The Joybell Theater
A Unique Experience

By Jeff Tryon

There are many shops in Nashville’s tourist district where a visitor can find something unique. But up on North Van Buren Street can be found—not a unique product—but a unique experience.

That’s where you’ll find Kristine Stout’s Joybell Theater and gift shop, which promises, “You’ve never seen music like this before.”

That’s because Ms. Stout is one of a rare breed; solo handbell ringers.

You may have seen handbell choirs before—a group of people gathered behind a padded table containing sets of perfectly tuned brass bells, one for each note. Working together, each at the proper time picks up and rings the bells under their control to create a song just as if it were being played on a keyboard, but in the clear, ringing tones of bells.

It’s the same thing here, except Kristine herself plays all 37 bells, sliding gracefully from one end of the long table to another, with the precision of an assembly line worker, and the graceful form of a ballet dancer, meticulously playing to her own pre-recorded accompaniment.

“Handbell soloing is very unique,” she said. “There are only a handful that I know of that know more than two or three songs. And I’m the only one I know of that has a handbell theater. I think I’m the only one in the country.

“It’s a one of a kind thing.”

Shows will be Sunday through Wednesday at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 1,3, 5 and 7 p.m. The theater will be open May through December, with more shows added in the fall.

Wednesday and Saturday shows include a variety of music featuring hymns, old time music, classical music and more. On Sundays, The Joybell Theater presents a special show entitled “The Story of Holy Week,” an Easter Cantata written and arranged by Kristine especially for the handbell soloist. It is the story of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension told entirely with music.

“It is the only cantata of its kind in the world,” Ms. Stout said.

Come Christmas, a special seasonal program entitled “Christmas Worship, Christmas Joy” will be featured.

She said one of the ideas behind the theater was to give visitors a respite from the rigors of shopping.

“If you get tired…and your feet are hurting—I just thought it would be a nice thing. People love to sit down somewhere where it’s air-conditioned. I think people would really enjoy an afternoon matinee in the heat of the day, to just come in and sit down and rest and be entertained. It’s a very entertaining show. It’s fun,” she said.

Kristine learned that lesson on her first trip to Nashville just last year. It was a trip of destiny, as it turned out.

She was on tour from her previous home in Kalkaska, Michigan, playing in several churches around Seymour and Brownstown and someone mentioned that she should visit Nashville.

She was charmed with the town, and saw in it the logical home for her dream theater.

The Stouts moved to Nashville in April.

Kristine’s real passion is classical and spiritual music. She majored in music at Central Michigan University.

“My mom was a piano teacher and so was her mom. I was raised on Beethoven, Bach, and Brahams,” she said “Classical and hymns, that’s what I mostly put in my shows.”

She had a successful career at a bank for ten years as she encountered, then mastered, the English handbell.

It started when her church was donated a single octave of handbells and she and her mother, who were in charge of music there, set about learning how they were used.

“I fell in love with the handbells and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger,” she said.

That eventually led them to a three-day convention of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, where she took a class in solo handbell ringing.

“I just thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It was just amazing to me and I took to it right away.

“It came to me easy. I memorize easy; I have about 70 songs in my repertoire. With solo ringing, you just can’t use music—there’s no way to stay in front of it.”

“The first song I learned took me about 100 times through to memorize, but by the 70th song, I got pretty quick.

“It’s been a great experience.”

She said the transition from constant touring to having her own venue was a logical step dictated by the popularity of her art.

Kristine depends upon her whole family to make the dream happen. Husband Kirt is her business manager. Her father is a carpenter and helped transform the shop space into a performing theater. Her mother is helping to get the word out by distributing flyers and posters.

“I don’t know what I’d do without my parents,” she said.

“I know it’s going to take a while to get the word out,” she said.

Even without advertising, there have been a few people at each of the first few shows.

“I don’t have a problem playing to a crowd of one,” Ms. Stout laughed.

“You’ve got to see it to appreciate it,” Ms. Stout said. “Our hardest thing is just getting people to realize what it is.

“I just love doing it,” she said. “This is my purpose. This is what I’m here for.”