Theatre at the University of Tennessee began at least a half century ago when the English Department formally assisted the U.T. Playhouse, a student dramatic group, in producing plays. Dr. Paul Soper was assigned responsibility for productions. Prior to that, groups of students and faculty had from time to time formed dramatic clubs and produced plays – the first as early as 1840.
A teacher in the English Department since 1936, Dr. Soper was appointed Theatre Director in 1939 by the English Department Head, Dr. John Hodges. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, with the assistance of Fred Fields and Russell Green, Dr. Soper laid the foundations for the present program. In 1940-41 a one-year course in theatre was introduced into the English curriculum, offering study of acting, stagecraft, play interpretation and directing. The program grew from that time on.
There was, however, no adequate facility on campus for the presentation of plays. The program improvised with use of performance spaces at Ayres Hall, Tyson House, the Bijou Theatre, and Tyson Junior High School. As the program began to grow, supporters urged the University administration to create a suitable permanent facility. After the successful co-production by the University and the Knoxville Junior League of The Women by Clare Booth Luce, Dr. Soper planned a series of summer plays that would continue to bring together the theatrical talent at the University with that of the community. In the summer of 1951 the University, the Junior League, and other community volunteers erected a tent and named it the Carousel Theatre because of its arena design.
The summer experiment was very successful, and it became clear that a permanent theatre could fill community and university needs. Plans were made, and in December of 1951, UT trustees approved the financing for a building designed on the basis of the Carousel tent. During the next two decades the Carousel Theatre program expanded to include thirteen productions annually. The department produced over two hundred shows and total attendance was in excess of seventy thousand people. The Children’s Carousel, a series of plays for school children, began in 1953.The tremendous success of “Kiddie Carousel,” as it was frequently called, is credited by many with helping to create a strong theatre audience in Knoxville.
The next major impetus for the program was the building of the Clarence Brown Theatre in 1970. Again Dr. Soper was instrumental in bringing this about, through the generous support of Clarence Brown, legendary filmmaker and 1910 alumnus of the University of Tennessee. Clarence Brown was nominated for six Academy Awards as Best Director during the 1930’s. He worked with some of the brightest stars of the golden age of Hollywood, including Clark Gable, Rudolph Valentino, Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Jimmy Stewart. He made the transition from silent films to talkies with such classics as The Yearling, Intruder in the Dust, National Velvet, and Ah, Wilderness! Brown was the favorite director of Greta Garbo, and they worked together on several films, including Anna Christie, perhaps Brown’s most celebrated motion picture. The Clarence Brown Theatre for the Performing Arts at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was formally dedicated in November of 1970. Heralded at the time as one of the finest facilities in the nation, the theatre remains a superb performance venue and is one of the showplaces of the UT Knoxville campus.