The stage is bare, except for a few stools, a pick-up for an acoustic guitar and a microphone or two.
In front of the stage, the crowd files into every available seat in the Backdoor Playhouse at Tennessee Tech University to listen to the performers.
TTU hosts two open mic nights every semester, and the next one will be from at 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6.
“This is not ‘Tech has Talent;’ there’s no judging, there’s no competition,” said TTU English instructor and co-emcee Andrew Smith. “I think Tech would still be a culturally rich place if we didn’t have an open mic night but whenever I go, I feel more alive after those two hours. It revs me up.”
The performers and audience are mostly TTU students. The line to sign up to perform usually starts to form at least an hour before the doors open at 8:30 p.m.
“Because it’s so popular and there are so many people who want to perform I usually don’t get up there anymore,” said senior Jesse Nance, of Chattanooga, who started emceeing at TTU her freshman year. “It was great. That first night I found out there was a performing arts community here. It was like I found my people.”
Each act gets five minutes on stage. Bands are not allowed, nor are instruments more complicated than acoustic guitars because of the time limit. In addition to singers and musicians, TTU’s open mic nights regularly attract poets and comedians.
“As it should be, the singer/songwriter holds the majority, but the poets and the comics hold their own,” said Smith, who started the open mic nights in 2007. “Every single time, there is some song that gets sung or some poem that gets recited or some joke that gets told that is unexpected.”
“You really can’t predict what is going to happen.”
Smith and several others started holding open mic nights at Tennessee Tech because they were tired of driving to Nashville or other metro areas for similar events. They traditionally hold one at the beginning of the semester and another at the end, so the events don’t conflict with other performances or events at the Backdoor Playhouse.
Though Tennessee Tech has a strong music program, not all of the entertainers who take the stage are music majors. Many have not performed in public before and come from various academic disciplines and groups on campus. Though the crowd can get rowdy cheering for the performances, there are rarely jeers if someone is having a bad night.
“I’ve been doing this since about the third day of my freshman year. It’s nice; it’s a pretty forgiving audience,” said Nance, who is a vocal music education major. “There’s a sense in the room that the audience wants you to succeed.”
The Backdoor Playhouse is at the back of the Jere Whitson Memorial building on Tennessee Tech’s quadrangle. The event is free and open to the public.