The historic Tennessee Theatre stage is teeming with emotion and energy as it reopens after going dark because of the pandemic. Boosted by the 2021 return of in-person concerts, music, matinee movies and an upcoming slate of Broadway at the Tennessee productions, the theatre has opened to audiences – while Executive Director Becky Hancock and the theatre staff worked tirelessly behind the scenes to safely serve supporters of the arts.
“Leading during the pandemic was one of the biggest challenges of my career,” Hancock said. “In the entertainment industry, we plan our work well into the future, so not knowing what would come next or how long the current state was going to continue was a stretch.”
Hancock insisted on calling the shutdown an “extended intermission,” ensuring patrons that the show would go on. She stuck by her word when, in the summer of 2020, the Tennessee Theatre started streaming the Ghostlight Series to showcase local musicians. And she did so again for the theatre’s 92nd anniversary celebration and fundraiser, “Stars on Stage,” on Oct. 1, 2020, which featured Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors in front of a limited audience with a livestream for supporters at home.
“Solving problems in real time, like we often do at live events, came in handy,” Hancock said. “We had to be flexible, creative and prepared to scrap plans and approach a problem with a new perspective with little notice.”
Thanks to creative programming, significant cost-cutting, the generosity of donors, leadership of the theatre’s board and use of emergency funds, the Tennessee Theatre survived when shows were canceled starting in March 2020 because of Covid-19. The revenue-halting restrictions still put the theatre’s operations at risk, though – until the Tennessee Theatre received nearly $3.8 million through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program.
The critical funding came in response to Covid-19 closures, and the federal grant is helping the Tennessee Theatre recover by repaying eligible expenses, including but not limited to payroll, ticket refunds, utilities, maintenance and repair, insurance, taxes and fees.
For Hancock, the money means relief and rejuvenation. The funds will allow the theatre to be as financially sound as it was pre-pandemic. The grant also has given the theatre team a reason to rejoice the long-awaited return of events.
Since mid-September 2021, the calendar brimmed with a wide variety of performances, including concerts by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire and stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race in “A Drag Queen Christmas.” Beginning in December, Broadway at the Tennessee, presented by Greater Knoxville Honda Dealers, will return to the stage with “Come From Away” on Dec. 21-26.
Although Hancock is happy to have in-person events again, it’s the excitement of the audiences that she’s most eager to see.
“The pandemic taught me about resilience, and it drew the theatre team closer together,” Hancock said. “We’re coming out of the worst days of the pandemic stronger and more committed as a group to the mission of serving the community better than ever before.”
With 20 years of fund development, event planning and project management in the non-profit sector, Hancock has served as the executive director of the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation since 2013. She oversees all activity at the venue, serves as the public face of the organization and works with the board of directors to preserve and maintain the important community asset, as well as fulfill the mission and long-term vision of the Official State Theatre of Tennessee.
Allie Clouse is a public relations specialist with Moxley Carmichael.