Joshua and Amelia Peterson moved to Knoxville from New York in 2014 as they were expecting their first child and wanted to raise their family in Amelia’s hometown. Until that point, Joshua had only visited Knoxville, but upon settling in, he realized it was a vibrant, culturally diverse city – even more than he’d anticipated. There was only one thing missing.
“We’re theater people and theater professionals, and if we wanted to make a living, we needed to start our own theater,” he says. “The Clarence Brown Theatre has a tremendous ability to access talent, but they weren’t going to hire me to act. Plus, two months after we moved here, my dad passed away suddenly, and my mindset shifted. As I grieved, I genuinely and immediately wanted to not waste time.”
Joshua, Amelia, and Logan Mahan, the third founding member, opened River & Rail Theatre on January 1, 2015, with a clear vision for what the company could bring to Knoxville: a stage with paid actors who can present meaningful stories that could change people’s lives. They weren’t waxing poetic. You want to change the world? Tell a good story.
“We genuinely believe that theater can change the world, especially in a culture where we feel like we’re more divided than we’ve ever been,” says Joshua. “When you encounter a story that can change hearts and minds, that can change people, you will change the world.”
Joshua grew up in diverse community theater groups, so he and the other founders wanted to get this right. They hired a consulting firm to help them shape their vision into a business that met the values they held dear and create a dedicated space to tell stories that showcased racial, economic, educational, and geographical diversity. The name River & Rail both honors the industrial history of Knoxville, but it also spotlights the separation of people who lived by the river and those who lived by the railroad. Soon, the company was growing and looking for a permanent location to settle, which they found at 111 State Street in what was originally Knoxville’s Ice Factory.
Kenneth Herring was a late comer to the theater world. It was 2017 and he was working in IT sales but wanted to get off the corporate machine for good.
“I woke up one day and decided to chase my dreams. I did some acting for community theater and hosted events and got in front of the camera. I took every opportunity I could to market myself as someone who wanted to be an actor. I’d wanted to be a tap dancer when I was little, like Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines,” he says. “The biggest thing is that I didn’t want to die without chasing my dreams.”
A board member bought Kenneth a ticket to a 2017 production of “The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby” at River & Rail, and it was unlike anything he’d experienced before.
“I’d never seen Joseph portrayed as a black man before. There weren’t many black people in the audience, but I’d never seen Joseph be played by anyone who wasn’t white,” says Kenneth. “So I saw an organization who believed in doing things as I liked to see them done – non-traditionally.”
Joshua and Kenneth first connected in 2018, but it would be another three years before the recurring conversation about Kenneth coming on board at River & Rail came to fruition. In March 2021, Kenneth accepted the Managing Director position, which was an ideal blend of creativity and business management.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, the company took time to re-evaluate its role in the community and its effectiveness in expressing their core values.
“We sent out a racial equity audit to everyone we’ve ever worked with to see the ways we could grow,” said Joshua. “The response on our website is a commitment to those things. It’s really changed our culture.” (Read R&R’s response at RiverAndRailTheatre.com/About)
Joshua chooses the shows, which is one of his primary responsibilities as Artistic Director, but he loves to crowdsource and get feedback from friends, patrons, and board members. He’s always asking, “Why this play? Why now? Why here?”
“One of my founding board members said the shows on our stages are ‘urgently human.’ The reality is that Knoxville doesn’t have the highest percentage of theater-goers. We want people to come see us. You’ll be surprised. The stories we tell aren’t unapproachable,” he says. “I want more people to know we’re here. It’s our biggest problem and our biggest opportunity.”
“The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright from Memphis, reimagines the final night of Martin Luther King’s life during which he has a conversation with a hotel cleaner. The show first premiered in London in 2009 and on Broadway in 2011, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. “The Mountaintop” will run at River & Rail Theatre February 17 through March 5.
Interested in auditioning? R&R welcomes all submissions for casting, stage management, and tech crew. Visit the open portal at RiverAndRailTheatre.com/Auditions for more information.