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Interview: Award-winning Author Lewis Kempfer On The Publication of 120 SEATS IN A BOILER ROOM

Subtitled 'The Creation of a Courageous Professional Theater,' The Books Shines Light On The Founding of Boiler Room Theater

Interview: Award-winning Author Lewis Kempfer On The Publication of 120 SEATS IN A BOILER ROOM
Award-winning author Lewis Kempfer.
- photo by Martin Bentsen/NYC

Tomorrow - October 11, 2022 - marks yet another momentous day in the history of Boiler Room Theatre, the late and lamented theater company that originally brought professional theater to The Factory at Franklin. 120 Seats in a Boiler Room: The Creation of a Courageous Professional Theater, the latest book by BRT co-founder Lewis Kempfer (who is an award-winning author in addition to his multi-hyphenate theater titles as director-producer-actor-designer), will be released by Amazon.

Kempfer's book, which is eagerly anticipated by theater aficionados around the country, delves into the events that led to the creation of the theater company and its residency in what was once the boiler room of a factory. In addition, Kempfer - who performed on a wide variety of stages in the Nashville area before BRT was established - welcomes the contributions of a dozen guest editors who share their recollections of the theater's impact on the local arts scene and how their involvement in the venture continues to reverberate in their artistic lives.

Kempfer, who now makes his home in Colorado, shared some background on BRT and the partnerships that resulted in its founding, as well as some insight into why he decided the time is right for 120 Seats in a Boiler Room: The Creation of a Courageous Professional Theater.

For more information, go to www.lewiskempfer.com or www.boilerroomtheatrebook.com. 120 Seats in a Boiler Room: The Creation of a Courageous Professional Theater is available in paperback and Kindle formats (and eventually audiobook) exclusively on Amazon as of October 11. It will later become available from other online retailers.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BDKPG6JX/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_QE7TDD0JYTB930GDC5RS

How did the creation of Boiler Room Theatre come about?

I had teamed up with Jamey Green and another partner to create Euphoria! The Theatre in Nashville. We produced the obscure Menken-Ashman musical God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in which I played the title role. We mounted the show in a former art gallery in what became The Gulch area in downtown Nashville. [Our] third partner didn't want anything regular-no permanent space and no season line-up. Nearly a year later, we produced the second and last of its shows, Personals, at Bongo Java Upstairs.

Jamey approached me about starting our own theater company along with his brother Corbin and our Resident Stage Manager, Teressa Howell-Southworth. A Franklin native, Jamey wanted to bring professional theater to Williamson County. And like me, he knew we needed a permanent venue and full season schedules. We scouted a variety of locations until we found the former boiler room at The Factory at Franklin. While then-owner Calvin LeHew wanted an entertainment anchor, he didn't imagine putting anything other than a boutique or a cocktail bar in the dilapidated building. It would be up to us to renovate and install electrical panels capable of powering stage lights. We did everything from putting in restrooms to building the stage and seating banks. Our first season-ticket campaign generated most of the start-up funds, largely based on the inclusion of A Chorus Line (ACL), a show I pushed to do in the intimate confines of the Boiler Room Theatre (BRT).

What were the biggest obstacles you faced at that time?

Lack of money and all the challenging and back-breaking renovation work. But once word got out that a new theater company-Williamson County's first professional theater-was planning to mount A Chorus Line in that small space, people said, "They're going to do A Chorus Line in THAT building? This I've got to see!" And see it they did. We blew the roof off with the opening production of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change during a 10-week run. Then we blew guests' minds with the sold-out, six-week run of the iconic dance show.

Interview: Award-winning Author Lewis Kempfer On The Publication of 120 SEATS IN A BOILER ROOM What productions stand out in your memory?

