At 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday, 10 people are standing in front of the full-length mirror running along the crimson wall of Broadway's Wild Thyme Players studio with puppets on their hands, puppet-lip- syncing to the old Motown/Marvelettes classic "Please Mr. Postman."
The puppets are a diverse lot -- witch puppets; skull puppets; goofy monster puppets; old man puppets; even a flannel-shirted, horn- rim-glasses-wearing, cigarette-smoking hipster puppet. And their puppeteers -- informal theater students attending Wild Thyme's ACT- UP! Sunday theater classes -- are learning what the day's guest instructors from Theatre Obsolete already know: that puppet performance is much harder than it looks.
"After a whole song, your thumb is usually cramping up," says Bran Rogers of Theatre Obsolete, a three-year-old puppet theater troupe spun off from the local Boozehound Gandy Dance hobo cabaret.
And that's not all class attendees get from today's workshop. They'll also learn about the varieties of puppets; about hand exercises for puppeteering; about making their own puppets from the detritus of household knickknacks -- Halloween throwaways, old clothes, Walmart junk.
Wild Thyme Players is a nonprofit community theater group, and ACT-UP! -- Acting and Community Theatre - Uniting Performers -- is a new program conceived by Executive Director Carolyn Corley. The program's objective, says Corley, is to reach out to neophytes who have an interest in theater but don't have the time or money to invest in formal classes.
"There aren't many programs offered to non-student adults who want to learn about theater," says Corley. "And I had gotten a lot of calls expressing interest."
The problem, says Corley, is that such programs would require a considerable time commitment on the part of instructors. "And then there's no guarantee they'd draw the number of students necessary to compensate them."
So Corley's idea was to assemble a handful of two-hour Sunday workshops representing various theater arts and subjects, soliciting volunteers from the local theater community to teach them. If all goes well, Corley says the program will eventually find enough money that she can pay the instructors in future go-rounds.
"This year is sort of the pilot program," she says. "It has the added benefit of giving students an opportunity to learn about other theater programs in Knoxville."
Some of the workshops scheduled for this first trial of ACT-UP! - - running Sept. 15 through mid-November -- include lessons on warm- ups and getting into character with a member of Tennessee Stage Company; storytelling with a representative of Tiger Lily Theatre; puppeteering with Theatre Obsolete; and stage combat with Wild Thyme's own combat choreographer.
"We had a big turnout for that one," Corley laughs. "We practiced unarmed combat, slaps and kicks and falls. Slapping people without really slapping them, how to take a punch to the gut and make it believable."
Corley says most of the people who show up for the workshops are newbies, and they have different reasons for wanting to get involved with theater. Classes are $10 ($8 for seniors and students), and the program has picked up a small core of regulars who turn up most weeks, in addition to other visitors who may only come for a single class.
Kelly David, a local French teacher, was asked by her school to teach drama this year and attends classes to learn more about her new subject matter. Flash Black, a former college football player, said he was interested in picking up better public speaking skills by learning the tricks of the actor's trade.
And Phoenix Asher, a trim, photogenic young fellow with an impeccable goatee, became an ACT-UP! regular because he's interested in acting as a career.
On another Sunday, the featured instructor is Paul Simmons, founding member of Knoxville's long-running improv comedy troupe Einstein Simplified. In addition to teaching improv exercises like "Magic Box," "Pass the Clap," and "Convergence," Simmons treats the students to a plethora of quippy, memorable improv tips well-suited to most any theater setting.
"There are no mistakes, only chances," says Simmons, a trim, loose-limbed gentleman who moves briskly and speaks with the rapid- fire surety of a seasoned improvisational performer. "Stick with it; you'll get there eventually. Everything is the right choice."
And perhaps the best thing he shares with his charges this day: "Don't be selfish. A selfish performer is a solo performer."
If today's class members have anything to say about it, Simmons will likely be back for another turn as an ACT-UP! instructor. Corley says she wants to bring back some of the same instructors and subjects for another round of workshops in the spring, plus a few others she may have missed.
"I'd like to offer some classes outside of performance, things like how to audition, directing, writing," she says. "When I reached out to the theater community for instructors, the feedback I got was great, much greater than I anticipated. I actually had to decline some instructors this time around."
Upcoming ACT-UP! classes
Oct. 13: Storytelling with Jennifer Alldredge (of Tiger Lily Theatre)
Oct. 19-20 & 27: Special seminar and workshop on Pop-Up Theatre with Nashville Stagecraft
Nov. 3: Stanislovski Method
Nov. 10: Short Story-to-Play Adaptation
When: Sundays 3-5 p.m.
Where: Broadway Academy of Performing Arts, 706 N. Broadway
Cost: $10; $8 for seniors and students
Info: 865-325-9877 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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