The first fruits, tangible and intangible, of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers’ Project–a new play-commissioning program designed to cultivate writers and stories from the theatre’s own region–were unveiled on the frosty January weekend preceding Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday at ASF’s sprawling red-brick complex in Mongomery. The timing was anything but accidental.
Since 39-year-old artistic director Kent Thompson assumed its reins in 1990, the festival has sought to enlarge the scope of its programming beyond the European and American classics that were founder Martin Platt’s specialty for 20 prior years–and in the process roll out the welcome mat to the African-American half of Montgomery’s population. Judging from the stylish, animated and thoroughly bi-racial audiences at the winter season’s opening weekend, Thompson has in significant measure succeeded.
The fact that a real-life Ku Klux Klan rally was scheduled Saturday on the Capitol steps a scant five miles from ASF’s stages added a cashet of urgency to the first full production of the Writer’s Project, Grover, Anniston playwright Randy Hall’s fervid account of the anti-Klan crusade conducted in the 1920s by his great uncle, Montgomery Advertiser editor Grover Hall Sr. (Alabama’s progress in racial matters since Hall Sr.’s day was evident when a motley three dozen diehard Klansmen, sans hoods, showed up for the noon rally; hours later, a performance of Grover packed ASF’s 250-seat downstairs theatre to the rafters.)
As it launched the Writer’s Project, the theatre also initiated an annual Pioneer Award, this year recognizing the achievements of four indomitable Alabama women, among them bus–boycott legend Rosa Parks (who lives today in Detroit, and whose award was accepted by Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center) and other heroines, black and white, of the early Civil Rights Movement.
The awards were handed out, somewhat incongruously, on ASF’s mainstage after the opening-night curtain of Flyin’ West. Pearl Cleage’s melodrama about pioneering black women in turn-of-the-century Kansas was given a lyrical and polished reading by associate artistic director Edward G. Smith, who joined ASF this season after helming A Raisin in the Sun last year. But Flyin’ West’s evident embrace of violence as a legitimate tactic in the struggle for African-American enfranchisement–the play’s central conflict is resolved by the cheerfully coldblooded extermination of a villainous, wife-beating mulatto–was thrown into sharp relief by the principled nonviolence of the evening’s honorees.
At a question-and-answer session the following day, Cleage stood by her play’s thematic values. “I’m not a nonviolent person,” she confirmed, going on to suggest that African Americans today, like those on the frontier, should be willing to consider the use of violence to combat racism and deal with problems in their communities and even within families–gang violence, for example, or spousal abuse.
The kind of hearthside lawlessness Cleage hopes African Americans can turn to their advantage has, of course, been wielded as a tool of oppression for generations in the South and elsewhere by the Klan and other hate groups, and ASF’s focus on the most incendiary aspects of its region’s history has included seminars with Klanwatch officials from the Law Center as well as outreach to the myriad churches, many of them politically active, that dot Montgomery. For Grover’s mixed audiences, the images of organized racism that materialize in the play’s climactic scene–sheeted nightriders, a malevolent white cross–provoke powerful, sometimes uncomfortable responses.
“People are seeing their immediate past on stage,” playwright Hall suggests. “Unfortunately, the play’s themes are as current today as they ever were. True, the Klan nowadays is not much more than a lunatic fringe. But the fact of racism is evident in our fear of immigration and of NAFTA, as well as in that irreduceable element of the population that subscribes to supremacist ideas.”
At their highest, LORT contracts accounted for 63,100 work weeks in the 1987–88 season, while Broadway represented 27,100 work weeks and the road 20,300 for a Production Contract total of 47,400. By contrast, by the 1992–93 season five years later, LORT work weeks had fallen 21 percent to 49,700, Broadway work weeks had decreased 3 percent to 26,200 and work weeks on the road had grown fully 50 percent to more than 30,600 for a Production Contract total of 57,000 work weeks.
Other Equity contracts that experienced a work week decline in 1992–93 were Theatre for Young Audiences, Off-Broadway, Chicago Area Theatre, Hollywood Theatre and Bay Area Theatre. Work week increases were reported for Letters of Agreement and Small Professional Theatre contracts.
The study also reported that the 1992 median earnings for a member of Equity was $5,242–a marginal increase from $5,200 in 1991. Only 11.3 percent of working members earned more than $25,000 from contractual earnings in 1992.
Australia’s Adelaide Festival takes the stage at theatres and exhibition halls all over the city of Adelaide through March 13, with a lineup of international artists performing theatre, dance, music, puppetry and opera. The festival is organized thematically–there are week-long events such as “Artists’ Week” which is made up of five days of “experimental debate,” each curated separately by Australian arts practitioners–and incorporates exhibitions such as “Technillusion: A High-Tech Exhibition of Future Entertainment.” For information contact the Adelaide Festival, GPO Box 1269, Adelaide, South Australia 5001; 61-8-216-9600.
Adelaide also hosts the Third International Women Playwrights Conference July 3–10. The gathering will include panel discussions, seminars, productions and a wide range of conference speakers–artists from oral traditions and ritual performers who specialize in trance-possession, as well as contemporary performance artists and playwrights. Guest artists include Vijaya Mehta of India, Griselda Gambaro of Argentina, Joan Littlewood of Great Britain and Fatima Dike of South Africa. For information contact ICMS PTY Ltd., P.O. Box 8102, Hindley St., Adelaide SA 5000; 61-8-210-6776.
