisfied that this project has been included as part of the governor’s budget,” Hill said in a statement. “The Jackson Theatre is an integral part of downtown, and this money will go a long way towards renovating and preserving a fixture of our local history. I am grateful to Governor Haslam for supporting this project.”