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VIProfile: Ken Martin

By Gay Lyons

Ken Martin, who started as Clarence Brown Theatre’s Artistic Director and Head of the UT Department of Theatre on August 1, got into theatre by accident. Literally.

Martin, who played football in high school, had broken his hand and couldn’t go to football practice. He described himself as standing in a hallway at his school, feeling forlorn, when the theatre director asked if he was there to audition. “I said, ‘No, I don’t do that. I play football,’” he recalled. “And he said, ‘Football is easy; theatre is hard.’ Being a 15-year old boy, I took that as a challenge. And the rest is history.”

The Wisconsin native earned degrees in film history and theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a college known for its fine arts program, and earned an MFA in scene design at Ohio State.

After college, Martin worked as a freelance set designer, “fell into teaching” for a time at Ashland University and while his wife, Julia, attended graduate school at the University of California-Davis, worked as the Associate Technical Director for the Sacramento Theatre Company. Julia Martin’s job in computer programming led them back to Ohio, where Martin resumed teaching at Ashland. He stayed there ten years, serving as department chair the last five. 

Martin then went to Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he started a Bachelor of Fine Arts program that is now nationally ranked, and then was theatre department chair at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

His arrival at the University of Tennessee is no fluke. He had only visited Knoxville once, driving from Myrtle Beach for a Tom Waits concert at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium during Waits’ final tour, which was limited to 10 venues, but the city– or rather the University of Tennessee–had been on his mind for a long time.

“Many years ago, I listed a handful of schools I wanted to work with in my lifetime,” he said. “UT was on the list.”

“The model UT uses is the way we should all be teaching theatre,” he continued.

“There’s a professional theatre on campus using students in the roles they’re ready for. It’s one of the few in the country that still does that.”

He admits the model brings some challenges, one of them being the role Martin is undertaking. “It’s two full time jobs,” he said. “You’re the chair of a thriving theatre department, and you’re the artistic director of a thriving regional theatre. It’s a big job. I’m blessed to be here, let alone leading it. I hope I can keep up with it.”

Martin says it’s important for the department and the regional theatre to be together. “It’s not good when the theatre and the university become distanced.” Martin has been spending his time moving into his office, having meetings and getting an understanding of the organization. “I want to hit the ground running on August 1,” he said.

The 2022-2023 Clarence Brown season was set by Cal McLean, who recently retired. Martin doesn’t plan on making big changes immediately. “It’s a successful company,” he said. “The season selection may change some. We’ll focus differently on the undergraduate program and give those students more opportunities.”

“I want to bring in all of Knoxville, to reflect the community and tell stories that
are important to the community,” he continued. “There’s a strong push for diversity, equity and inclusion in our industry. It’s important that when people come to the theatre, they have the opportunity to see themselves. Long term we need to give people stories that will bring in new audiences as well as our current audiences. We need to find stories people are interested in seeing and try new things for new audiences. We have to speak to contemporary audiences, address contemporary issues and speak to the widest demographic possible.”

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