Women’s contributions to theatre are also being celebrated at the Women’s Theatre Festival of Philadelphia, which runs April 13–23 at Movement Theatre International. The 5th annual festival “fosters opportunities for local community members to gather and discuss vital issues which festival performers legitimize on stage,” according to organizers. For information call the Innovation Box Office, (215) 963-0345.
Some 76 theatre companies will put on 300 performances at the Fourth Annual Seattle Fringe Theater Festival, scheduled March 3–13. The majority of the companies hail from the Seattle area, with others from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis and Montreal.
Passport to Off-Broadway, the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York’s program to raise the visibility of Off-Broadway theatre, has been extended to include both March and April in its Off-Broadway “Month,” aimed at making Off- and Off-Off Broadway attendance more accessible and affordable. More than 75 theatres are participating by offering discounts of up to 50 percent off their normal ticket prices. Passports are available at participating theatres and all Chase Manhattan Bank branches.
New Jersey Theatre Group’s Sampler Series, designed to increase theatre attendance, gives patrons the opportunity to buy a $55 ticket which gets them into any three productions running now through July at participating theatres. For information contact the New Jersey Theatre Group, P.O. Box 21, Florham Park, NJ 07932; (201) 593-0189.
River Arts Repertory artistic director Lawrence Sacharow announced the company’s move to New York City after 14 years in Woodstock, N.Y. The centerpiece of River Arts’s 1993–94 season will be a new opera, The Strange Life of Ivan Oskin, which will premiere at La Mama Annex April 15–24.
Portland Center Stage will be the new name of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Portland, which will become an independant entity as of July 1. After six years of combined operation, the OSF board of directors voted last September to approve independence for the Portland company. In another name change, California’s Mark Taper Forum has announced that its multi-ethnic theatre for young people has been renamed Performing for Los Angeles Youth (P.L.A.Y.). The company, formerly know as the Improvisational Theatre Project, performs in annual tours of schools and community centers throughout southern California under the supervision of youth theatre director Peter C. Brosius.
Converted banks are being used as theatre spaces in Philadelphia and Laguna Beach, Calif. The Philadelphia Arts Bank, which officially opened in January, was transformed from the Broad Street branch of the South Philadelphia National Bank and has two facilities–a fully equipped professional theatre and a rehearsal hall–available for rental use by performing arts groups. On the West Coast, Laguna Playhouse has chosen a former Bank of America branch as its second theatre. Projected to hold 250 seats, the new theatre will enable the Playhouse to offer a second season of contemporary, issue-oriented plays. The renovation is estimated to cost at least $500,000.
The revolutionary Beijing opera Shajiabang: Spark Amid the Reeds–the first modern Beijing opera ever staged in the U.S.–was presented last month by the University of Hawaii at Manoa as a full-scale production in English. In order to prepare students for the singing, stylized speaking, dance-like movement and martial acrobatics involved in the production, three master Beijing opera performers, Shen Xiaomei, Shen Fuqing and Lu Genzhang, were in residence through the fall and early winter.
The Commercial Theatre Institute’s 12th annual seminar, “Producing for the Commercial Theatre,” will feature 18 working professionals documenting their Broadway and Off-Broadway production experience. Included in the six panel discussions will be in-depth case histories of such productions as The Kentucky Cycle, Damn Yankees, She Loves Me and Jeffrey. The seminar will be held April 29–May 1. For information contact director Frederic B. Vogel, CTI, 250 West 57th St., Suite 1818, New York, NY 10107; (212)-581-9450.
The Phil Killian Directing Fellowship has been established by the Killian family in memory of the Indiana-based director and actor who died in August. The fellowship will be awarded annually to an outstanding young candidate chosen from a national search. Contributions may be sent to the Phil Killian Directing Fellowship, Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, IN 46204-3465.
Two playwriting fellowships of $10,000 are being offered by the Manhattan Theatre Club to writers age 35 or under. Applications for the fellowships, which include a one-year residency at the theatre and a commission for a new play, must be postmarked by March 15. For information, contact Bruce Whitacre, literary manager, Manhattan Theatre Club, 453 West 16th St., New York, NY 10011; (212) 645-5590 ext. 161.
The Princess Grace Foundation offers competitive grants of up to $10,000 to emerging artists in theatre, dance and film to help realize their career goals. Individuals must be nominated by artistic directors of professional companies or department chairmen of academic programs. For information about the program, which has a March 31 deadline, contact Jennifer B. Reis, director of grants program, Princess Grace Foundation-USA, 725 Park Ave., New York, NY 10021; (212) 744-3221.
The Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions provides grants of up to $2,000 for individual performing artists and up to $25,000 for organizations that have been invited to participate in international festivals. This year’s deadlines are May 2 and Sept. 1. For information, contact Arts International, Institute of International Education, 809 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017; (212) 984-5370.
L.A. Theatres Ride Out Quake
Despite the devastating earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale that shook the city in January, the majority of Los Angeles theatres have suffered only minor setbacks to their ongoing operations.
According to Theatre LA, the membership service organization for professional theatres and producers, most theatre buildings suffered limited damage, such as chipped ceilings, cracked walls and electrical failure. But the earthquake’s more tangential effects impacted many theatres more substantially: Performances were canceled or delayed, due less to structural damage than to the city’s dusk-to-dawn curfew in the days following the quake and the traffic congestion that resulted from the collapse of freeway overpasses.