Ever since Montgomery tycoon William S. Blount wrote the largest single check ever given to an American theatre, the staff of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival has practiced an efficient routine for impressing those out-of-state visitors who seem to think that the title of the company is a charming oxymoron.
If all goes as planned, the victim’s first glance of the elegant $26-million facility will be from the edge of the beautifully landscaped 250-acre park (designed by the late Russell Page) over which the theatre has presided since 1985. The hot Alabama sun will be reflecting in the large pond in front of the 100,000-square-foot, red-brick object of Blount’s generosity. As all parking areas have been cleverly hidden in the trees at the side, there should be nothing to spoil the delightful head-on vista. Helpful P.R. people will point out the bronze Puck cavorting on the lawns, the swans imported for their connections to Stratford-on-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company flag fluttering above the only American theatre authorized to fly the emblem of the revered British classicists.
Venturing indoors, the tour highlights the opulent lobby with its specially commissioned statuary, plush carpets and an elegant patron’s lounge with telephone-equipped bathrooms. Should the guest be all too painfully aware of these lean, mean times for resident theatres, proudly quoted facts and figures make the theatre’s case for international respect with even greater incision. The annual budget (comfortably in the black) is now up to $6 million, with about $2.5 million coming from contributed funds, and about $700,000 in state tax dollars appropriated by the loyal Alabama legislature directly for the theatre. An annual audience of over 250,000 watches a resident company of 25 Equity actors during the theatre’s peak summer season of rotating repertory. Add massive backstage facilities, a full-time administrative and technical staff of more than 100 and two magnificent auditoria, and the green-with-envy visitor may well be transformed into an enthusiastic ambassador of this resourceful theatre in the middle of nowhere. And that’s before any actor’s mouth has even opened.
Such, at least, was the scenario throughout the late 1980s. In the past couple of years, though, the theatre’s bucolic traditions have come up against their own limitations. Montgomery, a city that cradled the Civil Rights Movement, has a population equally divided between whites and blacks, et the number of African-Americans present in the festival’s lush lobbies has never been very high. In the 20 years since the festival was founded in a high school auditorium by Martin Platt (now artistic director of the New Mexico Repertory Theatre), the ASF has specialized in European and American classics, Victorian revivals and competently produced Shakespeare. A strong artistic reputation has been hard won, but the festival cannot claim an auspicious history of reflecting the experience of all of the people in the area it purports to serve. The festival’s presence in the state of Alabama has always seemed more an accident of geography, personalities or finances than true stewardship.
Such an observation could, of course, be made about most of the large American Shakespeare festivals, many of which play to vacationers from nearby urban areas. And most of these theatres would reasonably claim that their national mission of keeping classic drama alive is distinct from the urban resident theatres, with a necessarily more localized and comprehensive approach to play selection. Up to now, this theatre has never looked for writers in its own backyard. But at a time when many resident theatres are dismissing permanent companies and coping with perilously limited financial resources, the relatively rich Alabama Shakespeare Festival has decided it has new responsibilities to its community and its region. And that means changing the ways things are done.
When Kent Thompson, the festival’s 38-year-old artistic director, arrived in Montgomery in 1990, he found that “you could not identify the theatre by its programming.” American plays were rare, and pieces by southern authors other than Tennessee Williams virtually nonexistent. In an effort to give writers from the theatre’s region a more important role, Thompson quickly created the Southern Writers Project. Funded by a Special Projects Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Thompson and his committee commissioned three diverse scribes to create or adapt plays based on Alabama and its bi-cultural folk history, specifically with a family audience in mind. Playwrights Doug Cooney, Levi Frazier Jr. and Oni Faida Lampley are already hard at work. Thompson anxiously points out that the festival’s new commitment to emerging writers with connections to the South goes beyond the typical resident theatre practice of contacting an agent and reading submitted scripts: “I want the project to be a commissioning process, where we work with the writer to turn their existing material into a play.” The resulting pieces will be workshopped at the theatre this month, and a regional tour is planned for next season with emphasis on communities with populations of fewer than 50,000.
Thompson has also commissioned Dennis Covington, an Alabama novelist, to write a stage adaptation of his novel Lizard, about a boy with pinched features who runs away from a mental institution to join a couple of itinerant actors. This young adult’s story, which takes place in and around Birmingham, is set against the backdrop of a touring production of The Tempest. There are plans to tour Covington’s new play in tandem with its Shakespearean source around the South next year.
The most ambitious of Thompson’s slew of new projects is his commission of leading historical novelist (but presently minor dramatist) John Jakes to create a modern American history play. Jakes decided to take his cue from the Shakespearean histories and write a two-play opus about the life and times of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson as the subject of a Shakespearean epic? “He was a true tragic hero,” says the undaunted Jakes with nary a twinkle of irony. “His tragic flaw was that he wanted to have it all.” Jakes is not planning on writing a quiet closet drama for the Festival’s 1993-94 season. “There aren’t enough big-scale plays,” he says. “And this is one theatre that can do them.”
If this sudden interest in new work was not sufficient to rattle the festival’s loyal but conservative audiences, Thompson has also instigated a policy of nontraditional casting, a phenomenon the festival had never previously embraced. And plays about the African-American experience are suddenly appearing in Montgomery. Last year’s season included Miss Evers’ Boys, and David Feldshuh’s play had particular resonance when performed within 30 minutes of its Tuskegee setting. “That was the first time we have ever had a true mix of the community in this theatre. Local African-Americans were astonished that we were doing something about their lives,” says Thompson.
A Raisin in the Sun is on next year’s slate, as well as Dumas, a new play by John MacNichols about both playwrights, father and son. These attempts at bi-culturalism have been greatly boosted by a recently announced grant of $1 million from the Lila Wallace – Reader’s Digest Fund, earmarked specifically for diversifying the festival’s audiences.
Such innovations carry risks, and Thompson has already heard his share of negative comments from longtime subscribers unhappy with the new direction. But he argues that most of the audience is excited by the theatre’s new resolve to spend about half of its time on classical drama and the rest on more risky work with contemporary relevance: “They recognize that this theatre has more potential than any other other institution in the state to change the perception of Alabama in the media.”