As Obvious Dad nears the end of its third season, artistic director Blake Harris says priorities have shifted for the professional summer stock theater company.
In a phone interview, Harris said he and his collaborators maintain their mission of "defiant theater," but not in the same way.
Early on, "we were really only focused on bringing aesthetically bold theater to Chattanooga, something that was visually engaging with interesting scripts that people may or may not have encountered before," said the Chattanooga native, a Central High School graduate.
"Now, we're specifically looking at stories that haven't been told, stories that centralize people who have been kept in the shadows. We want to tell new, engaging stories and create experiences that spotlight marginalized voices."
That turning point came in the second season with "Brief Chronicle, Books 6-8" by transgender playwright Agnes Borinsky.
"When we were looking at shows to do, selecting our season, I started researching when was the last time a performance by a trans writer was performed on Chattanooga stages," Harris said. "I couldn't find a documented performance, a full-length, fully-produced performance by a trans playwright."
Despite the experimental nature of the production, it was a success in both attendance and reaction, he said.
"Audiences were so engaged — they'd never seen anything like that here," he said. "That was an 'aha' moment for us as a company and as an organization."
Like its predecessors, "Lear," the second of the two shows this season, is the type of production that would normally necessitate travel to a larger city to see, Harris said.
Described in press material as "an absurdist tragedy," "Lear" uses Shakespeare's "King Lear" as a touchstone, but the make-believe world of Sesame Street even enters the plot as the characters grapple with issues of death and despair.
"Don't let Big Bird fool you," Harris said. "This is definitely not family theater."
About that name
Obvious Dad artistic director Blake Harris said the theater company took its name from an offhand phrase artistic producer Grace Holtz used to describe someone. "It became a joke between the two of us, and when we were trying to name our company, we put it in as a placeholder and we never found another name that captured the essence of our company and the work we do," he said. "Our work centralizes themes of gender, LGBTQ+ and intersectionality, so a name that evokes domesticity and gender in a playful way is something we enjoy in our rowdy marketing."
Show times and ticket information can be found at obviousdad.com. The company recommends "Lear," which plays through Aug. 20, for ages 16 and older because of its language and themes.
Gaye Jeffers, a theater professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is president of the board of Obvious Dad. She's known many of the core players since they were students.
"Some I've known for over a decade," Jeffers said by phone. "It feels really great and fulfilling to see how they've progressed in their growth as artists and as citizens of the theater."
In addition to Harris, who earned a bachelor's degree in women, gender and sexuality studies at UTC, artistic producer Grace Holtz, company manager Jessie Wright and company member Helia Quhite are UTC alumni.
Harris, 35, is an assistant theater professor at Salisbury University and divides his time between Chattanooga and Maryland.
Harris said he has researched shows going back a decade produced by the various local theater companies, as well as the Broadway tours that have stopped at the Tivoli Theatre and Memorial Auditorium.
"There's an amazing theater scene in Chattanooga," he said, "but there's still a need for stories that spotlight the LGBTQ+ community, stories told from a feminist perspective or that are written by or that engage actors of color."
Obvious Dad is not an activist organization, he said. The company is simply trying to spur conversation.
"We're not here to tell people how to think," he said. "We're not pushing any sort of agenda. All we're doing is providing a space where people can ask questions and experience things outside themselves, outside their immediate communities and their personal perspective."
Jeffers likened the expanding theater scene to building a bigger house and adding "more rooms for people to visit."
"It only builds a better community when we understand more stories and how people exist and live their lives and the choices they make," she said.