Kevin Grigsby’s office is eclectic to say the least. Tucked into a back corner of the Scene Shop at the very rear of the Clayton Center for the Arts, the room could not be more than ten feet wide but the crowd of shelves, filing cabinets, desk, and worn blue couch make it seem much smaller. The desk is littered with knickknacks and figurines: a Chewbacca bobblehead, a bright blue dice tower, a stuffed cat with a detachable head, a hand-knitted “F-bomb” teetering on the corner and one of the shelves situated behind the desk is a relic from the Maryville College Theatre department’s 2018 production of “9 to 5,” hand-painted by students on the scenic crew. The room may be small, but for many students in the MC theatre community it is a second home.
Grigsby himself is a bit of a character in the department. He’s been affectionately nicknamed the “Sasquatch” by at least four generations of college students and for good reason. He towers above the majority of his theatre and arts students with an attitude that can be said to match the John Wayne poster pinned to his wall: “Life is hard. It’s harder if you’re stupid.”
“I started working for the Clayton Center in August of 2016 and I’ve been the Technical Director since December of 2017,” Grigsby said, settling into his faded orange rolling chair behind his desk, “I graduated from here in May of 2006, I was away for ten years.”
“He spent his whole life running from it,” joked Blake Shepherd, a senior who claims to live in the shop, seated in the office.
There is always a steady flow of students in and out of the Technical Director’s office. They chat about projects, complain about classes, and nap on the little blue couch from the first moment the door is unlocked until its finally shut once the sun goes down. Grigsby likes to joke that he never really wanted kids but somehow ended up with more than 50 anyway. However, that traffic and daily connection has taken a hit in recent days, much like the rest of the theatre department.
“Simply put, absolutely nothing in our life is the way it used to be,” Grigsby said.
Theatre has taken a hefty blow since COVID-19 took its toll on the school. Most of the campus is unlikely to know that within the theatre department shows have been cancelled, senior theses are in jeopardy, and certain required classes are no longer available.
Meeting in large groups, something integral to the subject, is essentially impossible under COVID-19 safety regulations. Theatre operations have shifted so drastically, both academically and otherwise, that even those within the department find the department hard to recognize these days. With no shows to put on, no sets to build, and no projects to accomplish the entire department has changed at its core.
“I shouldn’t say changed, ‘changed’ implies it’s still there,” Grigsby said. “It’s been the death of everything we normally do.”
Despite the unfortunate place the department has found itself in, Grigsby is trying to keep things afloat and on track for his students. In his Theatre Production class, he has changed the typical curriculum of dividing up students to work on different crews to produce a live play or musical and instead has leaned into using this time to teach specific skills.
Students in Theatre Production now learn things like carpentry, lighting, and sound in a more individualized way with smaller projects of their own to work on throughout the semester.
“I felt like it would be a real benefit for people to leave this class with something they crafted that they can be proud of,” Grigsby said. “Because usually we leave this class with a whole show that we crafted and I didn’t want to completely lose that feeling.”
One group, as it turns out, is making a trebuchet, a type of catapult.
“I’m keeping the trebuchet,” Grigsby said.
Although much has changed for the average theatre student, even more has changed for those who oversee the department. COVID-19 guidelines have cut the hours of many theatre staff members, Grigsby included.
In a normal semester, Grigsby arrived early and left late. Even with his own duties as Technical Director and instructor for Theatre Production, Grigsby was the go-to for anyone who had projects in the other art departments and beyond. He facilitated sound systems for choir, built tables for judges for the band, provided tools for art classes, and worked on the multitude of theatre shows besides. Grigsby estimates that he used to work 55 hours a week.
“I was in here so much because I loved it,” he said. “I felt like people needed me.”
These days Grigsby’s usual 55 hours have been cut to 30 hours a week. Where he used to fill his hours with building sets, advising students, and supporting both the theatre department and the greater Clayton Center, he now comes in two hours before his 7 p.m. class starts.
The reduced hours have led inevitably to reduced pay for Grigsby and other Clayton staff. Many have had to make up for their lost income outside their employment at the college. For Grigsby, that has meant several part-time jobs including building fences and working as a bowling alley mechanic.
It has been a difficult adjustment for the Technical Director, who had big plans for the department this year and has now found himself in the debris comprised of scrapped projects, abandoned plans, and a flock of dejected students.
“Every other department in the fine arts, their students still have access to their workspaces to do independent projects,” Grigsby said. “All these kids still have to sign up and have scheduled times, but my students don’t have access to anything. The unfortunate fact of the matter is anything they need access to require dangerous power tools and–in the absence of someone to oversee that–they’ve lost out. And that makes me feel like I’m failing them, like I’m not doing my job.”
But many theatre students do not see things the same way.
“There hasn’t been as much access to this safe space, but under the circumstances he’s been just as accessible and I think that’s what keeps a lot of the students feeling secure,” said Hudson Perrine, a senior and Theatre Production student.
The little home away from home that the theatre department and Grigsby helped cultivate has dwindled in recent days, but his office is still open whenever possible as a safe haven for students. Many of these students have grown to see Grigsby and the department not only as an instructor but as family.
Perrine recalls a time last semester where she was struggling to afford textbooks for her classes. For the first month of that Spring semester Perrine was trying to save money to get the books she needed for her eighteen hours’ worth of courses which only added on to the stress of trying to participate in her classes. She went to Grigsby, like many do, to vent about her anxieties and the undue pressure her situation was putting on her mental state. The very next day, she visited his office, and she found Grigsby had gotten all but one of the books required for her classes, borrowed from a friend of his who owned a bookstore.
Situations like these are not uncommon with Grigsby, who has helped numerous students review resumes, apply for jobs, and apply to graduate schools among the many other seemingly minor moments of support that mean the world to students like Perrine.
“Kevin is an instructor on campus that truly, truly cares about his students development whether it be in regards to technical knowledge or just growth as a person,” Shepherd said, echoing Perrine’s sentiment about the impact Grigsby has had on their college experience.
While Grigsby may lament the loss of a sense of community, he admits he still gets to enjoy his favorite part of the job— seeing the lights come on when for his students when they understand what he is trying to teach. That sense of accomplishment and pride is the part that means the most to him. Those moments may be few and far between due to the situation this year, but they are not lost altogether.
Though outlooks may be bleak now, there is a spark for hope for the spring. Grigsby is still able to see the bright side of the COVID-19 restrictions likely being carried on into Maryville’s next semester.
“I don’t expect things to change much,” he said, “But I know we’ll be better prepared.”
The days may be long and hard, but afterward Grigsby drives home. He sits on his front porch with his wife, lights a cigar, and talks about his day. He tells her about his students “usually until she’s tired of it.” What they’ve achieved, what they’re working on–bits of gossip, who’s mad a who, who started dating so-and-so–the details his gaggle of “children” tell to him throughout the day on his little blue couch. Because, after all, it is what he feels like he’s here for.