Award-winning author Lewis Kempfer on the publication of 120 SEATS IN A BOILER ROOM
Tomorrow – October 11, 2022 – marks another momentous day in the history of the 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 theaterthe latest book from the co-founder of BRT Lewis Kempfer (who is an award-winning author in addition to his multi-hyphenated theater titles as director-producer-actor-designer), will be published by Amazon.
Kempfer’s book, which is eagerly awaited by theatergoers across the country, delves into the events that led to the founding of the theater company and its residence in what was once a factory boiler room. Additionally, Kempfer — who performed on a wide variety of stages in the Nashville area prior to BRT’s inception — welcomes contributions from a dozen guest editors who share their memories of the theater’s impact on the stage. local artistry and how their involvement in the business continues to resonate in their artistic lives.
Kempfer, who now lives at home in Colorado, shared some insight into BRT and the partnerships that led to its creation, as well as insight into why he decided the time was right for 120 seats in a boiler room: the creation of a courageous professional theater.
For more information, visit 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 (and possibly audiobook) formats exclusively on Amazon starting October 11. It will then be available from other online retailers.
How did the creation of the Boiler Room Theater come about?
I had teamed up with Jamey Green and another partner to create Euphoria! The Nashville Theater. We produced the obscure musical Menken-Ashman God bless you, Mr. Rosewater in which I played the title role. We staged the show in a former art gallery in what is now The Gulch neighborhood in downtown Nashville. [Our] the third partner wanted nothing regular – no permanent space and no season roster. Almost a year later, we were producing the second and last of his shows, Metat Bongo Java upstairs.
Jamey suggested that I start our own theater company with his brother Corbin and our resident stage manager, Teressa Howell-Southworth. Originally from Franklin, Jamey wanted to bring professional theater to Williamson County. And like me, he knew we needed a permanent location and full season schedules. We explored various places until we found the old Franklin factory boiler room. While then-owner Calvin LeHew wanted an entertainment presenter, he couldn’t imagine putting anything other than a boutique or cocktail bar in the dilapidated building. It would be up to us to renovate and install electrical panels capable of powering the stage lights. We did everything from setting up the restrooms to building the stage and seat banks. Our first subscription campaign generated most of the seed money, thanks in large part to the inclusion of A chorus line (ACL), a show that I pushed to do in the intimacy of the Boiler Room Theater (BRT).
What were the biggest obstacles you had to face during this time?
The lack of money and all the difficult and backbreaking renovations. But once news broke that a new theater company – Williamson County’s first professional theater – was planning to set up A chorus line in this small space, people were saying, “They’re going to do A chorus line in THIS building? That I have to see!” And they saw it. We blew the roof off with the first production of I love you, you are perfect, now change during a 10 week run. Next, we wowed guests with the six-week sold-out run of the iconic dance show.
What productions stand out in your memory?
Obviously, ACL, but all the great shows I pushed to include such as La Mancha Man, Chicago, Gypsy, Grease, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Resolutely 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, nicknamed “postage stamp” by ACLchoreographer. I immediately knew that what we lacked in width, we made up for in height. Therefore, the two-story set I designed for 2003 Chicago, has been reinvented dozens of times. While I left to work as a production manager and show producer at Disneyland in 2006, I remained closely tied to the Boiler Room until the end of 2011.
Why a book on BRT now?
I briefly mentioned the Boiler Room Theater in my first book, Don’t Bother Me I Just Have A Bad Life: A Memoir which covered 40 years of my life. There was no room to tell the story of BRT. As I pitched the idea for a BRT book on social media in 2020, with hopes of publishing in 2021, which would have been the theater’s 20th anniversary, there was an outcry from those who graced its stage, managed its technology, ran its shows, and worked the box office (and all the other disciplines and positions) that the theater story badly needed to be told. We faced almost insurmountable challenges, overcame them and became a beloved cultural institution, in their words. I have also found that while there are many books on Broadway theater, there are few books on smaller regional theaters. There was a niche available for the book.
Interest has remained high since the Kindle version was pre-ordered 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 will happen when the book is fully “live”.
What has been the most surprising development since work on the book began?
Shortly after the book was officially announced – and it makes me want to cry when I say it – several people started telling their stories of how the Boiler Room Theater influenced the trajectories of their careers and lives. . I pitched the idea of them writing guest chapters to tell their stories and provide a broader perspective on theater history. An actress had only started dancing at the age of 28, which is quite late in the life of dancers. I chose her as a stand-in in A chorus line. Tragedy struck during the race and Renée Hatfull Brooks, for a week, quickly stepped into the limelight and got to dance the famous finale. Since then, she has been a dance teacher and choreographer.
Then there’s Jake Cannon who wrote the foreword to the book. He started in our children’s theater program in 2004, started taking piano lessons with Jamey, and decided his calling was to be a music director. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in this field at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, he went to the prestigious Royal Conservatory of Scotland where he obtained his master’s degree in musical direction. Today, at only 26, he is in New York with his wife (whom he met at the Boiler Room) who works as a pianist for upside down broadway and will probably lead Chicago on Broadway in 2023. He says he never would have had this career without BRT.
There are a total of 12 guest chapters.
What makes the BRT story unique?
Four co-founders with decades of experience among them with no money, a bold dream, and the result of not only making it happen, but also keeping the Boiler Room Theater going until 2014, when it lost its homonymous space.
People who moved from Nashville tell me when they visit that people are still talk about the boiler room and how much we miss it. It’s not really different from the stories of a lot of other theaters, I imagine, but we brought something special to the Nashville area. Throughout the country, guests had seen performances in converted storefronts, church basements, barns, lofts, etc., but never, according to my research, in an 80-year-old boiler room with a giant boiler filled (and sealed) with asbestos in the backstage building. It was the most precious and special moment of my life, like countless others.
Since leaving the Nashville area, what have you done and what are you doing now?
After working 10 years for Disney in a variety of roles including Art Director, Production Manager, Producer, and Writer, my family’s needs called me back to my home state of Colorado. Doing theater again in any capacity would be too painful. But after 17 years offstage as a performer, I was cast in the famed Denver Gay Men’s Chorus and, due to my vast experience, as the manager said, immediately asked me to join the ‘production team. I’ve been named Properties Master (and Scene Decorator), which is fine with me. It’s far enough away from real musical theater that the ghosts of BRT don’t haunt me. It was such an important moment 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 (and possibly audiobook) formats exclusively on Amazon starting October 11, 2022. It will later be available from other online retailers.