Bruce Kaplan is a full–time physician and moonlighting musician who has played guitar and mandolin for most of his life. He and his wife, dancer Ann Law, opened Barking Legs Theater in 1993 as a way for her and others to hone their craft on a proper dance floor. Music became a larger part of their programming in 1997, when Bruce teamed up with George Bright, the son of Dismembered Tennessean Fletcher Bright, and began to book music performances at the venue. George and Fletcher maintain deep connections to artists in Nashville, which allowed the earliest music shows at the Barking Legs to be successful. Those shows laid a good foundation that has allowed programming to continue to gain momentum and flourish.
Why did you see a need for Barking Legs Theater to exist in Chattanooga?
Bruce: We try to fill niches that aren’t being filled elsewhere. This isn’t something I do to make money, so I first need to be a fan of the music we host. We try to do music that we think has integrity and isn’t being represented elsewhere in the city. That tends to be music that lends itself to the acoustic properties of our venue, which requires more attentive listening. Our space is more like a listening room. People get upset when other audience members talk too much during performances. Our audiences expect a quiet, polite environment.
Barking Legs has also started an educational outreach program that Ann began called Full Circle Teaching Arts Program. The goal is to equip artists of all kinds to teach in public school settings. She runs the training program and then supervises internships that are designed to help students think creatively.
How have you seen Barking Legs change since its inception?
Bruce: It has changed quite a bit over the years. We added music, which first started in the bluegrass/acoustic music vein. Then we began to present more shows that were more avant–garde in nature, like performances by the Shaking Ray Levi Society. We have also introduced more traditional jazz performances, which is a genre that I have loved since I was a teenager. We now do as much jazz as any other type of music at the Barking Legs. We do a weekly series called “Jazz on the Lounge,” which is an informal event every Wednesday at 9:00 pm featuring local jazz musicians.We also host jazz concerts in the main concert space.
What have some of your favorite performances been in this space?
Bruce: We’ve had the privilege of hosting some people who were bigger than we would typically host or who were on the cusp of getting big. One of those people was Andrew Bird, who we had early in his career and at the cusp of taking off. I remember being at the Bonnaroo after his performance at the Barking Legs and as I was watching his performance on the second biggest stage there, someone came up behind me and said, “He was better at Barking Legs.” I agreed with that comment because those are the memories that you cherish most when you see a stellar performer in such an intimate setting like Springsteen at a college auditorium in the 70’s or R.E.M. at a small nightclub.
We have also had Norman Blake, a legendary acoustic guitar player. He could be called the heir to Doc Watson’s legacy. Norman lives close by in Rising Fawn, Georgia so every couple of years we get him to play here. It’s a very special time when he does, and he typically packs the place out.
Catch and Critter from Old Crow Medicine Show once did a limited tour, and that was the fastest sell out we had. It was weird for me because we typically struggle to fill the place, even for very good musicians. But that time we put the tickets on sale and I watched the computer screen as tickets sold out after ten minutes. Endangered Blood is a cutting edge jazz band from New York who we’ve hosted and loved in the past. Colonel Bruce Hampton was another regular performer here, but he recently died on stage in Atlanta. I saw him as a sophomore in high school in the Fillmore East in New York. He was the inspiration for a lot of jam band people. He loved playing at our venue. As he was leaving our venue one night, he said in his very scruffy voice, “You oughta franchise this.” I hope I’m not slighting anyone by not mentioning them. I could name so many more stellar acts we’ve hosted over the years.
What advice would you give musicians who want to play at your venue?
Bruce: There are many ways to do it. We have an event every first Friday of the month called “The Floor is Yours,” where singer/songwriters can sign up to play. We don’t commonly do opening acts, but sometimes we do. Musicians should send their music to [email protected] if they’re interested in performing at our space. We’re not really looking for rock bands, because that’s not the atmosphere our space is conducive to. We’re looking more for instrumentalists and acoustic singer/songwriters. We have recently started a monthly jam night for jazz players on the last Sunday of each month from 3:00 - 5:00 pm. The concept is to have professional backing musicians and let intermediate to advanced students sit in with them.
Photo Credit: Michael Kaplan via Facebook.