Obviously, ACL, but all the big shows I pushed to include such as Man of La Mancha, Chicago, Gypsy, Grease, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and The Rocky Horror Show, and the biggest production ever staged at BRT, Disney's Beauty and the Beast. I constantly challenged the limits of our 16- by 28-foot stage, dubbed a "postage stamp" by ACL's choreographer. I knew right away that what we lacked in width, we made up for in height. Hence, the double-decker set I designed for 2003's Chicago, was reimagined dozens of times over. While I left to work as a production manager and producer for live entertainment at Disneyland in 2006, I remained closely connected to the Boiler Room until the end of 2011.

Why a book about BRT now?

I briefly mentioned the Boiler Room Theatre in my first book, Don't Mind Me, I'm Just Having a Bad Life: A Memoir which covered 40 years of my life. There wasn't space to tell the BRT story. As I presented the idea of a BRT book on social media in 2020, with the hope of publishing in 2021 which would have been the theater's 20th anniversary, there was an outcry from those who had graced its stage, ran its tech, directed its shows, and worked the box office (and all the other disciplines and positions) that the theater's story absolutely needed to be told. We faced nearly insurmountable challenges, overcame them, and became a beloved cultural institution-in their words. I also found that while there are plenty of books about Broadway theater, few books existed about small regional theaters. There was a niche available for the book.

Interest has remained high since the Kindle version went on pre-order on September 12, 2022. In fact, it has held the elite status of #1 New Release every day since then. It remains to be seen what happens when the book goes fully "live."

What has been the most surprising development since starting work on the book?

Shortly after officially announcing the book-and it makes me want to cry when I tell this-several people started to come forward with their stories of how the Boiler Room Theatre influenced the trajectories of their careers and lives. I floated the idea of them writing guest chapters to tell their stories and to provide a broader perspective about the theater's history. One actress had only started dancing at the age of 28 which is fairly late in life for dancers. I cast her as an understudy in A Chorus Line. Tragedy struck during the run, and Renée Hatfull Brooks, for one week, stepped quickly into spotlight and got to dance the famous finale. She's been a dance teacher and choreographer ever since.

Then there's Jake Cannon who wrote the book's Foreword. He started in our children's theater program in 2004, began taking piano lessons from Jamey, and decided his calling was to be a musical director. After earning his bachelor's in just that at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, he went on to the prestigious Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where he got his master's in music direction. Now at only age 26, he's in NYC with his wife (who he met at the Boiler Room) working as a pianist for Broadway Backwards and will likely be conducting Chicago on Broadway in 2023. He says he would never have had this career had it not been for BRT.

There are a total of 12 guest chapters.

What makes the BRT story unique?

Four co-founders with decades of experience amongst them with no money, a daring dream, and the result of not only making it happen, but keeping the Boiler Room Theatre going strong until 2014 when it lost its namesake space.

People who have moved away from Nashville tell me when they visit that people are still talking about the Boiler Room and how dearly it's missed. It's not really unlike many other theaters' stories, I imagine, but we brought something special to the Nashville area. Nationwide, guests had seen shows in converted storefronts, church basements, barns, lofts, and the like, but never, as far as my research shows, in a then-80-year-old boiler room with a behemoth boiler filled (and sealed) with asbestos in the backstage building. It was the most precious and special time of my life as it was for countless others.

Since leaving the Nashville area, what have you been up to and what are you doing now?

After working 10 years for Disney in a variety of roles including art director, production manager, producer, and show writer, family needs called me back to my home state of Colorado. To do theater again in any capacity would be too painful. But after 17 years being off stage as a performer, I was cast in the celebrated Denver Gay Men's Chorus, and due to my extensive experience as the director put it, immediately asked me to join the production team. I was made Properties Master (and stage décor person) which is a perfect fit for me. It's far enough removed from true musical theater that that ghosts of BRT do not haunt me. It was such an important time in my life that I want to leave those memories intact.

120 Seats in a Boiler Room: The Creation of a Courageous Professional Theater is available in paperback and Kindle formats (and eventually audiobook) exclusively on Amazon as of October 11, 2022. It will later become available from other online retailers.


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From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)


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