BWW Interviews: Onstage at The Barn: Memories From the First 45 Years with Chambers Stevens

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BWW-Interviews-Onstage-at-The-Barn-Memories-From-the-First-45-Years-with-Chambers-Stevens-20010101

Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, the venerable venue that has mounted some of the best theater Nashville audiences have seen since its founding in 1967, celebrates its 45th anniversary this year. Since that day in 1967, when A. W. and Puny Chaffin opened "The Barn" Dinner Theatre, it has offered every audience exciting top quality professional theatre and a mouth-watering buffet, fairly groaning with Southern delicacies.

When The Barn opened way back when, it was a thrilling time for the Nashville community hungry for entertainment offerings and "The Barn" has been serving that need ever since as one of the Nashville's unique landmarks: the city's first professional dinner theatre, where audiences have been treated to some top-flight comedies, musicals and mysteries in the four-and-a-half decades since then, continuing to produce top-quality comedies, musicals and mysteries year-round-the musical revue Too Old For The Chorus (But Not Too Old To Be A Star) continues through April 22.

In the process, Chaffin's Barn has provided employment to some of the best actors to be found on stages anywhere, launching careers for actors who have gained critical and audience acclaim all over the country. And during that time, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre has been hailed as one of the Top 25 tourist attractions in Nashville, "Best Buffet" and "Best Place to See a Play" in The Tennessean's annual Toast of Music City contest and in Nashville Scene's "Best of" as one of the top three "Best Places to See a Play." Chaffin's Barn has been the recipient of The First Night Lifetime Achievement Award and its shows, directors, choreographers and actors took home multiple First Night honors over the years.

Now owned by the second-generation Chaffins-John and Janie, who were recognized among Nashville's Top Entrepreneurs of 2012 by Business Leader Magazine-The Barn has touched the lives of many, both onstage and off.

Today, we continue our special series of Onstage at The Barn: Memories from The First 45 Years, with actor/director/playwright Chambers Stevens, still known as "Steve Chambers" to many of his Nashville followers, who before moving to Los Angeles had appeared on practically every stage in Music City USA, including the magical descending stage at The Barn. Now known throughout the world for his work with aspiring actors and for the many critically acclaimed plays he has written, he gives credit where credit is due: His Barn experiences helped him achieve his dreams.

"I am so grateful for having the chance to work at Chaffin's Barn," he says. Today, Chambers shares his memories of The Barn and its impact on his subsequent life and career in the theater…

BWW-Interviews-Onstage-at-The-Barn-Memories-From-the-First-45-Years-with-Chambers-Stevens-20010101

What was your first experience at Chaffin's Barn? Chaffin's Barn, or The Barn Dinner Theatre as it was called when I was growing up, is the reason I am an actor. Growing up, my parents' monthly date night was going to see a show at the Barn. They would get dressed up and get us a baby sitter. I loved the next morning when my mom would show me the program and my dad would tell us his favorite part. Sometimes he would be laughing so hard at the memory that that my brother and I would be rolling around on the kitchen floor listening.

When I was 12, my parents took me to The Barn to see a show for the first time. I believe it was The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie.  I remember being entranced by the actors…and that there were a series of murders. The lights would go black. We would hear someone play "Three Blind Mice" on the piano. And when the lights came back up someone was dead.

Of course the Barn's stage is in the round.  And I was sitting on the aisle. When the lights went down and the music started to play, the actor playing the murderer exited up my aisle. He accidently brushed by me. My heart stopped. I couldn't breathe. To have been than close to a murderer! When the lights came back up my parents thought I had had a stroke.

In that moment I had never felt more alive. I wanted more of it. Often I think that my acting career is all about me getting back to that moment.

What's your most vivid memory of working there? In college I was very lucky to see the Broadway production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. When I returned to Nashville I met Michael Edwards, who, at that time, was artistic director at The Barn. I saw him in a play at The Barn. And anyone who knows Michael knows that the man is hilarious. So of course I wanted to work with him.

Weeks later I was starring in a TV show for WSMV and they were casting the father and I begged them to cast Michael, which they did. On the first day of shooting, Michael thanks me for having a hand in casting him. And that as a present he is going to direct Brighton Beach Memoirs at The Barn with me in it!

But here is the catch:  He didn't want me to play Eugene, the part Matthew Broderick made famous. He wanted me to play Stanley, the brother. For weeks and weeks I begged him to change his mind. But Michael can be stubborn. So I played Stanley. And Michael played my father in the play also.

Stanley has two incredible scenes in the play. One where he is teaching his younger brother about sex (even though he knows very little of it himself); and the other is where he has run away from home and returns to apologize to his father.

The sex scene is one of the funniest scenes in the history of American Theatre and it was a joy doing that scene every night at The Barn. The Chaffins were a little concerned that some of the blue hairs might be offended but in the end I think they laughed the loudest of all.

But the "apology scene" is my most vivid memory. Every night when I sat down across from Michael and told him I was sorry for running away, his eyes would brim with tears. The Barn was never quieter than it was those nights. I am so grateful to him for giving me the experience of that play. And not casting me in the slick part but the part that had all the heart.

What's the funniest experience you had at The Barn? I went on to play Eugene in the sequel to Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues (with Brian Russell, who is one of the greatest actors I have ever worked with).

In the play there is a very, very, very short sex scene where Eugene, who is in the army, goes to a prostitute. Pam Atha. When the deed is finally done it lasts three seconds. This being the Barn, the sex happened in the dark...But the first night the lights did not go out so the audience saw everything.

Afterwards, Diane Chaffin was not happy with me. "Chambers," she said. "Did you have to move your hips so much." But Diane I was supposed to be having sex. How do you have sex without moving your hips?

On a side note one of my favorite reviews came from that production of Biloxi Blues: "Chambers Stevens is not convincing as a virgin." 

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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