Ashlee Latimer (’16) remembers the moment she knew she could achieve her dreams. She was nine or 10 years old, helping her mother, Maria Hall, roll up newspapers in the Knoxville News Sentinel warehouse for them to deliver the next morning. Hall saw a story about the singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton. “Ashlee, this could be you one day,” Hall told her daughter. “You just have to keep going, no matter what happens.”
“That was my mom,” says Latimer. “No matter what happened, she always made it feel like an adventure.”
Latimer’s adventure has included eight years of acting and directing with the Knoxville Children’s Theatre, assistant directing with the Clarence Brown Theatre while studying in UT’s theatre program, moving to New York in the fall of 2016, and this June winning a Tony Award for best musical revival as a co-producer of Once on This Island.
It’s appropriate that Once on This Island, which opened in December 2017 and remains popular, is about a peasant girl on a Caribbean island who uses storytelling and imagination to connect people and realize her ambitions. “My mom taught me to read when I was two,” Latimer says. “I’ve been a compulsive reader ever since.”
Latimer identified with the cheery, imaginative Anne in Anne of Green Gables and the life-changing role of education in her life. Latimer missed more than five years of elementary school as her single mom moved their family from Knoxville to Marietta, Georgia, where at one point Latimer sold iced tea on the roadside to buy groceries; to Denver, North Carolina, to get another daughter treatment for a rare form of cancer; to Wisconsin, Idaho, and back to Knoxville.
She also felt a connection with Sara Crewe in A Little Princess (written by onetime Knoxville resident Frances Hodgson Burnett) in wanting to go to boarding school. At 12, she got a scholarship to the Wears Valley Ranch home and school in Sevierville for children in crisis situations. She tested at a postgraduate reading level but was at the third-grade level in math. Over the next two years, Latimer caught up enough to enter Bearden High.
She started working on productions at school and in the Knoxville theatre community, including shows at the Actor’s Co-op and the Knoxville Children’s Theatre (KCT). Though she continued acting, Latimer decided she would like to be a director. She began teaching and directing at KCT.
“The people at KCT—Zack Allen, Jenny Ballard, Caroline King, and Dennis Perkins—gave me every opportunity,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of as many productions as possible.”
After graduating from high school, Latimer kept directing and working with productions at KCT and other companies in the area. She studied at Pellissippi State Community College for three years before transferring to UT.
She says her “tripod of support” in the theatre department was Associate Professor of Directing Kate Buckley, Professor of Lighting Design Kenton Yeager, and Casey Sams, who, in addition to directing the undergraduate program, is associate professor of graduate movement, musical theatre, and acting. “They really shepherded me,” says Latimer. “They all contributed something in tandem to support the various goals that I had.”
The unique structure of the Clarence Brown Theatre, which operates as a professional company alongside the theatre department, provided Latimer with the opportunity to assistant direct productions of South Pacific and The Miracle Worker. “I work with people in New York who went to conservatories, who’ve had great training, but haven’t worked with professionals,” she says. “It was a much smaller learning curve for me jumping in to professional rooms, because I have a general understanding of how a full day of rehearsals works in a professional theatre.”
A chance Twitter exchange with the account Annoying Actor Friend, a satirical cultural commentary on the New York theatre world, landed Latimer an internship with the account’s creator, Andrew Briedis, who has written skits for Saturday Night Live as well as the parody book #SOBLESSED: the Annoying Actor Friend’s Guide to Werking in Show Business.
It was another social media contact—dancer-turned-writer Tim Federle, who, along with his novels, co-wrote the book for Tuck Everlasting on Broadway and the screenplay for the animated movie Ferdinand—who persuaded her to come to New York after graduation, telling her “You’ve got to just come and jump in.”
Once she made it to New York, Latimer assisted Federle on projects and landed a social media job with the Pekoe Group, a theatre marketing firm. In spring 2017, she produced her first concert—of Broadway belters covering the songs of Ed Sheeran. One of the singers was Jenna Ushkowitz, who played Tina Cohen-Chang on the TV series Glee and acted in Broadway shows including The King and I.
Latimer and Ushkowitz teamed up as producing partners. They joined Once Upon an Island through lead producer Hunter Arnold’s Underrepresented Producer Initiative, which brings different genders, orientations, and people of color into producing roles in the theatre industry.
Latimer and Ushkowitz’s other projects have included The Jungle at the West End in London and Be More Chill off-Broadway. They will co-produce Hadestown, currently at the National Theatre in London, when it moves to Broadway next year. Latimer has also produced six more concerts, including a concert of the music of Jason Mraz which the singer attended.
Among Latimer’s long-term goals, she wants to work with people and artists from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds, showing how important art is as “the flashlight on our cultural and political climate.”
When she was young, another of the books that inspired her was Peter Pan. “It was his dedication to imagination,” she says. “It taught me about persevering and maintaining a positive attitude and that you could still hold on to whimsy and imagination, even when you grow up.”